Benediction Online

Sunday, October 04, 2009

St Francis of Assisi

Today we are honoring the memory of St Francis of Assisi. Mostly we think of St Francis as a friend of animals and birds, so that’s why we choose his day to especially honor our companion animals. But there is much more to his story. Francis was born at the end of the 12th century, one of seven children whose father was a wealthy cloth merchant. Francis became a troubadour and lived a busy and affluent life until he began to have spiritual experiences. For a while this led him to nurse lepers and then one day he heard the voice of Jesus telling him to repair the church. Francis took this quite literally and much to his father’s annoyance, sold his horse and a great deal of cloth to pay to rebuild the church he was praying in at the time.

Shortly after this, when he was about 28, Francis dedicated himself to a life of poverty and started to travel around with a group of followers, preaching repentance and the Kingdom of God. This was the beginning of what we now know as the Franciscan order, which has of course had a tremendous influence upon California through the establishment of the missions. Francis did not intend to create a monastic order. Whereas St Benedict emphasized living in community and staying in one place, the original Franciscans were transient beggars. I am going to return to this but first here are a couple more interesting things about Francis; he was the first person to create a three-dimensional crèche at Christmas, which he did using live animals with a manger between them filled with straw. And in 1219 he went to Egypt and attempted to convert Muslims. This is pretty amazing because this was the time of the Crusades when Muslims were basically seen as enemies to be killed. He was unsuccessful but made a good impression and developed a relationship of respect with the Sultan Melek-el-Kamel. As a result, at the end of the Crusades, the Franciscans were the only Catholics allowed to stay on in the Holy Land when it was claimed as Muslim territory.

So back to the original Franciscans who were beggars. They chose to live in poverty because they believed that this brought them closer to God, that poverty was an aspect of holiness. In a passage a little before the one we just heard from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus sends the disciples out on mission and tells them not to take anything with them. St Francis took this literally and personally. He took to the road, preaching, with nothing.
This idea that holiness and poverty are connected is one of two quite different approaches in the Bible and Christian tradition towards money. The other is the idea we often hear expressed in the Psalms and other books of the Old Testament, that God blesses with prosperity those who follow God’s laws. This has been developed into a whole prosperity theology where people are motivated to follow God by thinking that they will be better off financially. If you follow that to its natural conclusion it suggests that all good Christians are rich.

So holiness involves poverty OR holiness results in being rich. Which is right?
I would like to think that holiness makes one rich! But of course, Jesus was not rich and you can’t get much holier than that.

I think it may be one of those ‘you can’t get there from here’ questions.

But as 21st century Christians, what do we think about money?
Some of us feel that spirituality and money are two quite different things. We don’t come to church to talk about money. Money is perhaps dirty in some way. I have a friend who thought that priests wash their hands just before celebrating the Eucharist because they needed to wash off the dirt of the collection plate!

I want to suggest to you that our attitude to money is integral to our spirituality. Because spirituality is not something holy that happens only on Sundays or only in certain activities like prayer and Bible Study. Spirituality pervades every part of our lives. The way we look after our homes, the way we spend our time, the quality of our relationships and how we use money. Money is a medium of exchange. It is a convenient way to exchange time and goods without having to barter. Put another way, money is energy that we exchange with others. So money is always relational.

By living as a beggar, St Francis had to depend on God to provide for him – through other people. That is the same for all of us. We know that money is not security. Even if we have plenty on the bank we are still dependent upon God because it is God who supplies all our needs, not the financial system which as we have recently seen, is very vulnerable.

We have been given different skills and abilities and some of us are more rewarded for our skills than others. But even those of us who are financially rewarded for what we can do are living in pride and denial if we think that we are providing for ourselves and our families without God being involved. God gave us the skills and talents that we have and God has provided the opportunities for us to use them. Our lives are very fragile and when we continue in good fortune we can be grateful to God for what Garrison Keiler has called ‘the good times of our lives’.

Others of us are not living in the good times. We are living in hard times and money is difficult to come by. Does this mean that God loves us less? Not at all – the gospels suggest that God actually has a very special place in her heart for those who are poor and struggling. God’s blessing comes in many ways and financial prosperity is NOT an indication of how much God loves you, nor how special you are.

So as followers of Christ we know that we are dependent upon God for everything, and that includes money. We have been given everything we have. It is not ours but a gift held in stewardship. This is radical thinking. Just as it was radical for St Francis to leave his wealthy family and become a beggar, so it is radical for us to turn our thinking 180 degrees and understand that we are completely dependant upon God not just for health and longevity but in every area of our lives. This doesn’t mean for a moment that we give up our free will but that we are co-creators with God who is the Source; God who is the Source of all things.

The way we use the money we have is an indication of our values. When we are living in fear we will hold on to what we have and guard it jealously. When we are living entirely trusting in God we will be generous and able to share what we have with others. When we are truly confident that God’s love encompasses and holds us up then we will be able to give recklessly and without fear. Giving money away without tightly controlling how it is spent is a way of trusting in God’s loving care. When we give, we send a powerful message to our unconscious minds that we have enough and that we are trusting God. When we give, we imitate God, which is our highest calling.

I’m glad that we are not all called to become beggars, but St Francis’ life of simplicity and total dependence upon God has a great deal to teach us.


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