What a month we’ve had, haven’t we? We’ve suspended our usual liturgy to focus instead on the God of all creation. We considered the enormity of the oceans, the beauty of flora and fauna, the surging storms and calming waves and the unimaginable wonder of the Cosmos. We have affirmed our responsibility to partner with the Creator in recreating and caring for all that is good. And we opened our grounds to welcome pets, symbols of pets, cuddly toy pets and their humans. And today we round it off with a celebration of the life and witness of St Francis of Assisi; the patron saint of animals, ecology and the environment. (I seriously thought about St Francis yesterday as we hosted cats and dogs and a toy tiger. I think he would’ve approved of our haphazard live nativity scene, 799 years after he organised the first one!).
St Francis, or Giovanni as he was born, was a man who knew God. He knew the words of his creator and he knew what they were asking of him. He was single-minded in his attempts to do what his Lord asked, and he put these commands before all things, even when it cost him all he had and all he owned and all he was owed.
Giovanni was born into great wealth; his father was an incredibly rich cloth-maker. He owned stores of expensive fabric, and this wealth was promised to Giovanni. But Giovanni was a lover of Christ and a wandering spirit. On his travels he came across a tumbledown chapel in San Damiano, just outside Assisi. While praying there he had a vision of God and clearly heard the words ‘repair my church which is falling into ruins’. Sat in a building falling into disrepair, Giovanni took this command to mean a physical rebuilding and set about his work.
With his intentions good, but his actions not-so-good, he went to his father’s fabric store, took material and sold it to raise the necessary funds. Perhaps understandably his dad was not delighted, and Giovanni hid in a cave for a month, waiting for the dust to settle. Which it didn’t. His dad found him, beat him, bound him, dragged him home and locked him in a cell. He escaped and returned to San Damiano, determined to complete the work God asked of him. His dad, anger still raging, went to the Bishop of Assisi to remove his inheritance. During the proceedings Francis renounced his father and took off all his clothes to demonstrate it. The bishop hastily covered him with a sackcloth, which eventually became the habit and symbol of the religious community that accidentally formed around him.
I say accidentally…Francis never had any intention of beginning a monastic community but, as he worked to rebuild that church, so he also began to preach the gospel he was so enamoured by. The gospel like that which we heard today. The one that calls us to sell all we own, give our money to the poor, and then follow Christ.
And we have heard these words before. They’re familiar to us and we find them hard. And maybe we think, or hope, they are intended for someone else. Jesus can’t be saying that to us, surely? Well, for Francis, what Jesus said was absolutely what he meant. It wasn’t hypothetical. He didn’t look for a get-out clause or try to find a way around it. He heard these words, as he knelt before Christ with the rich man in this passage, and he understood what they meant; go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, then come, follow me. And that is what Francis did.
He didn’t preach and build so people would want to follow him. He did it because he heard the call of God, and he knew God meant him. He was the rich man, and Jesus’ command was for him. He heard it, he knew it, and it moved him to action. And when people saw that authenticity, that single-minded-ness for the gospel of Christ, they were compelled to be with him. And as these new followers began to join in with Francis’ work he realised he needed a plan. They were looking to him for wisdom and guidance. They wanted to be led. So Francis turned again to the source of what he knew to be true and looked to the bible and read God’s call to a radical life.
Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.
You that have no money, come, buy, and eat.
Buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Whatever gains I had, I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.
I have lost all things and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may know Christ.
Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor…then come, follow me.
From passages like this, and after the example of Christ and his first century followers, the rule of St Francis was born, and it was very simple – threefold – give to the poor, spread the gospel, carry the cross of Christ.
But what about us, as we sit here in the second richest country in the world, per capita. There is no logical way we can escape the truth that we are the rich man, today. And whether we can say we have kept God’s commandments since our youth is not the important thing. Jesus was not focussed on that. He asks of us what he asked of St Francis and our friend here in Mark Chapter 10. He looks at us, loves us, and says, ‘I adore you. I adore the way you have tried to keep my commandments and I love you in all the ways you failed to do so AND you too lack this one thing…’
Go, sell what you own and give your money to the poor and then come, follow me.
And while there are people who can’t eat or heat their homes while we have plenty, so that call will keep coming.
Our discipleship of Christ demands much of us, and promises much to us, but the biggest demand is that we come with open hands, open hearts, and empty pockets – open and empty so that we might take hold of life, in all its fulness and so that we might take hold of the hands of the poor and receive treasures that don’t wear out.
St Francis took Jesus at his word – he heard and responded and at times it must have felt impossible, just as it does for us. But, to echo St Paul’s words, everything we have is rubbish compared to knowing Christ. And he says everything is possible.
So, I guess the question is, will we take Him at His word? Will we trust Him to catch us if we choose to step off from wealth to poverty? Will we empty our hands and pockets, care for the poor and, in doing so, inherit life everlasting? Amen.