Saint Francis Day
Matthew 6:25-34 (The Living Bible)
"So my counsel is: Don't worry about things-food, drink, and clothes.
For you already have life and a body-and they are far more important than what to eat and wear.
Look at the birds! They don't worry about what to eat-they don't need to sow or reap or store up food-for your heavenly Father feeds them. And you are far more valuable to him than they are.
Will all your worries add a single
moment to your life?
Yet King Solomon in all his glory was not clothed as beautifully as they.
And if God cares so wonderfully for flowers that are here today and gone tomorrow,
won't he more surely care for you, O men
of little faith?
For they take pride in all these things and are deeply concerned about them.
But your heavenly Father already knows perfectly well that you need them,
and he will give them to you if you give
him first place in your life and live as he wants you to.
At one of our Thursday evening gatherings, a church member talked about her husband for a little while, ďHe was in the army,Ē she said. ďA sense of honor has always been very important to him. So when we were first married, we scrimped and saved in those early years so that we would have some money to put into what he called the ďgo-to-hellĒ fund. So if anyone told him to do something that went against his sense of honor, he would know that he didnít have to do it; he would have enough money in the go-to-hell fund that we could get along even without that job, and he could just walk out the door if he needed to. He never needed to use the go-to-hell fund, but he knew he had it.Ē That was all she said.
But it didnít actually surprise me that her husband never needed to use his go-to-hell fund. It might have been just a coincidence that during a long military career, her husband just happened to have good luck with all his bosses. Or it might have been that just knowing that he had his go-to-hell fund made a difference. I expect that a man who knows he has a go-to-hell fund has a slightly different way of looking people in the eye. I expect that a man who knows he has a go-to-hell fund has a slightly different way of walking into a room. That difference is probably not the sort of thing peopleís conscious minds could identify, but we all respond to subtle cues in other peopleís behavior. I expect that the people who wanted to gain power for themselves with schemes that involved lying or cheating, and needed people to carry out those schemes, simply looked elsewhere for people to manipulate.
Some people sacrifice their integrity in order to gain more power. But as I thought about this manís go-to-hell fund, I realized that nobody has power over a man with a go-to-hell fund. No matter how much other people outrank him, a man with a go-to-hell fund cannot be pushed around. A man with a go-to-hell fund is, in a very real sense, the most powerful person in the entire institution.
Because he is seeking integrity first, and not power, he gets both integrity and power. Because he is seeking righteousness first, the other things are given to him as well.
A person of integrity may have to make some unpopular decisions. He may not get all the attention that the schemers manage to get for themselves. But over time, there are people who notice things like quality and integrity, and respect them, and are drawn to them. Although a person of integrity may not be ďpopularĒ in the flashy sense, he often finds that over time the finest people in the institution have become his friends.
Today we are celebrating the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis grew up in a life of privilege as the son of a rich cloth merchant. As a young man, he enjoyed all the comforts and pleasures and advantages of wealth and class. But after a spiritual awakening, he realized that luxuries were not the road to true joy. He became disgusted with the bloated consumption of the rich, and his own participation in it.
So he simply walked out the door. He gave up his inheritance, his good prospects, his popularity. According to legend, he wanted to be free of all the trappings of wealth, and in the middle of the public square he just peeled off all the expensive clothes his father had provided, and walked off naked. Someone hastily covered him with a plain brown peasantís robe and it became a symbol of his poverty. He went out into nature to live a life of radical simplicity: serving the poor, living the way the gospel taught, not the way of consumerism.
I wondered whether St. Francis had his own version of the go-to-hell fund the day he walked away from all his fatherís riches. I wondered whether he knew deep within his soul that he would be able to get along without the money and the status, because his soul had something of much more value than his possessions. So when the culture told him to do things that went against his the teachings of Jesus, he knew that he didnít have to do it; he could leave the property behind and just walk out the door.
I had always been a little uncomfortable with the idea of heavenly treasures. For one thing, it is a teaching that can easily be misused to exploit the poor and keep them poor. But also the whole idea of God giving out heavenly rewards seemed a little distasteful. As a parent, Iíve had my share of desperate moments in which I was willing to promise my kids some future reward if they could just behave for five minutes, but that kind of parenting seemed a little beneath Godís dignity.
But when I heard this layperson talking about her husbandís go-to-hell fund, and the freedom it gave him, it seemed to me that when Jesus talks about heavenly treasure, heís actually telling us each of us, ďListen, you have a go-to-hell fund! If anyone asks you to do something you know is wrong, you donít have to do it.Ē And knowing we have a go-to-hell fund gives us an extraordinary freedom. It means that nobody has power over us. Nobody can push us around. Nobody can make us do anything we donít believe in.
Most people think it would be great if they could manage to live a life of generosity, service to the needy, deep holiness, great compassion. But we think we canít because of all the things we have to do: we have to have security, we have to have more money, we have to keep up with this or that expectation. What makes the saints compelling is that they show that it is possible to live a life in which you donít have to do anything. You stop worrying about having enough, and simply focus on loving God and loving your neighbor.
