6 Epiphany 2017: We don’t have to be “good”

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Link to a Liturgical Poem for 6 Epiphany: http://www.rjgeib.com/thoughts/geese/geese.html

Link to Lectionary texts for 6 Epiphany: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=18

The reading from Matthew this morning
begs for a foil,
someone or something
to stand in the middle of the road
and risk being run over
by the steamroller coming through.

Mary Oliver volunteered.

We do not have to be good.

Let me say it again,
even though I know it contradicts
everything we think we know from Scripture,
and especially from what we heard today:
We do not have to be good.

So let us dig a little deeper
than the categorical thinking we meet
on the surface of Matthew.
As hard as Matthew works to disguise it,
Jesus is actually quite compassionate and progressive
on divorce.

First of all, I want to just put it out there
in no uncertain terms:
the position of the Roman Catholic Church on divorce
is not rooted in Jesus.
Nor, by the way, was or is
the common understanding of divorce
in The Episcopal Church.

Again, let’s dig deeper.
Jesus’ teaching on divorce
is treated slightly differently
in the three gospels in which it appears:
Mark, Matthew and Luke.
So I am going to talk specifically
about what Jesus says according to Mark,
because Mark was the first Gospel
and both Matthew and Luke were poured from its mold.

As is true with anything we read or encounter
from ancient times – or more recent ones, for that matter –
to fully understand Jesus’ teaching on divorce
we have to know what is in the background.

So first of all,
Jesus is not merely being questioned
about his opinion on divorce;
the question has a very specific context.
The audience wants to know,
which of the great rabbis Jesus agrees with:
Rabbi Hillel or Rabbi Shammai?

In fact, a great many of the
parables and proverbial sayings of Jesus
are either from one of these two great rabbis
or a variation on what one or both of them taught.
Jesus did not just appear out of the clear blue sky,
like Superman from Krypton,
but was raised and influenced
by his time and place just as we are.

Jesus was born
and lived in the shadow
of these two great teachers and scholars,
Hillel and Shammai.
As if a grand theological “Point-Counter-Point,”
Hillel was what we might call the liberal
and Shammai the conservative –
although those modern categories
do not really work for the ancient text.

In the background of almost every question
a lawyer, Pharisee, or scribe poses to Jesus,
stand the hulking figures of Hillel and Shammai.
“Whose side are you on?” they ask Jesus.

Every bit as much
as they want to know Jesus’ opinion about divorce,
Jesus is actually being asked,
which authority he follows.
Not surprisingly, rather than taking sides,
Jesus does an unexpected dance
between the two great rabbis.

Here is the basic argument about divorce
that forms the context in which Jesus is asked the question. (And by the way, his answer on divorce,
is an example of how Jesus moves through polarities
rather than hanging out on any single pole).

Hillel and Shammai
argued about how the law on divorce,
in the Book of Deuteronomy,
should be interpreted.

Every argument at the time
hinged on that Deuteronomic law.

Deuteronomy grants permission for divorce
but only if a clear and specific regulation is followed.
Divorce was allowed for the man, not the woman.
But a man could not simply abandon his wife;
he had to follow a procedure called, “the bill of divorce”.
It was intended, in Deuteronomy,
as progressive for its time –
insuring more humane treatment of women and children
than the previous practice,
which was to simply abandon a wife
that was no longer wanted.

We need to remember that in Jesus’ day,
polygamy was still allowed,
and so this argument
was never about multiple marriages.
In fact, it is interesting to contemplate what adultery
might mean in a polygamous society,
rather than in one based upon the premise of monogamy.
But I’m not going to go there today.

So Hillel argued
that almost anything
could be a legitimate grounds for divorce –
bad cooking as much as infidelity.

Shammai said, no,
only infidelity is a legitimate ground for divorce.

It is in that context,
between those two positions, someone asks,
“Hey Jesus, what do you think?”

Jesus takes an abrupt and stunning turn
away from Deuteronomy,
and instead roots his argument
in another scripture altogether:
The Book of Genesis.

Jesus says, “remember how God created us male and female,
and how we were joined together (quoting from Genesis)?
Well, what God has joined together
no one can separate.”
Jesus is pointing to the human reality
of painful separation, loss, and abandonment
rather than to some fine point in the law.

From what I have been told
by those who have been through divorce,
it is in fact, more amputation than separation.

Even though the person we were enjoined with
is no longer present,
and even though a piece of paper
says we are no longer joined,
the phantom pain and memory
of a lost limb is still there.
After divorce,
so I have been told,
a piece of us is gone,
just as if a spouse had died.

For one thing,
most people get married with hopes and dreams
about the future.
The loss of hopes and dreams is a grief all of its own.

Even when the divorce is a long time in coming,
and there is no ambivalence
about it being the right and necessary thing to do,
the memories can be like
the phantom sense of a severed limb – still there,
and always a piece of us.
As therapists and counselors can attest,
no one who has been divorced,
or in any kind of profoundly intimate relationship,
ever goes into the next relationship
without bringing their former spouse or partners
right along with them.
That is just a fact of life for us,
just like we bring our mom and dad and sisters and brothers
into our relationships with us as well.

