Real Relationships


The Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
October 04, 2015
The 23rd Anniversary of the Latin American Community at St. Paul’s

For 23 years the Comunidad Latinoamericana has been in formal relationship with the congregation of St. Paul’s Within the Walls.

Today we celebrate the anniversary of that relationship and we will have festivities, including lunch, downstairs following the service.

Like any relationship, these 23 years have had their ups and downs… their periods of great closeness and their moments of painful separation.

Those of you who have been here throughout all these 23 years could probably speak of such moments in great detail… or perhaps you might find it hard to do so.

Anniversaries are times in which to reflect on these contours of relationship…to celebrate what needs to be celebrated and to ask forgiveness for and lay down the sorrows that we may have carried in order to move boldly into a new future together.

It just so happens that this auspicious anniversary coincides with readings that have a lot to say about the nature of relationships.

In the Old Testament, we get the beginning of the book of Job, one of the most distinctive books of the Hebrew Scriptures, which explores the theme of the relationship between God and humanity.

The book of Job raises more questions than it answers.

Everything seems perfect for Job until God decides to use him as a shining example of how faithful and wonderful humans are.

The Accuser, ha-Satan in the Hebrew, who is summoned to a heavenly being meeting, claims that Job won’t be faithful to God if tragedy befalls him.

Strangely, God gambles with Job’s life (probably the most disturbing characterization of God I can imagine), and lets Satan take away all Job has… family, wealth, and health.

The rest of the book is filled with various destructive theologies about the tragedy that Job’s friends offer, Job’s complaints and cries for how much suffering he is enduring, and God’s response to Job from the whirlwind.

If you have not read this unique wisdom book of the Bible, I’d commend it to you.

Not because it will definitively answer your questions about why bad things happen to good people, but because if you have ever suffered and wondered where God was in the midst of it, the book of Job will give voice and shape to some of the cries of your heart.

In the midst of his honesty and pain, Job clings relentlessly to his dependence on God, even when so many things are conspiring against him to relinquish it.

There is definitely something primary about our connection to the divine…a primal link not unlike the umbilical one that we share with our mothers.

As much as harsh circumstances and prevailing philosophies seek to undermine that connection, it is something that we faithful need in order to make sense of our lives.

We need relationships… and especially to be in relationship with God.

Without that primary relationship with God, the 23-year relationship that we celebrate today in this church wouldn’t be possible.

There are too many differences and divisions that arise from our human frailties, from circumstances, and from cultural misunderstandings.

To continue in relationship as a united community of faith, we must keep our faith focused on the foundation of our relationship, which is the God we have received in Jesus Christ.

But one look at the Gospel reading for today, and we also have to acknowledge that maintaining human relationships can be very, very hard.

The importance of the primary relationship we have with God comes into sharp focus when we see the failure of the relationships we have chosen to cultivate and sustain.

Jesus is teaching today about the breakdown of relationships… most particularly about divorce.

This just happens to be one of the hardest readings to preach on in church… partly because the context for divorce in Jesus’ time was much different than it usually is in our own, and partly because so many of us know the pain of divorce personally.

In Jesus’ time, marriage was much more a social contract between heads of families, rather than an agreement between lovers.

The issue the Pharisees use to test Jesus is whether he falls on the more conservative or liberal side of the divorce debate within Judaism.

The liberal side would have been that a man, as long as he found “something objectionable” about his wife based on the Deuteronomy text relating to the matter, could divorce his wife, thereby leaving her destitute and vulnerable.

“Something objectionable” could have been something extremely minor, and you can imagine how difficult this would be for a woman in a patriarchal society in which she suddenly found herself a pariah because of the whims of her husband.

The conservative side would be that the man could only divorce his wife when some grave act of immorality was the precipitating factor.

In both cases, the woman has no say in the matter but is dependent upon the decision of the man.

Non Jews’ standards for divorce sometimes allowed a woman to initiate divorce, but were also not as strict as Jewish practices as a rule.

So when Jesus talks about divorce, he is doing so within this context.

In a way he is more conservative than many, saying that “What God has joined together, let no one separate.”

And in another way he is more liberal by acknowledging that both the man and the woman bear responsibility for their decisions to continue in the marriage or not.

Yet when we hear this passage, it is hard not to think of the reality of the breakdown of relationships in our own time.

Marriage in our time is not the familial contract it once was, but the honest intention of two people to join their lives in the bonds of love.

And yet, we know all too often that even these best of intentions can end up in hurt and sorrow, and that the love that set two people on the path of marriage can grow cold and push people apart.

My guess is that if you have not personally experienced the pain of divorce, someone very close to you has.

There is little more painful than what happens when that which God has joined together is separated.

It can leave you feeling helpless, hopeless, and as if not only your partner, but the God you trusted in has abandoned you.

I imagine that Job felt this way in the midst of his suffering, and I certainly have felt the same.

It is a place where easy answers are no comfort, but where questions abound.

What are we to make of these readings as we celebrate this anniversary in community?

I think it is important to acknowledge that being in relationship, whether with the God we seek and serve, with a partner within the bonds of marriage, or as communities of faith trying to be one Body is hard.

It requires mutual effort and commitment, and sometimes the relationship breaks down and needs to be repaired and renewed, or abandoned.

We Christians do our best to avoid giving up on relationships because we believe in resurrection.

We know that after death comes life, and we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

And yet, sometimes it is exactly the death of a relationship that opens us up to the life God desires for us.

The person who Job was died during the process of suffering, and his relationship with God deepened and developed as a result, enough so that it could be considered a new creation.

Divorce, whether in the old days of family contracts or in these days of love between two people, is a form of death.

If two people decide to acknowledge that death and begin again together, then a new marriage can be born between them from the ashes of the old.

However, if not, then the death may lead to new life in other ways for each of them apart.

Likewise, communities bound together as ours is have to consider the parameters of our relationship and make decisions to reinvest in the bonds of affection if we want to continue onward together.

While celebrating this anniversary is wonderful and important, it should also serve as a time for us to ask questions about how we can better be in relationship going forward.

What will strengthen us as one community of faith?

What needs to die for something new to be born between us?

What does our relationship with God have to say about how we should be in relationship with each other?

Let us be unafraid of these questions on this anniversary, and let’s look for the answers together.

For those of you who may be struggling with relationships in your own lives, spend some time thinking about what questions you need to be asking and do your best to do so in the context of the primary relationship we have in God.

You may not get all the answers right away, and it might be a painful experience at times.

But by asking them you may be making your way step by step, with God’s help, to a new place that is more promised land than the valley of the shadow of death you are leaving behind.

That’s where we are called to go, both as individuals and as a community… without hesitation and without fear.

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