[Episcopal News Service – Seoul, South Korea] Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached Oct. 3 at the Cathedral of St. Mary and St. Nicholas in downtown Seoul.
She spoke through a translator whose voice has been edited out of this video after her introductory remarks. Jefferts Schori preached on the Gospel reading for the day, Mark 10:2-16, in which some Pharisees question Jesus about divorce.
Participants in Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries’ Sept. 30-Oct. 5 international consultation here spread out that morning to worship at various Anglican churches.
The Anglican Church of Korea celebrated its 125th anniversary the day before at a festive Eucharist at the cathedral. The Anglican Church in Korea was established Sept. 29, 1890, with the arrival of Anglican Bishop Charles John Corfe as the first diocesan bishop of Seoul. It has grown to over 65,000 members in 120 parishes and missions.
The text of Jefferts Schori’s sermon follows.
Cathedral of St. Mary and St. Nicholas, Seoul, Korea
Feast of St. Francis
125th anniversary of the Anglican Church of Korea
40th anniversary of Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry
Recently the primate of Pakistan spoke about some of the challenges his church faces. In addition to ongoing religious persecution and the threat of violence, religious discrimination means the government has failed to find a way to recognize divorce among Christians. At present, the only legal way for members of the Church of Pakistan to get a divorce is for the woman to convert to Islam or for one partner to charge the other with adultery. Both options generally require somebody to lie. Women whose Muslim husbands take additional wives have no constructive recourse, nor do they if their husbands simply cease to recognize the marriage.
Divorce has caused human communities untold grief for a very long time, and the burden has usually fallen on women. Yet the patterns of marriage described in the Bible and the circumstances of today are often a very long way apart. Biblical marriage was essentially a property transfer from a woman’s father to her husband. Polygamy was acceptable, and in Judaism it wasn’t expressly forbidden until centuries after Jesus. Under Jewish law a husband could divorce his wife at will, for something as small as burning his dinner. Early Christians seem to have frowned on divorce, at least for leaders, but for others it was at least a possibility. Under Roman law, women as well as men could initiate a divorce.
Women and children were generally considered property in the ancient world, as they still are in some contexts today. The biblical witness itself speaks of husbands’ repudiation of wives, and men’s casual appropriation of other women and other men’s wives. David was infamous for taking Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, and then arranging Uriah’s death to cover up what he’d done. There’s a horrific story in Judges, that tells that when the local equivalent of Boko Haram shows up at the door, the man of Gibeah offers his own daughter and his guest’s wife in order to save his honor as a host. Women and wives were disposable property, easy to repudiate – literally, to “kick away.”
When Jesus tells his questioners that divorce is permitted only because of hardness of heart, he’s insisting that in spite of the casual attitude of those who want to repudiate a marriage partner, relationships are not disposable. When two have entered into a deeply intimate partnership, they have indeed become one, and separation brings its own kind of death. Utilitarian attitudes that see human beings as interchangeable parts fail to recognize that God creates us uniquely in God’s own image. If we simply give up on the relationship, we have repudiated that gift of God.
That’s the same reality confronting Job. When his wife tells him to curse God, that’s what she’s asking – “repudiate that relationship, it obviously isn’t doing you any good right now.” But Job stands fast – he’s in this relationship to the end. What God has joined together, don’t let anyone tear apart.
The gospel account moves directly from divorce to children. Is this a reminder that children of divorce often suffer for the failures of their parents? Or is it a deeper invitation to recognize that we’re all children with a crying need for God’s mercy and compassion? Jesus scolds the disciples for their lack of compassion – probably for their attitudes about divorce as well as noisy children. “Wait a minute,” he’s saying, “if you want to realize the kingdom of God, you’ve got to be as hungry and dependent as a child. A little child.” Compassion is always central to Jesus’ ministry and message – don’t judge, let anyone come to me, love one another, and love your enemies!
Yet, like the Pharisees and the disciples, we’re always arguing about the rules and who makes them. God knows, the church loves to spend its energies making rules! The Lambeth Conference has debated and discussed divorce repeatedly. The bishops who gathered in 1888 said that divorce was not recognizable except for adultery or fornication, they said that the one who initiated the divorce shouldn’t be able to remarry in church, and that in spite of all that, clergy shouldn’t refuse the sacraments to Christians who had remarried. They also said that polygamists shouldn’t be admitted to baptism, but that their wives could be! The fascinating reality is that most of the other resolutions from that Lambeth Conference dealt with intercommunion – in other words, the building or restoring of relationships with other churches.
I think that is no accident, for marriage IS about communion, and it’s a particular icon for the love between God and humanity, as well as God and the church. It might also be an icon for relationships in the Anglican Communion. The ideal for each of those relationships is an intimate and vulnerable community, in which forgiveness and reconciliation bring renewed and more abundant life. Jesus is inviting us to be as hungry for reconciliation as a little child is for its mothers enfolding arms.
All human beings struggle with faithful investment in our relationships, not just in marriage, but in congregations, and with friends and colleagues. The members of the United Nations are struggling to deal faithfully with one another, even in the midst of current conflicts over how to deal with refugees and migrants and violence in the Middle East. We may want to do the right thing, but as Paul notes, the body is always finding excuses for failing to love God and neighbors. And it is the most vulnerable who suffer the gravest consequences. Broken and repudiated relationships mean suffering for children, whether their parents have divorced or their nations are mired in civil war. God has given us to one another – we ARE our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Ultimately we cannot casually repudiate those relationships and go seeking others – for there are no others. No one is outside the circle of God’s love. We may try to kick away relationships that annoy, or bore, or threaten us, yet ultimately our lives are bound up together.
Marriage is an icon for relationship within the body of Christ, the selfless and vulnerable willingness to learn how to love the other members of this body, even when they frustrate and offend us. Christ loves us as tenderly as a spouse, yet his love is generous and does not demand exclusivity. The love we share is meant to grow and encompass the whole of his body, the whole community of friends for which he gave his life, the whole body of God’s creation.
Human beings always tend to narrow the focus of our love. Consider the inward turning or centripetal tendency in parts of Christ’s body to close off relationships with the wider society or with other churches or faith communities – “oh no, they’re not holy enough for us!” Jesus calls us to turn outward, from ourselves toward the whole body. We cannot say we have no need of any part of that body. Like a child hungry for a mother’s milk, we’re meant to keep seeking that larger life-giving body.
Many parts of the body of Christ have moved toward a theological understanding of marriage that recognizes human brokenness and seeks reconciliation. That includes understanding that the bond of marriage may die, that it must be mourned and grieved, and yet that if we believe in resurrection, then the partners to that marriage can hope for new life. Earthly marriages may fail – and for good reasons sometimes must be ended. Yet those who know themselves indelibly bound to Christ will find new life. The love of God never ends, and those who know themselves children of God keep discovering that in turning back to that ultimate source of life and love.
Today is the feast of St. Francis, who though single and celibate, understood that he was bound to all that is, wedded to all humanity and all of God’s body of creation. He was a man of compassion – for the suffering, the poor and forgotten, and for all creation. Like Jesus, he was a lover of all. Will you plight your troth, will you pledge your life and love, to the whole body of Christ, and the whole body of God’s creation?
 Deuteronomy 24:1-4
 1Timothy 3
 Judges 19 – the Levite and “his concubine,” even though the text calls him her husband.
 Romans 7:14ff
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.