So Jesus does not make a case against the legality of divorce.
The legality of divorce
was never a question in Jesus’ day.

Nor for that matter, was the legality of polygamy.
Jesus does not say that divorce should be illegal,
which is what he would have said
if he were making that case.
Instead, he simply says,
that those who were once joined together by God
no one and nothing
can unjoin.
And we know, from our own experiences, that is very true.

So you see, the question about divorce
is not whether it is legal or not.
The question about divorce
has to do with the personal,
spiritual, and psychological truth
that people who have been joined
at that level of intimacy
are not separated
simply by a legal process or document.
It does everyone involved a disservice to pretend otherwise.

“Whose side are you on, Jesus, Hillel or Shammai?”
Jesus responds: “That’s the wrong question.”

What I imagine Jesus might say to us today,
is that the thing we should be talking about
is not the legality of divorce,
that is a given.
Rather, we should be talking about healing
when and after
a divorce takes place.

Let’s not jabberjaw with legalistic arguments, Jesus might say,
when there is real hurt and pain to deal with.

That’s what I imagine the meaning of his argument implied
to those standing around him.

In other words, Jesus might as well have said,
Let’s realize that when people have shared their
their bodies,
and children,
no law will heal the amputation.
So stop with the silly either/or arguments already,
and let’s focus on how to nurture healing.

It seems to me that is what Jesus
was saying with his Genesis rebuttal
to the Deuteronomy argument.

But now, let’s go back to Mary Oliver
and where we began:
We do not have to be good.

In fact, we do not always recognize
what is good
over what is bad, or even evil.
There are many times in our lives,
both personally and historically,
that we do not have enough information
in the moment of decision,
to know whether we are making
a “good” or “bad” decision.
Does that make us “bad” if we choose poorly –
I don’t think so.

The truth is,
if our eyes are open
and our minds receptive,
we understand that qualifiers
such as good and bad,
moral and immoral,
true and false…
are almost always gradations or continuums,
rather than stationary positions
that never move
and are always the same.

My life has not been very long compared so some of you,
but I cannot remember a time since the 1960’s
when we had such a wide-spread,
social mental illness
as we do right now.

It is not just ‘out there’ in the world either,
but right here in this congregation –
around us,
and among us,
and within us.

I am of course referring to the categorization,
the bitter bifurcation, and alienation,
between Trump and Not-Trump;
between left, right, and center;
between black lives matter and all lives matter;
and every other categorical separation
we have, and are creating.

This polarization makes the world,
and our every action and thought a categorical polemic
between black and white,
right and wrong,
straight and crooked,
good and bad.
There is no in-between,
no gradation,
no gray,
no ambiguity,
no situational particularity.

It is a common adolescent worldview
in the literature of human development theory.
Except, when we are fully grown adults
and adolescent thinking is still raging in our minds,
it becomes more of a mental illness.

When adults try to live in a thoroughly polarized world,
it creates the same whirlwind,
rollercoaster ride of emotion
that is characteristic of a teenager.

I would go so far as to suggest
such categorical, polarized thinking
contributes to all manner of social ill
from substance abuse to infidelity,
and from segregation to violence.

In our more sane moments,
we recognize our world
as far more nuanced
than the one characterized by the current
political, theatrical, and news media Rorschach.

We know we live on a continuum between the poles,
and rarely, if ever,
do we actually stand on one
or the other extreme.

Our real world,
THE real world,
calls for much more consultation with others
than pole-sitting at the extremes allow us.

True community,
true spiritual community,
includes sharing our hearts and minds
with one another,
and with sages and professionals,
both ancient and contemporary,
who offer guidance for better ways of living.

We do not have to be good
because we cannot be good
in any absolute sense.
Being “good” in absolute terms
is not one of our choices.

We get to be
good AND bad,
lucky AND sad,
right AND wrong,
up AND down,
in AND out,
and bounced on bumps all along those continuums
like a stagecoach on a dirt road.

That is where we live…all the time.

And in order to live there
with a modicum of happiness and joy,
we have to be able to
“…let the soft animal of our body love what it loves.”
We …do not have to walk on our knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

Instead, we have to listen
for …the world (to) offer itself to our imagination,
call(ing) to (us) like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing our place
in the family of things.

What I hope we hear in all of this
is that we are not supposed to live in a straightjacket
between absolute right and absolute wrong,
but within the world
and the life
that is ours to live.
It is a world in which the wild geese
call our name
and announce our place
in the midst of a living world,
rather than a brutally idealized world
of false categories.

Sometimes, and this is one of those times,
the task of the preacher
is not to proclaim the Scripture
but to hammer it to see what’s in there.
The poles are fire and ice
and we need to move away from them, not toward them.

We do not have to be good,
because that is not one of our choices.

Now when you go home and someone asks,
“What did that guy preach about this time?”
Please don’t say, “Oh, he said we don’t have to be good.”
Instead, though it’s a little more complicated,
say that he said, we need to live as faithfully as we know how
in whichever moment we are in,
with the choices we are given –
AND, like Jesus,
by creating more choices if possible,
than the ones others have given us.