Posts Tagged ‘St Francis’

Self preservation

October 7, 2017

Pentecost 18 – 2017

Matthew 21:33-46

Marian Free

 

In the name of God in whom and with whom we have our being. Amen.

The annual Synod of the Diocese was held two weekends ago. There were not many controversial things on the agenda and only one piece of legislation to pass. One thing that absorbed a great deal of time was a presentation that is now a regular part of the Synod proceedings – the Diocesan statistics. Each year I (and every other priest) in the Diocese are obliged to provide information regarding how many people came to church in that year, how many were buried, married or baptised and so on. As you may guess from looking around, those numbers can be quite sobering. Only a few parishes in the Diocese are growing, many are remaining stable and a good few are declining in numbers.

The publication of these figures leads to a great deal of navel gazing and worrying about how we can halt the decline and build the church. I am a firm believer in being accountable and I think that it is important that we know how we are travelling, but I do worry that our concern is as much about self- preservation as it is about the future of the gospel, that worrying about our numbers makes us inward rather than outward focussed. Worse, I wonder whether we are so busy worrying about what is happening to the church and asking ourselves what we can do to maintain it, that we risk being unaware of that God might be doing something new, exciting and different. Alternatively, we are so inwardly focussed that anything new and exciting and different is seen not as a gift from God, but as something against we must protect our traditions and our structures.

Self-preservation certainly seems to be a concern of the Chief Priests, the elders, the scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Jesus was seen as a threat and not a gift. He was unconventional and popular and nothing could convince them that he was God’s plan for the future of the church. Instead of welcoming Jesus as a gift from God, they closed ranks, trying to protect their position, their status and their authority – all of which required the church and its traditions to remain unchanged. Jesus represented a to the stability of the system that they were so carefully preserving.

Today’s gospel is set in the Temple. It is a small section of an ongoing dispute between Jesus and the chief priests and elders. They are worried that Jesus’ popularity and his refusal to maintain their traditions and are attempting to discredit and diminish him. Jesus turns the tables by telling the parable of the wicked tenants in order to expose their agenda. The parable likens the chief priests and elders to tenants who want to hold on to what they have at any cost. The leaders have forgotten that it was the landlord (God) who planted the vineyard, built the fence, installed the wine press and built a watchtower. The tenants, like the chief priests and elders have become so absorbed in themselves and their own roles, that they have lost sight of the fact that they are working in God’s vineyard. In the slaves and in the son, they see a threat to their comfortable existence, a threat that must be destroyed even though it has a legitimate claim on their attention.

In Jesus’ day the chief priests, scribes, Pharisees and elders have come to believe that responsibility for the vineyard (church) and for its future resides with them – that God has, in effect, abrogated all responsibility to them. They are so sure that they know what God wants that they cannot allow anyone (even Jesus) to unsettle the boat.

In 1182 in a small town in the north of Italy, Francis di Bernadone was born into the family of a wealthy merchant. Francis, like many rich young men of his day was something of a playboy and, influenced by the ideals of medieval chivalry, he longed to make a name for himself on the battlefield. His first foray into battle led to his imprisonment and his second was thwarted by an encounter with Christ that led him to spend time in prayer and to provide for the poor. Francis’ generosity and piety caused his Father such concern that he had him called before the Bishop’s court. Francis’ response was to strip naked. He was renouncing wealth, status and power and placing all his confidence in God.

Sometime later when Francis was praying in the ruins of a church, he heard the voice of Christ saying: “Build my church”. He understood that he was to spread the gospel to the world not to shore up the institution of the church. He began to preach anywhere and everywhere and, so compelling was his message, that within weeks he was joined by three other young men who within a short time became twelve. Francis did not need to accumulate goods, power or respect, he understood that he was doing God’s work and that his role was to tend the vines that God had planted, and to acknowledge that the growth belonged to God.

He and his companions wandered the countryside preaching the gospel to all who would listen. Because Francis had given up everything, he, unlike the leaders of the first century church had nothing to lose. Because he recognised the absolute sovereignty of God in his life, he was not threatened or intimidated by those who came to share his work in the vineyard, he did not need to take credit for his work, and he certainly had no need to refuse entry to others whom God sent. Francis’ complete and utter dependence on God freed him to serve God selflessly expecting no reward except the privilege of serving God. In direct contrast to the wicked tenants who represented the leaders of Jesus’ day, Francis recognised that everything came from God and that he owed everything to God.

As we watch in despair as our numbers decline, as we wonder what the future of the church will be, we do well to remember today’s parable – the church is not ours but God’s and that God can see a future for the gospel even if we cannot. In the 21st century, we may have to entertain the idea that once again we are being asked to give back to God what is God’s and that are being asked to recognise God in unexpected voices and unexpected people. The question we must ask ourselves is this: are we open to the possibility that God might be ready to do something different, or are we determined to hold on to what we have at any cost?