The saints travel light. And when you travel light, you realize that you never really needed all the baggage youíve been carrying around. When youíre not worried about lugging around all the baggage, you are free to enjoy the trip, appreciate the scenery, talk and laugh with your companions on the journey, and all the interesting people you meet along the way.
Society had told Francis about all the things he had to have, had to do, had to be. These were very powerful forces. But when he left all those things behind, he realized that they didnít have any power over him anymore. He didnít need them. And instead of worrying about owning beautiful objects, he found a new appreciation for the beauty of sky and water and animals and plants which God freely gives us. Instead of worrying about competing for status or recognition with important people, he focused on loving and serving the lowly and the poor, and saw Christ in them.
There were plenty of people who thought Francis was absolutely insane. They insulted and criticized him. People were openly hostile to him. His kind of radical simplicity, poverty, and faith were not popular. People always have very mixed reactions to the saints, because the saints do the things that are our deepest fearsÖ.and our deepest desires.
But over time there were people who noticed the sincerity of his faith, the joy of his love, the humility of his service. They noticed that the forces that were supposed to rule the worldóeconomic forces, political forces, cultural forces, family forcesósimply had no power over Francis. Other young men wondered whether they too could leave behind their possessions, the things they thought they needed, and seek the kingdom of God instead. They realized that they had in themselves a go-to-hell fund. A girl named Clare, who had been told that this kind of life was not an option for a girl, refused to let her gender hold her back, and cashed in her go-to-hell fund. And as Francis and his companions left behind the things they used to think they needed, they found treasures beyond their imaginations. The trifles of their society couldnít hold a candle to the radiant joy and love that shone through their lives.
The Franciscans were willing to be insulted and excluded by their society, and since they didnít care about popularity, they found the deep friendship of community with each other and compassion for humanity. In fact, they grew into a monastic order that spanned the globe, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, welcoming the outcast. Everywhere they went, they reminded people that there is another way to live. In numerous ways, the Franciscans changed the world. Today, we have long since forgotten the names of all the most wealthy and prominent cloth merchants in 12th century Italy. But 800 years later, one of the most beloved saints in Christian history is Francis.
Iím not going to stand in the pulpit and tell anyone to go to hell. And I donít recommend that any of you tell anyone to go to hell either. When you begin to use your go-to-hell fund, you have the liberating discovery that it is actually a go-to-heaven fund for you. Because what you leave behind is nowhere near as important as what you find on the journey. You find that you are doing things you never knew were capable of doing. You find you cannot be intimidated, you cannot be overpowered, and you certainly cannot be bought.
People have told me that property has been taken from you, and thatís true. But the opposite is even more true: you had a choice between the property and living the faith you believe, and you made the courageous choice to leave the property behind and go on to live your faith. And you would make the same choice again today. They say that the Church isnít the buildings; the Church is the people. That idea isnít just an idea to you; it is your life. The love you show to each other and to the world is radiant.
I do hope that society will recognize that the buildings belong to you. But today the word of Jesus to you is this: ďSeek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.Ē
People have told me that you are in the wilderness, and thatís true. But the opposite is even more true: you are in a garden. You work hard to tend and cultivate this garden, thatís for sure. But you know it is God who provides the sunlight and the rain, who provides the miracle of growth. In the life of this parish you have seen tiny sprouts press their way out of the dirt and thrive. You have seen blossoming and bearing fruit. And you have been well fed by the fruit of your garden. You have fed others with the fruit of your garden.
People have told me that we wonít be popular with newcomers because they are attracted to the property, and thatís true. But the opposite is even more true: the newcomers who are attracted to this faith community are attracted to this faith community, not to buildings. There are still people today who are drawn to the values St. Francis exemplified: simplicity, community, love of nature, and valuing faith more than material possessions. One of them came to our outdoor service last month and sent me an e-mail that said, "We are big fans of the outdoor service--God's Cathedral" and ďI find the organic/grassroots quality of St. Stephen's (building from the ground up) quite charming." Authentic people are drawn to other authentic people. People who value what really matters are drawn to other people who value what really matters. People with good taste know a good thing when they see it.
People have told me that we donít know where weíre going, and thatís true. But the opposite is even more true: we do know where we are goingóby Godís mercy, we are going to heaven. All the rest is details. We are on a holy adventure, and we can enjoy a wonderful trip. We will travel light. We will accept hospitality from strangers, and from friends. We will see new sights, and plunge into new experiences. Like Chaucerís pilgrims to Canterbury, we will tell each other stories on the road. Mostly love stories. We will remember that getting there is half the fun. We will seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and by Godís grace, we will find it. And all these things will be given to us as well.Ē
Note: If you are still confused about how a gay Christian can feel they are 'right' with God I encourage you to read the section of the web site entitled "Gay and Christian? YES!"