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The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost & Mark 10:2-12
October 7th, 2018 – World Communion Sunday
Today is World Communion Sunday. Started in Presbyterian circles in the 1930s and then being officially adopted by the National Council of Churches in 1940, this Sunday is supposed to mark a time of unity amongst Christian denominations, to see in this common ritual a connection between all followers of Jesus. It is a lovely sentiment, akin to the foundation of the United Church of Christ, which came together under the banner of a snippet from John’s gospel – that they may all be one. This is the call for unity, and it’s a lovely image, the whole world learning to sing together in a circle, in perfect harmony, drinking a Coke. But unity, I’m afraid, is not what the Gospel calls us to…at least not unity the way we often think about it. Troops marching in lockstep down a main street is unity. An all-white jury unanimously deciding the fate of a young black man is unity. You can see unity in political battles on both sides where people clearly choose party over country and politics over truth. You can see it in the sometimes inexplicable actions of fraternities, civic groups and unions that back their members even when great injustices have occurred. It is unity that allows for the cruelty of mocking laughter against people deemed inferior for any number of reasons – people who aren’t part of that thing being called unity.
I have a problem with calls for unity, you see, because they are more often calls for mere conformity, not the relational, sacrificial effort that Jesus often portrays. The calls for unity are often set against people seeking recognition, asking for them to just get with the program and recognize the power. But Jesus’ power is power given away, our scripture stories tell us, authority through compassion and healing rather than dominance and control. An appeal for unity shouldn’t ask someone to give up their identity to join. That’s not unity. It’s conformity. I know that World Communion Sunday is supposed to draw us together as the Church, but how can we stand together in unity when some parts of the church claim to follow Jesus but show none of his compassion, his hope, his love?
I want to be clear. My pushback against “unity” is something far beyond whether or not I disagree with someone. I can disagree and still be in fellowship. I can take issue with someone’s opinion and stay in covenant. What I can’t do is to side with people who claim to value one thing, but stop valuing it as soon as it gets a little inconvenient, or as soon as holding that value threatens their power. A quote often attributed to James Baldwin, but actually written much more recently by a man named Robert Jones Jr, who goes by the Twitter handle SonofBaldwin, goes like this: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” In other words, if you say let’s get together because you value women but insist, in a variety of ways, that they “stay in their place,” then that’s not a unity I seek. If you seek a “colorblindness” that asks people of color to whitewash or ignore their own lived histories, then you aren’t seeking unity, you’re just asking people to stop fighting your power.
When the Pharisees come to confront Jesus, they set up a test. Jesus has just come from a series of events where he spreads God’s grace and mercy to places and onto people that are unclean, cut-off, definitely out of any unifying effort. It is a direct challenge to the status quo, and I imagine the Pharisees confronting him with angry voices, faces clenched against this person who is daring to question their authority, the right that they have to be in charge, the LAW that is God-given, for which they have set themselves up as the keepers. I imagine it started as a calmer voice, urging Jesus to just “go along.” “C’mon, Jesus – this is the way the world works. Heck, God set it up this way, quit trying to mess it up with all this talk of justice.” But that didn’t work, so their voices got louder, their faces angrier. They try to set a trap asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Now, we may see this as a kind of innocuous question, but we need to understand something. In the ancient Mediterranean world, adultery means to dishonor a male by having sexual relations with his wife, but not the other way around, nor does sex with some other female means dishonor. The teaching at the time varied, but a woman could be dismissed from her marriage for displeasing her husband. Some required marital infidelity. But whatever the case, a woman was completely powerless in the situation. A woman had no right to seek a divorce, they were always the victims of divorce. It is an intrinsically inequitable system and it has nothing to do with love. The law, designed to bring some equitability into the realm of marriage, Jesus reminds them, has been warped into a system that places all power and authority in the hands of men who aren’t interested in morality as much as power.
Jesus turns the question from them on it’s head, shifting the tone from legal to relational, thereby paying attention to the vulnerability of the women in this patriarchal system. Jesus wants these men to know that marriage is something more than just a legal contract, just as a woman is not a possession. The ethic behind Jesus’ response isn’t that divorce is wrong, though that has been the most common interpretation. His prophetic word to the Pharisees, and anyone listening, is that treating women as unequal to men, treating them as possessions, is blasphemous – bothwere made in the image of God.
