Sermon at Calvary, Charleston
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Good morning! What a joy to be with you today. What an honor. Thank you, Congregation of Calvary and Mother Ann, for having me and for welcoming our guests. I love being a people who follow the lectionary—And then there are days like today… my first sermon as your bishop. And the lectionary hands me divorce.
Yesterday was glorious. This morning is glorious! You have created such a beautiful day! And now, the gospel drives us here. To divorce. Isn’t that the way it is in this world? The glory and the agony come together in this life.
To contemplate today’s gospel, we must go back to the beginning…the very beginning—the story of the creation of marriage we just heard from Genesis. Marriage is the very first human institution. It was born when God realized there was an absence of a peer for Adam among all the other creatures.
Wonderful as those animals were, there was no partner among them who could engage Adam as equal, who could push back, none who—as Presiding Bishop Curry said it to the bishops a week ago—knew his jive. No one who could give him that look and say, “Seriously, Adam? You’re gonna wear those fig leaves to dinner?” Yes, Adam needed someone who could push back. An equal. A peer.
So, what does God do? He puts Adam into a deep sleep —that place between worlds where we dream. And from that place, while Adam’s ego needs are taking a rest, while he is simply being, breathing, dreaming, God can do his best work. It’s a sweet, still place where marriage is born.
Marriage is the archetype for all our closest relationships. All the other ways we’ve used marriage—to keep people out—to oppress one another based on gender identity, sexual orientation, race, age, religion, class—all are mere aberrations. At its heart, marriage is a way to get love into this world through the power we enact when we come together with another. We are stronger together.
When God joins husband and wife, wife and wife, husband and husband—those two want it to last forever. No one begins a marriage wanting divorce. No one plans it. But, as the Pharisees who approach Jesus in today’s gospel knew all too well…Sometimes, it is unavoidable. Sometimes, given our human frailty, it is necessary.
There are things you don’t come back from easily, when we are joined together as one—be it as a couple, as a church, as a nation. The causes of divorce comes in many forms. But one thing they have in common—they all tear us asunder. You know a thing or two about that. Schism. Schism, yes…
But what about being displaced from your historic sacred church for white folks to get a new neighborhood? What about being told your baptism doesn’t quite suffice to open the doors for your seat, voice and vote in your own church’s diocesan convention until 1965.
What about baptismal records that put down with pen and ink the names of white people as “owners” of your ancestors as they were being baptized into a gospel proclaiming freedom and truth? And what about all the ways the diocese, the city, the country has not made reparations to you for all that has been taken? Yes, you know a thing or two about being torn asunder.
Mr. Hamilton was good enough to spend some time with me to begin to tell me your story. I listened carefully. He’s a good story teller, as you all know. But more importantly, he gets to the heart of the matter. That visit was a first step. I have much more listening to do. I understand that.
You know and have lived in ways I can never know or live, the reality of a divorce so deep one wonders how we as a church, as a nation, as a world can ever come back from it. And I name and respect that you have been disproportionately harmed by the sins born of our racism, which I, as a white Episcopalian—as a white person— have committed and from which I benefit.
Divorce of the kind you have known is born of inequality and oppression. And the impact has been grave. Any work we do together must begin with this acknowledgement. So, the Pharisees ask Jesus, is it lawful, this thing called divorce? Is it lawful to tear asunder that which God has joined together?
Well, that’s not really the question, is it? The question is not is it lawful. We know the answer to that. The question, rather, is how do we prevent it in the first place? How to we stop killing the dream of God? The Pharisees were squarely focused on the question they had posed—is divorce lawful? Jesus is trying to reframe the question and call them back to love. And then, something happens. Something wonderful happens. These parents off to the side, are trying to move unnoticed around all this heavy conversation to get their children into the presence of Jesus.
So in the midst of a conversation about divorce, we can now see a mother lifting up her toddler to Jesus, a child darting between the crowds of towering adults to find Jesus and crawl into his lap, other children drawing near because they sense, as only children can, that this is a grown up they can trust.
It is as if the children are conspiring with Jesus to change our frame of reference. Jesus takes the cue. He says: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them…Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive he kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” The children and Jesus together return us to the dream of God. In this unexpected turn, we see, through the action of children, what we must do.
The only way to repair the fabric of our common life is to find our way to Jesus and begin again. We must be born anew. We must begin again. Baptism is where we begin again. Our baptismal vows bring us back. The waters of our baptism run deep. No hurt, no offense, no sin goes deeper than those waters. Grace reaches them all. And grace, of the sort Jesus brings, is not pablum.
We preach not just a slight tune-up, not just a little self improvement. No, the gospel assumes divorce of every kind. It assumes the most wretched, unspeakable sin the most untouchable grief, the most entrenched anger and disappointment at human failings. The grace of Jesus is strong. It is true and just. Jesus’ grace restores life.
Life where we strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human begin. Life where we seek and serve Christ in all persons. Life where we resist evil, life where, when we fall into sin, we are given space to repent and return to the Lord, life where we proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.
The gospel returns us to the dream of God, born in our first sleep. We become in baptism, God’s children again. We become strong enough to disrupt all the divorces in this world that rip us asunder. We did not come all this way across continents and millennia, across crusades and blood stained roads, across soul bearing oceans, across unmarked-graves and stolen sacred spaces—we did NOT come this far by way of a polite, make-nice surface, pale imitation of the good news Jesus came to deliver.
No. We came this far by faith. Faith that the grace of God —a grace we do not understand and cannot control, can make us whole and just and strong. The grace of God will lead us places we do not want to go. Through grace, there will be times when you will have to speak truth to me I may not want to hear as I seek my own repentance and our collective repentance as a church, here in South Carolina. Through grace, I as your bishop need to listen with an open mind and an open heart, seeking first to understand. And, sometimes, through grace, I will need to speak difficult things, too.
I ask for you to lean in with me—with playfulness, with forgiveness, with curiosity and the will to learn and grow together. We don’t have to get it all right today. Thank God. We simply have to begin. Always, we begin again. Together, you and I begin. My heart is glad. God bless you and keep you. Amen.
Bishop Ruth Woodliff-Stanley
The Rt. Reverend Ruth Woodliff-Stanley was elected by the Diocese of South Carolina in May 2021, and consecrated as a bishop on October 2, 2021.