St. Paul’s on the Hill and Trinity Church, Ossining, NY
To test Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” This is a perfectly appropriate translation, though if you read it “Is it permitted for a man to cut loose his woman?” –it would be just as accurate. These guys were testing what sort of Rabbi, what sort of interpreter of the law, Jesus was. They want to know what sort of rights a person has, (please understand, in this context person should be understood as man, since women in those days had few rights and no status), and how far they should be exercised. Jesus is not so impressed with this—it’s a question of law? What does the law say?—look at the writings of Moses. So when they quote the law back to him, they seem to want more. Jesus’ response was, basically, “Ok, that’s the law; now let’s talk about marriage, guys.” The two shall become one flesh, an organic whole. Marriage is about making that work, the two together, not about figuring out the rights of one over against the other.
A lot of times when Jesus is in conflict with people, it is over similar issues—to oversimplify to make the point: people want to figure out how to get into heaven while continuing to be as selfish as possible. Everybody’s a jailhouse lawyer, proving that somehow God is going to have to reward them, or at least forgive them, so they can hold on to as much comfort as they want. Last week, Jesus got mad at John and the disciples; this week he’s pretty harsh with both the Pharisees and his own disciples—the way that I read it is that we don’t have any claim on God, and if we look to some set of rules to make us safe, we will always come up short of our real obligations to God and our neighbor.
The disciples were trying to keep the kids away—keep them from bothering Jesus and disturbing the serious business of the grownups… What serious business? Jesus was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
Jesus’ serious business is the kingdom of God—and it is the children…not the adults, some of whom think they have mastered the rules and can game the Kingdom … who embody the Kingdom.
All of this is in keeping with a beloved feast we are celebrating today: the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, which we observe through the blessing of the animals.
Of all the people of the middle ages, Francis of Assisi was the most concerned with Jesus. His preaching and the preaching of his followers, the Franciscans, centered on stories and images of Jesus. This was quite a contrast both from the learned and abstract doctrinal teaching of the universities and moralistic preaching of most parish clergy at the time. Francis saw many of the same things that Jesus did: the manipulation of rules and teaching by those with some wealth or authority for the sake of their own comfort, accompanied by the miserable suffering of the poor.
He embraced poverty – Lady Poverty, he called her, calling to mind the troubadour and courtly love traditions of his time. He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, and as he embraced poverty and came into conflict with his father, he appeared in the public square before the Bishop of Assisi and a gathered crowd, and he removed all of his rich clothing, and left it there, walking out of the square naked.
Like Jesus, Francis was not particularly impressed by people who used their advantages to make themselves comfortable. Since most people are that way sometimes, Francis sometimes found it necessary to find a better audience. Very early in the time that Francis started his ministry of preaching, he saw a huge flock of birds in a tree, and he spoke to them in their simplicity, so that people might learn to be so simple:
“My little sisters the birds, ye owe much to God, your Creator, and ye ought to sing his praise at all times and in all places, because he has given you liberty to fly about into all places; and though ye neither spin nor sew, he has given you a twofold and a threefold clothing for yourselves and for your offspring. Two of all your species he sent into the Ark with Noah that you might not be lost to the world; besides which, he feeds you, though ye neither sow nor reap. He has given you fountains and rivers to quench your thirst, mountains and valleys in which to take refuge, and trees in which to build your nests; so that your Creator loves you much, having thus favoured you with such bounties. Beware, my little sisters, of the sin of ingratitude, and study always to give praise to God.”
If the birds can be grateful, so should we. There is so much that we have been given: the gift of reason and of human love; of enough to eat, and the ability to give to others. Some of us have been blessed with the companionship of animals, creatures with personalities who give and receive affection. They are God’s creatures who bless us with their presence.
Let us give thanks to God for the blessing of their simplicity and their vitality. A little later we will have a blessing of the animals, we pray for all animals to be well treated and well taken care of. We also pray for those who care for animals, that they may be blessed and be able to give good care to them. Please also remember the animals who have died and the families that have lost them—as we lost our bulldog, Thekla, a few weeks ago. The place of such an animal in the life of a family or community is particularly noticed when they are gone. Let us be grateful to God for all these lives among us.