In the name of one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Have you ever opened up your closet and thought, I have nothing to wear, even though you’ve got hangers and hangers of clothes staring back at you that maybe you just don’t want to wear? I confess that we preachers feel a little like this when we come to Sunday lectionaries like the one we have today. We open our lectionary closet, if you will, and find the book of Job and why people suffer; we find the letter to the Hebrews, a theological treatise of sorts on reinterpreting Jesus’ role as High Priest in heaven; and we find the Gospel of Mark and Jesus’ hard sayings on divorce. We find suffering, theology, and divorce, and we don’t want to wear any of them. We could just go out and buy something else, and wear that, but we are lectionary people, and these are the uplifting and popular topics we’ve been given to wear today. That’s the double-edged sword of using the lectionary. It hems us in in ways that we don’t like sometimes, that we find uncomfortable, forcing us to talk about difficult topics, and that’s hard. But, it’s also deeply necessary, because these questions, of human suffering, of Jesus’ identity and what that means for us, of divorce, these are all very important questions, often the questions that people sit in pews and want answers to but never ask. Without the lectionary’s prompting, preachers might never choose to talk about them, either, and this is why the lectionary is a good thing. That being said, sometimes when I’m writing a sermon, I have a hard time remembering that I’m allowed to look beyond the lectionary to help me, and that’s the difficult thing about being so bound to the lectionary. Though we only read these sections of scripture today, we have the whole deposit of scripture to help us interpret what we read, and that’s especially important when what we find in the lectionary is difficult to hear and understand.
Let’s use the Gospel of Mark and Jesus’ words about divorce for an example. If you read what Jesus has to say in Mark about divorce, you get quite a black and white picture. Divorce is not permissible in any case, full stop. But, if you look at the same passage in Matthew, Jesus says that the only permissible reason for divorce is unchastity, a word that biblical scholars find quite difficult to define. The important thing to note, however, is not the definition of the word but the very presence of an exception to the rule. Then, we’ve got maybe the most interesting passage on divorce in the New Testament in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where he says that the Lord commands that people stay married or else divorce and never remarry. However, he says later that believers, that is, Christian, spouses married to unbelieving spouses are permitted to divorce if they cannot make it work, because “it is to peace that God has called” us. He first acknowledges that he knows and is aware of God’s ideal for marriage, and then he makes a pastoral exception, because God desires peace for us. This is a different vision of divorce than we see certainly from Mark, even from Matthew, one that interprets God’s intentions in the most pastoral way possible. So, we have the lectionary to thank for forcing us to consider such a thorny, difficult topic, but to get the full Gospel vision of marriage and divorce, we must turn to the other Gospels and to Paul’s letters. We see, in Paul’s pastoral application, a model for the use of Scripture in our own lives. Paul is taking a received tradition and reinterpreting and applying it in ways that are pastoral and vital for his place and time. This is the work of being a people “of the book,” a community centered on the Bible. Let no one tell you this work of interpreting is straightforward or easy, or that everything in the Bible is literal, because it’s not. We see the Bible taking its own traditions and reinterpreting them in ways that are quite different and divergent.
So, we see, the Bible isn’t of one voice on the issue of divorce, or, for that matter, on many other things. The same goes for our other difficult topic this week, the problem of suffering. The Book of Job offers one perspective on suffering: the righteous person and the unrighteous person all suffer alike, and there is no satisfactory answer to why this is the case. This, however, is drastically different from the other dominant perspective in the Old Testament that emphasizes God’s blessing of the righteous and destruction of the unrighteous, a notion close to karma, the “good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people” argument. Now, both of these points of view are present in the Scriptures, and I daresay we’ve all got examples where both have been proven true at different times and in different situations. The lectionary today, and for the next few weeks, gives us Job, but when we look beyond Job to rest of the Scriptures, the picture of the human condition becomes more complex and complicated.
So, in the end, I suppose what I’m really saying is that, maybe when you open up your closet next time and think you have nothing to wear, stop and take a closer look at what’s there. When you turn to the scriptures for guidance or comfort, make sure to turn to all of it, taking a closer look at what’s there and remembering that, what we ultimately see in Jesus’ sayings on divorce and in Job’s perseverance through undeserved suffering is God’s ideal for human relationship and behavior. Marriage is meant to help us not be alone. Suffering, however mysterious and unanswerable, is meant to be questioned, endured, and redeemed. And, as we fail and flourish, on both accounts, we are all meant to turn to God in Christ, to all the Scriptures, and to each other, every single one of us, to help us make it through. Because, as St. Paul said, it is ultimately to peace that God has called us. So, to peace of God we shall go, together. Amen.
The Rev. Dillon Green
October 3, 2021
St. James Episcopal Church, Wichita, KS