Sunday, 26 October 2014

The most important thing a human being can do

Jesus is nearing the cross and has entered Jerusalem in triumph on a donkey as the crowds cheered (21:1-11). He then prophetically attacks the temple administration as he overturns the money-changers’ tables (21:12-17). Then Jesus is confronted by a series of public confrontations and those hostile to Jesus ask him question after question to try to trip him up and expose him as a fraud, or get him in trouble with the authorities. So they come at him with the major controversies of the day- Is it right for faithful Jews to pay taxes to the oppressive occupying Roman forces? Is there an afterlife as the Pharisees believe, or is there none as the Sadducees believe?
They test him with yet another question. A Pharisee expert in the Law asks, "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" There are 613 commandments of the Old Testament. 248 positive “thou shalts” and 365 prohibitive “thou shalt nots”. The question is really about the heart of the commandments. What is the law all about?
Jesus answers, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” But Jesus doesn’t leave it with just the one greatest commandment, he adds the second greatest commandment as well- “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus gives the greatest and the second greatest commandment, but then to show how foundational these two commandments are he says “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets". He essentially says that these two greatest commandments are so important that if you remove them the entire laws falls apart. Those two commands are like the trunk of a tree that hold all the branches that are the rest of the laws.  If the trunk of the tree is removed there is nothing to hold the branches up.  Or think of it another way, Those two commands are like a closet rod and all the rest of the laws hang on that rod like shirts on clothes hangers. If the closet rod fell all the clothes fall too. Or, there’s another way to think of it, these two laws are like hinges on a door. Remove the hinges and the door is useless.   So loving God and loving your neighbour aren’t just important commands, without those two laws the rest of the laws are pointless. Love is Jesus’ way of understanding the Old Testament. If you read something in the Old Testament and you don’t see love you haven’t really understood it yet.
The law is about orienting your life towards God. The law isn’t really about being obedient to commands. The law is about a way of life that puts your life in line with God. Jesus says that way of life is really about love.  
The question becomes what is this love that Jesus is talking about? I love my wife. I love my children. I love chocolate. I love sleeping in. I love watching movies. I love the movie Princess Bride. The main character Wesley seems to be dead when they bring him to a kind of miracle doctor named Miracle Max. The doctor declares him “mostly dead” and therefore “slightly alive”. When Miracle Max fills Wesley’s lungs with air and asks him why he is still hanging on to life, Wesley wheezes “true love”. And Miracle Max responds “true love is the greatest thing in the world”.  Is this the kind of Love Jesus is talking about? If we want to really understand the Law we need to look to love. And, if we want to understand love, we need to look to Jesus. Jesus expresses the true depths of love.      
Our society uses the word “love” in all kinds of ways, but when we think of love in terms of Biblical love we often think of being “nice”. But, there are times when being nice is not being loving. If you live with someone who is addicted to drugs, being nice will allow them to continue on with their addiction without being confronted about it.  Niceness avoids conflict.  Love is willing to confront for the long term good of the person being confronted. Love is willing to confront the addict in the hopes that the person will find freedom from their addiction. The Theologian Stanley Hauerwas says, “This love can be harsh and dreadful, because to be loved by God is to be forced to know ourselves truly”.[1] Real love is difficult and hard. If we want to understand real love we look to Jesus. When Jesus confronts the Pharisees- that is what love looks like. Jesus turning over the money changers tables is love. Jesus teaching and healing is about love. When we look at Jesus on the cross, we see love.

Now I’d like to look at these two commands that Jesus says are the greatest. We should remember too, that Jesus says they are first and second- they are not equal. One is better than the other.  And it is important also to remember that Jesus doesn’t just say “love” in general is the key to the Law. He says first of all, primarily, foundationally, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the most important command in the Law. Essentially this is the most important thing a human being can do. If you were to imagine which Law is more important, “loving God…” or “do not murder”, Jesus tells us that “loving God” is the more important command to follow. Of course, loving God would also mean not murdering, but that is what it means for the laws to hang upon that greatest command to love God. St. Augustine thought this command to love God was so central and so foundational that he said, "Love God and do whatever you please".[2]
Jesus’ response to the question, “what is the greatest commandment?” is actually quite traditional. He refers to the Shema which has been said daily by faithful Jewish people for thousands of years. It is from Deuteronomy 6:5 and is as close to a creed as exists in Judaism.
So what does it mean to love God? Jesuit author, James Skehan says to love God is to be, “seized so completely by the love of God that all the desires of my heart and all the actions, affections, thoughts and decisions which flow from them are directed to God”.[3]  It is to live with a life effected by God’s reality in every area of our life. Our thoughts, our habits, our family, our money, our talents, our work, etc. All of it is ultimately directed to God. God is not a hobby we tag onto our life and our life would be pretty much the same with or without our belief in God. The kind of love Jesus is talking about places God central in our life, so that our life is oriented around God.

