(The following is the transcript of a sermon given on October 7. No audio is available.)
I’ll be honest, my first thought when I saw that this was the lectionary text was to skip the Gospel story this week and focus on one of the other texts like Job, or Psalms...I really didn’t like this passage. It’s the justification for why even though divorced people can still receive communion in the Catholic Church, divorcees who have remarried, like my father, cannot. It didn’t seem to fit with the overall direction Jesus usually took people, and so honestly I was realllly tempted to ignore it.
But, that also felt weird. I mean, it irks me when I feel like some of my conservative siblings in Christ are picking and choosing which passages to pay attention to, in order to back up their position on an issue I disagree with. And it really begs the question- what is a sacred text? What makes it sacred? How do we incorporate its historical and social context? How do we determine what to dismiss or ignore, and what to emphasize or prioritize? Do we even get to make those distinctions? How do we handle contradictions in the text?
I don’t pretend to have the answer to all these questions and I know that theologians much smarter and much more experienced than myself have yet to come up with a definitive answer that works for everybody. But there was one thing that kept me from ignoring the passage. A holy stubbornness, perhaps. You see, my friend from seminary, Casper, hosts a podcast called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. He and his co-host assert that one of the thing that makes a text sacred is the trust with which its readers approach it.
He says, “Trusting the text doesn’t mean we understand the text to be perfect, either in construction on moral teaching, but that it is worthy of our attention and contemplation. A guiding principle is that the more time we give to the text the more blessings it has to give us”.
According to Casper, it’s not about trusting that everything in the narrative of the is capital T-True or capital R-Right, or deserving of emulation, but trusting that there is always meaning and truth to be found. That on any given day at any given time you could open to a page, read a passage, and after thought, contemplation, and prayer, find some meaning that applies to your life. I’d even go one step further and say that with the Gospels, we are called to trust that there is always a message of liberation to be found.
So maybe I do have a really hard time swallowing the idea that remarriage after divorce is tantamount to adultery in the eyes of God.
Ok, maybe I flat-out disagree. I mean, what about a woman in a heterosexual marriage who realizes she’s gay? Surely God wouldn’t disapprove of her divorcing her husband and marrying a woman she meets and falls in love with? That would seem to me to be the most compassionate course of action for both her husband and herself. Or what about a man being abused by his spouse? I don’t see how it could be a sin for him to leave the abusive relationship and seek a healthy, safe, loving relationship when he is ready.
Or a couple that realizes that they can no longer be healthy in a relationship with one another, that they can no longer be happy as a romantic couple? That they are better co-parents to their children separated than they are married. Don’t we all deserve another chance at love? To file our taxes jointly again if we find someone to merge our finances with?
But even though I disagree with what I think I hear Jesus saying about adultery, deep down I really do believe that there is still liberation in this text.
And I think it’s important to search for it. It’s important to search for it because this passage has been used time and time again to shame women into remaining in abusive marriages. It has been used time and time again to deny Children of God a place at the communion table. It has been used to uphold a status quo that shames and hurts and denies agency to our fellow humans. And that’s not what Jesus would do, right?
What I mean is, Jesus always seems to be about upending the status quo in a way that lifts up the marginalized, the oppressed, and the hurting. If we trust Jesus to liberate the oppressed, we cannot dismiss this story just because on the surface we disagree, or because of the way its been used to cause harm. I think we need to reclaim it, the way that many in the LGBT community have reclaimed the word Queer, once a slur used to harm and denigrate, now a joyful expression of the vastness of non-heterosexual identity, and an entire academic field of study to boot.
I think it’s on us to hold this passage up to a different light, to hold it up to Jesus’ standard of liberation, with a willingness to be surprise and a trust that we will meet our countercultural savior in this text, in a moment of empowering the disenfranchised.