America, as if you needed a reminder after the last couple of weeks, is still a land of patriarchy. Maybe some progress has been made, but the reality is that it is more difficult to be a woman than it is to be a man in this country in almost every way. From wages to rights to access to the media, women are still not seen as created in the image of God, too – at least not in the sane way that men are. We still live with a so-called justice that let’s the “she saids” stack up, one atop the other, on one side of the scales, only to be outweighed by a single “he said.”
To our shame, it is stillthe wife who is typically affected disproportionately by divorce, particularly when children are involved. The husband becomes a single man. The wife becomes a single mom. Women are still subject to the same sexual catch-22, be chaste and pure and a sex object all at the same time. The attitudes we see in a nomination fight for the Supreme Court or in countless stories from the #metoo movement aren’t new attitudes – they are biblical in nature and while it may seem like they’re getting worse, I think that they are more likely getting revealed. They have lived in the shadows for sexism and misogyny, like racism, have deep roots and just when we think they are gone, they sprout up again.
And I can almost hear the call now – pretty sure we’ll hear it out loud in the next few days. OK, let’s move on. You could hear it in some Senator’s voices – yes, she was credible, yes, I believe her, I just don’t care. I don’t have to. I can parse out the legalities and sharpen the legal pen and make sure that policies and procedures are setup precisely in a way that allows me to not have to actually expose my ideas to the disinfectant that is sunlight. This way I can continue to say that I support women, without having to ever actuallysupport women. We can hire them, but make sure they don’t advance too far. We can praise them in public while we continue to control their choices and minimize their voices. We can continue to let what is really in our hearts be known with our Freudian slips and our overhead whispers when we didn’t realize the mic was still on, but believe it, when we’re caught, we’ll have a quick retort about how you misunderstood. It is the way the world is, after all. Just go along with it – for the sake of unity.
What fills my head and heart this morning are not those voices, which I really do think are putting up such a strong fight because of how impending their end is, but rather the voices of the marginalized – bold and courageous. It’s the face of a professor, hand in the air for an oath, letting her voice be heard like Jesus let his be heard in his “trial,” where the ending was already determined. It’s the continued call of this table, ringing through the ages, the road less taken, welcoming a new way of being in the world, the ushering in of the kin-dom. Here we will welcome everyone to the table – gay and straight, brown, black, white, across class and genders – we share the meal not from a place of uniformity, but out of a sense of sharing, a deep awareness that we need one another – every single other.
A Facebook “friend” wrote this week – you know, one of those “friends” you’ve never actually met – she wrote about the prophetic voice, crying for truth and justice in times of injustice. “I know,” she writes, “lots of us are exhausted from crying out. Children still separated from their parents. Environmental regulations weakened or disbanded. LGBTQIA+ folk put at risk. Health care taken from vulnerable people. Mockery of sexual assault victims by our President.
Please hear me: it is worthy to cry out, to speak deep truth, even if it isn’t heard by the powerful. It is good to speak up, to speak out, to stand firm, even if you lose. Justice is worth fighting for, even if the fight lasts longer than our own lives.
Maybe the powerful won’t listen to us. But when we shout, the powerless hear too. And when they hear you, they realize they aren’t alone. Solidarity with one another is the only way we’re going to make it.”
We are a covenant people, my friends, joined together in the grace of Christ Jesus. And this is a covenant of relationship, not a contract but a chosen solidarity. And this World Communion Sunday, I don’t know if I’m down with the whole church. I don’t really want anything like unity right now, at least the kind of unity that asks me to go along to get along. After all, I’m painfully aware that many churches have blessed this current wave of injustices in our nation, saying they’re “OK” with separating children from their families and placing them in internment camps, giving a “thumbs up” to misogynistic comments and actions from the most powerful leader in the world, crying “Yes” to complicity with blatant white supremacists marching in the streets. That church is fine with all of that blasphemy in a quest for power. And I am surethat I know how Jesus feels about that.
So, this morning, we will have our communion meal by ourselves, just our church, nursing some wounds and catching our breath, hoping all the while that we aren’t the only church full of disparaging people. We’ll expect that we aren’t the only house of worship that trusts in a God of justice to bring that reign on the earth – and to bring it soon. We’ll assure ourselves that we aren’t the only place where people are gathering, considering more than just a sip of wine about now and trying to chase away our apathetic tendencies to retreat to a couch and binge-watch through the next two years away with the visions of possibility and the sometimes absurd hope for change. There is still a world that longs to be born, a kin-dom of equity and justice, of compassion and kindness that is all around us. May we have the eyes to see it. Right now, O God. Right now, please.