Pentecost XIX – Proper 22 – St. Francis – October 4, 2014
Job 1:1; 2:1-10
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
In the Wake of Roseburg
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA
We need to hear Good News this week. In the mire of violence, anger and despair… we need to know that there is a better way… and we need to live into that better way. Jesus came to walk among us to show that a status quo that gives into the power of culture, empires, nations, debilitating conflict and rigid views of God …can lead to crucifixion, mass murder, war, genocide, bigotry, economic exploitation… and the rest. We need to know that there is a better way and we need to walk in the way of new life and new possibility…. and it is all about relationships… me…you, us, them… and God.
This Sunday we begin four weeks of the story of Job. Today’s lesson is mostly from chapter two. In chapter one the traumatic losses pile on one after another… Job hears of the deaths… of his oxen and donkeys, his servants, his camels and finally his sons and daughters who were eating and drinking in their eldest brother’s house when a great wind came across the desert, leveling the house, killing all of Job’s children. After hearing the devastating news, Job tears his robe, shaves his head… but does not curse God and he falls down on the ground in worship. In today’s lesson Job is now afflicted, from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head, with loathsome sores that he is scraping with a potsherd. This is all at the front end of a book 42 chapters in length … yet all through his pain and suffering Job will not curse God. What Job does not do is give in and give up. He continues to look to God even as his sufferings mount. Sin causes suffering but we know well from Job’s story, and from our own life experience, that the innocent do suffer too. If we explore the question “Why do bad things happen to good people,” as Rabbi Kushner did in his book of the same title, we step away from the notion that God “wills” sickness, tragedy and death. I have always been troubled by the saying, “There but by the grace of God go I” as if I were afforded some special divine grace or privilege when some other poor soul was not. God’s grace or wrath does not cause pain and loss. God’s grace has everything to do with a great a love that is forever seeking us in the midst of our sorrows and our joys. Rabbi Kushner had a son who was born with the rare disease “progeria” and died of old age as a teenager, experiencing many of the aches, and pains and decline that happen to the human body as it goes through the aging process… cataracts, arthritis, hardening of the arteries and all… At age 14 Aaron Kushner died of old age. As a loving father watched his son suffer and die from a cruel disease, the rabbi pondered the meaning of good and evil, and of God’s presence in it all. This pondering is for us, too, as no one is immune from pain and suffering.
In our lesson from Mark’s gospel we are confronted with a scene in which Jesus is asked to comment on divorce. And you might wonder what Jesus’ response about marriage and relationships has to do with pain, suffering and loss… as we look for a better way. Jesus teaches about the centrality of compassion and integrity in all human relationships.
In delving into our Gospel lesson we must remember that Jesus is talking about marriage and divorce in his time. In our time this lesson has been used to argue both for and against marriage equality. It a lesson that has made many a divorced person fidget and cringe in the pew and wonder about their place in the church… and in God’s eyes. This is a lesson that especially begs for us to go below the surface…. we are not to rush to quick and easy conclusions… The gospel says that marriage… and indeed all healthy human relationships… are not to be in the realm of ownership and property, contracts and family or business connections. The law that Jesus is speaking of is about honoring, in the deepest way, the gift of relationship… the Gospel is all about a better way to be in relationship with God, with one another, and with all of creation. The problem is that, even when we seek to begin to live into this calling, we are easily stymied by the powerful forces of the culture in which we are immersed. In Jesus time, it was the powerful forces of the religious establishment and of the Roman empire that also sought dominance and control.
In our Gospel lesson it seems clear that the Pharisees are not interested in an honest discussion about marriage and divorce. They are, once again, trying to trip Jesus up with their question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” In the first century a Jewish man could divorce his wife if she was unfaithful… he could also divorce his wife if he became “displeased” with her in a number of ways… including, according to one rabbinic source, “burning her husband’s toast.” In the ancient Jewish world a man could choose divorce which meant, for a Jewish woman, disgrace in the eyes of her family and community… it also very likely meant economic devastation, and limited prospects for a future for herself and her children.
Jesus is insisting that marriage be viewed as a strong, and unifying bond between two people. “’…and the two shall become one flesh’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” The disciples asked Jesus again about this when they were back in the house. His response was… in other words… whoever puts their committed partner aside for another, breaking the strong and unifying bond that has joined them… is breaking God’s law… It is about the bond and integrity of human relationships. Our marriage liturgy says… this union… “in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of God. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.”
The Lord knows, as do you and I, that not all relationships survive… if partners do not tend the relationship bond there can be a slow drifting apart that is barely recognized until the two find themselves looking at each other across a vast gulf of separation with only a faint remnant of the original bond. Abusive behavior by one of the partners, whether emotional, psychological, physical, or of any sort, breaks the bond and is never the fault of the one who is on the receiving end of the abuse. It takes two to be in a relationship. One person, alone, cannot hold a relationship together. Lord knows, this can get complicated. There are times when relationships do need to end. The call to honor and respect another human being is God’s way. This does not call any of us to stay in an abusive or dysfunctional relationship. It does call us to seek to walk in love, and to live with integrity in all relationships… it is about the ideal and challenge of being in relationship… all human relationship… this is God’s way.
In wedding homilies I have often quoted Henri Nouwen who has written about the “The New Reality of Marriage.” He says: “When two people commit themselves to live their lives together, a new reality comes into existence. ‘They become one flesh,’ Jesus says. That means that their unity creates a new sacred place. Many relationships are like interlocking fingers. Two people cling to each other as two hands interlocking in fear. They hold tightly in this grasp because they fear that they cannot survive individually. But as they interlock they also realize that they cannot take away each other’s loneliness. And it is then that friction arises and tension increases. Often a break-up is the final result.” Nouwen goes on to say: “But God calls [partners] into a different relationship. It is a relationship that looks like two hands that fold in an act of prayer. The fingertips touch, but the hands can create a space, like a little tent. Such space is created by love, not by fear.” This is a vision of the Holy Spirit moving through human hands that meet in prayer, partners connected and confident in their relationship… such that the individualities of the two are not lost but, rather, are enhanced by the covenant of union that seeks both the best for the couple and seeks to strengthen their commitment to love, honor and respect one another.
We are called to be in relationships with a special bond of caring for one another… and in these relationships we need to know a healthy sense of belonging, even when we mess up and miss the mark. I offer to you, that our God calls all of us to look at our sisters and brothers, even those who seem hardest to love, … to look upon one another from a stance of integrity and compassion… and to do so not only in the families in which we are bound by blood and/or by sacred promises and vows, but in all of our relationships… This is a time in which we need to pause and consider that we don’t know all of the answers to the overwhelming problems and afflictions we are facing. We are to weep for our losses, acknowledge our fears, and at the same time avoid blaming and vilification. We are called to a better way… to shift our ways of relating to one another… to unclench our weary, fear- filled hearts.. . God calls us into a better, more prayerful relationship with one another… in a holy space of compassion that is created and grounded in love, not seized by fear… It is in this holy space that we will be shown the way. Jesus invites and welcomes the little children, the ones of little value, the least of the least, the ones who… with abandon…. run into his arms… and delight in his presence… to be received and to be blessed… The invitation is for us, too, to respond to the invitation to be held and blessed and nurtured… Jesus says receive me… taste the goodness of heaven… and do so in ways you may have forgotten… lay down your labors and come to me with the abandon of a child….
This Sunday we are also celebrating St. Francis who was known for his hospitality, especially to the lepers and outcasts of his society, and to all of God’s creatures. I would like to close by having us pray the prayer “attributed” to St. Francis. This prayer cannot actually be traced back further than 1912 when it was printed as an anonymous prayer in a French journal. Even though the prayer may not have come from the hand of St. Francis himself, it is an important prayer that speaks of the conversion to which we are all called… a conversion to a better way of being God’s people in the world… bringers of hope, not despair, bearers of light in the darkness, builders of bridges to mend the gaps that separate us one from another. Grant that we may not so much seek to be understood as to reach out from our place of entrenchment and false sense of security. God grant that we may reach and out and seek to understand, better, our spouses and partners, our parents and children, those who are very different from us, the stranger, those who grieve use, those who push our buttons… those who challenge us most… And God grant that we may seek deeper understanding of ourselves… and a deeper understanding of what it means to be beloved of God and in deep covenant with our Christ…
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.