Sunday, 14 October 2012

Mark 10- St. Francis and Jesus' challenging words


Mark 10:17-31

 The Rich and the Kingdom of God

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’[a]

20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is[b] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”

29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

Footnotes:

  1. Mark 10:19 Exodus 20:12-16; Deut. 5:16-20
  2. Mark 10:24 Some manuscripts is for those who trust in riches





          I want to talk a little about St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day was on Oct 4th. St. Francis of Assisi was known for many things. He lived a life of poverty and devoted himself to caring for the sick and poor. His life was marked by simplicity, but also mission and service. He was the first to build a crèche (nativity scene), and the first person on record to receive the stigmata (the supernatural wounds of Christ).  He is especially famous for his intimate relationship with God’s creation, as expressed in his Canticle of the Sun and the many stories about his interactions with animals. He was also, interestingly, never ordained as a priest, and never belonged to a religious order, though, he did found the monastic order that later became the Franciscans.

          When we read about St. Francis it can be hard to believe that he was a real person. It's hard for us to imagine giving everything away and still surviving. But, Francis was a real person. You can go to Assisi and see his tattered and patched robe hanging behind glass. You can see fragments of parchment with his handwriting, and you can stand in the basilica where his body is laid to rest.

          St. Francis was born to a wealthy family in the late 1100's. His father was a cloth merchant and part of the rising merchant class. He originally had a desire to become a knight, but after seeing visions of Christ, his life changed. He was eventually disinherited by his father as a crazy person for attempting to give away his family’s possessions.

          He grew up in a world, much like our own, that is full of all kinds of expectations concerning what it means to live a successful life. If you are wise then you will take over the family business, and start a family so that you can pass on the accumulated wealth. You are to aim at being respected and wealthy- This is wisdom in Francis' world and in our world.  We are not so different in our expectations of what it means to lead a successful life. To be “successful” in our world we need to be highly educated (hopefully that education will get you a good career). We need to have a nice car and a nice house. Dress well, talk on a cell phone a lot. Go on nice holidays. Maybe, appear on television.

          Francis eventually had a vision of Jesus Christ in the Church of San Damiano. He heard Christ speak to him through the image, "Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins". ... If Francis ever erred, it was in following Christ too literally. ... So immediately he sold a bunch of his father's cloth and gave the money to the priest at the church of San Damiano to help him repair the old church. Francis soon embraced the life of poverty.

          Always inclined towards literal obedience, Francis heard the words of Jesus to the rich young man to sell everything and give it to the poor, and Jesus’ words to his disciples to take no money, no bag, nor two cloaks, nor sandals, nor staff, and Francis embraced the life of extreme poverty. Whenever Francis heard the word of Christ he attempted to obey and follow Jesus as literally as he possibly could.

          One of my favourite movies is "Brother Sun, Sister Moon". It is a movie about St. Francis. People I show it to usually have two reactions when they see it. They either love it and watching the movie becomes a kind of spiritual experience in itself, or they tend to think that Francis is insane. People don't really tend to land anywhere in the middle. I think this reaction is appropriate because His life was similar. People either recognized something of God in him, or they thought he was crazy. But this was and is many people's reactions to Jesus as well. 

          Jesus teaches us to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us. He teaches that we should turn the other cheek when struck. When we are forced to carry a load for one mile against our will, we should carry it two miles. He hung out with those who any respectable person would avoid.  Instead of massing a guerrilla force to fight the Romans he allowed them to do their worst by crucifying him. People either loved him or thought he was crazy or dangerous. He asked people to do strange things. 

          Christopher Hitchens, one of the leaders of the New Atheists, who recently died, once said “Love your enemy?!” “No philosophy is more suicidal than this. We must destroy our enemy! Fortunately, everyone in America agreed the enemy must be destroyed after 9/11.” (http://christopherhitchenswatch.blogspot.com).

          The things Jesus says just don't seem to make sense to the normal way we go about in the world, so we try to find ways to get around them. The Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once said, (prepare yourself, this has teeth):

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?

          Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

I don’t think I would go as far as Kierkegaard (I respect many Christian scholars), but I think I know what he is saying. We can spend so much time and effort arguing about what Jesus said that we are left with no time to obey it. We especially want to argue when we disagree with something Jesus said.

