Friday, October 16, 2009

What Francis Learned

Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Mark 10:1-31

In the northern Italian hills there was once born a boy who his mother Pica named Giovanni. His father, Pietro Bernadone, a wealthy merchant, was away at the time in France. Upon his return he renamed the child Francesco.

Francesco grew up as most boys from wealthy families did in his day. Among other things, he was among the young soldiers from his town who would occasionally challenge another town in their region to a little local war.

It was on one of these local wars one time that Francesco was captured and imprisoned. Part of the game was for those captured to be held for ransom. It took an unusually long time for Francesco's ransom to be worked out, and he ended up in prison for a year.

Prison changed Francesco. For a year he went without any of the luxuries to which he was so accustomed. When he finally returned home, he chose not to live with his family, but as a hermit in an abandoned church in the nearby hills. He began to rebuild the church stone by stone. His family begged him to go home and tried to entice him with reminders of the comfort he had once known. Everything they gave him, he gave to the poor.

Finally one day his father Pietro became so enraged that he dragged Francesco to the local bishop and demanded the bishop order him to stop his foolish ways. The plan backfired. Francesco stripped off all his clothes, renounced his worldly life, and promised to follow Christ in the way of poverty.

As by now you may have guessed, we know Francesco as St. Francis, whose feast day was last Sunday.

Francis went on to found a religious order he called the "Little Brothers." The rule for his order began with words from today's Gospel, "Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

It has been said of Francis that he is one of the most loved and least followed of all the saints. It is probably why we remember him most for his love of the creation. It is easier to follow him in his love of creation than it is in his love of poverty, although we have to admit that we don't always do that well in the love of creation department either.

The possibility that Jesus and Francis are calling us to "sell what we own and give the money to the poor" is unsettling, to say the least. Perhaps we should ask, "What did poverty mean for Francis?" Knowing this may give as an idea of what the story of Jesus and the rich man means for us as well.

Poverty for Francis meant living in complete trust in and reliance upon God. Poverty meant having no possessions, nothing to come between himself and God. It meant a radical insecurity, never knowing from where his next meal or next place to sleep was coming.

Most, probably all, of us shudder to think of such a life. It would mean living life in a perpetual crisis, being completely and utterly dependent upon others for our well-being.

It seems to me that what Jesus does is present this possibility to the rich man who approaches him. He presents him with the potential of crisis. "Sell everything you have and give it away." It was obviously not what the man was expecting. How was he to respond?

One writer has suggested that saints like Francis show us what crisis is and how we are to respond.

What exactly is the crisis here in the Gospel story? To find that out one has to go back to its beginning.

The rich man comes to Jesus and asks him a question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" His choice of words is telling. "Do" and "inherit" are not words that really go together. An inheritance is not something one earns, after all, it is something one receives as a gift. It is one's right because of who one is, somehow in relationship with the giver.

Either the question should be, "What must I do to earn eternal life?" or "What must I be to inherit eternal life?"

I think Jesus hears the inconsistency and replies with a set up. "You know the commandments: You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother."

I think Jesus was hoping for a light to go off in the rich man's head. Jesus, after all, believes the commandments to be pretty broad in their scope. Anyone who has lusted in their heart has committed adultery. Anyone who has called his neighbor a "fool" has committed murder.

Eagerly, however, the rich man answers, "I have kept all these ever since I was born."

Wrong answer. But Jesus wants this guy to get it. The text says he "loved him." He wanted him to understand and free himself. He wanted him to know who he was and what his inheritance would be.

But the only way to get his point across was with a sledge hammer.

"Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and follow me."

It doesn't work. "He was shocked," Mark says, "and went away grieving, for he had many possessions."

The crisis Jesus presented to the man was the crisis of poverty, of radical insecurity, of complete dependence upon God. He had wanted him to see it the easy way, by just seeing that he could never live up to the demands of the law. But, unfortunately, the man believed he could live up to those demands. In his mind the law and his obedience to it justified him.

The crisis Jesus wanted the man to see was the crisis of our inability to live up to the demands of the law, to be and do everything that God desires for us, to respond fully to God's love for us.

The man's response was the wrong response, both times. The first time his response was to deny that there was any crisis whatsoever. "I have kept all these ever since I was born."

The second response, after Jesus suggests he give all he had away, was the wrong one too. He was shocked, despondent, and he went away.

What would have been the right response? Perhaps it seems obvious that the right response would have been for him to do what Jesus' asked, give away everything he had. Certainly it would have been.

But would it have been the only right response? I don't think so. What if the man had simply said, "That is impossible. I can't do it."

Well, that is the response the disciples had to the whole incident. After the rich man walks away he comments, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" The disciples respond, "Then who can be saved?"

Jesus replies, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."

What Jesus wanted from the rich man was the response of acknowledging his dependence upon God. The real answer to the question of "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" is, "Nothing. There isn't anything you can do to inherit eternal life. You can only trust in God."

And that is what the rich man couldn't do. He couldn't trust only in God. Now Jesus observes that trust is difficult for those with wealth. The more financial security we have the more we trust in ourselves. Financial security blinds us to our true radical insecurity, our true inability to even fulfill ourselves, much less save ourselves.

Wealth and possessions, are some of the many things that can blind us to both the crisis in our lives--our inability to save ourselves--and the right response to that crisis--trust in God.

Saints like Francis put both that crisis and that response before us with the witness of their lives.

I do not want you to think of the crisis--that we can't save ourselves--in solely negative terms. Francis would not want you to either. Saying that we don't measure up, that we are unable to be and do all that God wants us to be and do, is only one way of saying it.

Another way of saying it is simply to say that there is something bigger than us, something that is able to transform our lives when we cannot. And the good news that Francis told everywhere he went was that this "thing" was on our side and welling up within us. It is the love and joy of God for the whole creation.

That is what Jesus wanted the rich man to see. He wanted him to see how much he loved him, but he couldn't just flat out tell him that because then the man would have thought that he loved him because of what he had done or what he had.

But it was exactly the opposite. He loved him for all he didn't have. He loved him in spite of all he hadn't done. He loved him simply because God had made him.

That had to have been what Francis discovered in prison those many months, stripped of his possessions and his family prestige. Somehow he found within himself the joy and love of God, bigger than himself, inviting his trust, something to cling to when there was nothing else to cling to.

That is what God wants for us, to trust in his love and joy for us, to cling only to that love, because it is the only thing that lasts, that never disappoints or goes away. Such a trust will bring peace to our lives and even to the whole world, because it is our trust in ourselves, in our own ability to save ourselves, in the things that we accumulate and think we have earned, that disappoint us, that cause us endless anxiety, that tempt us to fear and hate, that is at the root of every ounce of the world's suffering and conflict.

Jesus and Francis call us to neither deny nor walk away from the reality of our radical insecurity but rather to embrace it. Only by embracing it can we then feel the embrace of the One who made us and loves us eternally. Only then can we know true peace and fulfillment.

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