Sermons from St. Martin-in-the-Fields:
Oct 03, 2021 |
It's Complicated| The Rev. Jarrett Kerbel
Sermon by the Rev. Jarrett Kerbel for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22. Today's readings are:
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Readings may be found on LectionaryPage.net: https://www.lectionarypage.net/YearB_RCL/Pentecost...
The Rev. Jarrett Kerbel, October 3, 2021
Please join me in the spirit of prayer.
Creator God, we give you humble thanks and we express our amazement that you are mindful of us and that you care for each of us. Such extraordinary love points only to your greatness. Lord God keep us in your grace so that we may grow into your love and learn to live in that space just below the angels. In Christ’s Name we pray. Amen.
So my mother always describes “that day” as the worst day of her life. “That day” was the day that my mother's mother moved back in with my mother's father and took her home. My mother had been enjoying life with just her mother. I understand why, because her mother, whose actual name I don't know, was always called by the grandchildren “Other Mama” and that's her name as far as I’m concerned. Other Mama, one of the most nurturing, kind, generous, loving people I've ever met, was taking care of my mom as a solo child in a small bungalow in Amarillo, Texas while Other Mama taught school, and mom enjoyed the undivided attention of her mother. But then she got taken back to her dad.
Now her dad, known to me as Daddy D (known to people more locally as Dr. D. Foster) was a legend in the small town in the Texas Panhandle called Hale Center. He was the town doctor. The one town doctor. Every baby that was born, he delivered. Every bone that broke, he set. Every surgery, he did it. Everyone passing on, he walked them through. He did house calls. He got paid in chickens by broke farmers. He was a legendary small town country god. Now, this public appearance was in contradiction with his domestic life because at home he was retired, he was cruel, he was a drinker, a smoker, and a serial philanderer in a Southern Baptist town.
My grandmother, Other Mama, stood six foot two in flat shoes. She could look Daddy D right in the eyes, but Daddy D had the gift of making her feel small and making her feel bad about herself and he made it a miserable house to live in. So that was the worst day of my mom's life, and even when I was a young child and we visited that little ranch house in Hale Center, Texas, I could feel my beloved grandmother's misery - the heaviness of her hurt on her broad shoulders - vividly, as I worked with her in the kitchen to make breakfast or dinner.
So this is all a way to say that I have some problems with our gospel today, and I'm going to trouble this story a little bit, and it's going to trouble me, and we're going to get someplace with it, and it's going to be complicated so I ask to bear with me. It's really my observation (and I think it's a valid one) that the Episcopal Church has come to a place today where we are able to embrace divorce in a way that Jesus did not.
We can see that when a marriage covenant breaks down so severely that against all efforts, it can't be recovered, we can see that the loving response may be the end of that marriage bond in divorce, that that might be the right loving care of everyone concerned. And so pastorally we wrap couples up in care as they make that journey. We don't judge them, we assist them. This is where we are pastorally today in relationship to divorce. We can see that it demands respect. We can see that it is often a blessing that displays God's liberating and life-giving love in a way that perhaps Jesus could not see according to this passage.
Now, this passage has been worked with by a lot of people and I spent a lot of time evolving arguments this week, and I can teach an adult forum about an hour long on all the ways to worm around what this passage says. There's a whole school that tries to make Jesus a first century feminist who somehow was making men and women equal in this story even though under Roman law they were already such.
I don't really buy all these work-arounds. I think we have to face it head on. Jesus is approached with the question of the legality of divorce and with the Mosaic law he does not contest it, he just says it's given to you for your wholeness and heart. Then he changes the frame in a very Rabbinical argument move and says well that's the Mosaic covenant about the covenant of Creation, and according to Jesus and the covenant of Creation, we’re meant for lifelong marriage or bonding together. And then he goes into the adultery discussion in private with the disciples where yes, men and women are treated equally, but the results aren't so good because if you remarry you’re an adulterer.
So this leads us to the very uncomfortable passage, and as someone once said (the great preacher David Gloss) a woman who had been divorced, well, every time she heard this passage she felt like a garbage can had been dumped on her at church. She came all ready to be renewed and revived and to worship and here comes this gospel like a bunch of garbage to make her feel ashamed and bad about herself. That's why I feel like we have to depart from it to some degree, and be the pastors who recognize that divorce demands respect and blessing and care and may be the right way to go for someone's flourishing and for the health of the whole family.
Now, saying that, -and this is where it gets a little more complicated - I also want to, as I respect divorce, also celebrate life in a union. Now, I trust that this congregation can do complex things in your hearts and your minds so stick with it. While we respect that some marriages are better ended, we still can alongside that celebrate God's intention that we have companionship in the long term, and that's the whole move that Jesus makes back to the Genesis story. The only time in the Genesis story that God says something is not good, it's not good that the first human is alone. So that's how profoundly God believes that we need companionship. We need someone to express that delight and love in us, that is part and parcel of God's delight and love with us.
And another bit of trouble I'm going to throw out in this passage is that that same Genesis passage has been used oppressively to exclude gay and lesbian and transgender people from the benefits of married life and lifelong companionship blessed by the church. Once again I think we’re in a new place in the Episcopal Church where those unions are as blessed as heterosexual unions. Whether it's male and male, female and female, or female and male we can see God's love in these relationships and celebrate them and wish them the same flourishing over time.
Really, indeed when I sit down and do premarital counseling of any couple whatsoever I always move from the assumption that they are heading towards lifelong union. I don't do premarital counseling with an escape clause. You know, saying “these values are from God but you can bail out anytime” is not what I teach. I try to hold out to them the promise of this long-term commitment of time.
These people in their 20s being married right now - actuarially, they might be married for 60 or 70 years. They've got a really good chance at that, so i say to them “think about how your mind, body and spirit will change in 70 years.” And I don't do that lightly. I'm trying to get them to reflect on this gift of love that they share. Does it have the oomph, does it have the depth to stay devoted, stay adoring, stay committed through all of those ups and downs, the for better, the for worse, the richer, the poorer, the sickness, the health? Are your wedding vows very realistic? Do you have the gift of love that's going to see you through that journey? Because for me this whole “to death do us part” thing is not a legal trap, which is how it's sometimes used, that you’ve got to stick together no matter how miserable and bitter you are, how hateful and hurtful a marriage is, you’ve got to stick together til death do you part. That’s the legal reading. For me, the spiritual reading is, do you have the love in your relationship to contemplate on your happiest day the worst thing you can imagine?
Can you imagine losing your beloved, and having the love to go through that horrible experience. That's taking a spiritual sounding. That's looking at the spiritual promise of love, not the legalism of marriage. And marriages can and do do that. They can do that so beautifully. They can express the faithfulness of God for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, for sickness and health till death do us part, and be that gift of a loving presence that we all are so yearning for.
My greatest example of this has been my own parents. They always taught me and my sisters “Jarrett, Dallas, Kelly: marriage is hard work. You’ve got to work at everything.” And boy they did, and they’ve been married 60 years and I celebrate that. At the present time my mom is drifting away with dementia and she's staying in a nursing home room and my dad is staying in their old apartment, but every day my dad at 7:30 am is in her room, and he is in her room until 7:30 p.m. He is supervising her care. He is holding elaborate conversations that are pretty much one-sided. He is showing her pictures of their life together. He is planning the music that she loves. He's defending her against bad medical care. He is loving her in the worst time. This could be the final and the worst time, but this is the time that she's being loved so faithfully, so generously, so sacrificially, that all I can see is God's presence.
So let us hold out that love as a promising gift that God offers us in so many states of life: through friendship, through companionship, through partnership, through community, and yes, through marriage as well. That is how deeply we are loved and I fundamentally believe that God believes that we deserve that level of love and need that level of love to flower into the human beings God created us to be. Amen.
Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained from One License with license #A-701187. All rights reserved.
Video, photographs, and graphics by the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, 8000 St. Martin's Lane, Philadelphia, PA 19118. 215.247.7466. https://www.stmartinec.org