 

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How much is too much?

October 10, 2015

Pentecost 20

Mark 10:17-31 (St Francis)

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who has given us all things. Amen.

If we are honest many of us find today’s gospel challenging. “Sell all you own and give to the poor.” “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” We wonder if these words applies to us. We ask ourselves: What is too rich? Is it a person or a company whose yearly income could pay the debt of a third world country and more? Is it being rich enough able to spend millions of dollars on a home when many are homeless? Is it worrying about whether to send our children to a state school or a private school when millions of children do not have the opportunity go to school at all?

I don’t have the answer to these questions. On the one hand I support the initiative and enterprise that leads to the creation of jobs. On the other hand it does worry me that 85% of the world’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of just 10% of the world’s population. I would like every person in the world to have the same advantages that I have, but at the same time, I am very grateful that I do not have live hand-to-mouth like so many millions of people do and not entirely sure how much I am willing to give up in order to make the world a more equitable place.

St Francis thought that today’s gospel applied directly to him. As the story goes, Francis was the son of a wealthy textile merchant. It was expected that he would follow in his father’s footsteps, join the business, finally taking and charge of it himself in turn passing the business and any accumulated wealth to his own children. Francis’ experience of Jesus altered all that. He changed from a wild, hedonistic young man into a fervent follower of Jesus Christ. He understood that his call was to renounce all worldly possessions and to live a simple life entirely dependent on God.

Francis embraced poverty, not because he had some romantic notion about it, but because it freed him from the responsibilities and concerns that wealth, possessions and status can bring with them. Poverty for Francis’ signified reliance not on material, but on spiritual things. He did not want anything to have a hold on him or to stand between himself and God.

It is clear that Francis’ view is not the dominant Christian view, even though we find the story unsettling, very few Christians have taken the text as literally as did Francis. That doesn’t mean that we are off the hook or mean that we shouldn’t attempt to understand what Jesus is saying here.

Today’s gospel begins with an interaction between Jesus and a young man who “has many possessions”. The young man interrupts Jesus’ journey and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. He has, by his own account, has lived a blameless life. Despite this he seems to sense that something is missing, he recognises that despite all that he has his life is empty and without meaning. Though he observes the commandments and presumably has all that he needs, he is not satisfied. He recognises that even though (according to the thought of the day) his wealth is a reward for righteousness his relationship with God could be so much richer.

Jesus looks at the young and loves him. He sees (we must assume) that the young man is bound by his possessions – they own him, not he them. Jesus knows that the young man will not be at peace, he will not be entirely happy until his possessions no longer have a hold on him, until there are no longer a measure of his righteousness or of his place in the world. Jesus’ advice? – sell it all, get rid of everything, free yourself from all worry and concern. Do what you really want to do – give yourself to God. It is too much. Unlike Francis, this young man’s passion and desire has not been kindled to the point that he can fully let go. He departs from Jesus in a state of sorrow. Jesus has given the answer for which he was seeking, but now that he hears it, he cannot do it. For the moment at least his wealth has too great a hold on him.

Jesus’ advice to the young man leads Jesus to reflect on wealth in general. It is not that wealth is necessarily bad. The problem is that, for some, wealth can become an obsession that needs to be guarded and maintained. A person can become so focused on what they have and what they want that they becomes self centred and inward-looking, absorbed by their own needs and desires and careless with the needs of others.

Jesus’ advice to the young man may not be Jesus’ advice to us all, but it would be a mistake to think that the reading doesn’t not apply to us. Wealth is not the only thing that binds us or causes us to focus on ourself us or that prevents us from seeing the needs of others. Greed and selfishness are only two things that make us look inwards and not outwards, that create a barrier between ourselves and God. Pride, anger, bitterness, self-righteousness are all signs of self-absorption that lead us to concentrate on our own wants and needs and that, as a result, separate us from our fellow human beings, from God and ultimately from our eternal inheritance.

The bible does warn us against allowing wealth to have control of us rather than our controlling our wealth but to make that the only focus of today’s gospel might be to miss the point. The young man has the courage to ask Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Are we brave enough to ask the same question and if we do will we, like the young man, walk away or will we have the courage to respond to Jesus’ love, recognise what it is we lack and make the changes necessary to remove the barriers between ourselves and God and between ourselves and others?

Becoming as a child

October 6, 2012

Pentecost 19

Mark 10.13-16  St Francis’ Day

Marian Free

In the name of God, Creator Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

What is it about children? Mark has used a child as an illustration three times now. A child is used to confront the disciples’ ideas of grandeur. The disciples are urged not to do anything that would hurt the faith of “these little ones” and today’s gospel suggests that unless the disciples welcome the kingdom of God as a little child, they will not enter it. It seems that Jesus is using the example of a child to confront the arrogance of the disciples, to emphasise their responsibility towards the vulnerable and to teach them how to accept God’s gifts to them.

