Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, October 04 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Ps 26; Heb 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mk 10:2-16

Few, I think, look forward to the days when the teachings on divorce come up in the lectionary. Mark’s version especially, where Jesus’s prohibition is the most absolute, is not an easy reading to know how to manage, in a context where marriage is a profoundly different institution than it was in Jesus’s time, where our expectations and understandings and experiences are all different. Some here have been through divorce; some of us are children of divorce. We know that the end of a marriage is not, in fact, always the worst thing that can happen. It is never pleasant or easy, but sometimes it is necessary; sometimes it is the most loving thing two people have left to do. And sometimes, for some women in particular, it can be lifesaving.

Worse yet, this particular passage has been—quite unreasonably—yanked out and used as a proof text against same-sex/same-gender marriage, as if it that were the point Jesus is making, rather than an incidental reflection of the historic reality that, in his time, legal marriage, and therefore divorce, could only happen between a man and a woman, and whatever problems and dilemmas may have been faced by people who did not care to marry the other gender, the ethics of divorce were simply not among them. It is not the sex or gender of the participants which is the point here, it is the serious nature of the bond; a point where Jesus seems unusually clear and uncompromising, to a degree which we would seem not entirely to share. So how do we proceed? One could try turning to the first reading, but in this case we find a little story about God apparently making a callous and sadistic bet with Satan, with Job used as a pawn in this cosmic game. We’ll come back to this later, but it is, let’s just say, no less problematic.

The obvious way out is to preach on the last few lines of the Gospel reading only, and that would be entirely worthwhile; they are very rich and important lines. But I’m reluctant to do that. Whatever reasons the compilers of the lectionary had for beginning and ending the reading where they did, I want to at least try to treat it as though it had an internal logic. Maybe, in the end, Jesus’ blessing of the children will be our interpretive key. But let’s start with the tricky stuff.

You can look at the teaching in its historical context; Jesus’s position is one which offered greater protection to women than the prevailing practices, in which men could set aside women easily, without regard to the fate of those cast off, whereas women had difficulty leaving even terribly abusive marriages.You can also say that the nature of marriage, and of the society which surrounds marriages, have changed in such drastic ways that we’re no longer really talking about the same institution at all, and that argument has some validity.

Or you can simply say that this absolute ban on divorce is, in fact, the standard to which we should aspire, the heroic morality more characteristic of Matthew’s gospel, and that we will inevitably fail because we are flawed and broken beings, and that all we can do is fail and fail and fail and be forgiven. This has integrity, and some real truth, but even when you scrape away the heterosexist assumptions, it seems a strangely minor point to be fixating on. The preservation of legally constituted marriage as the gold standard in human relationships leaves a lot of people out of the picture altogether.

So I’m going to go in a somewhat lateral direction. I’d like to say that there is in this reading a kind of truth about human life that is larger than the issue of divorce, and doesn’t apply only to marriages, heterosexual or otherwise. And that truth is our inextricable entanglement with one another, the impossibility of untying those knots, the impossibility of making the ways that we mark each other go away. An intimate partnership is a particularly vivid example of this, though not the only one. A relationship may break down, human love will reach a limit or be betrayed, but you cannot make it as if it never was. You can’t pretend that it isn’t permanent in its mark and meaning, either the relationship or the loss of it.

Love is never trivial. Even inadequate human attempts at love, ridden with illusion and self-deception, are never trivial; and in some sense, they are never temporary. Everyone I have loved—and, to be more complete and honest, everyone I have hated too—is a part of me, part of my flesh, incorporated into my soul and body. And I into theirs. We come to God not alone, never alone, but in the company of those who have touched us, whom we have touched. We are made by them and they by us, and there is no salvation apart from this.

We are like that, simply, permeable and vulnerable creatures. Like children, in fact. Dependent, powerless, held in the arms of others, and in the arms of God. Only this way can we enter the kingdom.

To me, that is the real core of this teaching on divorce—the need to honour that. To admit that we are, like children, unable to survive alone, not in this life only, but in our deepest being with God. We are radically vulnerable to hurt and damage, scarred and changed by our intimacies. And we cannot make anything as if it hadn’t been. Mistaken or otherwise, we are bound, we are changed by love and we are changed by loss. And the losses are real and deep and utterly non-trivial.

And now I’m going to turn back to Job, and the God sitting up on his cloud making nasty wagers. This God is a projection, of course, one of our many strange images, but a projection of something quite real, of our own sense of the depth of our vulnerability, flies to wanton boys, subject to forces that will rip away from us everything. Job loses his social standing, his possessions, his bodily integrity, his children (although apparently not, for better or worse, his wife, good old Ms Curse God And Die). Of course he feels like a token in a cruel divine game, of course we all feel that way at times.

It does happen. It is a consequence of our ability to mark each other, that we can suffer such loss. Love fails, plans and marriages fail, we lose our dreams. Lives do fall apart. Children are born sick or damaged, and children do die—and in real life, we don’t cheerfully replace them with new and better children at the end of the story. We cower before the Leviathan of loss, and God gives us no explanations, no answers, only a whirlwind to speak to us.

And there is another thing that God gives us. It is the promise that our vulnerable suffering is not ours only. It is something we see the writer of Hebrews struggling to put into words—that Christ, the very imprint of the creator God, the principle of all creation, is implicated, is by his own free choice tied up in human suffering. That the mortal, trembling, grieving form of earth is beloved, is become the shape of the Beloved.

All of creation is, in some way, ours, because Christ is the truth that underlies all creation, and Christ gives himself up to us, freely, unstintingly, entering fully into the greatest depth of fragility and brokenness and loss. And in this is glory. In this is a beauty beyond what we can even imagine, held out to us, the lovely frame of this creation the shimmer of that beauty in our eyes.

If this weren’t a Sunday, it would be the feast of St Francis; and in fact we will be blessing animals after this service, because of that. Since it is a Sunday, the feast has been officially transferred to tomorrow, but it is quite well worth thinking about Francis today anyway.

Francis is one of those saints whose life gets overlaid with a lot of sentimentality about little birds and repentant wolves. Not to say that little birds are not important, because they are, in fact they are very important. But a sort of sugary “Hello Sun! Hello Sky!” approach to Francisan spirituality leaves out an awful lot, rather as a sentimentalized picture of childhood leaves out the real suffering of children. The sentimental picture leaves out Francis of the lepers, it leaves out Francis of the stigmata. For he is said to have been the first person to receive the stigmata, and that is not unimportant either.

Francis entered deeply into the life of the natural creation precisely because he understood, he knew and breathed with, the fragility. The vulnerability that we share with children, that we share with the small birds, with the broken rocks of the Assisi hills, with our increasingly abused little planet, and with each other. He took that vulnerability into his soul and his body, he loved that vulnerability, and his own body received—at least, if we accept the logic of story which may not be the logic of fact—a physical sign of Christ’s own fragility joined with ours, the wounds in the hands and feet and side.

The beauty and the wounds are inseparable. We are one flesh, and that flesh is wounded, and the wounds are not gone in the resurrection. Loss persists, but changed in ways we cannot conceive, also part of glory. Love persists, shot through with loss, shot through with failure, lifted with Christ into the heart of God.