Jesus says the second most important command is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This response is also somewhat traditional. There was a famous Rabbi (Hillel 40BC- 10AD) from around the time Jesus was born who was asked to recite the whole law standing on one foot. He replied, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary”. It is negative in that he says “do not do”, whereas Jesus’ command is a positive act to “love”. This second greatest command is actually Jesus quoting from scripture- Leviticus 19:18.
It is interesting that Jesus is asked for the greatest command, but instead he gives the top two. It suggests that there is some kind of link between them. You cannot love God and not love what God loves. If you deeply and truly love God with your whole being you will love even enemies … because God loves them. Even if it comes at great cost to yourself. Even if it means death on a cross.  
We read about this connection between the love of God and the love of others in John’s first letter. In 1 John 4:7 we read, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. … God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. …20 Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (1 Jn 4:7-8, 16, 20-21)
Loving our neighbours isn’t about having warm feelings towards them. James 2:14-16 says, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,  and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” So love is more than nice feelings. It includes action. Really this is what we are hoping the Reach Campaign will be about. If we love God then we will orient our lives around God and God’s priorities. That means we will take God’s mission seriously. What does loving our neighbour look like in our parish? What does loving the children in our parish look like? It isn’t just having warm nice feelings towards children. I would say among other things it means providing resources to them that they can be brought up to be disciples of Jesus. What does it mean to love the suffering in our parish and surrounding community? Among other things that love looks like providing a team of trained pastoral care givers. What does it mean to love the Aboriginal people in our diocese who have experienced so much cultural destruction? Among other things I think it means freeing people like Travis Enright to build bridges and to facilitate reconciliation between our communities.  Ultimately I do think that the Reach campaign is a good example of what it means to love God and our neighbour beyond having nice feelings.
Love has action connected to it. If we love someone we will make decisions according to that love. When we marry someone we bind ourselves to that person and suddenly we can’t make decisions while ignoring the thoughts and desires of the other person. Our love for God and our neighbour is no less a demanding love. Just as we would never think about a major decision without consulting our spouse (if we are married), so we also will never make decisions without consulting God or considering our neighbour God loves so much. Really God is only asking us to reflect God’s love to us, which is really more than we can understand. That love looks like Jesus on the cross holding nothing back and being willing to give it all to show the extent of his love for us.      

[1] Commentary on Matthew,  192
[2] Tractatus VII, 8
[3] Place me with your son: Ignatian Spirituality in everyday life

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Healing Prayer- feast of St. Luke

