Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Feast of Saint Francis: Bless everything and everyone in your path

Today's sermon is from Matthew 11: 25-30

A long, long time ago – nearly 828 years ago to be exact – lived a young man whose inner light reached beyond his own time and into ours.

His name was Giovanni Francesco Bernardone, born in Italy to a wealthy family in the year 1181. His mother was French, his merchant father Italian. He grew up in Assisi, and he is better known to you as Saint Francis of Assisi. Today is his feast day.

Today is also the day I want to talk to you about how giving is at the heart of a life of faith. I can think of no better example than St. Francis to make a few points.

As a young man, Francis was popular with his friends, served in the military, was a prisoner of war for a year, and when freed, he looked forward to a life of ease and wealth. But he fell ill and that brought him face-to-face with sorting out the purpose of his life.

He became a monk, and he lived a life that many of us would consider severely austere. I can make an educated guess that there are few among us here today who would want to live as Francis did.

Yet, if we can go beneath the outward appearances of monkish clothing, monkish haircuts, and monkish food, there is much that Francis can still teach us about waking up to a life of the Spirit through giving of all that we are, and all that we have.

Start with the blessings of prayer. Francis enfolded all that he did by giving it in prayer: simple, everyday prayers while going about ordinary tasks. He took time to notice the gift of life all around him, and he gave thanks for it, and blessed everything in his path.

We can notice our blessings, too, by giving ourselves a gift: the gift of time to notice. In our over-scheduled modern world, that may take a little effort. So start with a gift to yourself, the gift of slowing down, and noticing the presence of God in ordinary things. A friend of mine says his best prayers come when he is washing the dishes.

Where are your best prayers? Give yourself the space and time to find out, and hear the prayers of your heart.

Francis did that by simplifying his life. He got rid of all the stuff that got in his way. He discovered that he had too many possessions, too much clothing, too much of everything. All that stuff had become a heavy yoke, so he cleaned it out. That which got in the way of noticing the blessings, he discarded.

Not all of our possessions are things. Some of our possessions are the hurts, and grudges, and complaints we carry around in our psychic attic. Clean them out, let them go, put them in a box, and like Francis, give them away.

With his yoke lighter, Francis could give his presence to all who came upon him. He understood that his hands and his heart were the hands and heart of God in the world.
Francis did not withdraw from the world; he engaged it at its deepest level, and in those places where the world had its greatest need.

Francis felt himself at one with all of God’s creation, and that gave him the strength to care for those who were sick or outcast. He spread his blessings. He called the Sun his brother, and the moon his sister. No person, no animal, no rock, was beneath his blessing. For Francis, God dwelled everywhere, in the woods, on the road, outside of churches and inside churches, too.
Francis especially had a vision to repair the church, and so, stone by stone, he repaired an abandoned and dilapidated church at Assisi. Others joined him, and together they rebuilt the stone church.

But they discovered something else: that Francis’ vision to repair the church was not just about stonewalls, but was really about repairing the church inside where people dwelled.
The word “church” means “the gathering,” and so Francis and his friends gathered as a community of faith to spread their blessings, bringing healing and hope to all whom they touched.

We, too, are called to repair the Church. We, too, are called to spread our blessings, to repair this building and repair this community. We do that stone by stone, by sharing our abundance and sharing our blessings.

When Jesus today talks of how “my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” that is precisely what he is speaks of.

We can make the yoke easy and the burden light by all of us sharing in the work God has given us, each according to the gifts and abundance each of us is given.

We can make our yoke easy and the burden light by discovering together the delight, the joy, in doing God’s work inside this building and beyond.

For Francis, the only purpose of the church– the buildings and institutional structures – is for spreading the blessings. The purpose of the church is not a balanced budget for the sake of a balanced budget.

Rather, a balanced budget serves as a tool for spreading God’s blessings. Money is not the mission; money serves to carry out the mission.

There is an expression used in church circles that I do not like very much. The expression is “give something back to God.” The underlying assumption of that phrase is that we own something that is ours to “give back.”

Jesus, and St. Francis, present us with a different idea, namely that we don’t own anything. All of that we see, all that we have, is God’s to begin with, on loan to us.

The more I live, the more I am convinced that our purpose on this earth is really quite simple: to share our blessings, using our abundance to build God’s kingdom. In a sense, we are called to give everything back; none of it is ours to keep.

We do that by sharing our blessings in how we live, in our daily work and study; by rearing children, by spending time with friends and family, by giving time for prayer; and by giving our talent and resources to the community and to this church. It all adds up, stone by stone.

Lori and I have been here at St. Paul’s for a little more than a year. I am struck by how much abundance, how many blessings we have here, and how we share those blessings with each other and with the world beyond.

Let me give you a handful of examples:

Last week we heard from our youth group about how they spread their blessings on their mission trips this past summer to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and to Mississippi.

Many of you are involved in our PACEM project for the homeless, or IMPACT working to change public policy, or serving dinners at the Salvation Army.

Many of you make this church a wonderful welcoming place by enriching our worship through music, or in the Altar Guild, or as an usher showing people a seat, or in arranging flowers that remind us of the beauty of God’s creation.

Everyone can give something, because everyone has something to give. No gift is too small. I recall Jesus telling the parable of the poor woman who gives two copper coins. It wasn’t much but it was all she had. She had something to give, and she took a risk knowing that God would provide more for her. She gave of her blessings because she had blessings to give, knowing others were in need.

All manner of people come here, in every condition of life and need. Many are looking for a place to discover or rediscover God, or a place to rear children, or they come because they are sick or lonely. Or they come not quite sure why but they come anyway.

People find what they are looking for only because of your generosity: by your giving of prayer, by your giving of time, by your giving of money – by the giving of your blessings.

In this season of harvest, I ask that you again prayerfully consider how God is calling you to give. I ask that you share the harvest, share your blessings. Prayer, blessings, giving, healing – that was the life of Francis, and that is the life we, too, are called to live. Our yoke is easy and our burden is light. AMEN.

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