On October 3, 2021, Brother Damien was invited to give the homily at All Saints Episcopal Church, San Francisco, on the weekend nearest the Feast of Francis. Images above are of All Saints Church: stained glass depicting little children coming to Jesus, as in the text for the day; Saint Francis of Assisi; the altar and chancel area (photos by Br. Damien). Gospel Text: Mark 10:2-16
This morning, while we are remembering Francis, we have kept the ordinary lectionary readings for this Sunday, a choice I was actually glad for. I personally think deviating from the regular Sunday readings should be a fairly rare thing. I value the knowledge, each week, that so many churches all over the world are hearing and reflecting on the same texts that we are —just one of many ways we commit to our common prayer and worship.
Today, that choice also represents a tried and true theological principle, namely: on those occasions when we are faced with difficult, challenging, or even downright unpleasant gospel teachings on marriage and divorce (as in today’s gospel), let the vowed celibate take that homily!
This is, in fact, one of those difficult gospels; one where Jesus apparently sets the moral bar high; one which can leave some squirming a touch uncomfortably; one which, if we’re honest, we might rather just weren’t in the book! And certainly, this and other Bible teachings on marriage and divorce have been used over the years to hurt and ostracize, rather than to encourage and to heal. So, if you’ll humor the unmarried commentator, I think it is worth noting a few things about Jesus’s words here on marriage and divorce, and then to put them into the context of the rest of today’s reading, even if it might seem to have precious little to do with Saint Francis at the beginning of his annual feast.
The first thing worth noticing is that Jesus does not set about in this incident to give an opinion on divorce. It is asked of him by religious leaders, who we know, based on many incidents in the gospels, asked Jesus questions less to hear his advice and more to try to trap him into saying something incriminating. So, at least in this case, the rules on marriage and divorce were not what Jesus was just dying to talk about as the most important thing people needed to hear, but rather a response to a topic chosen for him, probably with less than pure motives.
Second, let’s notice that the primary point Jesus makes about divorce is not a particularly controversial one, despite how this and similar passages have subsequently been used to judge or exclude those who have experienced divorce. The first point Jesus offers on the topic is simply this: divorce is a concession, not an ideal. I suspect precious few people enter marriage expecting to divorce, and I know all of us have experiences of the pain and injury that can come even through the most amicable divorce. Of course, we recognize, this may often be less than the pain and injury that would be caused by staying in a marriage blindly, as a matter of inflexible rule.
Thirdly, I think it’s interesting that when Jesus speaks of those who commit adultery by remarrying after divorce, his language is notably one-sided: “Whoever divorces his wife,” and “if she divorces her husband.” This is the language of what one person does to another. Absent is any sense of “we” language that is surely more fitting for a covenant like marriage. Jesus does not say, for example, “If you and your spouse decide together that divorce is the best way forward for everyone…” Granted, he does not address the idea of mutually agreed upon divorce at all, but this in itself seems significant. The image evoked here is a relationship broken by what one person does to another: he divorces his wife, she divorces her husband. And perhaps therein, in this suggestion of unilateral self-interest, is the real moral concern.
Now, I pass over these notes quickly, because I wish to come to the most salient observation, I hope, which is what comes next. The test question put to Jesus being dealt with, a teachable moment arises: “People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs…”
These two stories may seem to have nothing to do with each other. There seems to be a full stop after the discussion of divorce, and with no warning or segue, we are on to another story. That’s actually not unusual for Mark, a gospel full of staccato-paced story-telling, a gospel fond of introducing the next piece of the narrative simply by saying “immediately,” or, we might say, tongue in cheek, “next!”
But here these two stories are, side by side in both the gospel text and in the reading assigned today in our lectionary. And sitting side by side, they present a stark contrast. In one short passage, we find Jesus dealing with the concerns of the world of adults and religious people, as well as the world of children, whose opinions or questions, not surprisingly, don’t appear here. Children, usually, have limited interest in theological debate or catching Messiahs in legal conundrums. It’s one of the things we appreciate about them.
Seeing these two worlds side-by-side, we can ask, with which does Jesus most identify? The concerns and arguments of adults, or the world of children? And the answer is obvious. He does not say, “Let the Pharisees with questions come to me and do not stop them.” Nor does he say, “Let the people who want to argue about divorce come to me,” or “Let the guardians of doctrinal purity come to me.” He calls for unfettered access not for them, but for children. Children, as children often are, without agendas.
This is one of several places in the gospels where Jesus holds up children, simple and unsophisticated, as examples of how we all ought to be. While we engage ourselves in debate, and argument, or getting married, or getting divorced, or judging those who do, Jesus gets on with the business of welcoming children. And he tells us to be like them. Stop with the arguments, just come hang out with me, like these children.
And I suppose it is at this point that Francis (remember Francis? It’s his feast.), comes in after all. If we had used the readings for the feast of Francis today, we would have heard these words from the Gospel according to Matthew: “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants…”
It is an apt choice of gospel for celebrating Francis, whose childlike and sometimes absurd faith seems to have included play and laughter more than stern preaching, and talking to birds more than Popes. Francis has been called the “Jongleur de Dieu,” roughly, the fool of God. He was a counter-cultural fool in rejecting the evolving merchant economy of his era, choosing instead voluntary poverty and sharing with the poor. He was a fool in leaving the security and comfort of his powerful family to declare that he would only look to God as his father from now on. He was a fool in eschewing the doctrinal arguments of his day in favor of falling head-over-heels in love with Jesus. He was a fool in believing and declaring that all things, sun, moon, wind, earth, birds, crickets, even death itself, were valuable creatures of God and Brothers and Sisters to all of us, affirming an interconnectedness of all creation unlike any of his contemporaries.
This value on foolishness is perhaps as good a reason as any that the tradition of pet blessings has become connected to him. There’s no evidence he did any such thing in his life. But I’ve been glad to participate in more than a few, and when the solemn beauty of an Anglo-Catholic mass, with bells, and incense, and lace, is suddenly interrupted by the sound of Chippy the greyhound howling along to the alleluias of All Creatures of Our God and King, I have to believe Francis laughs. And God smiles. It’s foolish, it’s childish. And it’s good.
And in those moments, if we’re wise, we step into a different world. It’s a world of children, fools and quadrupeds. It’s a world where we don’t argue about divorce, or judgement, or pure doctrine, or proper liturgies, or who is on the outside and who is on the inside. We just revel in our unfettered access to Jesus who welcomes the children. And we linger there for a while before coming back to the lesser world of adult arguments.
We linger. And don’t stop us, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.
* This entire service can be viewed on the Facebook page of All Saints Church here. Brother Damien’s message begins at approximately 27:20.