From a twentieth century standpoint the obvious conclusion from today’s gospel is that Jesus is encouraging us to re-capture the wide-eyed innocence of our childhoods, to be open to the mystery and wonder of the kingdom rather than approaching it with jaded and cautious minds. There may be some element of this in what Jesus is saying, but given the unwarranted self-assurance of the disciples, their competition with each other and their desire to exclude others from their number, it is more likely that Jesus is referring to the lack of social status and the dependence of children.

According to the rabbinic tradition children were a waste of time – like drinking too much wine or associating with the ignorant. One saying reads: “Morning sleep and midday wine and children’s talk and sitting in the meeting houses of the people of the land put a person out of the world (M Abot 3:11). Children were not only a waste of time, but they were owed nothing. A child had no claim on anyone and could have no expectation that they deserved anything from anyone – including their parents. If they were treated well it was due to the love and generosity of their parents, but no expectations or obligations were placed on parents.  Children were completely dependent on the adults in their lives and good treatment was a matter of luck rather than a right. As a consequence, anything good that a child experienced or was given was received as a gift which they had done nothing to warrant.

Even in today’s world in which children are generally valued and in which their rights are enshrined in law, a child is still dependent on the adults in their lives for the quality of their care, for affection, for food, clothing and shelter, for education and medical care. Most of us spend our lives trying to escape this sort of dependence on others and few would make dependence rather than independence a life’s goal.

Yet it is precisely this that Jesus is recommending to his self-absorbed disciples. He is reminding them that they should understand that entry into the kingdom is not a right or something that they should take for granted. Entry into the kingdom of God is not earned by proving that they are better than one another. It is not the role of the disciples of Jesus to determine who is in and who is out. Instead, they need to adopt the position of children to their parents and understand that they completely dependent on God’s love and mercy and that everything that they receive is a gift that is unrelated to anything that they do or do not do.

For many, including Jesus’ disciples, the gift of God’s undeserved grace is almost impossible to accept. It is easier to think that there must be some sort of entrance criteria for membership in the kingdom, that only those who behave in a certain way or achieve a certain standard can earn the right to enter into the Kingdom of God. It is difficult to accept that those who are least worthy, those who have no legal status or right are not only welcome in the kingdom, but show the rest of us how to graciously receive God’s free gift.

Such was the problem that faced Francis in the thirteenth century. Francis was born in Assisi in 1188, the eldest son of a wealthy textile merchant. He, like many wealthy young men of his day lived a dissolute sort of life spending his Father’s money on fine clothing and on carousing and drinking with his friends. In a time of inter-city wars and rivalry, Francis had dreams of grandeur of becoming a military hero – a knight who would win the heart of a fair lady.  An opportunity came for him to join the forces of Prince of Taranto and to fight for the Pope in the south of Italy. He told his brothers that he would return a knight. However, within a day he had returned home having heard a voice from God. Once home, having no clear sense of what God intended for him, he returned to his former lifestyle, though it held none of the attraction that it had had before.

Gradually, Francis changed his life. He became more and more concerned for the poor, more and more determined that he should share the poverty of Christ, and more and more determined to give up his extravagant lifestyle and embrace a life of prayer. At first Francis remained at home, living more simply and giving generously to those in need. He showed compassion to all and especially to those suffering from leprosy who were not only destitute, but who were also excluded from society because of their disease.  Eventually Francis gave up all his wealth, renounced his inheritance and adopted a simple life in the countryside around his hometown. He wore a robe in the shape of a cross and in warm weather and cold wore only sandals on his feet. Like a beggar he became completely dependent on the goodness of others. Like the disciples of Jesus he went from town to town proclaiming the gospel of Jesus.

In time he was joined by others, who like him had become aware of the hollowness of their lives.  Despite this Francis was haunted by a sense of his sinfulness. How could he possibly be worthy of the Kingdom? On one occasion when he was oppressed with grief and worry, he had a vision of Jesus weighed down by the cross struggling up the hill of Calvary and he remembered the words of the fourth Gospel: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He understood at once that it was not anything that he had done, but that it was what God had done that had secured his entry into the kingdom. At that point he knew that he didn’t have to compete with others, to achieve a certain standard or to be part of the in-group. He simply had to accept what God had done in Christ and to allow himself to be completely dependent on God’s mercy.

This simple, child-like trust in God determined the remainder of Francis’ life. He was able to let go of his need to be in control and to place his life in God’s hands. He finally understood his total dependence on God’s mercy, his need to receive the kingdom of God as a child.

In our individualistic, achievement driven world, the idea that child-like dependence is something to be valued is utterly incomprehensible. And yet, Jesus tells us that dependence is the very criterion that entrance into the Kingdom of God demands. God who owes us nothing has given us everything. The gift of the Kingdom is ours for the taking. All that we have to do is to swallow our pride, let go of our independence and gratefully reach out our hands to receive what is offered.

 

 


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