Wednesday, October 15, 2003

BCP - Proper 23 A - 15 Oct 2003

October 15 - Proper 23 A - Season After Pentecost

Lectionary Reading
Matthew 22:1-14

Today's Gospel tells us a wonderful parable - simple, direct and to the point. But lets review anyway…

God throws a party - a wedding party to be specific. A wedding party puts us in mind of Jesus - the bridegroom.

And God invites the "A" list of guests. This will be a great party and all the right people will be there. Except there is a problem… The "A" list people decide God's little party is not quite the social event of the season. In fact they decide it's completely miss-able.

Which is good news for us - since we're the "B" list. And we don't need to be asked twice! Off we go to the party and we have a blast. Except for that looser guy who gets bounced. But we'll come back to him…

The obvious interpretation is that the "A" list is Israel and the "B" list Christians. God's chosen people refused the party, ignored the profits and John the Baptist, and executed Jesus. We embraced Jesus and came to the party. Story over - we can all go home… our eternal home in Heaven, that is. Salvation is ours. End of story.

But - not so fast. There are really two distinct cautionary tales in this Gospel and we need to hear both of them.

First - it might have been helpful 2000 years ago to think of this as a story about Jews and Christians. But over the years we have, at least subliminally - and at times really very explicitly - begun to think of ourselves as God's chosen people, the new Israel, the new "A" list.

Especially in the United States… We are inconceivably rich, powerful beyond measure, we have an economic system that is the envy of the world, and a justice system that, for all its flaws, really does provide an admirable measure of justice for the poor and powerless. Its tough not to feel just a bit smug, just a bit like the "A" list, when God is clearly smiling on our country.

So we need to pay attention to the cautionary tale of the "A" list people.

Most of them blew off God's party for understandable reasons. They had businesses to run, enemies to defend against, crops to harvest, important matters to sort out.

Any parallels for us? We have armies to maintain, weapons systems to build, regimes to change, economies to tend, fortunes to be made on Wall Street.

We'd love to live in peace and unity with all of God's children, but Capitalism only truly works when you can win it all. And for someone to win it all, someone else must loose it all. The "have nots" are just as important in our economic equation as the "haves." Economic injustice is just one one example of our human structure that keeps us away from God's party.

So… sorry God - we'd like to come to your party… We're sure the Kingdom is a really great. We'll get there eventually. But not right now. We want to build a newer and bigger home, get a bigger car; We've got Sadam Husein to worry about and September 11th to avenge. Our economy is in trouble and we need to keep oil flowing. We're sure its a very lovely party, though… Please, God, accept our regrets.

Moreover, it is very tempting and remarkably easy to start to understand our will as God's will. If we could examine the hearts of the "A" list guests in today's parable, we'd probably find that most them weren't bad people trying to do bad things - though, to be sure, a few of them were. We'd probably find that they were good, decent, hardworking people who thought they were doing God's will by tending to their own concerns.

This is the first cautionary tale and it is one that we in the first world need to hear again and again.

I promised you two cautionary tales and there is one more detail that I said we'd come back to…Remember that guy who got kicked out? What's up with him?

This is a detail of the parable that has always bothered me. This poor guy gets dragged off the street with no warning to come to a party. And then he gets yelled at because he isn't dressed properly. It seems really unfair, very "old testament." And the punishment, being sent more or less to hell, is really way out of proportion to his crime, not having appropriate attire.

Well I don't think a fashion faux pas is really the issue. I bet if we could peer into his heart we'd find that he only came to the party for the food… or the wine… or because he was curious and just wanted to watch… or he was bored. Or he didn't have anywhere else to be so why not follow the crowd…

I think he is the inverse of the "A" list crowd. They stayed away for poor reasons. He came for poor reasons. He might have been physically at the party, but I suspect he wasn't really present at the party - just going through the motions.

