Sunday, October 7, 10am
Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost
Job 1:1; 2:1-10
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Good morning All Saints’ Church. It is my distinct privilege to speak to you today from this pulpit for the final time as your program minister. And actually for the first time as a priest.
In many ways, I would say I have “found my voice” in this pulpit. When I first preached to you, 5 years ago, in October 2013, I was still in seminary. I wasn’t even yet a postulant for ordination; I was still praying and thinking about what my path in life and in the church might be. It really wasn’t until a few months into my time here with you all that I began to think seriously about becoming a priest.
The day I knew for sure I wanted to be a priest was in December 2013, when we celebrated Father Paulikas’s new ministry here, when he went from being the priest in charge to your official rector. Many of you here might remember that snowy Saturday almost five years ago, with Bishop Provenzano visiting and everyone wearing their finest red attire. To paint you a picture of what All Saints’ looked like then, especially for our newcomers today ... my hair was long and brown. Father Steve and Jesse weren’t married yet. Dakarai Arnold was a lot shorter. Miss Thelma was only a spritely 92 years old! It was a different time ...
You might think that it was the stirring liturgy of that evening that led me down this path--seeing the church welcome Father Steve with open arms.
But it was actually something that happened downstairs during the reception, at the tail end of the night, after many of the visitors had gone back out into the snow, and only the All Saints’ faithful remained. The DJ played the last song and everyone came together and danced to “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge. The Holy Spirit wrapped me into that dance ... and I knew, if this was what church could be, if you were what church could look like, I would be so lucky to be able to be a priest.
So as you have formed me into the priest that I am today, I have had the privilege of speaking to you over the years from this pulpit, and you have followed along with me as you have grown, as you have grieved, as you have welcomed new family members, including my wife Caitlin (it is actually our first anniversary today), and as I turned into a blonde.
A few weeks ago, I turned with eager anticipation to our lectionary, the cycle of bible readings we move through together as a church, to see what would be the subject of my final word to you. It is the custom when a minister leaves a church to leave them with a final word, a final charge, in their last sermon. And I do think all of us today could use a good bolster, a good charge. I want this to be an uplifting sermon for you all.
‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ YIKES. Surely there is more?
"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” DOUBLE YIKES.
This is the moment as a new priest when you turn to your boss with a big question mark. And because he is wonderful, Father Steve told me, “Don’t worry about. This is a special case. Just preach on the Old Testament.”
“Okay, but the Old Testament Is Job,” I replied.
But the more I prayed about it and thought about it, the more I got excited to tackle this Gospel text with all of you. My church family. We are family, after all. (I got all my sisters with me.) And this Gospel text is about family.
So the first thing I want to say, very clearly, because Jesus, though I love him, is not actually being very clear here: DIVORCE IS NOT necessarily BAD and marriage, in and of itself, is not necessarily GOOD. You can have great and loving divorces and and you can have awful, bad marriages. And whatever your personal experience is with these—because in any room there are people who have struggled in bad relationships and there are people who feel left out of relationships—whatever your experience is, I promise to you, Jesus is not shaming you or condemning you.
Actually, typical Jesus, he’s doing the opposite. If you’re feeling bad, he is standing up for you, against the status quo. The way marriage worked when Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees was very different than the way marriage works today. First, it was only between men and women. We don’t really know what options there were for people who didn’t want to get married, but I’m fairly certain Jesus wasn’t married, and 50 or so years later, Paul wasn’t married either, and they are both pretty big figures in Christianity, so who knows?
Another major difference in and around marriage was how divorce worked. Jesus’ Jewish, male contemporaries could get a divorce for basically any reason, at any time ... women had far less agency in this regard. But more importantly, the consequences of divorce were much worse for women than they were for men. Households functioned primarily with men as the head. Divorced women were overlooked and cast out. Seen in this light, Jesus’ answer actually protects women.
Jesus is saying to the pharisees that what is lawful is not necessarily good nor right. Moral authority comes from another source, comes from God, and is rooted in love, protection, and care, for the marginalized, for the poor, and for children.
So this is where I have to get a little bit Julia with you, since it’s my last time up here with you all. And by Julia, I mean, talking about gender, talking about justice, talking about ... gasp ... politics. Because there is this idea that we shouldn’t talk about politics from the pulpit. But Jesus talked about politics all the time. Talking about marriage is talking about politics.
This is why I am grateful this is the Gospel passage this morning, especially because we are living in a time where the Gospel of Jesus Christ is being distorted and manipulated by American politicians to do the opposite of what Jesus models for us again and again in his limitless love, concern and care for the poor and marginalized, healing of the sick, and welcoming of little children--despite whatever the laws of our land might say.
Did you notice this passage ends with Jesus welcoming the children? I think people get a little sidetracked by the DIVORCE and the man/woman things in this story and miss the final part of this story, but this part is never separated when we read this text aloud: “People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
Imagine a political reality in this country today where our elected officials could say to us, “Do not stop the children, let the little children come to me, for it is to such as these that this land, this country, belongs.” Imagine a political reality in this country today where our leaders primary concern was the least of these, the marginalized, the poor, the oppressed. Or even, the women.
Imagine a political reality where the concern in law making was to protect women, transgender people, and non-binary people, to protect them from powerful men’s bad behavior.
This is not a pipe dream. This is the Gospel. And to hear this Gospel is why you come here to All Saints’ Church.
Martin Luther King, Jr had deep faith in that long arc of the moral universe bending towards justice. I have thought of this image so many times these past five years at All Saints’, whenever something happens that feels like a threat to justice. Whenever fear or grief threatens to take over my hope. I’m remembering the sermons and prayers we have shared here after Eric Garner’s death, after Michael Brown’s death, after Charleston, after Charlottesville, after hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes, after so much needless violence, gun violence, so much much loss. We have been through a lot. We are going through a lot.
Thinking about bending this arc of the moral universe towards justice reminded me of the pain of this kind of slow movement.
The image that came to me, and this one is mostly for the teenagers in the congregation today, was of the braces I had on my teeth in high school. Did any of you have braces? I had the old school kind with the brackets on each tooth and the wire from molar to molar. That wire arced around my teeth, anchoring to the most stubborn ones, and when the orthodontist would tighten it, even a fraction of an inch, the pain was so bad. My whole mouth hurt, and there was nothing to do to ease it but wait for the wire to do its work.
Jesus knew about this long arc of the moral universe. He knew that human-made laws and human-made government were not necessarily good nor right, that human beings’ reading of scripture was often confused. And Jesus knew that we, the people, were the anchors of this long arc, some of us more stubborn than others.
If the law of the land were always good and right, we, the people of All Saints’ Church, would not be family. Please look around the pews today. This kind of diversity used to be illegal. My marriage, only seven years ago in New York, would have been illegal. America’s moral authority cannot come from its laws, from its government, from its courts, alone. It must come from us; its pillars, its anchors.
I have often felt like a warrior going to battle trying to bend this arc faster, pushing with all my might, but I have realized a few things these past five years. God is the arc, pulling all of us into alignment. It is less painful if we are closer to where we need to be, my friends. And it is a lot less painful when we are together. A lot lot less painful when we are dancing, right miss Thelma? A lot less painful when we are loving each other. We are family. We are family. Amen.