          The German Theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said something similar. He refers Mark 10 where Jesus tells the young man to go and sell all he has and give it away to the poor and then to go and follow Jesus, which is our gospel passage today. In referring to the way in which we try to wiggle out of obeying the command to follow him he says,

"But we should probably argue thus: 'of course we are meant to take the call of Jesus [to leave everything and follow him] with 'absolute seriousness', but after all the true way of obedience would be to continue all the more in our present occupations, to stay with our families, and serve him there in a spirit of true inward detachment'. If Jesus  challenged us with the command: 'Get out of it', we should  take him to mean: 'stay where you are, but cultivate that inward  detachment.' ... Perhaps Jesus would say to us: 'Whosoever smiteth thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.' We should then suppose him to mean: 'the way really to love your enemy is to fight him hard and hit him back.' ... All along the line we are trying to evade the obligation of single-minded, literal obedience."

          "When orders are issued in other spheres of life there is no doubt whatever of their meaning. If a father sends his child to bed, the boy knows at once what he has to do. But suppose he has picked up a smattering of pseudo-theology. In that case he would argue more or less like this: 'Father tells me to go to bed, but he really means that I am tired, and he does not want me to be tired. I can overcome my tiredness just as well if I go out and play. Therefore though my father tells me to go to bed, he really means: 'Go out and play'." (p89-90- cost of discipleship).

 

                 Francis, if he ever erred, it was in following Christ’s commands as literally as possible. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that's Jesus words are sometimes is too challenging. It scares most of us to imagine following Jesus completely and fully. If we take the Gospels seriously, we do have to admit that Jesus told at least one person to literally sell everything and follow him. Francis took that word to apply to him as well. Francis heard the words of Jesus and said "I think he really meant what he said" and he heard it directed to him personally. What if you were the young man? His wealth stood between him and God? How would you respond to Jesus' words? ... It feels to hard.  I'm not expecting us to give everything away, neither was Francis, but I also don't want us to ignore the teachings of Christ just because they are hard or because they are fashionable. We have to find our way in the midst of that tension. Sometimes following Jesus is hard, and sometimes it look like foolishness.  

          But Jesus also says this is an easy yoke and a light burden. How can the extreme poverty of Francis be an easy yoke and a light burden? Jesus also calls us to take up our cross. How can that possibly be a light burden, and an easy yoke?

          One anonymous ancient Church father puts it this way, “The weight of earthly masters gradually destroys the strength of their servants, but the weight of Christ rather helps the one who bears it, because we do not bear grace; grace bears us. It is not for us to help grace, but rather grace has been given to aid us.”

          Anyone who looks at the life of Francis knows that one of the marks of his life was joy. I think if we asked Francis, he would tell us that he took off the heavy yoke when he took off the expectations of his parents and his culture of him becoming a wealthy cloth merchant. As painful and as impossible as it seems to worldly eyes, Francis led a joy-filled life embracing the literal directions of Jesus.

          It doesn’t make sense to the world, but Jesus said this was knowledge hidden from the wise and intelligent. The wise and intelligent of this world just didn’t get it. So who got it? Children, fishermen, sinners and tax collectors. Perhaps it shouldn’t make sense in terms of conventional wisdom. Francis seemed crazy to the people of His town. But maybe it is the world that is crazy. Jesus came and told us that the world is upside down, and so to the world, Jesus and his followers look upside down. 

            So let’s live the upside down life. Let’s lead a life that doesn’t make sense to the world’s upside down understanding. Let’s follow Jesus’ call to us to love God and our neighbours, even in an extreme way. Perhaps we should toss away our anger, abandon lust, let our ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and our ‘no’ be ‘no’, turn the other cheek, give to those who ask, and love our enemies with abandon. It doesn’t make sense to the world, but it is beautiful. Lets’ throw away the world’s ideas of “success” and listen to Jesus’ words to follow him. Let’s see if that path leads to joy, or to a heavy yoke. Let’s see if it leads to ridiculous nonsense or to a face to face encounter with the living Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

          Hear Christ’s invitation to you Matt 11:28 "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”                  

 

 

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