Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Jonathan Arnold, Chaplain of Worcester College on October 4th 2015 at St Giles, Horspath Benefice Service.
Readings: Feast of St. Francis. Hebrews 1: 1-14; 2: 5-12 and Mark 10: 2-16.
When I was a young boy I used to learn the clarinet at school and play in the school orchestra. I enjoyed the instrument as far as I can recall, but there was one problem. Playing the instrument, or learning to play it, was hard! As some of you will know, being a beginner on a wind or brass instrument can be an ear-splitting business, with squeaks, honks, whistles, clicks and duck noises punctuating the occasional snatches of discernible tune when ones breath manages to be sustained enough, and one embouchure correct enough, to make the sweet desired sound. Well, practice makes perfect, as we all know, but as a boy, I was beginning to become frustrated with my progress, especially compared, I thought, with the relatively easier task of making music by strumming chords on guitar, or playing notes on the keyboard, or singing, which, although required breath, did not seem to need to same kind of control as the woodwind instrument. So I gave up the clarinet, to my shame, although it is still under the bed in the spare room and, who knows, I may submit my family to future years of aural torture and I do penance for my sin and try to make amends and learn to play it once again. Who knows!
The connection between breath and creation of beauty is not only found in music. In the Bible, God’s breath is always found to be closely associated with creation of good things. God breaths upon the waters to create the world, he breaths into man to give him life from the dull clay, Jesus breathes on the sick and they are healed, and the Holy Spirit gives life and breath to the disciples in order that they might have strength to preach the gospel.
We see this connection in our readings this morning. In the letter to the Hebrews we hear how God spoke through the prophets and through Christ, through whom he has created all worlds. Christ is the one for whom and through whom all things exist. In Mark 10, the little children are brought to Jesus and he says that it is through children such as these that the kingdom of God is found.
The important adverb here is ‘through’. The prophets and the child-like are those ‘through’ whom God works in order that they might know Christ, ‘though’ whom everything is made and has its being. God’s breath flows through these people, just as a musician’s breath flows through a clarinet, or an oboe, or a trumpet, or even a voice.
One person who became an instrument though which God’s breath flowed was St. Francis, whom we celebrate today. In his early years, at the end of the twelfth century, he was not a model Christian. He was rich, spoiled, indulgent and lived a life of selfish pleasure. He was expected to follow in the family business until he was captured and imprisoned in a war between Assisi and Perugia. Whilst in prison and afterwards he had time to reassess his priorities and his life. Spending more and more time in prayer he eventually decided to leave his life of luxury and live a life devoted to obedience to Christ. He had a vision in which he heard God speaking to him “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” Francis not only rebuilt the church building but recognised the call to help rebuild the Church universal, which itself had fallen somewhat into habits of luxuriousness and self-indulence. Most striking of all in Francis’s life is his devotion to nature, the poor, the sick, especially lepers, and to being a vessel through which God could work. By releasing himself from all worldly attachments, Francis became an instrument through which God’s breath worked its magical creative, healing beauty. God the musician was playing music through Francis and, as so often in history, the song which God plays is, above all, justice. Through Francis, the Church is made more just, and justice is given to the poor, weak, sick, infirm and marginalized.
The song of justice is the melody that God plays through all who are open to his call. The mother of Christ, Mary, sings as soon as she hears that she will bear God’s Son: ‘My Soul doth magnify the Lord’ Mary’s words are not just innocent praise. This is singing as radical social commentary – politics if you like. Mary connects the divine act of the incarnation and her witness to social justice. As Don Saliers puts it, ‘To sing with Mary is to sing God’s Justice.’ Perhaps there is a very relevant point for modern society that a great deal of the music-making surrounding the theme of liberation from oppression in the Bible, is sung by women. As Walter Brueggemann writes, Mary’s hymn of praise is
… revolutionary in its world-making … raw in its power … the nations are invited to a new world with a public ethic rooted in and normed by the tales of nameless peasants, widows and orphans. It is enough to make trees sing and fields clap and floods rejoice and barren women laugh and liberated slaves dance and angels sing.
Mary’s song echoes the Old Testament themes of justice too, such as Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel
‘My heart exults in the LORD;
my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in my victory.
And Psalm 33
The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;
he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
In song, Mary highlights the gap between what IS and what OUGHT TO BE and thus continues the tradition of singing as proclaiming justice and freedom, a tradition which became central to the liberation songs of African-American slaves and spirituals. When they sang ‘Steal Away to Jesus’ it was not just about focussing on the consolation of their Lord, it was ‘code for escape.’
St. Francis found God breathing life into all creation, including those who were not rich or powerful and was devoted as much to the animal and natural world as to the ecclesiastical, if not more so! It is his example that we are called to follow today, as we face, day by day, injustice in our world: inequality of wealth; inequality of food; a lack of justice for those who are unfortunate to live in dangerous and war-torn countries and inequality of opportunities for children, not only in different parts of the world, but in different parts of our own country and, yes, even our own city.
That is why the prayer of St. Francis is so important for us to remember in our daily lives, as we open ourselves to the possibilities that God has for us and become instruments of God’s love, mercy and justice in the world. If God’s breath breathes its creative, loving, healing power through each one of us, then we will find the true purpose for which we ourselves were created.
A prayer of St. Francis:
“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life. Amen.