Bringing Together Opposites (through the St. Francis Prayer)

Francis at Holy TrinityA sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 7, 2018. The scripture readings are Genesis 2:18-24Psalm 8Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12, and Mark 10:2-16

Listen to the sermon HERE.

October 4 was St. Francis Day and most of you know that it’s our custom to celebrate Francis with the blessing of animals on the first Sunday after the 4th, which we do today.  When people think of Francis, they often think of animals—his preaching to the birds, or his taming of the wolf.  Or, people think of the famous prayer attributed to St. Francis.  It’s actually included in our Book of Common Prayer (page 833):  It’s that famous prayer that begins

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.

Given the last couple of weeks in our country, perhaps we should simply make the first phrase of St. Francis’s prayer OUR prayer, and not really worry too much about the other petitions, just focusing on: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace…,” And yet, the whole prayer makes a point about a Franciscan view of God’s love, a worldview in which all creation is one.  The prayer asks for a kind of peace that results from reconciling opposites:  hatred/love, injury/pardon, discord/union, doubt/faith, despair/hope, darkness/light, sadness/joy.  We could add to this list, male/female, masculine/feminine, and all kinds of other qualities. The point is that in God’s love there exists a kind of peace in which duality is dissolved. In its place is integrity, unity, wholeness, and peace.
The lack of peace is what creates the dis-harmony we hear about in today’s scriptures.

In the Gospel, the religious leaders ask Jesus about a detail of divorce, to test his knowledge of the Hebrew laws. But Jesus responds by talking about marriage.  He’s more interested in the relationship as it might be, as it can be, and God intends for it to be at its very best.  The provision for divorce, Jesus suggests, is there because of human fallibility. Jesus suggests that the law allowing for divorce is not there to encourage divorce, but as a necessity when there’s no other alternative.  God gave the law to Moses out of compassion, because God knew that humans can sometimes do harm to one another, and there needed to be provision for dealing with broken relations.  Sometimes a marriage needs to end, and so the law of Moses was provided for those situations.

But this doesn’t settle the matter for the disciples.  They want to hear more.  After they leave the Pharisees and go indoors, the disciples push Jesus further.  They want to be clear what Jesus think about divorce, perhaps because they are aware that not everyone agrees about divorce.

Jesus answers by interpreting the religious law of his day.  But if we look closely, we’ll see that Mark, the writer of this Gospel, has already adapted Jesus’s words to the Greco-Roman culture of Mark’s day.  You see, in Jesus’s day, there was no provision for a woman to divorce her husband, a provision that came later.  But by Mark’s time, this was a reality, and so Mark’s community of faith had already begun to grapple with those places in which scripture, tradition, and reason don’t exactly line up.  So already, we see a progression, a change, an interpretation of where God might be in the marriage relationship and where God might be when a marriage ends.  It’s the close reading of scripture and the acceptance of such a theological progression that allows the Episcopal Church to understand divorce and invite people to move forward afterwards and is also evolving to understand marriage as including any two people who are in love.

If we look closely in scripture, various beliefs and customs change over time—the understanding of human relationships, the roles of women and men, the gift of children in society, and many other concepts and principles.  Just as we don’t rely on 1st century dentistry and medicine, we don’t read scripture or understand God in exactly the same way.

The scriptures seem to talk about marriage this morning, about committed relationships between two people, and even though the Church has sometimes privileged married persons over those who are not married, our Epistle reading from Hebrews reminds us that God’s image is not best reflected in marriage, but “[Christ] is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”  Christ is the model and the goal for love, friendship, and all relations, and in Christ are both male and female.

When the disciples ask Jesus about marriage, Jesus responds with Genesis 2 in which male and female are helpers, partners, and part of each other.  Genesis does not mention marriage there, but speaks in larger terms that apply to all.

The union of male and female in Christ is something the saints have aimed for.  And it is precisely this blending of male and female in a graceful and loving way that shows up in people like St. Francis of Assisi.  Describing Francis, Leonardo Boff writes

The feminine and the masculine are ontological determinations of every human being, in such a way that each individual carries something of both within him or herself….The male must integrate the anima that gives him strength, that is, the dimension of gentleness, of care, of attraction, of intuition, of all that is linked to the mystery of life and generation. The female must integrate the animus that is found within her existence, that is, the objectivity of the world, rationality, ordering, and direction—everything that is linked to history….[And so, in Francis of Assisi] without machismo or feminism, without fragility or rigidity, there blossoms in him, harmoniously, a gentle strength and a strong gentleness that are the brilliance and the archetypal enchantment of his personality” (Francis of Assisi: a Model for Human Liberation, p. 26)

God’s intention for humanity is that we be as whole as possible in this life, which prepares us for the next life in which we receive the fullness of God.  If what moves you most into wholeness and completion is being with another person, then link up with someone and let that relationship grow in God.  If you’re moved most toward wholeness by being single, then let God sanctify your singleness and free you to grow more deeply into God.

Whether single, married, in relationship, or out; may God fill us with love so that, with Francis and all creation we might sing,

Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.  (Canticle of the Creatures)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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