And then there is our gospel reading, which is a doosey.
In fact, if you think back to our gospel readings for the last few weeks, they have all been pretty challenging!
Three weeks ago, Jesus warned his disciples, apparently for the first time, that he would be crucified. Peter didn’t much like that idea, and Jesus called him “Satan”!
Two weeks ago, Jesus repeated his warning about getting crucified. The disciples still couldn’t take it in, and spent their time debating which of them was the greatest. That time Jesus told them that “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Last week, Jesus demanded that they root sin out of their lives, proposed cutting off body parts if necessary, and threatened them with Hell.
Compared to those readings, the one for today isn’t too bad. Still, many of us are divorced, and those of us who are not certainly know and love plenty of folks who are.
My focus this morning is not really on marriage and divorce. But because this is such an important topic in the lives of so many people and in our culture as a whole, I note that the Episcopal Church has struggled long and hard with this issue and has come to a place that makes good sense to me.
As we see in our passage, marriage is a gift and blessing from God. Not everyone gets married—Jesus himself didn’t. But marriage is rooted in creation. Marriage involves a sacred vow, and, as Jesus says, marriage unites two people in one flesh. The Apostle Paul uses marriage as an analogy to explain the union between Christ and the Church, between Christ and each of us, who, like a married couple, are united as one by the grace of God. All that means no Christian could end a marriage casually.
But life is complicated. Some marriages turn out to be profoundly destructive. The obvious example is physical and emotional abuse. I cannot imagine Jesus forcing an abused woman to return to her abuser. Jesus himself acknowledges that marriages may end in cases of infidelity (Matthew 19:9). Paul says that Christians are not bound when their partner demands a divorce (1 Corinthians 7:15).
And so, the Episcopal Church has come to recognize that some marriages need to end. Divorce is never desirable. But in a fallen world it is sometimes the best that we can do.
When that is the case, we pray for God’s forgiveness, and God’s grace, and God’s comfort for the troubled couple as they dissolve the bond that had joined them together. We pray, knowing that God’s will for us all is joy and love and life.
Thinking about the pain that accompanies any divorce is one way into the gospel readings of the last few weeks. Jesus is not divorced, of course. But Jesus is clearly in pain. And part of Jesus’ pain comes from the fact that he has to face his pain alone.
Jesus has warned his disciples that he is heading to Jerusalem to be betrayed and crucified. But his disciples don’t get it. And Jesus knows that, when push comes to shove, they will fail him, at least for a while. They will abandon him and deny him.
Jesus knows what is coming and, because his disciples can’t wrap their minds around the reality of the situation, despite Jesus’ efforts to tell them, Jesus has to carry the burden of his suffering alone. It is no surprise that Jesus is sterner than usual, that his sayings from this period of his ministry are unusually challenging.
But what strikes me about these readings, after I adjust to their stern tone, is the repeated presence of children. Three weeks ago, Jesus talked about welcoming children. Last week he condemned anyone who put a stumbling block before a little child. And this week, Jesus welcomes children in one of the sweetest scenes in any gospel. Jesus takes the children up in his arms, lays his hands on them, and blesses them.
We might ask, why the emphasis on children? Especially why now, in this difficult time for Jesus? What is the Gospel writer trying to teach us?
As I imagine the scene, the children are laughing and playing and generally carrying on, as children do. And Jesus is laughing with them. Jesus blesses the children. And the children bless Jesus back, without even knowing it, by sharing their joy with him at a time when he needs a little joy.
As I keep spinning out the scene, Jesus prays that night. Jesus asks God for strength to do what has to be done. Jesus asks God to bless his disciples, who will fall away, but who will eventually come back, too. And Jesus thanks God for the joy of children, who help him to carry on by showing him a little love.
Jesus’ pain was surely real. But so was his joy, and his gratitude.
We see the same combination of pain, joy, and gratitude in Saint Francis.
In one way, Francis experienced a remarkable degree of success. During his lifetime, the Order he founded grew to have thousands of members.
But Francis also suffered. Already during his lifetime, the members of his Order began to abandon his vision. By the end of his life, Francis clearly felt betrayed by the second generation of leadership and sometimes seems to have despaired about the future of the Order as a whole. That was incredibly painful for him.
Francis also ended his life in constant physical pain. His body was broken by the rigors of the life he chose. A couple of years before he died, he received the wounds of Christ—his hands and feet were pierced with something like nails, and he had something like a spear wound in his side. Those wounds never healed. Francis simply had to endure them.
And yet—this is the point—Francis continued to experience joy. Francis especially found joy in the wildlife all around him, in animals, in flowers, and especially in birds. And Francis thanked God for it.
What Jesus shows us, what Francis also shows us, is that we can find joy even in the midst of pain, although we may have to look hard for it.
And what we see in Francis, and what we know must be true of Jesus, is that he was grateful to God for the gift of that joy.
This is exactly the spirit we strive for in our United Thank Offering. In just a minute, we’ll recite together the thank offering prayer, which is printed on the side of the little blue boxes. The key line for my purpose is this: “Gracious God, keep each of us ever thankful for all the blessings of joy and challenge that come our way.”
I love that! Joy and challenge. Challenges may be painful. But the prayer reminds us that there is blessing in the challenges, too. Or at least, God will bring blessing out of the challenges somehow. Our invitation is to seek out that blessing so that, even in the midst of our challenges, we can find joy.
And then we thank God for all of it.
That is my prayer for us. That we really can find the blessing and the joy in the challenges we face. And that we can always be thankful to God.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.