And so here is the second cautionary tale: When we do decide to come to God's party are we really completely going to the party? Are we truly being present? Are we letting our hair down? Or are we going through the motions?
I know somebody, a salesman by trade, who goes to Eucharist pretty much every Sunday because, as he says, "it can't hurt and it just might help." Selling things is his whole life. He lives to "ink" contracts. He believes that its just possible that going to Eucharist might improve the odds of another contract being inked. When he comes to the God's Eucharistic party it isn't as a form of surrender - it's a form of control. He's dressed for manipulation rather than for a party.

And while I'm wondering about him, guess what? I'm not present at the party either. If I've really lost myself at this party, I'm no longer really interested in judging the other guy. And when I am judging the other person, my ego is still firmly in control. I'm wearing my own garments of control.

Now I don't think coming to God's party means being stupid or ignorant. I don't think it means just letting go and accepting that whatever will be will be. It's pretty safe to say that at God's party we won't just get drunk and roll around together.

God has given us some rules of etiquette and through prayer, scripture, community life, and our own God-given intellect, we can begin to know and live in God's way.

Jesus summed up those rules in about two sentences: We are to love God fully, completely, totally, and without reservations. And we are to love other people as much as we love ourselves. And, as James Huntington, our founder, said so beautifully, love must act. So really going to God's party involves loving God and acting on that love; nothing more, nothing less…

Acting on our love of God, our selves and other people can probably take infinite forms. It may mean living and working with the poor. It might be the ministry of 12 step programs where healing of self and of others are so thoroughly bound together. It might mean taking the time to go sit with a lonely senior citizen, or providing bodily comfort through the healing touch of massage, or providing sanctuary for animals, or all of the above and more.

Being really present at God's party involves acting on behalf of justice and mercy. It means treating our selves and all of God's creation with respect.

Ultimately, being at God's party means not protecting our own interests, but giving away our very lives.

So when and where is God's party. It is not next weekend, or next month, or next season… God's party is here and now and always and at all times. Going to God's party is a process - we do it one day at a time.

Almighty and loving God - divine party planner - help us to hear your invitation, accept your invitation and live your invitation by joining completely in your heavenly dance.

Br. Scott Borden, n/OHC

Sunday, October 5, 2003

BCP - Proper 22 B - Oct 2003

Sermons at Holy Cross

October 5, 2003 (PROPER 22 B) - Pentecost 17,

Scripture Readings for October 5th:

Genesis 2:18-24, Psalm 8, Hebrews 2:1-18, Mark 10:2-12:

Today's Gospel lesson is one that demands close attention. It requires us to look at its context. And I ask you to bear with me as we do that. It, also, requires us to look at its apparent teaching on divorce and the Church's current practice. Finally, it points us to the wide expanse of God's creative love, and away from the narrow strictures of legalism.

"Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?'"

This question which seems to require only a "yes or no" answer was anything but straight-forward. There was a rigorous debate going on among the Pharisees themselves as to the proper answer to this question and the questioners wanted Jesus to side with one party or another. Remnants of the debate can still be read in the Talmud, the collection of commentaries on the law of Israel. There we see that while the husband's right to a divorce had always been admitted and was sanctioned by the Torah, three schools of legal interpretation had emerged by Jesus' time. The governing Torah text was in Deuteronomy 24:1 (using the literal Schocken translation which has not been smoothed over by the translation tradition) - it reads: "When a man takes-in-marriage a woman and espouses her, and it happens: if she does not find favor in his eyes-for he finds in her something of nakedness-he may write for her a Document of Cutoff (Get)."(The Schocken Bible, Vol 1: The Five Books of Moses, New York: Schocken Books, 1995).

Given a text like that it is no wonder that competing schools of interpretation arose.

Rabbi Shammai, who often took the strict, literal view, and his disciples argued that while the man's right to divorce was absolute, it should not be exercised except in the case of nakedness which he interpreted as moral misconduct by the wife. The school following his contemporary and opponent, Rabbi Hillel, the more liberal, that is to say less literal authority, argued that the restricting clause "for he finds in her something of nakedness" was unintelligible and must be ignored. Therefore, divorce was allowable if the husband "did not find favor with the wife", and Hillel deemed her incompetence as a housekeeper to be sufficient grounds. A third camp, later to be headed after Jesus' period by Rabbi Akiba, argued even more liberally that divorce was to be allowed whenever a marriage fails to provide a basis for happiness-for the husband. You might have noticed that on no occasion could the wife divorce her husband for these or any reason.

