Francis was a bad boy.
You probably know the kind I mean.
You’ve probably met the kind I mean.
Some of you have probably BEEN the kind I mean.
He was wealthy.
He was “high spirited.”
Francis was one of those slight and not physically strong boys who makes up for it in charisma, gathering lots of friends with his sense of adventure and his ability to fund it with Daddy’s allowance. He was the kind of boy who stays out late at night finding all the fun there is to be had, the kind that annoys law abiding citizens.
Francis was a “boys will will boys” kind of bad boy.
The kind that gets carried away and finds themselves on the front page when things go too far.
His future was set. He would carry the family textile business to the next level, cementing its connections with the families of those other boys around him.
It was only expected that he would test himself by going off to war when his city came into conflict with another. So Francis picked up the weapons of war and went off to be a soldier. He was a prisoner of war for a year before Dad heard about it and sent money to bail him out.
Give Francis credit, he didn’t run right home. No, it was on the way back to battle that he had the vision that turned him around. (Did you know that ‘repent” means literally to turn around?).
The vision sent him down the road to home, not because he was afraid of fighting, and not because he missed the comforts of home, but because Francis caught a vision of something more valuable, or because a vision of something more valuable caught Francis, he turned toward home looking for God.
He ran away from it all:
The late nights with the boys
His father Pietro’s plans.
Francis was a kind of reverse prodigal.
While he was running toward home,
he was moving away from what home expected of him.
When he got there, his frustrated father didn’t know what to do with this turned around son. So he put him to work as a shop boy instead of bosses' apprentice.p This made it easier for Francis to sneak out and try to follow where the vision led him. He went to the corners of the town that he used to pass by with his friends (or stop just long enough to poke fun). He looked for the widows, the orphans, the poor, the abused. He took the stories and teaching of Jesus very seriously.
This was not what his father had in mind when he bailed his son out.
One day Francis came on a small stone church that was falling down. It was a time when money was flowing in other directions, not toward the once proud churches that held the community together. The priest was doing his best, but just couldn’t seem to find a way to pull it together, literally. (Pastor are rarely if ever called and equipped to save a church alone).
Francis thought about the priest’s predicament and came up with a clever solution. He simply walked off with one of the valuable bolts of cloth from the family shop, where he had ready access, and sold it for a tidy sum. Which he then ran back and attempted to deposit in the priest’s hand.
The priest, being older and wiser, and knowing the reputation of Francis’ father, refused to take the money. When a crestfallen Francis returned home working on plan B, his furious father had a plan of his own. Tired of the escalating conflict between them and accusing his son of theft, he brought him to trial in the town square. There must have been quite a crowd in the center of Assisi that day, watching the golden boy brought to ruin.
Francis, forced to return the money he had creatively “found,” and disowned by his disgusted father, gave it all back to his dad that day. He stripped the clothes from his back and strode naked from the square.
Wealth was his greatest challenge, the obstacle that stood between him and his vision. So he chose poverty. He became “the poor idiot” free to follow the vision.
Francis of Assisi (I suspect you’ve already figured out who I’m talking about) would name one other event as a defining episode in his life.
As he continued to try to live the life that Jesus led he grew more confident and comfortable in the presence of the poorest of the poor, angry at their conditions, but able to be with them. Until one day he came upon a fear that lay hidden deep with in him.
In those days, lepers, covered with ugly skin lesions, lived on the fringes of society as untouchables. Decent folks had a visceral aversion to encountering them. At his heart, Francis was the child of a decent, emerging upper middle class home. When he came face to face with a leper one day, Francis came face to face with the part of him that put the brakes on.
But to follow the vision, a vision of God’s world where all are beloved and of value, Francis had to move forward. The day he emptied his pockets into the leper’s hand but was not satisfied with the economic exchange, the day Francis leaned forward and kissed the leper, was the day God's vision opened up for him completely.
What was your greatest challenge this week?
Mine was setting up a new laptop- time consuming, aggravating, a revelation of my own ignorance and impatience.
What was yours?
Francis had lots to choose from:
His old friends acted as if he didn’t exist once the money dried up.
His father disowned him.
His poor health made it difficult to live as a poor itinerant preacher.
His growing followers tried to make him into someone he wasn’t meant to be.
But the challenge he chose to face was kissing the leper with the peace of Christ.
Choose Your Challenge
Choose Your weapons (Ephesians 6: 10-18)
James chose to wild the sword of truth against arrogant privilege and callous injustice
Francis-poverty against the pitfalls of wealth
John 6: 52-69
Intro to the Gospel Reading: The crowd is wary of Jesus, afraid of being taken in. But Jesus himself wants is to be taken in, literally, to become part of each person’s life, theirs, yours, mine. Listen for the beginnings of the early church’s practice of Holy Communion in this passage.
Jenny and Joe met later in life than some. They were old enough to have grown comfortable in their own habits and to recognize, in each other, a good fit.
Together they found a darling little cottage steps from the sea with barely enough room for two adults. Which was perfect as they intended to spend every possible moment outdoors reclaiming a garden overgrown with beach roses and field iris.
They had no longer gotten the furniture into their one-bedroom bungalow, arranged Jenny’s fragile antique tea cup collection on its open shelving, and carved out just enough corner space to accommodate Joe’s longed for wood stove, an indulgence for two adults who knew not to touch “hot,” when Joe came home one afternoon to find Jenny utterly distraught.