Today we are celebrating the feast of St. Luke who was referred to by St. Paul as “the beloved physician”. Tradition tells us that he was a physician of the body, but the Gospel and the book of Acts he wrote also shows us that he was a physician of the soul. Today we pay particular attention to the ministry of healing as a part of our mission as Christians.
Healing was a continuous part of Jesus’ ministry. Wherever Jesus went he healed the sick as a sign of God’s compassion and a sign of the wholeness that comes with the kingdom of God. It seems like wherever he went he was healing people who suffered from a variety of illnesses.
Healing was also a part of the ministry of Jesus’ disciples. We read in Luke chapter 10 that Jesus sends out the 70 into the surrounding towns. Jesus says to them, “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you;  cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’“ (Luke 10:8-9) (See also Luke 9:1). We also see this ministry of healing continue in the book of Acts after Jesus ascends into heaven. Early in the book of Acts St. Peter and St. John were going to the temple to pray when they come across a man begging. Peter turns to him and says, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ (Acts 3:6). The man is completely healed and it starts a huge controversy with the authorities.
As disciples of Jesus we are also told to pray for healing. In the letter of James we read, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:14-16). 
We also have many stories from the lives of the saints about healing. There are stories from our own lives about people who receive healing in response to prayer. I have a friend who is a priest who once went to the hospital to pray for an elderly woman who was dying and anoint her with oil. He believed he was going to die and so did the medical staff. In the morning the phone rang and there was a voice on the other end asking, “what did you do to grandma?” The woman woke up the next morning with no serious problem. She went hope to England and sent him a Christmas card until she eventually passed away. There was a woman in this building a few weeks ago who told me about her cancer being healed in response to prayer in a very dramatic way. She was preparing for an operation and the cancer was gone.  I hear many of these kinds of stories. I have prayed for people and they have gotten well. No doubt God uses medications and various medical treatments and the wisdom of doctors and nurses and various other healing professionals. But, God also uses prayer.
In the book “Healing Words” Dr. Larry Dossey speaks about how as an agnostic medical doctor he was confronted by evidence of prayer’s effectiveness. He writes, “Over time I decided that not to employ prayer with my patients was the equivalent of deliberately withholding a potent drug or surgical procedure. … I simply could not ignore the evidence for prayer’s effectiveness without feeling like a traitor to the scientific tradition. And so, after weighing these factors for many months, I concluded that I would pray for my patients” (Dossey, xviii).
This might be a good time to mention that this is part of why it is so important that we develop a Pastoral Care group. This group can be a group of people that can provide constant prayer for those who are suffering. It is an important ministry and can be used by God to bring various kinds of healing.   
We also have to take seriously the fact that sometimes we pray and there is no healing.  St. Paul speaks about a thorn in his flesh that would not be healed (2 Cor. 12:7). In the Bible, Job is the ultimate example of a good person who suffers unjustly and does not receive healing. There are also many saints that die early deaths or who deal with constant illness. For example, St. Francis of Assisi was only 44 when he died and was nearly blind. When we pray sometimes people seem to be healed, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes people seem incredibly deserving of healing and don’t receive it. So prayer is not as simple as we might want it to be. There is a mystery here. It touches on the mystery of suffering.                      
The fact that prayer doesn’t always bring physical healing doesn’t refute the fact that sometimes it does bring healing. We don’t understand how it all works, but sometimes it works and so we should pray for healing while also understanding that there are deeper purposes that might mean healing will not always come.  There is a deeper purpose in suffering. For example, sometimes suffering can teach us patience. Hemingway once wrote, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places”.  Mysteriously sometimes suffering can have a positive effect on our soul. The healing and strengthening of our soul might be more important than our physical healing. But, we have to admit that sometimes we see no purpose in suffering. It is deeper and more mysterious than we can see.
Jesus performed some amazing acts of healing. He healed people that were born blind. We even read about Jesus bringing people back from the dead. The most famous of these was Lazarus, but there are others as well (Jairus’ daughter- Mark 5; The Widow’s son and Nain- Luke 7). Jesus healed people, but it is important to remember that eventually they all died. Physical healing is only temporary. So physical healing really only points towards a greater healing.   
What kind of healing ultimately matters? Jesus in his compassion and mercy is about healing the entire person, body, mind, spirit, but this isn’t just a matter of healing the individual. Jesus also desires the healing of social relationships, which is why he places such an emphasis on forgiveness. Jesus’ ultimate goal to heal the relationship between the world and God. Jesus’ physical healings (which are temporary) really foreshadow that great healing.
In Jesus we see humanity as it was meant to be- he is the fully healed human being. This is God’s desire for us as well. The church is ideally meant to be an instrument of God used to help heal the split between the world and God. We enter the church as broken, fallen, sick, and confused human beings, and through a variety of spiritual disciplines, and working in the power of the Holy Spirit, and following the teachings of Jesus, we enter the process of becoming healthy. 
We see this healing most clearly in the saints. They are the ones who have received the deep healing God is offering. They followed the way Jesus taught us and they have bee healed of their sin and in being healed show the Fruit of the Spirit- “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).
The theologian Paul Meyendorff says, “the very purpose of the Church is to heal us, to restore the rift between God and humanity which is caused by our sin and leads to death. This is achieved precisely when we are united to one another and to God in the body of Christ, which is the church”… “Jesus Christ is here asking for nothing less than the healing of the whole world, all humanity, all creation. This is achieved when we come to know Christ, when we become one with him and with one another. Everything that the church does, all its sacramental and liturgical life, all its teaching, is directed at restoring the proper relationship between God and creation, which has been corrupted through our sinfulness. This is the real meaning of Christian healing, and it involves the whole person, body, soul, and spirit.”[1]
Baptism is the ultimate sacrament of healing and is aimed at the whole person, body, soul, and spirit.  I love this Eastern Orthodox prayer over the baptismal waters: “Therefore O loving King, come now and sanctify this water by the indwelling of your Holy Spirit, and grant to it the grace of redemption, the blessing of Jordan; make it the fountain of incorruption, the gift of sanctification, the remission of sins, the remedy of infirmities…  Master of all, show this water to be the water of redemption, the water of sanctification, the purification of flesh and spirit, the loosing of bonds, the remission of sins, the illumination of the soul, the washing of regeneration, the renewal of the spirit, the gift of adoption to sonship, the garment of incorruption, the fountain of life …”[2]  That is the healing God wants for us.
            If God’s purpose for the church really has to do with healing, then baptism (as our entry into the church) is really at its core about healing. It is ultimately about healing our relationship with God. Baptism is primarily a healing sacrament. It is where we are set on the path of restoration and wholeness.  So I encourage you to mark yourself with the baptismal water today as a sign of embracing your baptism and the healing that began on the day you were baptized.  We do pray for healing. We pray for the healing of the entire person- body, mind, and soul. And we pray knowing that our ultimate healing is God’s desire for us. Amen  