The attempt by the questioners is to draw Jesus into taking sides in a debate among the rabbis. Given the options, he rejects them all. He says that the provision for divorce was granted because of human hardness of heart, our inability to live into the heart of God's desire. In this response Jesus implicitly rejects the current state of the debate and along with it the husband's absolute moral right for a divorce. Rather he points the questioners back toward creation and God's intention for humanity.

One of the problems with divorce under the law of Israel during Jesus' time was that there was no provision for the divorced wife. She could remarry legally, but it was unlikely that anyone would marry her. Her family were unlikely to take her back in her disgrace and she often ended up homeless, in poverty, reduced in many cases to prostitution. Jesus' limitation on the husband's right to divorce is often seen as a way of protecting women from abandonment by their husbands.

The rabbis were debating only marriage in accordance with the civil law of Israel. There was another type of marriage and divorce in 1st century Palestine: that of the law of the Greek-speaking part of the Roman Empire. Under this law, divorce was more readily obtainable and in many cases prominent women had asserted the right to divorce their husbands on any grounds. And remarriage was easily accomplished.

There had been two rather famous divorces in Palestine and everybody knew about them. Herod Antipas, the ruler of the Galilee and son of King Herod of the nativity stories, had divorced his wife. Simultaneously, Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip, had divorced Philip. And then Antipas and Herodias, brother- and sister-in-law, had married each other-an action totally outside the bounds of what was allowed under Jewish law. The marriage would only have been possible if Philip had died without an heir.

Jesus' cousin, John the Baptizer had spoken out against this scandalous behavior among those who purported to be rulers of Jews. He had said to Antipas: "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." And fearful of the Baptizer's public criticism, Herodias and her daughter Salome and Antipas, silenced him by beheading him.

Jesus' questioners, then, are putting him on the spot, not only in the debate among the rabbis, but also in the larger political context. His cousin John is already dead. Answering these questions could well put Jesus in peril...but he answers and his answer, as we have seen, neatly sidesteps this potentially life-ending question as well by referring to the creation.

He goes on in private with his disciples (in the verses which follow and we did not read) with what is probably a direct reference to Antipas and Herodias and says that anyone who divorces his wife to marry another woman commits adultery and any woman who divorces her husband to marry another man also commits adultery. Some argue from this text that what he is prohibiting in private is only divorce with the intention of marriage to another party who had already caught the fancy of one's eye-divorce as a technique for avoiding adultery, an interpretation consistent with Jesus' discussion of committing adultery in the heart. Whether that is true remains a question, but Jesus has done something novel here. He has stepped outside the bounds of Jewish law and recognized a woman's right to take legal action.

It seems to me, however, that it would be unlike Jesus to create new legislation about marriage and about divorce. He does not do that elsewhere; he did not come to abolish the law, he said. What he has done is neatly to sidestep both legal debates by pointing us back to creation to what is God's intention for human beings.

Be that as it may, the church has used Jesus' 'sidestepping' here and similar texts to provide the underpinning for the Christian understanding of marriage: that it is ordained by God in the creation of man and woman and intended by God to be lifelong. In the union of the two in marriage, the Church has seen modeled in our flesh both the mystery of the union of the human and divine in the Incarnate Lord and the mystery of the type of love that Christ our God has for the Church, Christ's nuptial love for the redeemed, an intimate love which is unbreakable and eternal. But the Church has turned this into a sort of law, more restrictive, in fact than the law of the Torah on the subject of marriage. (Seems we have a habit of doing that.)

For the Episcopal Church this remains the essential paradigm for marriage, lifelong union between a man and a woman. I have never officiated at a marriage in which the partners did not intend it to be lifelong. I am required by canon law to make this clear to each couple presenting themselves, and they are required to sign a formal document testifying to that intention. (Didn't I say we'd turned it into a legal process.)

