Sermon by Rev. Craig Lemming - Oct 07, 2018

In the name of the Triune God: Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I was twelve years old, all I really wanted for Christmas was a recording of Mozart’s opera, Così fan tutte. Yes, when we were teenagers, my brother rebelled with gangster rap, I rebelled with the three Da Ponte operas of Mozart,[1] and my poor parents suffered! It was nearly impossible to find recordings of classical music in Zimbabwe in the 1990s, so the surprise and the thrill of opening my gift that Christmas Day made me love that recording of Mozart’s Così fan tutte to the point of obsession. For those who know the opera, Mozart fashioned a silk purse out of the sow’s ear that is Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto. In the words of Alexander McCall Smith – who was also born in Zimbabwe – Così fan tutte is a morally disturbing opera. Two young sisters say goodbye to their respective lovers; and men deceive the sisters in a way that reveals the women’s weaknesses. Nasty and cynical things happen, and yet Mozart graces this grubby tale of deception and inconstancy with music that soars effortlessly above the libretto’s limitations.[2] I was so obsessed with its beauty as a teenager that I still know Mozart’s Così fan tutte by heart. This may well explain why I am still single, but I’ll leave my “commitment issues” to future psychotherapists to analyze. Humor aside, as a single person I have not yet been called to the sacrament of marriage; neither have I been called to the vocation of parenthood; nor have I experienced the heartbreak of divorce. As such, in this sermon on marriage, divorce, and children, I tread with reverence, humility, and compassion for those recovering from marriages which have ended, and with admiration for those who are thriving together in the challenging work of married life and parenthood – the most important work there is.

To understand the meaning of Jesus’ teachings on marriage and divorce, it is helpful to understand the historical-cultural context of this morning’s pericope from the Gospel according to Mark. Ethicist, theologian, and professor at Boston College, Dr. Lisa Sowle Cahill observes:

In the Greco-Roman setting of early Christianity, women passed in their early teens from the household and the control of their fathers to a husband twice their age or more. Women’s education was limited; they were to bear and raise children and manage households for their husbands. A good wife served her husband, accepted his sexual infidelities, and rarely left the boundaries of their domicile. A right to inherit property from her natal family gave her some independence, but she could be divorced at the will of her husband or even her father, in which event the husband retained custody of their children. At a spouse’s death, a woman ideally renounced remarriage and passed into the authority of her sons.[3]

Perhaps you feel as disturbed as I do by these facts. Jesus, the Holy One who came that all people may have life and have it abundantly,[4] was moved to compassion for the women of his day. Women he saw reduced to the stuff of money-making business transactions by men investing in women’s wombs as if they were livestock. In her commentary on Mark’s Gospel, theologian Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, observes that in his teaching about marriage, divorce, children, and wealth:

Jesus reverses the values of the hierarchical status quo, in which men are valued over women, adults over children, and the rich over the poor. In first-century Judaism, divorce could be initiated only by a husband, not by a wife (although women of means could initiate divorce in the larger Greco-Roman world). Adultery was considered an offense of one man against another man’s honor and property; a man (even a married man) who had sexual relations with another man’s wife wronged her husband (not his own wife). But Jesus calls anyone – man or woman – who divorces a spouse and marries another an adulterer against the first spouse – woman or man. Men are not to be valued over women in the new household. Nor are children to be less valued than adults. Jesus takes children into his arms, something women were more likely to do, and critiques the disciples for keeping them away – as if protecting Jesus’ time for more important work with adults. Anyone who would enter the realm of God must receive it as a gift like a powerless child, not as one ordering others what to do.[5]

In today’s passage from Mark’s Gospel Jesus denounces the “hardness of heart” that opened the door to abusive divorce and the exploitation of women. In a word, Jesus is a feminist. One scholar writes, “by citing the creation narratives of Genesis in his response, Jesus counters that the purpose of marriage was life-long mutuality and interdependence, not dominance of one party by the other. Spouses cannot treat each other as property to be discarded.”[6] Women and children are the ultimate concern of Jesus. Jesus’s ultimate concern is always to care for the powerless. As followers of Jesus and as the Body of Christ, today’s Gospel calls us to prioritize the wellbeing of women, children, and all who are powerless to systems of oppression.

But what about those who are divorced? When I served as a hospital chaplain I came to appreciate the liberating gift that divorce can be. I was called to provide spiritual care to a family whose patriarch had died. When our time of prayers and blessing concluded, to my surprise, when her family had left the room, the widow of the deceased was overcome with joy and infectious laughter. She confessed that for various reasons, divorce was never an option for her. She explained that after suffering for over 40 years in a miserable, hateful marriage, now in her 70s, she was finally liberated from the shackles of her vows and she could finally have her life back and live it abundantly. Her first act of liberation? To go to the opera – something she had been dying to do for decades. She taught me what Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong affirms: “Sometimes divorce is the way to an abundant new life for one or both of the formally linked partners.”[7]

Today’s Gospel also invites us to ponder why Jesus prioritizes children – those who occupied the lowest status in society – by blessing and naming them as the true recipients of the kingdom of heaven.[8] Children teach us that faith is an act of trust. And trust is the basis of true love. In his classic text, The Art of Loving, psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm affirms that mastering the art of loving begins by practicing love as a daily discipline, with concentration and patience throughout every phase of our life[9] whether we feel like it or not. To do this requires trust – trust as strong and as authentic as a child’s. Fromm writes, “To love means to commit oneself without guarantee, to give oneself completely in the hope that our love will produce love in the loved person. Love is an act of faith, and whoever is of little faith is also of little love.[10] I believe the discipline of love is something each of us – single, partnered, engaged, married, divorced, or widowed – are called to practice with trust. Trust in the God of Love who resides in each of us; who calls each of us to live life and to live it abundantly.

In closing, I return to the words of Alexander McCall Smith. He listens to the trio Soave sia il vento[11] from the first Act of Mozart’s Così fan tutte almost every day before he begins writing. Of this trio Alexander McCall Smith writes,

Not only is this one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed, but the words are extraordinarily peaceful, generous and resolved. “On your voyage, may the winds be gentle; may the waves be calm; may all the elements respond warmly to your desires…” What more can we wish anyone setting off on life’s journey? I listen to this several times a day; I never tire of it. It is music suffused with the greatest possible sympathy and humanity. It expresses what I want to feel about the world. It is the deepest truth.[12]

Just as disciplined musicians have to “practice, practice, practice”[13] to get to Carnegie Hall, when we go forth from here into the world to practice the art of loving – loving ourselves, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and loving God above all – on our voyage ahead, may the breezes be gentle, may the waves be calm, and may all the elements respond warmly to our desires. Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Da_Ponte_operas

[2] https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324715704578482944099535714

[3] Dictionary of Feminist Theologies (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 172-74.

[4] John 10:10 (NRSV).

[5] Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley, Women’s Bible Commentary, 3rd ed. (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 487.

[6] James Luther Mays, Harper’s Bible Commentary (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 996.

[7] John Shelby Spong, Living in Sin? a Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 64.

[8] Mary 10:13-16.

[9] Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, Fiftieth Anniversary Ed., Harper Perennial Modern Classics (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006), 102.

[10] Fromm, 118.

[11] https://youtu.be/02UrfLM7oF8

[12] https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324715704578482944099535714

13] https://www.carnegiehall.org/Blog/2016/04/The-Joke