Today, in our second reading, we begin what will be a two-month jaunt through the book of Hebrews. It’s a challenging book, the second most challenging book in the New Testament (after Revelation). We normally classify Hebrews as a letter, but it reads more like a sermon to me. If it was originally a sermon, I am impressed by the congregation that first heard it!
There is a lot just in our passage. But one line always strikes me: Jesus, the pioneer of our salvation, is made “perfect through sufferings.” That includes suffering on the cross, of course. But not just on the cross. Hebrews seems to be saying that suffering helps to make Christ who he is.
What does that mean? And what does that teach us about the Christian life, about our lives? I certainly don’t want to suffer any more than I have to!
Hebrews doesn’t elaborate on Christ’s sufferings and what they mean for us, but we can get help from other passages in Scripture.
The Apostle Paul tells us that Christ Jesus, though he was God, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” That’s from Philippians (2:6-8).
What we see in Christ, beginning from his birth and continuing right up to the crucifixion, is a process of emptying himself, letting go of anything that could possibly separate him from God, praying in Gethsemane that not his own will but God’s will be done, and finally submitting to death with the prayer, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
Jesus let go of everything and trusted himself completely to God.
That whole process of emptying, of letting go, of trusting God, is what Hebrews means by being made perfect through suffering.
We can see that same process in the life of Saint Francis, whose feast day is tomorrow and who is particularly important to me as a Third Order Franciscan.
Following the pattern of Christ’s life, Francis’ whole life was a steady process of letting go and learning to trust God more and more.
Francis was born into a wealthy merchant family, but Francis had bigger dreams than being a merchant. Francis wanted to be a knight. Well, he gave it a try. But Francis wasn’t a very good knight. After two failed attempts and a long stint as a prisoner of war, Francis gave up his dream of being a knight. That was the first big thing Francis had to let go.
Francis then went through a time when he felt adrift and suffered from real depression. But gradually Francis felt a new call, a call to a life of poverty.
Francis began giving his stuff away, another big letting go. With the enthusiasm of youth, Francis gave away his father’s stuff, too. That turns out to have been a mistake.
Francis’ father got so angry he hauled Francis before the Bishop for a public hearing. In front of the whole town, his father reminded Francis that he had given Francis everything he owned.
Francis conceded the point and, as the stunned crowd watched, Francis took off all of his clothes and gave them back to his father. The Bishop quickly threw a cloak over Francis. Somebody found Francis an old robe. And Francis’ life of total poverty began. Francis had let go of any lingering attachment to possessions or respectability.
At first, everyone thought Francis was crazy. But people soon realized that Francis wasn’t crazy; Francis was holy. And people began to join Francis in his life of poverty.
Quickly the Franciscan movement took off. After just a few years, there were several thousand Franciscan friars spread out all over Europe. There was a women’s branch, with a slightly different lifestyle than the men’s. There were married Franciscans. The Franciscan Order was booming more than Francis could have dreamed possible. It must have been an incredibly exciting time.
But Francis turned out to be an even worse administrator than he had been knight. Overwhelmed, Francis resigned his position as head of the Order that bore his name. Yet another letting go.
Worse was still to come. The new leaders in the Franciscan Order had a different vision for the Order than Francis did. They wanted the Order to accept donations of money and land. Francis was horrified. Francis wanted total poverty in the strictest sense of the word.
In the final and probably hardest renunciation of his life, Francis had to make peace with the new direction the Order was going. Francis had to let go of his need for control even of his own Order.
Francis’ life was a series of renunciations. Francis had to let go of one thing after another. Each time, renunciation involved suffering.
And the end result of all that renunciation, including in the end the renunciation of his own will and submission to the changes that were happening in the Franciscan Order, the end result for Francis was, paradoxically, peace and joy, peace and joy that Francis articulated in the Canticle of the Sun, the hymn we sung at the beginning of this service.
Even at the end, as he approached death, Francis wasn’t perfect. But Francis had been made more perfect by suffering, by all that letting go. In that letting go, Francis followed the example of Christ, trusting himself to God.
We are not Francis. But our lives, like his, are inevitably a process of letting go.
When I was a young man, I dreamed of making a big impact on the world. I wanted everyone to know my name. It took me until my thirties to let that one go.
But there were consolations. I had a vision for my life that suited me. I liked being a college professor in Georgia, where my family and friends were. During my forties, I had to let that go.
Now I’m in my fifties. And we are experiencing some letting go just this weekend. Yesterday our younger son moved to Boston for his job. We are pleased for him. And, we are sorry that our time having children live at home has come to an end.
There will be more to come, of course. As people age, we have to let go of a lot: our illusions of youth, of some of the things we enjoy doing, in the end, our strength and our health, often, our independence, finally our life itself. All that is hard.
But in all that, we are following the example of Saint Francis, who had to let go of everything, including the Order he founded. We follow the example of Christ, who emptied himself and became obedient to the point of death.
Hopefully, we, too, like Francis, like Jesus in a different way, we, too, are moving towards perfection, letting go of whatever might separate us from God, learning to trust God a little more completely, beginning truly to pray that not my will, but God’s be done.
Our passage is an invitation to embrace that process, to let go of whatever stands in the way of our own growth, to accept the pain of renunciation when necessary, and to trust God with everything, even our lives. My prayer for us all is that we can accept that invitation.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
 For more information about the Third Order, see https://tssf.org/about-the-third-order/what-is-the-third-order/
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Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan