When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, What is man that you should be mindful of him? Psalm 8
Today we celebrate God’s glorious order of creation coming ourselves in wonder, and later bringing our beloved Fidos and Fluffys for their creator’s blessing. It is a happy occasion and we revel in the warmth of loving relationship. We also honor and remember St. Francis, whose example of faithfulness resided in reverence for all creation, modelling his life on Jesus who lived life as God intended for humanity. Legend has it that Francis enjoyed a remarkable relationship with animals who returned his trust. We resonate with those images of wolves, rabbits, mice and birds gathered around his head and feet as he gently feeds them. With all that he was and all that he had, as we say at the exchange of rings in the Marriage Service, he honored the Lord with a radical generosity and mercy born of love.
America welcomed Francis’ namesake last week… Pope Francis… a man who has taken the name of the saint he strives to emulate. All eyes and ears were fixed on him as he spoke to audiences hungry for his messages of mercy, hope and peace. We are drawn to goodness. We know it when we see it, and we responded to the graciousness of his humility. Our world is a place of great contrasts. In one week, we have witnessed on the one hand, the spectacular beauty of the Blood Moon in lunar eclipse and on the other, the devastation of raging fires in western forests. We have been energized by a communal experience of a good man’s spirit and presence among us and at the same time been demoralized by photos and stories of crucifixions of Iraqi and Syrian Christians, a greed-fed corporate betrayal of public trust, the plight of refugees fleeing terror and yet another mass shooting in Oregon. This is the reality we live in. It cries out for the loving kindness of mercy.
In today’s timely collect, we ask God to pour down upon us the abundance of his mercy, forgiving us those things where of our conscience is afraid and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ… It is mercy…mercy which goes well beyond kindness and justice…mercy that has the power to heal the wounds we inflict on God’s creation. Several weeks ago at our Summer Fair, I picked up a book of sermons by Peter Gomes, the late minister of Memorial Chapel at Harvard, and just happened to turn to one in which he speaks about the distinction between justice and mercy. Justice, he noted is the province of the powerful, the imposition of rule or law for the effective ordering of society. Mercy, on the other hand is the work and result of love, the often sacrificial offer of love and its acceptance. Mercy is the province of the weak. It requires no office or status for its administration. Mercy is infinitely more powerful than justice, because it results in transformation. Gomes gave examples from the Civil Rights movement where non-violent protest and sacrificial witness to God’s intention for humanity began the continuing work of social transformation in this country. As I thought about this, a light switched on and I began to see mercy’s power at work all around me. Thinking about today, I was reminded of a story about Brother Juniper, mentioned in the Little Flowers of St. Francis. Francis had given up a life of wealth and status to follow Jesus in a monastic life of poverty and service, but Brother Juniper lived that life in the extreme. The author (Diane Gibfried) of a children’s book about him says that her inspiration for writing the book was his child like honesty. I wondered what would happen, she said, if a person could follow his inclination to give away all that he had.
The story revolves around an incident in the communal life of the order. St. Francis and the other monks left for a preaching mission and asked Brother Juniper to remain behind to care for the church. Despite knowing of his propensity for drastic generosity, they left. Brother Juniper dutifully set about polishing, sweeping and repairing. When he was finished there was a knock on the door. It was an elderly shoemaker whose failing eyesight jeopardized his livelihood. Br. Juniper gave him the gold candlesticks to sell for glasses. Word of his largess spread quickly and a mother of eight hungry children came in need of food until her sick husband recovered and could work. He gave her the gold chalice. A baker received the altar cloth to cover his bread, and a man whose house was destroyed by a storm, the door of the church, the bells went to a woman who wanted to start a school, and so on until nothing was left around him Last of all, a shivering cleaning woman, received his broom and his robe By evening when the brothers came back, Br. Juniper was standing naked in an empty space where the church had been. Where is our church? they cried, Where will we worship? What have you done to our church? Br. Juniper ran away and hid. On Sunday it was his job to ring the church bells, but since he had given them away, he stood on the hill and called out ding dong, ding dong. There was a sudden rush of hundreds of people from the village below…all the recipients of Br. Juniper’s merciful generosity and all of their families, friends and neighbors had come to say thank you. When Fr. Francis arrived. He said, Look brothers, at the fine church that Brother Juniper built. I wish I had a forest of these Junipers.
The power of mercy to reorder and to recreate.
In today’s Gospel passage, we hear a mercifully patient Jesus reordering and recreating through a conflict with the Pharisees. The presenting issue is divorce. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” they ask. Sitting there with the people, all of the brokenness of lives and relationships scattered around him like so much rubble, Jesus, begins to teach them. Moving from the necessity of the Law, from the arena of human hardness of heart and sinfulness, he begins to lead us into new territory, into the realm of God’s kingdom. It is as if looking around him, Jesus sees in those faces the pain of failure and the expectancy of hope, the blankness of ignorance and the coldness of pride and self-righteousness, and he begins to rebuild with those stones strewn around his feet. Gently picking up the debris of the Pharisees first, he begins to put things back together. It is not so much what is lawful that matters for life in this New Kingdom to which we are journeying, he says, but what is right. It is God’s rule of love that determines what the right thing is, and, in this case, it goes all the way back to the beginning of creation. Something was not good. God saw that it was not good that the man was alone. Something was incomplete…out of order in the creation of humanity in the image of God. It took two…another was needed so there could be relationship…a basis for the formation of community….and God was there in the midst of that relationship as God is a partner in every loving relationship.
Marriage is a mirror and metaphor of God’s love for us in creation and in Christ for our salvation, which elevates it beyond contract to covenant…beyond emotion to will…to a profound kind of faithfulness that goes beyond human capacity alone. It is by divine initiative and through divine participation that we can love at all…that we can live sacrificially as God does. Jesus makes the point that people are not to be used by us as objects and set aside, not to be subjugated by power and control, but held in the respect that only love can summon. God creates something new in our mutual commitment, that can’t be dissolved like the disposal of property. We are part of a bigger picture than this. Relationship is at the very heart of creation itself. God’s intention for us as created beings is that we should not be alone, are not complete alone…that it is in community…in loving relationship that we become truly human…become our true selves.
As we come to the end of today’s gospel passage, we hear the Good News of the Kingdom. It is not about the Law of Moses…it is not about divorce…it is not about adultery. It is, as it always is…about God’s love for us…about Jesus holding us accountable and blessing the least powerful, the most vulnerable. We participate in the Kingdom of God not through the constructs of society or privilege, but as dependent children in need of the gifts of God’s mercy and blessing. Our relationships are sacred arenas for God’s creativity, holy spaces for communion…part of the fabric of creation…the handiwork of God. We all fall short of God’s intent for our lives. We all struggle to find wholeness, but we come seeking a relationship with God in Christ that promises to heal all of the divorces our sin causes to all of our relationships…that tear the fabric of creation. With all that we are and all that we have, we are called by Jesus to be faithful like Br. Juniper and Saint Francis to honor the Lord with a radical mercy born of love. God does not intend for us to live in conditions of brokenness, but in unity and wholeness, in mercy and in peace.
Oh, what a church we can build!