However, this Church has come to recognize that humans often fall short of the ideal, as Jesus said we suffer from "hardness of heart.". Sometimes, a marriage is null because of the conditions under which it was entered: a still-existing prior marriage, or some undisclosed fact, or too close of a blood relationship according to the civil law. At other times, and regrettably, more often, the marriage just ends, it dies, often a long and difficult death. Our approach is to deal pastorally with that reality. First, we try to save the marriage. Those who find their marriage in trouble are to come to the Church to seek counsel before they rush off to a lawyer. And together with the pastor and perhaps others they try to find a way to preserve the marriage before it dies. That preservation will require sacrifice on each party's part.

But if after all attempts have been made and it is apparent that the marriage has ended, then divorce is the remedy provided by the civil authority. The Church recognizes the necessity of that action, for the marriage is no longer the symbol in our flesh of the life and love of Christ bound together with us. It has instead become a whited sepulcher of a dead relationship.

And we hold out the possibility of remarriage for divorced persons. After counseling which includes the acceptance by the divorced person of his or her ongoing responsibility for the welfare of the divorced spouse who is still living, and review by the bishop, the bishop may give permission for the new marriage to proceed.

Rather than taking a narrow literal view of Jesus' words as if they were a new law, our approach is pastoral, accepting the reality of what is akin to a death in the body of Christ. By requiring the bishop's participation, the process leading to a second marriage involves the whole Church. We regret divorce, we morn it. It is a sign of the brokenness of the world in which we live, a brokenness we call sin in which we all participate, but we will not require that people remain trapped in what has become the bonds of death.

We believe we are free no longer to take a narrow, literally legalistic view of Jesus' words for several reasons. First, the social conditions of the world in which Jesus spoke-a world in which divorced women become penniless outcasts with no chance of remarriage--is no longer the case. Women have rights in divorce cases under our civil law that they did not have under Jewish law, although women still often come out as less than equal in divorce settlements. Second, it seems impossible to believe that two people are required to remain together in a relationship that may be abusive both physically and emotionally. Surely, such a deadly relationship would cry out for a relaxation of Jesus' literal words.

But ultimately, Jesus' words point us in this more expansive direction. Jesus points us back to the creation: to the outpouring of God's love to create us and our world from nothingness. And in Creation, "God said: 'It is not good for the human to be alone, I will make him a helper corresponding to him'" (Schocken). God's intention is that humans be in community, in relationships between and among corresponding equals. In Genesis the model is that of the partnership between the sexes, a partnership which over time came to resemble our institution of marriage. But what is important from the beginning of our creation is that we are in relationship, in community with each other-whatever forms that community, those relationships may take-for in our relationships with each other we catch a glimpse into the relationship of love which exists within the heart of the creating God who is the Holy Trinity.

The need for humans to be in community ultimately overrides the narrow legal interpretation put on Jesus' words about marriage and divorce and remarriage. The Church's decision to do this, taken as a pastoral response to the needs of divorced people in our midst, provides a new lens through which to look at Scripture, a lens which places the question in the framework of the creative intent of God's love, rather than in the narrow boundaries of the law. This is a lesson which we can well apply to the current debate in the church over homosexual relationships. The question is: do these relationships, along with other relationships-those between friends, caregivers and their patients and countless others-do these relationships show forth the love that God has for the creation, do they enter into the love at the heart of the Holy Trinity. I believe that they have that capacity and that indeed they do show forth that same love..

Jesus concluded: "What God has joined together, let no man put asunder, let no one separate." Remember that marriage is a temporal sign-limited in time and space-for all marriages end in this world, whether they end naturally with the death of one of the partners or they die unnaturally as the relationship itself withers and dies. Yet, temporal marriage-and all human relationships-point us beyond what they join together in our time. They are a sign of what God has joined together for all eternity: first, the uniting of the human and the divine in Jesus Christ our Lord and, then, us bound together with each other and with Jesus as his Church for ever and ever. It is to that glory which we share with Christ that our human relationships point. And the life we share with Christ Jesus is what no one can put asunder, no one can separate in time, or for ever or unto the ages of ages.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

A Sermon preached by William S. Bennett, n/OHC

© 2003 Holy Cross Monastery