Beloved, it has been a bit of a week.
Rather, it has been a bit of two years. Which felt like it all arose this past week and walloped many of us this past week.
I belong to a Facebook group of young clergywomen, which has been invaluable on so many occasions throughout my working life. This week, we kept asking one another “Oh God, what am I going to say?” “How am I going to stand in front of my congregation and say anything?” “I’m so furious/sad/defeated/enraged/numb/overwhelmed right now–how am I going to find the words?”
And then there were the stories–not just in this group, but pouring off my computer screen, off the pages of friends near and far, out of my phone, and out of the mouths of friends and strangers everywhere I turned–“That was me, too.” “I remember the laughter.” “I can’t forget his face.” “No one believed me either.” “We told people not to go to the police because they will just make it worse and nothing will happen.” “They said it was my fault because….”. On and on and on.
Despite my best hopes (and really, despite my outward pragmatism, I can hope with the best of them), it would seem that there is still a great reluctance to hold powerful white men accountable for assault–or indeed, to question them on their right to do whatever they feel like.
As Christians, we need to reckon with the indisputable fact that our abject failure to hold one portion of society accountable has resulted in the suffering of other portions. And that suffering has been on display this week in a way rarely seen.
And in the midst of this, some of us got to preach. On the gospel where Jesus gets mouthy about divorce of all things, because the Spirit likes to pile on.
Here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
October 6, 2018
Ordinary Time, Proper 22
This is one of those weeks where the lectionary presents us with so much that needs unpacking that it feels like that state room the Marx Brothers rented in A Night at the Opera. You open the door unsuspectingly and ALL THIS STUFF comes pouring down on you. So don’t worry—don’t panic, and we’ll see what we can make of this.
Let’s start with the gospel—which might seem like an odd reading for us as Anglicans. After all, as someone pointed out to me this week “Didn’t y’all start off because someone wanted a divorce?!” Sort of, and not quite, and it’s complicated.
But suffice it to say that divorce, and who gets to stay married or not, has always been a topic of conversation. It was not invented in 1960s America by second wave feminism. At the time Jesus is having this conversation with the crowd, divorce was just as complicated as it was in any time in history.
In Jewish law at the time, technically, only men could ask for a divorce, and they had to have an overwhelming reason to present to the priests. Some rabbis argued that this overwhelming reason could only be adultery—some said that it could be any number of things—but as it was, the power to dissolve a marriage rested only with the man. Which was a big problem for women, since their security—economic and otherwise—rested on a solid marriage. If the marriage turned abusive, they had no way to leave. And if their husband wanted to marry someone else, and leave them in the street—they had no way to stop him.
It was not great for women—it created a situation where they were pretty powerless, and their children as well (if the woman was divorced, her kids went with her.)
There were alternative legal theories going around, however. Roman law—which was in place in Palestine under the occupation—held that either spouse could ask for a divorce. So while it wasn’t strictly kosher (sorry), we have evidence that lots of Jewish couples just went to Roman courts to solve their marital woes. Roman law was more egalitarian, as a rule, but—and this is a big but—there was also a problem here.
Palestine was a big melting pot of cultures; another major influence was the Hellenistic culture, which had come in with Alexander the Great, a few centuries before. (Which is why the gospels are written in Greek.) And Hellenistic culture was Not a Fan of women. In the Hellenistic mindset, women couldn’t own property, couldn’t go outside alone, couldn’t really do anything, and DEFINITELY can’t file for divorce.
So—all of that is swirling around this conversation about divorce. Good idea? Bad idea? Because everyone has a very different opinion.
And Jesus says this sort of odd thing about how God made people in the Garden and how if a man remarries after divorce he commits adultery, and same for a woman.
…huh? At first glance, it seems pretty severe, and it has been used that way. Make no mistake, like the verse about “God created them male and female” this verse has been used to shame and accuse people who were trying to faithfully make decisions in the best interest of themselves and their families.
But in the context of the time, in the ears of the people Jesus is talking to, this is actually a step towards equality.
Remember, a big part of the context here is whether women can ask for a divorce—because that’s the sticking point for rabbis, for Hellenistic culture, and for the Roman law. Do women have equal rights to men? And Jesus suggests that yes—it is just as bad for a man to abandon the family as it is for a woman to do so. Thus, men and women are equal before God. And that’s actually a fairly big deal. For the cultural moment, this was a pretty progressive stance, because Jesus is giving rights to women and men.
And like that situation earlier, where the Pharisees were asking him questions, Jesus is concerned here about the actual people these rulings affect, and less about the hypothetical argument. Because during the debate, he picks up a child, and reminds the gathered group (again!) that to welcome the kingdom of God is to welcome a child like this one. Means to welcome and care for the powerless and the vulnerable in any given situation—whether that means children, or women deprived of legal rights. Building the kingdom of God means having a special concern for the silenced and the disadvantaged, and making sure that everyone is safe, provided for, and able to prosper. Not just those traditionally given legal voice. But in the kingdom of God, EVERYONE has their needs provided for. So his assertion about marriage being an equal partnership? That radically upends the religious thinking of the day.
It feels odd saying all this today, at this moment in our cultural context. I actually held off a bit in writing this sermon because I wanted to be sure of what our context would be, so I waited later than I normally do—I waited until Saturday. And please understand when I say that my concern over our context is not a partisan concern—it’s a pastoral one. This past week and a half has been something like an extended support group for nearly every woman I know. So many people, online, in person, have spoken again about their own stories of assault, and their own traumas of being ignored or brushed aside, or made to feel as if their suffering doesn’t matter. And watching the debates in the Senate brings everything back up again.
We can argue about the Supreme Court, and a judicial temperament, and the FBI, but what remains clear is that an incredible amount of people are hurting right now because for a long, long time, our society has failed to take violence against women seriously. And as Christians who believe, right from Genesis 1, that all of us are created in God’s image, male and female, we need to pay attention to that. Jesus himself tells us to pay attention to that today, as he holds men and women equally accountable for the success of marriage. If we want to build the kingdom, we have to take violence against women, assault against women, seriously. We do not have a choice.
And we begin here. We begin right here. When Jesus is talking about welcoming the children, when he’s talking about men and women—he’s not storming the halls of Rome. He’s not filibustering Pontus Pilate. He’s not running for political office or raising money—he’s talking to his friends. Because before Christianity was known in the halls of power, it was known in the fields of Galilee, and the streets of Jerusalem. By tax collectors, vagrants, and fishermen. This was never a system that was supposed to rule anything—but early Christianity became so powerful that the empire couldn’t do anything but follow along.
So even if those in the halls of power can’t figure it out, we can. We can, right here. We can make this place safe for children right here. We can make this place safe for survivors right here. We can believe and support one another right here. We can, in this time and place, right where we are, stand up for each other, and those whom we meet, who have been silenced and brutalised the way Jesus taught us to. The way the Spirit empowers us to. We can protect and care for one another and show the world a different way— a way that is so powerful, that eventually, even the mightiest empire will have to come along.