[1] Paul Meyendorff, the anointing of the sick, p 19
[2] Meyendorff P21

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

God of the new

I remember a professor teaching a class on anxiety and I remember them saying something very interesting. They showed a list of things that cause anxiety, and on the list was the word “change”. The professor explained that it can be bad change (like the death of a loved one), or it can be good change (like a better job).  Change (good or bad) produces anxiety. Something that is new, is a change. (does that make sense?). If something is new then it is different than what had been. A new car, a new technique, a new dance, a new relationship, all of these are changes that can provoke a bit of anxiety in us. So something that is new, can automatically produce anxiety. So what we try to do to get rid of the anxiety is to get rid of the new thing and go back to something familiar, old, and comfortable.
This is actually one of our problems with God. Our God is constantly up to something new. This also means that for many of us God is going to constantly be making us anxious and nervous. God is constantly doing something new in our lives. God is constantly teaching us something new about ourselves, or He is teaching us something new about Him, or something new about following him. If you seriously read the Bible you will constantly be confronted with learning something new about God, or about what it means to follow God.  If we are earnestly seeking to love God, then we will constantly be confronting something new.
            Now I’m not saying that new is always good. I’m also not saying that new for the sake of new is good. But it does seem to be the case that God is into doing new things.  God is always doing something new. When God created the universe, it was a new thing. God Called Abraham and Sarah into a new place, and to start a new nation. Jesus speaks about new wine not fitting in in old wine skins.  Jesus speaks about a new covenant. Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about a new birth. Jesus gives his followers a new commandment, that they love one another as he loved them. Paul says that if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation. In Revelation we read about God creating a new heaven and a new earth. (My prof. from seminary, John Bowen, brought my attentions to all this newness in the Bible). God is always up to something new. God is not static. God is always ahead of us blazing a trail for us to follow. We are always playing catch up with God.
One of my Professors at seminary once asked how we visualize God. What picture comes to mind? You might have Michelangelo’s painting come to mind where God as an old man with white hair and a big beard reaches out to create Adam. It has become a stereotype- God as the old bearded man in the sky. My professor, John Bowen, pointed out that when God revealed himself most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ he appeared as a 30 year old man at the height of his powers. Jesus does not present an image of God to us as one stuck in his ways and nervous about change. Through Jesus we see a God who is on the move and leading us on new paths. 
As a God that is about newness and change we might be constantly in a state of anxiety. God is challenging. God will challenge you to change your character. God will challenge you to get involved in a new ministry. God will challenge you to deal with your emotional wounds to enter a new state of emotional health. It has been said that Jesus brings discomfort to the comfortable.
            In our reading from Exodus 32 God has brought the Hebrew people into something new. They had been slaves for hundreds of years. And now they have been rescued through a series of miracles. The people who had no power as slaves under the foot of Pharaoh now had the power of God rescuing them. They left the life of slavery they knew and were on their way to a new land and were being made into a new people.  God gave them a law to show them how to be this new people. At this point in our reading Moses has been on top of the mountain with God and the people have grown impatient. They gather around Aaron and they say to him, "Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." They ask for gods to be made, and Aaron collects gold from them to create a golden calf.  They return to the worship they knew in Egypt. But, God told them not to create a graven image. God cannot be limited by a visual form. God was calling them into a new way of worshipping. God was not just another god among the Egyptian pantheon. God was showing them a new category of God. God was breaking their image of divinity and replacing it with something new. The people were avoiding the anxiety of something new by returning to old comfortable ways of worshipping. They may have left the physical place of slavery, but that slavery was still in their heart. They were comfortable as slaves. God was calling them to something new, but that new thing produces anxiety even if it is good. Constantly the Hebrew people will grumble against God and Moses yearning for Egypt. Their whole time wandering in the wilderness is about God trying to get the slavery out of their hearts so that they will be able to enter the new Promised Land as God’s new people.   
