Job 1:1; 2:1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH
Today, October 4th, is the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi. There are so many wonderful, even fantastic, stories about this much beloved saint, including the stories of his love of animals and nature. In his biography, we hear the story of a wolf who was taking villagers’ sheep. Francis went and scolded the wolf, and promised him that if he would be good, the villagers would feed him. Then Francis went back into the village with the wolf tagging along beside him like a tame puppy. According to the story, the villagers did feed the wolf and he never bothered their livestock again.
Francis wasn’t always a saint. When he was young, he was quite a man-about-town. Then he decided to make a break with his former life and to follow Jesus, and he went to the town square to make public his intentions. It is said that he gave away all that he had, even his clothes, so that he would make a completely new start, in total poverty. According to tradition, at that moment he took off the clothes he was wearing, and then the local bishop wrapped Francis in his cloak, covering his body, literally, and also figuratively taking him under the sponsorship of the church.
As followers started to join him, Francis kept his commitment to complete and radical poverty. He didn’t permit his brothers to own anything at all. When one brother asked for a prayer book, he was told no because then he might become attached to it. When someone referred to the room that Francis slept in as “Francis’s cell”, he never slept there again so that it wouldn’t be called “his”. If the brothers received money, they were instructed to give it all away before sundown.
Today there are Franciscan communities, of men and women, who follow the teachings of St. Francis. They not only serve the poor, but they even live like the poor and among the poor. They also attempt, as much as possible, not to own any possessions. I have a Franciscan friend who gives away the shoes he is wearing anytime he sees a poor person without footwear.
When I became a novice in the Order of Saint Helena, I was able to choose a name in religion, and I chose to add “Francis” to my baptismal name. I chose Francis because I greatly respect him and those who follow his path, even though I know that I’m not called to the Franciscan style of monastic life. What really attracts me to St. Francis, more than anything else, is his consistency in his commitment to following Jesus. If Jesus was poor and homeless, so would Francis be, in every way. If Jesus noted how lovely the lilies of the field could be without worry for tomorrow, so would Francis be too. Francis would rather have been called “a fool for Christ” than make any compromises in his rule of life.
This was a very difficult path for Francis’s followers. Towards the end of his life, Francis saw that the brothers had built a large chapel, and he despaired that his complete commitment to poverty and simplicity would not be upheld. Sometimes it was difficult even for Francis to be “Francis”. One time when he was ill, he ate some chicken, and then repented because he had intended not to eat meat or poultry.
It’s not always easy for us to follow Jesus, either. Sometimes it’s not even easy to understand what a scripture lesson is saying. Then we need to pray and study deeply and try to understand the difficult lesson within the broader sweep of salvation history and the saving grace of Christ.
Sometimes, however, the lesson is abundantly clear, and we’d like very much to be able to explain it away. Take today’s lesson from Mark. The Pharisees ask Jesus whether a man can divorce his wife. (Notice that they only ask about men divorcing their wives, not the other way around!) Although the Law of Moses permitted husbands to divorce their wives, Jesus raised the bar and he addressed both husbands and wives. He says that neither should divorce their spouse, because “What God has joined together, let no one separate”. (Mark 10:9)
The reality of divorce is still with us, on occasion justifiable, sometimes inevitable, and always tragic. The intent, at marriage, is always supposed to be to live together and support each other “as long as you both shall live”, and the words of Jesus are abundantly clear. Yet bad things do happen, even to good people, mistakes are made, and the hard work of living together may go beyond what one or both can bear. Even Francis, who tried to follow Christ as perfectly as possible, still slipped. How much more will the rest of us inevitable slip and fall away from following Jesus’ teachings in certain, difficult things.
Divorce is certainly one of “the bad” things that can happen. It may be very difficult to figure out what is the right thing to do in a bad marital situation: when to stay the course and when the better, saner, healthier thing may be to go separate ways. What often happens, also, is that those who divorce (or who commit any significant sin) may suffer from gut-wrenching pain and guilt for a long, long time.
I believe that God does not dwell on our sins nearly as long as we do! Jesus simply told the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and sin no more”. (John 8:11) After carrying for a time the heavy burden of sin, eventually we may give up trying to forgive ourselves, and through grace, we may become aware of the full power of God’s forgiveness.
Jesus tells us that the most blessed by God are the poor, the mourners, the meek, even the little children, who are the lowest on the social scale in ancient society. Surely also blessed are sinners who repent and who give over the self-destructive feelings of guilt to God’s mercy. Surely we sinners are still among those just a little lower than the angels and are also worthy to receive forgiveness, and to praise and glorify and stand before God.
The Bible tells us of God’s infinite forgiveness and grace. We receive good and bad in our lives; we sometimes succeed in following Jesus and sometimes we fall away. Even Francis fell away too, occasionally. We still can praise God for all the abundant blessings that we do receive and that are poured out upon us through God’s mercy and love. Through the saving grace of Jesus, we are forgiven, healed, and restored to become a people transformed through a free gift of grace, perpetually offered and forever ours when we accept Christ’s presence in our lives and the promise of eternal life in Him.