by the Very Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson

Drifting apart is a phrase I hear all too often when counseling couples whose marriages are in distress. Like the subtle shift of forces unseen are operating underneath moving bodies away from each other. Drifting apart might refer to individuals as much as whole communities, groups, societies, and the world at large. We are drifting apart.

I must confess to you as we begin that I am not excited to be standing in the pulpit this morning, having what one colleague recently described as the unenviable task of preaching on these particular texts. If we were following the canons of the Episcopal Church, preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary, this week we would be hearing from the Gospel of John and Jesus’ prediction of his own death and resurrection, as is the tradition on the final Sunday in Lent. In comparison to these lessons compiled and translated for us by the Reverend Dr. Wilda Gafney in A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, centered today, as they are, on various teachings about marriage and parenting, a sermon on death and the mysteries of resurrection seem almost like a holiday. 

After all, few subjects have the capacity to trigger our deepest feelings of hurt, anger, shame, and grief like the subject of divorce. I stand here today knowing full well that in our country, with one of the highest divorce rates in the world, nearly half of all first marriages will end in break up (the divorce rate goes up considerably for second and third marriages). What that means, among other things, is that each of us is touched by divorce – whether we ourselves have been divorced, or had parents who are, or close loved ones who have. But, is it any surprise in a culture so defined by drift, separation, isolation, and so at odds with each other, that we would experience such a high rate of breakups and broken relationships? We are drifting apart.

And, while many have found divorce to be life-giving, liberating even, to be the escape from abuse, or disentanglement from the toxic dynamics of a relationship gone awry, or even more simply the beginning of self-discovery and a doorway to new and even more profound love, still many others cannot think of it without thinking of the pain, the loss, the magnitude of the difficulty that came with dissolving not only deep intimate connection and years of personal involvement, but the economic and physical and legal complexity that comes with breaking up a marriage. Add to this mixture the reality that we are recalling all these things in church, an institution that has, without fail, failed miserably across the centuries to deal with the issue of divorce in ways that are compassionate, respectful, and pastoral, means that this topic is doubly fraught as we encounter it here. 

So, what are we to do? What is your preacher to say? There are some interpretive moves that could be helpful. One can note, as some scholars do, that the fact that Jesus prohibits divorce in Mark, shows a deep care for women, who, the argument follows, would have been left destitute and vulnerable in society in cases of divorce. The Rev’d Dr. Gafney notes that both men and women, particularly women of means, had access to divorce in the first century. So, while this interpretive move might be partially true, it feels rather thin, and in a contemporary world where women hold more power and autonomy, such a reading feels like it inadvertently reinscribes notions of helplessness and a latent patriarchy cloaked in chivalry which is unhelpful in today’s world. 

Still others note that this is not truly a passage about marriage and divorce after all. The story is, they say, yet another instance of Jesus’ ongoing dispute with the Pharisees, or, rather, their ongoing attempts to catch him in a trap. The Rev’d Dr. Gafney’s translation says the Pharisees came “asking him to test him”. 

I confess, this lesson feels like a test, like a trap that is set. What can the church say that will undo the centuries of damage, the broken lives, and painful memories provided by the rules and laws the church has created itself, or undergirded and upheld, in society at large, that have been so damaging around marriage and divorce. How often has the church played the part of the Pharisees in regards to these teachings, seeing the gospel as a set of laws and rules to be followed, instead of a story about how Jesus’ way of love liberates and reconciles across the many lines of difference our world so often arbitrarily imposes? If we are divided or drifting apart, if the world is shattered into parts and pieces, how can the gospel, how can we, following Jesus’ way of love, put things back together?

I am convinced that if we focus on this passage as a set of further rules about marriage and divorce, we will, in fact, be creating yet more lines of division, as the church so often has, between the righteous and the sinner, the insider and outsider, those who belong and those who do not. Its not that our faith should be silent on matters of marriage and divorce. Truth is, as the Rev’d Dr. Gafney’s lectionary selections show, the Bible and our faith, can be used to support all kinds of social institutions and constructs – Lamech invents polygamy and God does not condemn it11, while Paul encourages celibacy. These are no longer normative practices in our society and culture, just as new ways of being in relationship, chosen family, same-sex marriage, life-long partnerships, polyamory, and other ways of connecting become commonplace. It could be just as easy to use scripture to support or condemn these practices just as the church has used it to support heteronormative marriage and to condemn divorce or we could use scripture to reflect on the power of love present in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, on how that self-offering love heals the divides, that reverses the drift that we may experience not only in our personal relationships but especially in the world around us. 

It never ceases to amaze me how easily the church, even our beloved Episcopal Church, slips into a kind of legalism, using scripture to lend credence to creating even  more rules and rubrics, higher walls and thicker barriers, in a world already drifting apart, especially when all we crave is community, connection, and healing. We yearn to come together!

Clint Smith, in his poem titled Pangea, writes beautifully about how things drift apart and the desire to come together: 

Imagine each continent a splintered tessellation of wayward fragments. Eachmass of land attempting to jostle itself free. Pangaea was the last of the supercontinents, a mass of land that came together and broke itself apart several times before…I find myself blaming Pangaea for the sounds I cannot hear. I decry the continents for their careless drift. I detest the tectonic plates for their indifferent quake. I wake up in love with the ocean and fall asleep despising all it has put between us. Perhaps if the continents had never shaken themselves free we might find ourselves disabused of this apathy. Perhaps if we could hear the bomb dropping, we might imagine what would happen if it struck our own homes. I am nostalgic for a proximity that may not have mattered.”

Over a decade ago, St. John’s was engaged in the tricky work of studying human sexuality for the first time. A constitutional amendment was on the ballot in our state that would seek to define marriage as being between one man and woman. The language of faith was being used by those in favor of the amendment, and those opposed. And, a concerned member of the community came to me to say how concerned he was that we would, as a church, come out against the amendment, that we would use our scripture and our faith as a reason to get involved in a political message. After all, he said, if we do it this time, what’s to stop us doing it the next time, or the next, or the next, each time our faith compels us to speak up on behalf of those on the margins. And, I remember being terrified, new rector that I was, that my leadership would somehow pull our community apart, that this decision would alienate some and push them away. So I assured him. Don’t worry, that’s not going to happen! 

Of course, you all know what has happened in the decade since, how involved our parish has gotten and continues to be in matters of conscience, discovering and proclaiming the ever widening circle of God’s love and grace and welcome. You see, that’s the tricky thing about the gospel. Every time we ask of Jesus’ way of love, whether it has room for this or that person, we discover it does.

In a world that is so often drifting apart, widening the circle can feel like stepping onto a slippery slope…and it kind of is, but wheeeeee, it’s a lot of fun! The gospels are ever and always calling us to consider our lives in relation to one another, across all the lines that divide. Especially the lines that we’ve created. Jesus’ way calls us to proclaim a healing that only divine love can bring, a healing that makes us care for and seek to include not just those nearest us, but indeed even a world away and an ocean apart! In a world that is drifting apart, we might think hard rules and stricter laws will save us, and instead we crash into these barriers, and they break us further apart, and we learn that it is love, manifest on a cross and in an empty tomb, that can bring us together again.

  1.  Gratitude here to yet another of the Rev’d Dr. Gafney’s textual notes in the lectionary. ↩︎
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