            God enters into a new relationship with this people. God even allows himself to be hurt by their actions. God allows himself to have a level of vulnerability. He has essentially married these people and now so soon into the relationship they have damaged it.  God opens Himself up to be influenced by their actions, and by the words of Moses.           
            God hasn’t stopped doing new things, and we haven’t stopped wanting comfort. We sometimes resist newness in the desire to resist the anxiety that newness brings. In our individual lives if we are seeking God we will be drawn into new understandings and new actions. As a church, if we are seeking God we will be drawn into newness. That means that the Church will be in a constant state of change.
Now I have another assignment today, which is to talk about the Reach campaign, which the bishop has called us to.  The Reach campaign is an opportunity for us to dream a bit bigger. It is a chance for us to wonder what new thing God might be calling us to. This will challenge us in all kinds of ways. It will challenge us because some of us will be called to get involved in new ministries perhaps working with youth or children, or perhaps offering care for the suffering. We will be challenged to think outside of our own parish and do some new things as a group of churches, as a diocese, and as a national church. We will be challenged to perhaps a new level of generosity. But, I also recognize that this can come with a certain level of anxiety.
But, regardless, we are being asked to do something new. Some people have very generously offered their time, talent, and treasure to this campaign. Ed Paul has volunteered to take on the ministry of being our fearless leader. And there are others who are very generously offering themselves to this new thing. It is not an easy thing to do. It is a new thing for most of us who are involved in the campaign. They have been asked to visit others in the parish. This is a new thing that can cause a lot of anxiety. Some of you have been contacted already and have had a visit with a member of the Reach team. Many more of you will be in contact with a team member and they will be giving you the opportunity to be involved in something new.
I ask you to please be gentle with those who are contacting you. They are doing something that can be quite anxiety producing. Please be gentle with them. Regardless of how you feel about the Reach campaign we are still called to love each other and to treat each other with respect.  Those who are volunteering their time for this Reach campaign are doing so out of a love for God and a love for God’s church. They believe that we are being called into something new, even if it produces anxiety. God is calling us forward into something new. God is calling us to do something more than just survive by paying the heating bill and keeping the church roof over our heads. The church is not called to just survive. The church is called to be a blessing. It is called to movement- and to mission.          
When someone contacts you from Reach please receive them in the Spirit of Christ- as a brother or sister. Receive them in love and respect. You might not agree with the Reach campaign, but as Christians we are called to treat even enemies with love and grace, so how much more our own brothers and sisters in Christ. You might have a problem with me, or with others in the congregation, or with the diocese, or the national church, fine, but please receive those contacting you with love and respect.
It is truly okay to disagree with the Reach campaign. Those who are contacting you are not there to push you. They are there to give you information and to answer questions. They will let you know what we are planning on doing at St. Timothy’s as a part of the Reach campaign. They will let you know what the diocese plans on doing as a part of the Reach campaign. And they will let you know about what we plan on doing on the national level.  The people who will be contacting you are there to offer you an opportunity to be a part of this new thing. They will invite you to consider giving a gift.  It’s not an easy thing to ask people because newness causes anxiety. So please respond when people contact you. Even if you respond with a “no thank you I’m not interested”. No one will think less of you. We don’t want to cause resentment or hurt.  You don’t have to believe in it or even give to it, but please respond when they approach you and hear them out. … Sometimes that anxiety can become excitement if we offer it to God.  
I am very thankful for all those who are helping with the Reach campaign, and I am very thankful for those of you that have so generously offered your treasure to support this new thing.

