Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Message: "The Way of the Saints: Saint Francis”
Converging Paths Series
Well friends, we are coming out of a tumultuous political week, with a chaotic debate that made me wish, as I often have, for more peaceful, more dignified times. Did you know that President Obama purposefully wore only grey or blue suits while he was in office? Well, not including that one time when he wore a tan suit and the change up practically caused a scandal. Oh for the days when a President wearing a tan suit instead of blue or gray was news. In a 2012 interview President Obama said, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
Obama had a way of streamlining the other decisions that came to him throughout the day, too. When Obama was faced with a complicated policy decision, his staff knew to place the briefing memo on his desk with three check boxes at the bottom: agree, disagree or let’s discuss. This allowed work to flow more smoothly, but not simplistically. If there was a need to give more time or consideration to something, it went back to the community of his staff for collective wisdom.
Decisions take energy. It’s why there is a thing called grocery store fatigue from all the choices we face on the shelves, and why judges tend to give harsher sentences later in the day. While having many options may seem ideal, too many options has a distinct downside.
Francis of Assisi was born a man with many options. You know him as St. Francis, patron saint of animals and creation, the inspirer of the hymn All Creatures of our God and King that we opened with this morning. He founded the order of Franciscans and then later with Clare helped to found the order for women called the Poor Clares. To this day these monastic communities are known for their charity, their simplicity of lifestyle, their focus on devotion to God. The Prayer of St. Francis that begins “Make me an instrument of your peace” is one of the best known and most loved prayers in Christendom. Francis did not write it, but it’s associated with him because of its simple devotion.
But Francis wasn’t born into humble circumstances. In fact it was the opposite; he was born a nobleman, and was known for his extravagant and festive lifestyle. One of his biographers, Thomas of Celano, who knew Francis well wrote of him, “"In other respects an exquisite youth, he attracted to himself a whole retinue of young people addicted to evil and accustomed to vice." Francis himself said, "I lived in sin" during that time. The only expectation his father had of him was that he be a successful businessman like his father. Beyond that, all options were his. He spent wantonly and he lived without reflection.
When he was about twenty-five years old, something began to change in Francis. The Crusades were happening at that time, and Francis, desiring adventure and respect, joined the group, buying a tremendous horse, an expensive suit of armor, a fabulous cape. He looked like he was destined to lead this army for sure. But one day into the journey, he had a dream in which God told him to go home, he had it all wrong. And so he did. His attention began to shift then, from all of the options he had for fun to the voice of God.
Francis began to pray constantly. He spent time alone in the woods in prayer. Then he was led to the ancient church of San Damiano. While praying there, he heard the voice of Christ come from the crucifix and say to him, “Rebuild my church.” And so Francis went to his father’s textile store, took some cloth and sold it, giving the proceeds to the church. When his father found out, he was enraged, and dragged Francis before the bishop to get the money back and be disciplined. The bishop returned the money and said simply, “God will provide” refusing to meet out any punishment. At that point, Francis stripped himself of his clothes, gave all he had to the church, renounced his inheritance, and left for the woods.
He continued to meditate on the words he heard in San Damiano, “Rebuild my church” and returned to the church and begged for stones, rebuilding it with his own hands. Then further revelation came to him and he realized it wasn’t the physical structure of this one church the message referred to but the soul of the larger church that needed rebuilding. He began to preach openly in the streets and fields a message of compassion and love and return to God. He’s a stark contrast with the fiery prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures whose words can sound condemning or the fierce and wild urgency of John the Baptist calling people to repent. Francis’ message was more gentle, more humble, offering one option: return to God.
And people responded. He began to be followed by many. As the group grew, Francis felt he needed to offer a guide because he could not be with everyone every day. He opened his Bible three times and landed on three different verses. The first was our scripture for today from Mark about the rich young ruler. The second was the order of Jesus to the apostles to take nothing for their journeys, and the third was the demand to take up the cross daily. “These three verses will be our rule,” he said.
The scripture from Mark which you heard Jamuel read this morning begins with a man described as a rich young ruler bowing before Jesus and asking what it will take to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds with a paraphrase of the ten commandments and the man says to him, “These I have kept since the time of my youth.” Then the text says, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” And Jesus said to him “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Interestingly, some translations insert the phrase the money in Jesus’ words to give to the poor. But “the money” is not in the text. Jesus doesn’t create a necessary relationship between the man selling what he has and giving to the poor. And why is this? Well, I believe it is not so much the money itself that is the problem for this young man but the many many options for his time and attention and devotion that the money creates for him. This man’s money was keeping him from focusing on God, but in not including “the money” in his direction to “give to the poor,” Jesus was acknowledging that this man had gifts far beyond just money to give.
The rich young man has already attested to the fact that he is faithful to the commandments. But he is distracted in his faithfulness. And so when Jesus says, “There is one thing you lack” what he means is that a singleness of purpose is not present in this man. And the scripture tells us the man “Went away grieving because he had great wealth.” He wanted to keep his options open.
In this time of sheltering in place, we are having a crash course of limiting our options and dealing with far fewer distractions. But has this helped us turn toward singleness of purpose like Francis did, or are we looking for more distractions, trying to keep our options open? It’s easy to focus on the man’s wealth in this story and draw the common conclusion that having money is the problem. But that’s not actually here. Money is morally neutral, but what we do with it has ultimate moral significance. In these highly polemical days, we also need to remember that the words Republican and Democrat, in themselves are morally neutral. There are positive values associated with the Republican worldview such as tradition and security, and positive values associated with the Democratic worldview such as progress and equality. But it is how these values are employed that makes them moral or not. Is the action grounded in faithfulness, of caring for the least, the last and the lost in way that truly respects their dignity and humanity? Does the way these values are employed lead to singleness of focus on God? Does that singleness of focus make us more conscious of the suffering of others and able to respond in compassion? If so, then the gift was morally given and the value morally employed.
This week we begin a month of looking at the lives of six different saints and how they gave what they had, gifts of money, of authority, of necessity, of courage and of commitment to respond to God’s call. In this month, you are going to be asked to make a decision about your commitment to Epworth, both in terms of your financial commitment and the offering of all of your God given gifts. In your discernment, consider what is keeping you from a fuller relationship with God? Is it the presence of many, many options? Is it a preconceived judgment about who is deserving? A way to make this a more simple decision is to consider the Biblical direction to give a tithe. A tithe is 10% of one’s income. A tithe is like the “yes” check box on Obama’s policy brief. Maybe 10% isn’t possible, so maybe this could be seen as a starting point where a no leads to consideration of other gifts such as time, and talent and presence to offer. And maybe checking the “Let’s discuss” leads to a family conversation about how to get creative or make a plan to get to the tithe in the future. But like St. Francis discovered, the most important consideration is what brings us closer to God and our ability to walk in the way of Jesus. May it be so. Amen.