She was laughing.
She was crying.
She couldn’t get ahold of her words.
My dear, murmured a perplexed Joe,
What is the matter? We have everything we’ve dreamed of.
Jenny finally managed to get out.
The beloved author C.S. Lewis once wrote, imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first perhaps you can understand what God is doing. God is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on. You know that these jobs need doing and so you are not surprised.
But presently God starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense.
What on earth is God up to?
The explanation [Lewis continues] is that God is building a different house from the one you thought. –Throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards.
You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage. But God is building a palace. God intends to come and live in it himself. –Mere Christianity
Every one who earnestly and whole heartedly tries to follow God, to listen and to follow, to see and to follow, comes to a point in the journey where the next step feels uncertain, unexplainable, dangerous, new. We find ourselves “out there,” on a limb.
God takes those mind blowing opportunities to breathe more love into our lives that we think we can handle. If you’ve ever raised a special needs child, then you know something of this. If you’ve lost someone you love and to learn to love all again, or in a different way, then you know something of this. If you’ve ever heard Jesus ask, “Do you want to be healed,” and answered, “I do,” then you know….If you’ve ever caught the tail of an impossible dream and let it shake you…..if you’ve ever said, “yes,” to a ministry where you knew you were in over your head…..then something in you is nodding right now.
Every crack and crevice of your life is an opening for God’s love to make itself known and to enlarge your self, your love carrying capacity.
Its hardest when we think we have an airtight plan for our life, when we want, oh how we want, to hold onto what we have figured out, tested, decided we can trust.
Jesus was speaking to a crowd who had a pretty firm grasp of who God was and how God worked. At least how God worked in their ancestor’s lives. They knew the stories by heart. They sang the beautiful songs they had heard their grandparents sing. They knew the laws by rote and thought carefully about specific applications.
It was just that….something seemed to be different in their own time. And the more “different” things around them felt, the more they clung to what they knew, what they had inherited. Grandfather’s prayer shawl was more precious when a soldier had ripped your own from your head. The way mother intoned Shabbat prayers felt more and more the right way when they heard the same words pronounced with so many strange accents in the temple.
A few weeks ago my sister in law was visiting from RI. We decided to show her how lovely Bath, ME is during its summer festival. Walking up the main street, we saw the antique auto show finishing up. Now one of my deep and mysterious family stories is about the Wheeler run-about, invented in 1900 by my Great Grandpa Wheeler and his father. They only made three. East Coast investors were particularly excited about the horseless carriage idea, so the industry developed in Midwestern towns more willing to take a risk (and with more straight and open roads). #3 (1902) ended up as parts in the family barn. #2 (1901) wore out from weekend excursions. Granma had lost track of #1 until she saw a newspaper article about the fire in a New Hampshire collector’s barn. He was most devastated by the loss of his beloved Wheeler run-about. Grandma tracked down his phone number form the reporter, called him up, and asked if he’d like the parts from the barn. The delighted auto collector took her up on her offer and gave her a ride in the beautifully restored car each year for her birthday. The photo she kept in her den showed a ruby red gem.
Grandma aged, had a stroke, died. No one had any idea where the car was. But the Wheeler run about was an enticing mystery. I poked around on the internet a bit and found historical references to it, but no current information. So when I saw a really old car in the Bath show I thought, it’s a long shot, but who knows. I asked the first guy leaning back in a folding lawn chair if he he knew anything about really old cars. He did. In fact that was his pride and joy sitting in front of us. “How would you find a really old car,” I asked. He said there was a special registry for pre-1918 gas automobiles, got my story and said, ‘well, if I have a chance I’ll try to look it up.” This was Sunday about 5:00 PM. On Monday morning, I opened my laptop to check my email and there it was: name, phone number and Texas address for the current registered owner of the Wheeler roadster.
It got me thinking on what I knew about Great Grandpa’s early gas combustion engine from the patent photo. Then I thought about what I drive, my 2013 Prius. The Wheeler roadster’s owner’s manual wouldn’t help me out much when I look under my hood. And While I feel certain that Grandpa Wheeler would by fascinated with a hybrid motor, I’m pretty sure that my owner’s manual wouldn’t have done him much good either.
In the crowd around Jesus that day, a sorting was taking place. Who will follow the trail of love as it walks right by them?
Who will step out into that unknown space where the promise of God’s love is the one sure thing you can rely on, and you’re not quite sure what that love will look like or where it will take you, what it will feel like or what direction it will come from. It was then, as it is now, a disruptive age.
When love reasserts itself in the midst of confusion, and wants to widen our spirit without a complete up to date owner’s manual, how do we find clarity?
-Stick with Jesus. He knows where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.
-Hold yourself open to possibility, heart, mind and soul.
-Claim God’s gifts
The particle physicist and educated Jewish man, Edward Teller is credited with these words (they hang in my office), when you have gone as far as all the light you know, and you are about to step into the darkness of the unknown….faith is knowing that one of two things will happen.
You will step onto firm ground.
Or you will learn to fly.
Some do choose to walk back into the light of what they already know. Some spend days, weeks, years, clinging to the edge where known meets mystery.
If you would grow deep and wide enough for God to make a home in you, trust that even as your mind is being blown, love will be made known.
Karen L Munson
United Methodist Pastor & Liturgical Artist