I do believe that God is up to something new at St. Timothy’s.  God is constantly up to something new. In each of our lives he is calling into newness. He’s calling us to take one more step in following him. He is challenging us to constantly grow and mature. He’s calling us as a congregation to discern where he is leading and it is always going to be a new place for us. And that new thing will cause us anxiety, but if we offer that to God in trust he can transform that anxiety into excitement. We will learn that wherever God is leading us, he is leading us into a new place, not for His benefit, but ultimately for ours. More than anything he desires us, but he loves us too much to leave us where we are. He wants to lead us closer to him as we learn to have our souls shaped into the image of Jesus. amen  

Monday, 6 October 2014

Saint Francis

Early in the 13th century Pope Innocent lll had a dream. He dreamt that the cathedral in Rome was beginning to collapse, but there was a young man who held it up and kept it from collapsing. He recognized the man as the leader of a group of dirty beggars he had dismissed the day before. The man was Francis of Assisi.

Before becoming the leader of this group of beggars Francis also had a vision about a building. Francis was in an old church, San Damiano. While he was praying he heard Jesus speak to him from the crucifix at the front of the church. The voice said, "Francis, Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins." Francis was a man of simplicity and he was learning obedience so he began repairing the old church and raised the funds by selling some of his father’s fabric. (His father was a wealthy cloth merchant).

The pope’s dream was not about the actual cathedral building needing a carpenter, and Francis’ vision was not really about fixing an old church building. God was going to use Francis to bring renewal to the church as a group of people, not a building.

There was a growing sense that the church of Francis’ day had grown away from the origins of Jesus and his Apostles. The church was very rich, it was very political, it was full of ceremonies few understood, and so it must have felt like God was not very accessible. The church seemed more about institution than about spirituality. Francis’ life helped to rebuild the church because of his passionate and personal love of God, his obedience to the words of Christ, his life of simplicity, his passionate love of people (especially the poor), and his love for God’s creation.

Anyone who looks at the life of Francis knows that one of the marks of his life was joy. He was genuinely happy. That joy came from his profound faith. Francis had a passionate and personal love of God. He believed God was personal and intimate and he spoke to God in prayer often. You might know that Francis invented the crèche- the nativity scene people set up with hay and statues of animals. Francis wanted people to understand that God came to us humbly and personally as one of us. Francis had a personal and intimate relationship with Jesus and he wanted that for others as well.

He really truly believed in a God that loved him with an eternal love. He knew that the world and his existence were in the hands of a just and good God. He believed that God was good- better than he could possibly imagine and so he trusted Him. Francis knew that even if he died while following God, it would be alright because the world was sustained by an infinitely loving God. I think Francis knew what Jesus meant when he said “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”. Francis released the anxieties and fears of the world (the human system that tries to exist apart from God) as he embraced Jesus and Jesus’ way of life. The life Francis lived might seem to us to be a heavy yoke- a hard way of life, but I think if we asked Francis, he would tell us that he took off the heavy yoke when he took off the anxieties and the fears most people live with on a daily basis. Francis led a joy-filled life embracing the teachings of Jesus.

In his desire to follow the words of Christ literally Francis embraced a life of poverty. He knew what it was like to have wealth. 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. In his desire to follow Christ he sold some of his father’s cloth to pay for repairs to a church. He was eventually dragged to court by his father as a crazy person for attempting to give away his family’s possessions.

Francis 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 be respected and wealthy. This is what it means to be successful. We’re not so different in our expectations. What does it mean to be “successful” in our world? We need to be highly educated. 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. Instead of embracing the wealth of his father, Francis embraced poverty and simplicity. Francis and his followers showed the world a way of life that trusted in God’s provision to feed them even as God feeds the birds of the air.

Francis was also passionate about his love for people. He identified himself with the poor in his poverty and worked to help them. In a church that seemed to be more concerned with politics, Francis embraced the poor. He recalled the moment his heart was changed by God. He encountered a leper, and like most of society he was repulsed by lepers. God changed him. Francis went to the leper and kissed him and after that he began working among them.