So as the hosts of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text suggest, I devoted some attention and contemplation to this passage...and I did some research, read commentaries, asked friends. And I emerged out the other side with an idea of what that meaning is for me. I imagine each of you might find other nuggets of meaning that speak to your soul.
Back in the first century, only men could file for divorce. Granted, there were limits as to the reasons why, though, I learned there were also advocates for allowing a man to divorce his wife for any reason. In fact some scholars think that those two groups are basically asking Jesus to adjudicate an argument between them, to say who’s right.
But no matter the reason, women weren’t allowed to initiate divorce proceedings, only men were. Which is allll kinds of problematic...but it was the norm then. And because our norm is different, we’re in a culture where divorce proceedings can be initiated by any gender partner, I didn’t notice anything odd or revolutionary in this passage at first.
The only thing that stood out to me was that my understanding at the time of Jesus’ answer flew in the face of what I experience progressive Christian values to be. I was so caught up in my righteous indignation over Jesus’ attitude toward remarriage, that I completely missed the way in which with one little conditional phrase, Jesus posited a new status quo- a system where women could initiate divorce, too.
A system in which women have more control over their lives and situations. You can almost imagine the subtle, Dumbledore-like snark… “Yes,” Jesus says, “if a woman divorces her husband and remarries, she commits adultery.” He answers their question, but goes a step further to let them know that the Kingdom he’s looking to bring about doesn’t fall neatly in line with their gender-based laws.
I don’t know enough about social and economic conditions at the time to be able to put Jesus’ views on divorce fully into context. I do know that if a man divorced his wife, she was left with little options and a lot of shame; perhaps Jesus, aware of what the legal system allowed, was acting to protect women, vulnerable members of society, from being tossed aside by their husbands, by cautioning them to think twice before ending their marriage, reminding them that as laid out in Genesis it is men who leave family to join their wives, it isn’t just their marriage to dissolve. There’s another human being who will face the consequences.
But, it doesn’t seem like divorce is necessarily the main focus of this passage, anyway, and maybe we’d never have uncovered that easter egg of liberation if we hadn’t committed to trusting that the text had meaning for us.
So while we’re on a roll, I want to take a look at another passage that has often been used to uphold misogynistic constructs of gender roles that subordinate women to men. The reading we heard today from the Hebrew Bible talks about God creating woman as a “helper and partner” for man. Growing up I sometimes heard about women, wives, being ‘helpmeets’. Or ‘helpmates, in a way that subordinates them to men, their husbands, as though the sole reason for a woman’s existence is to serve men.
I often gave into the temptation of ignoring this passage, too, dismissing it as product of a time gone by, a time steeped even more deeply in patriarchy than our present day. As I prepared for this sermon, however, I read a devotional by UCC pastor Matthew Laney that pointed out Adam’s first words to Eve were a recognition of parity, of equality. Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, Adam said. Which as Laney says is really a poetic way of saying, “by seeing you, I see myself”. In Eden, the boundaries between self and other dissolve, and we know that the Kingdom of God that Christ proclaims has a similar phenomenon, as we recall the ancient baptismal formula, in Christ there is no Greek nor Jew, no slave nor free, nor male and female. In God’s world, the boundaries we construct between ourselves, the distinctions we draw between self and other that we use to oppress and marginalize, in God’s Kingdom, they dissolve.
The story of Adam and Eve is the story of two beings created of the same dust and spirit, two beings created as partners and companions, two beings created as equals, who would have different experiences and perspectives and yet each recognize themself in the other.
It has been a week. As a woman, I’m exhausted. And somewhat paradoxically, I’m also fired up. You see, whether we like it or not, our faith calls us to be persistent in our struggle for justice, unrelenting in our pursuit of peace. We can’t use our faith to advocate for justice and peace if we don’t have justice and peace within our faith. So maybe we start by taking a look at some of those texts that we’ve been skirting around, stepping over, tucking away on a shelf of outdated antiquities.
These are our sacred stories. May God grant us the wisdom and courage for their interpretation.