Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, to you be praises, glory, honor, and blessing.
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That’s the opening line from the Canticle of the Creatures, a famous text composed by St. Francis in the 1200s. Francis is well known for his strong sense of kinship, not only with animals, whom we’re blessing today, but with the entire natural creation. His feast day fell this past Thursday, on October 4. We’ll get back to Francis in a minute. But first we’d better talk a little about divorce.
We need to talk about it because our gospel today is what’s sometimes called a “clobber passage”—a scripture passage that gets used to clobber people over the head about issues of sex and morality. Sometimes this passage gets used to reinforce the idea that only opposite-sex couples should be able to marry, but that’s really not the focus of this passage. But it is about divorce, and this passage is at the root of many Christian traditions’ prohibiting remarriage after divorce on the grounds that it’s a sin. Now for several decades the Episcopal Church has been in a different place on this issue, and thank God for that. My own family growing up went through divorce, as have many of the most faithful people I know.
The fact is that none of the divorced people I know would argue with the idea that there is a tragic element about any divorce; that divorce is never the desired outcome of a marriage; that divorce is the breaking of a vow and the admission of a failure. Actually all the divorced people I know are very acutely aware of the sacredness of marriage and the seriousness of ending one. That doesn’t make divorce the unforgivable sin. God is in the business of forgiveness. And God is present in the tangled and messy places of our lives. There are times when divorce is simply the least bad or even the only way forward. Times when it’s absolutely imperative, like in cases of abuse and violence. And times when it’s simply the sad acknowledgment that a marriage has died while its two participants need to go on living.
What we miss about this passage when we read it as a morality guidebook about whether divorce is OK is the social context. These men who come to question Jesus ask a very specific question, not “Is it lawful for people to get divorced,” as we might put it today, but “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” This is a patriarchal system in which the man has all the authority. And if he chooses, for whatever reason, to initiate a divorce, the woman in this first-century context is left in a potentially nightmarish position. She’s without legal rights, without provision, burdened with a social stigma from being divorced. If her birth family refuses to take her back in, she may be left without recourse other than begging or prostitution. And so this passage isn’t simply about some abstract question about whether divorce is theologically acceptable. Rather it’s about protecting the vulnerable. Pushing back against a culture in which men can do what they want and women are forced to accept it. In which men can do what they want—and women are forced to accept it.
How I wish I could say a culture like that is no longer with us.
Whatever you think about Brett Kavanaugh, the stories that have emerged over these past few weeks has made it once again painfully obvious how much of our own society still expects boys and men to see women as objects, shelters them from the results of their own wrongdoing, and forces women to suffer the consequences. It’s reading into the passage, but as I read this passage today I find myself imagining these particular men as a couple of back-slapping bros, high-fiving each other and cracking open a beer as they check in with this new cool teacher just to make sure he’s one of them and it’s still OK for them to use women and toss them away.
Jesus doesn’t give them the answer they’re looking for. And it’s that theme of protecting the vulnerable that makes the connection with the second half of this passage, the famous scene where Jesus says “Let the children come to me.” Because in Jesus’ place and time, women and children are very much in the same position: vulnerable members of society, without legal rights of their own. subject to the authority of men, and easily neglected or abused. Instead of ignoring the children, Jesus respects them, loves them, pays attention to them. He treats them as fellow human beings with their own inherent value. That’s how we are called to treat one another in his name.
How are we to treat others when we have more power over them? So much of the evil that washes across our front pages each day is about the exploitation of power, from sexual violence against women to the abuse of children, and even to our own mistreatment of the natural environment God has placed in our collective care. From Genesis today we heard the story of God inviting the first human being to name all the animals, a sign of humanity’s vocation to serve as a steward and caregiver for creation. The animals we bless today are a tangible sign of that stewardship, which includes our own pets but extends far beyond them.
And so it’s fitting that we hear these readings this week as we also remember St. Francis, who started life as a wealthy young nobleman, with all the privileges and advantages that position carried. Just like the wealthy prep schoolers we’ve heard so much about in these last weeks, Francis had a clear path to the best in life: good clothes, good schools, good recommendations. But something shifted for him in his early twenties. A conversion experience left him committed to poverty and service. He dressed in a simple wool tunic and became a wandering preacher. A small group of other men were so drawn to his holiness that they began to follow him. They called themselves the Order of the Little Brothers. When a woman named Clare sought to join the movement, he welcomed her as an equal and a partner in ministry, and she became the founder of the Order of Poor Sisters. And Francis became famous for thinking of all beings as his brothers and sisters. In the last years of his life he wrote the Canticle I quoted earlier, with verses about Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind and Sister Water, Brother Fire and Sister Earth. As he lay dying he added the last verse, giving thanks even for gentle Sister Death.
Francis invites us to cast aside what the world thinks of as power; to embrace simplicity and gentleness; to care for our fellow beings as our own siblings, and especially for the vulnerable. He invites us to follow Jesus. May we have the grace to hear that invitation with fresh ears today.