Francis’ love for God spilled over to the people around him, but it didn’t stop there. Francis loved God’s creation and embraced creatures as his fellow brothers and sisters. In Francis’ Canticle of the Sun he describes the creation praising God and he describes the sun as Brother Sun, the moon as Sister Moon, and he goes on with Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire, Sister Mother Earth, and he even added Sister Death. Though Francis believed the world was a fallen world, he also believed the world was essentially good- it retained some of the original goodness God created it with. He did not reject the world as evil and something to escape from.

Francis’ love of animals stems from his belief in God’s goodness as the creator, and he saw animals as his fellow creatures- Created like himself. They were his brothers and sisters. There are many stories about Francis and animals. My favorite is the story about the wolf of Gubbio. Where Francis makes peace between a fierce wolf and a town that lives in fear of it. Eventually the wolf becomes sort of the town pet.

The thing that fascinates me most about Francis is his amazing determination to live out the teachings of Jesus as literally as possible. He was incredibly obedient to the words of Jesus. When Francis and a few of his followers were seeking God’s guidance they opened the Gospel three times randomly. First, they opened to Matt 19:21 and read Jesus’ words to the rich man, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me". Then they opened to Luke 9:3 and read about Jesus directions to the disciples he was sending out, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.” Then they turned to Matt 16:24 when Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Francis was always inclined towards literal obedience and so Francis and his followers embraced those passages and tried to live them as literally as they could, which meant they embraced a life of poverty.

Francis was a fantastic imitator of Jesus. The more he followed his commands, the more Christ-like he became. I remember hearing about a vision someone had about Francis. They saw Jesus walking along on a beach. Many people followed him like little children, trying to place their feet in his footsteps. Imagine these streams of Christians through the centuries all following the path that Jesus set down- all trying to walk in this footsteps. We’re all walking in the sand, trying to put our feet in his footsteps. In this vision those who did the best were the saints, but they still walked with poor balance. Then came Francis, who walked in his footsteps almost effortlessly. He walked in the footsteps of Jesus with wreckless love and trust, which is really the only way you can.

One of my favourite movies is about St. Francis. It’s called "Brother Sun, Sister Moon". 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. This reaction is appropriate because people react to Francis' life that way too. 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 do some things that don’t seem rational to most people. He 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 the undesirables of society. He said if you follow him you need to pick up your instrument of torture and execution- your cross- and follow him. People either loved him or thought he was crazy or dangerous. Jesus asked people to do strange things.

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:
“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, but I think I know what he is saying. What Jesus asks of us is often challenging and difficult, and so it’s easier to discuss it than obey it. It’s easier to find a way to wiggle around it than live it. 

Francis was aware of this desire to reinterpret plain commands as well. We are would rather put effort into reinterpreting a command to make it easier to follow rather than simply obey it. Francis feared people would reinterpret the rule he wrote for the Franciscan brothers and so he wrote into the rule the following,
“And in all the chapters they hold, when they read the Rule let them read these words also. And I strictly enjoin on all my brothers, clerics and laics, by obedience, not to put glosses on the Rule or on these words saying: Thus they ought to be understood; but as the Lord has given me to speak and to write the Rule and these words simply and purely, so shall you understand them simply and purely and with holy operation observe them until the end.”
The German Theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said something similar. He refers to the text 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. In referring to the way in which we try to wiggle out of obeying a command he says,
"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'." (Cost of Discipleship).

Francis, if he ever erred, it was in following Christ’s commands as literally as possible. 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".

Francis is so attractive because in his obedience and imitation he reflects Jesus. Near the end of his life Francis received the stigmata- the supernatural wounds of Christ on his hands and feet. His Christ-likeness was even found on his physical body.

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, and those on the fringe of society. Perhaps it shouldn’t make sense in terms of conventional wisdom. Francis seemed crazy to the people of His town. Jesus came and told us that the world is upside down, and so to the world, Jesus and his followers look upside down.

I think the main lesson we can learn from Francis today is to learn to love God recklessly, and let that love spill over to everyone and everything around you. The more you love God the more love you will have to give. In that love Francis learned an ability to trust and follow the words of Jesus- without fear. What if we obeyed Jesus’ words without fear? It’s not going to make sense to the world, but so what? Let’s live the upside down life. 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. Francis followed and found joy there. He found that it led to a face to face encounter with the living Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
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