Let us pray: O God, open our hearts and minds that as the Scripture has been read and the Word is proclaimed we may hear with joy what you speak to us today and we may follow in faithful obedience. Amen.
As Christians, we typically celebrate saints on their saint’s day or feast day—the day of their death. Francis’ feast day is celebrated October 4. In recent decades, many United Methodist Churches have celebrated a Blessing of the Animals on the first Sunday in October in honor of St. Francis’s legendary respect for animals. But Francis was not primarily a man who preached to birds! His chief characteristic was his complete trust in God, manifested in his embrace of “Lady Poverty.”
The story of the rich young man is one that is familiar to many of us. In fact, we last heard about this very person just four weeks ago. He is a man with whom St. Francis identified strongly. After all, Francis, himself had been a very wealthy young man, who had left his father’s house, left his group of friends, and renounced every material possession he had. While this story from the gospel of Mark has parallel stories in the gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke, it is this story from the gospel of Mark which best resonates with the person of St. Francis. For example, in the narrative we heard Dena read for us today, we heard the words, “a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked…”(Mark 10:17[CEB]). Francis, like the man in this narrative was impulsive and emotionally demonstrative—this was often evident in the ways in which Francis reacted to the prompting of the Spirit in immediate and dramatic ways.
Another line unique to the gospel account of Mark is, “Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him.” (v.21). Prior to the text this morning, Jesus had just taught the disciples, via a trick question that some Pharisees asked, that God created humanity for relationship. When the disciples scold people for bringing children to Jesus, Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God belongs to people like the children. The kingdom of God belongs to those who have no place, no voice, and no means. The kingdom of God is for each one of us, and there is nothing that we can do to work or earn our way into God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom comes to us through an invitation to follow Jesus. Perhaps, Jesus looked carefully and loved the young man because the young man, like Zaccheus last week, is willing to risk his social status and his worth in order to come face to face with Jesus. Jesus recognizes that this question is not like that of the Pharisees’ but that it is a genuine question from a vulnerable person who wants to live a right, a good, and a just life.
We all have friends or family members whom we love, and we like to think of our love as a constant feeling or state of being. However, there are moments when someone does something, says something, or maybe just glances at us and we feel love more intensely for that individual at that moment? It is wearing your spouse’s hoodie and feeling like he is embracing you all day; it is your child catching you as you sit in awe and wonder of this life with which you have been entrusted; it is a word of affirmation spoken at just the moment you need it; it is walking into the house after work and seeing a clean living room where just a few hours ago toys were strewn about; it is the smell of dinner and the hum of the dishwasher coming from the kitchen. Jesus’ love for the young man, for St. Francis, and for each and every one of us is like this, and it is infinitely richer, deeper, and sweeter than our minds can fathom.
Another part of this narrative that is unique to the gospel account of Mark is the radical promise we hear about those who make the choice to leave everything in order to follow Jesus. “I assure you that anyone who has left house, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, or farms because of me and because of the good news will receive 100 times as much now in this life—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and farms (with harassment)—and in the coming age, eternal life” (vv.29-30). Francis’ life helps us make sense of this promise. He left his family, his house, his riches; and at the end of his life, he had hundreds of brothers and sisters in the orders he had founded. He was welcome in countless houses, not just throughout Italy but elsewhere (even by a Sultan at the time of the Crusades!), and he had a wide mission field that he saw as encompassing everything that God created. This did not come without hardship, but neither did Francis have to wait for ‘pie in the sky, by and by.’ His way of poverty—surrendering his entire life over to God—had nearly immediate rewards in his daily life.
After I had worked as an assistant in Speech-Language Pathology for two years, I decided to pursue my Master’s degree. I applied to the graduate program attached to my undergraduate university, but I was not accepted there. I found a relatively new Master’s degree program at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. Kingsville was about 2 ½ hours from San Antonio, so one Friday, I asked my mom to ride down while I investigated this option. Following my meeting, my mom and I sat at lunch. My mom asked me, “How did it go?” To which I replied, “I registered for the fall semester; I will be living on campus.” My mom was stunned. “What are you going to do for work? How will you pay your bills? I guess you could always go back to working part-time for MacDonald’s.” “I am not sure.” Over the course of a few months, housing, student loans, and on-campus employment fell into place. I didn’t know anything except that this seemed to be what I was being called to do at that particular time in my life, and yet every need I had was met with God’ more than sufficient providence.
Francis began moving in the way of poverty when material possessions came to mean less to him than following God’s will. He sold a great deal of expensive cloth from his father’s store to help rebuild a church. But his father viewed this as theft: the cloth did not properly belong to Francis. This was the door Francis had been moving toward without having realized it: he gave everything he had over to his father, and went into the woods to pray, wearing only his underwear.
This way of Poverty is a very different way of looking at stewardship. Before exhorting others to give, Francis asks, “Is it yours to give? Or is it theft?” Let’s pause to consider—where does what we have come from? Is there any sense that the ones who provide our resources feel they somehow own our conscience, or our behavior? Francis said that this kind of voluntary poverty was freedom—freedom from owing anyone other than God, and so freedom to serve God. What are those possessions that shackle us? As the holiday season approaches, are we shopping a little here and a little there for fear we will not be able to afford to buy all the stuff for all the people we love.
What are the possessions that shackle us? What are those things in our lives that make us less free to follow God? How can we tell? Do we spend more time with our electronic devices than with our loved ones? Do we lose our temper when someone else demands our attention and we can no longer focus on ourselves? Do we find ourselves wanting more and more to be alone and isolated, cut off from any other person? And what might happen if we ask God to free us from this bondage? What if we thanked God for everything with which we have been entrusted? What if we sought God before we spoke, before we acted, before a thought formed in our minds? What if we thanked God for the people with whom we are surrounded, even if we do not get along with them? What if we began every decision, with “God help me to live as you have lived.”
Francis and his brothers did not accept money—they worked for enough food to eat for the day, or for their one outfit, or for water or a place to sleep. They did not own property, and so they could not accumulate wealth. Of course this way of life requires a society in which others have enough to share—which is to say, more than they need. This is a difficult question, and an important thing for individual Christians as well as for churches to ask: Do I have more than I need to take care of myself? If so, then why? What is the purpose for these resources? How is God calling me to use these gifts, resources, and time? How do I use my extra resources? Do I faithfully share with those who are in need?
The story of the rich, young man and the life of St. Francis remind us that there are those who are called to have nothing. This is a prophetic calling for us. It serves to remind us that we can become so engrossed with our resources, our gifts and our time that we neglect to cultivate our relationship with God, with our neighbors, and with one another. In each of our worship bulletins, there is a pledge card. This pledge card consists of different means of offering ourselves in the name of Christ for the kingdom of God. Please take these pledge cards home and pray about what God is asking you to give in the coming year. Seek to hear God’s voice above all other voices speaking to you, and strive to do God’s will above all else. Amen.