Second Sunday after Pentecost – Genesis 18:1-15; Matthew 9:35-10:16; Sent by Jesus: Finding Our Way – I imagine he pretty much had his way as a young man. Sparkling intelligent eyes and a broad grin. Friendly, confident, charismatic. A leader from his youth, with dreams of grandeur. We know Francesco Bernadone lived extravagantly, generously, bordering on excess with his family’s money. His mother wealthy from birth. His father by commercial success. They solidified social prominence, buying up lands of others more poor and vulnerable. Amid a late 12th century society racked with war and fear, often fueled by religion—like the Crusades. One biographer noted, Francesco did little with his life until he was twenty-four. That’s when winds of war blew through his home city, Assisi, and swept him into battle against neighboring Perugia. Captured, imprisoned for years, Francis came out disillusioned, physically sick, emotionally distraught, feeling there must be more to life than the cruelty and aggression he saw and felt inside. More than guarding pride, possessions, and privilege. More than a greedy obsession with money he watched consume his father’s soul. After weeks in bed, assessing his life, he ventured forth leaning on a cane. The whole world seemed changed. He came to realize perspectives and expectations changed within himself. He met a leper, began working in a small church, and soon renounced his possessions and social status. He heard the part of Matthew’s gospel we read today—Jesus’ missionary instruction. It propelled St. Francis on a very different lifelong crusade—a pilgrim journey of humble poverty, proclaiming a message of peace in God’s love.[i]
Francis heard Jesus send him out like the twelve. And it seems he took Jesus’ guidelines quite literally. Take no gold or silver, no suitcase or food, no extra clothes or sandals. No staff to defend yourself. Only words and the peace you bear in your heart. What is Jesus thinking?! Why so minimalist, so seemingly unprepared? If this is the outline for his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective Disciples, in our culture, I don’t think it’d be a bestseller. Many people will say I’m not going that way! Don’t the Warren Buffet, Joanne K. Rowling, Bill Gates, and LeBron James success stories tell us to be self-sufficient, compete, and capitalize? Counter to accepted values, assumptions, expectations of our society, is Jesus glorifying poverty? Is he encouraging people to soak the system and live lazy off others’ hard work? Does it mean that to follow Jesus we too need to remain so literally destitute? We want to serve as his presence with his loving power of resurrection! We want to get to the core of his living faith! What does it really take to get near, as close as we can to God’s Kingdom, the Holy Commonwealth he proclaimed?
We’re still far away … on the worship calendar, at least. In this season of Pentecost, we’re sent to be the Body of the Risen Christ, as Paul says in the Bible, until his realm comes in fullness. We’ll reach Reign of Christ Sunday around Thanksgiving. 24 weeks. Does it seem that far away … in our real lives every day? When on the same day this week two more mass shootings grip our nation from coast to coast, from Congressional leaders to common UPS workers. When at our church picnic two weeks ago a woman tells one of us she’s from out of town. Her daughter was killed in the stabbing just days before. Now she needs a way to get back home. And we feel pretty sure the three dollars in our pocket aren’t going to change her world much! But we don’t know how to help.
Proclaim the kingdom of heaven has come near, Jesus said. Does it seem far away? When caustic acrimony from elected leaders, reverberating through pundits and social media, seems to poison our hearts, our hopes, even our most beloved relations, causing more and more division not reconciliation? Does God’s realm seem far away when income inequality couples with poor educational opportunity, poor health, and spiraling complications ending in statistics of low life expectancy? Does God’s reign of peace seem far away amid family disputes, health diagnoses, other personal anxieties, insecurities, and fear we feel? And on this Father’s Day, what about relationships we celebrate and give thank for, and maybe grieve the loss of, or perhaps try to reconcile our lives with like St. Francis with his father long ago?
If the heavenly reign God imagines and Jesus tries to embody is so often about transcending boundaries, healing divisions. If it’s the way to empower abundant life in all people however “fortunate” or not. If shared prosperity and fullness of peace Jesus sought through sacrifice and God intends for all people and creation is our goal. Friends, how do we get there?
At a conference many years ago, another participant said to me out of the blue, “You know, I bet you’d be a good Franciscan.” I was too surprised and ignorant to even ask what that meant. I knew it was probably better than being a Martian! But at that time, I knew little about St. Francis. Little more than legends about him preaching to birds, cows, wolves, and starting the first crèche scene on a hillside at Christmas. Who knows what that other person observed? I’m confident on this Father’s Day, a few people in my home are pleased I’m not a Franciscan monk! Still after what I’ve learned about St. Francis since, the association sticks with me as inspiration. Here’s a few examples, perhaps relevant to issues that persist in our time.
Francis was raised in upper Assisi, among the upper class majores. In the lower part of town lived the lower class minores. Francis moved even further down, into the plain below Assisi where lepers lived with others society deemed unacceptable, unworthy, or shameful for various reasons. There he found ruins of a small church, owned by the Benedictines. Francis rebuilt the ruins to become the birthplace, the inspiring home for the Franciscan Order of Brothers Minor.[ii]
As part of his own faith, St. Francis honored and respected Islam. On one missionary journey, he tried to stop crusaders from attacking Muslims. He was captured again, by Egyptians. He met with the Sultan, who also sought peace. Together they talked about prayer, faith, and mystical spirituality. In his Rule, Francis urges friars who travel to Muslim lands to avoid argumentative disputes, and to accept local authority, even if it means making themselves vulnerable.[iii]
Simplicity and humility, reverence for God and fellowship with others, ecumenism, ecology, interdependence. According to Richard Rohr, these hallmarks define Franciscan faith, whose motto is ‘Peace and All Good!’[iv] Rohr tells how Francis lay dying and said, “I have done what is mine; may Christ teach you what is yours!” Friends, I believe we can only change the world when we have changed ourselves. We can only give to others who we are and what God does in us. Beyond mental logic we must be an answer to questions of life we face. Francis walked to the edge of social acceptance, of fear and vulnerability. And he leads us to find living faith at the edges of our journeys in the compassionate way, the hopeful way, the grace and peace-filled way of Jesus Christ.[v]
Is there something that might stick with us all as inspiration in the way of St Francis, as a kind of fore-father in our living faith? Friends, Jesus sends us out like Francis. Of course, finding our way isn’t so much about where we go particularly. Not so much a question of geography like getting directions from Google maps, or picking our favorite voice on the navigation system. More a matter of how we travel together; the orientation of our hearts, listening for God’s voice through the landscape of experiences we encounter. More than particular waypoints we reach it’s the ultimate destination of God’s realm we’re all heading for together. More than the specific direction we go—north, south, east, west—it’s about the compass inside our deepest core of being magnetically drawn to God’s love in Jesus Christ.
Jesus sends us out. And what do we think would be his instructions for us now, in our time? Does it translate literally amid the abundance of our prosperity? Would Jesus commission us to leave behind our credit cards and comfortable cars? What about granola bars, fruit and other snacks for the road? What about our smartphones, tablets, and laptops? As you may know, a group from our church is getting ready to walk El Camino de Santiago this September. Do you think we’d make it happily with these packing guidelines from Jesus? I mean I’m urging people to pack light, but let’s not get carried away! We also need to be prepared.
And that’s just it! Do we see? Jesus tries to get us prepared! So, friends, what do we need to pack, in mind and heart, to really find our way, to guide our feet and words in paths of peace? Even when we’re like sheep amid wolves; even keeping our peace when rejected? Jesus tells us what not to pack. Maybe Matthew lost his list of what to bring along! Based on everything else Jesus says, I imagine it’d be something like this. Pack generous compassion offered to anyone. Too often, we hear voices in our world of Scrooge-like parsimonious criticism. And if we’re honest, they’re voices in our own head, and from our lips at times. Don’t pick out faults and criticize failings. Find mercy more than merit and condemnation. Find complements to offer. Find gratitude to express. Find hope to encourage. Find beauties and goodness even amid ugliness. And we’ll find our way closer to realm of peace where Jesus sends us.
Along with generous compassion and mercy, pack interdependency more than self-sufficiency. Truth is, friends, we need one another. No one makes it alone. That illusion is what Jesus wants us to leave behind with his “no” list. And that’s what being welcomed or shaking off dust, wise as serpents and innocent as doves, is really all about. How do we connect? How well does our good news fit other people’s lives, without being forced? Friends, we know we can’t coerce faith. We know others claim absolutist truth or act like snakes in the grass to get ahead. Don’t be naïve. Yet don’t assume we need to play the game and live the same way. As St. Francis found, often living faith is about adjusting our perception and expectations. Trust people receive good news of God’s love—that they’ll be convinced, inspired, touched and transformed—by how we act with grace as much as what we say. Find confidence, humility, forgiveness so crucial to human relationships. And if it’s not going well, find enough centeredness in God to “not make a scene, shrug our shoulders and be on our way” as Eugene Peterson describes. And we’ll find our way closer to the realm of peace where Jesus sends us.
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.” By this time, Jesus knows well that pilgrim journey of ministry—teaching, preaching, healing, proclaiming God’s reign … even amid threatening wolves. As he met crowds in many cities and villages, Matthew tells us, he was moved with compassion, because they were vulnerable and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. Did we catch that connection? Jesus observes crowds of people like sheep with no one to care, to lead them. So he sends his closest friends and followers, to serve by becoming like them, one with them—sheep, in the midst of wolves. Find shared vulnerability in the power of divine love and we’ll find our way closer to the realm of peace where Jesus sends us.
Friends, in our own lives, among people we love, and in our wider world don’t we know a need for peace to come upon us all. Isn’t that what we seek when we come here and in our lives with God everywhere? In some ways, I lament the loss of presumed respect and cultural leadership the church has had in times past. And I still love the church. I love this beautiful church—the walls, windows, worship we share. But friends, I’m not interested in guarding our status, maintaining privilege and power, even preserving this sanctuary, all for its own sake. Maybe Jesus’ commission and the witness of people like St. Francis can inspire us. Maybe it can instill in us credibility that speaks to people’s hearts—grace that empowers and loving service that embodies the reign of God. Maybe beyond any perception of decline we have an opportunity to define again who we are.
Jesus asked: Will you come and follow me? And now he sends us to share the good news and invite others into the abundant life God intends for all. As we offer others a listening ear and a caring heart. As we tutor and serve meals, or fix up someone’s home. As we try to witness to what’s right in God’s grace for our society. We may go where we don’t know, we may risk a hostile stare, we may need to leave ourselves behind or love the self we hide, and quell fears inside. Dear friends, with generosity and compassion, mercy, and vulnerability, together depending on the company of one another we’ll find the way into the fullness of God’s peace.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] See Francis and Clare : the Complete Works in The Classics of Western Spirituality series, translation and introduction by Regis Armstrong and Ignatius Brady, preface by John Vaughn (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), xi, 3-4.
[v] See Richard Rohr’s Daily Mediation from the Center for Action and Contemplation, June 12, 2017 – https://cac.org/nothing-regret-god-uses-everything-favor-2017-06-12/