The Season After Pentecost, Proper 9
St. George’s Episcopal Church
Derek M. Larson, TSSF
“Take nothing for the journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in your belts, but wear sandals and don’t put on two tunics.”
It’s bittersweet to say that today, at least for a while, is my family’s last Sunday at St. George’s. Next week I’ll be heading off to work at SUMMA Theological Debate Camp for high schoolers at Sewanee, and when I return we embark on our journey to Austin, TX for the Seminary of the Southwest. When I read today’s gospel lesson, I can imagine what it must have been like for the disciples to be on the edge of their mission having received a call that makes them so strikingly vulnerable. I like them, have felt a call on my life to share the gospel with others, and I like them have been asked to let go of so many things before I go. I, however, can assure you that I will be taking some money with me, albeit very little, I plan to wear shoes over sandals, and while we will be moving into a tiny 400 square foot apartment, we will be bringing at least a few bags with us! And yet we are letting go of many things. We are letting go of having family nearby. We are letting go of financial stability. We are letting go of our weekly community here and my ministry at the school and so many mental, physical, and emotional objects of comfort. And we are embarking on a journey to which God is calling us.
Eight hundred years ago another young man also heard a call on his life. Francis Bernardino, the son of a wealthy merchant, had given up his privilege and status to live a life of poverty, prayer, and preaching among the forgotten and lost in the Umbrian hillside of Italy. Living on the streets in rags, rebuilding a local church stone by stone, his former societal equals looked at him at worst with disgust and at best with curiosity, but Francis felt sure that God had called him to a particular way of life bent on complete and total dependence upon God.
At that time he was not the kind of person to which you’d look for some kind of example of holy living. In his youth Francis, always the frivolous life of the party, glorified fame, riches, luxury, and violence. Though his family was richer than most of the noble class, Francis dreamed of being a noble too, and becoming a prized and admired knight in shining armor. That dream, however came to an end when he actually went into battle and encountered the horrors of death and violence. He watched as most of his friends suffered and died and he himself became a prisoner of war. After almost a year he came home but suffered from PTSD and depression, the life had been sucked out of him.
And yet there in the depths of his despair he encountered the love and call of Christ to a new way of life. He began to see things in ways he had never seen. Those worldly treasures he had held in such high regard now meant very little. In his loss, he began to see others suffering loss, the very ones he had ignored his whole life. In his weakness, he started to see the humanity of others in their weakness. Francis saw God in the gutters and so he decided to pitch a tent there and never return again to his life of luxury and privilege. Francis embraced vulnerability.
And for all the people that couldn’t understand that. The people too attached to their own privilege and comfort. There were at least some who looked on in earnest curiosity. One of those, Bernard, a rich nobleman in Francis’ hometown of Assisi had taken notice of the little poor man for two years and finally decided to ask him to come for dinner. Francis and Bernard enjoyed a nice meal together and talked late enough into the night that Bernard insisted he sleep in his own home. That night after Bernard went to bed he heard Francis get up quietly and pray over and over again, “My God and my all.” He prayed well into the night and as Bernard laid there listening, he felt inspired by the Spirit to live a life like Francis and find the joy and love of God in humility and simplicity. The next morning in his excitement Bernard shared with Francis what he wanted, and they went to the church to share Eucharist and to pray about it. After quite a while praying they decided to let the Spirit speak to them through Scripture by opening the pages of the Bible to see what it said.
At this point I’ll share with you the story as it is written in the medieval collection of stories about Francis called, “The Little Flowers of St. Francis.”
“Let us then go together to the Bishop’s palace, where we shall find a good priest who will say Mass for us. We will then remain in prayer till the third hour, imploring the Lord to point out to us the way he wishes us to select, and to this intent we will open the Missal three times.” And when Bernard answered that he was well pleased with this proposal, they set out together, heard Mass, and after they had remained in prayer till the time fixed, the priest, at the request of St Francis, took up Missal, then, having made the sign of the holy cross, he opened it three times, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The first place which he lit upon was at the answer of Christ to the young man who asked of him the way to perfection: If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell all that thou hast and give to the poor, and come, follow me. The second time he opened at the words which the Saviour addressed to the Apostles when he sent them forth to preach the Word of Truth: Take nothing with you for your journey: neither staff, nor scrip, nor bread, nor money; wishing to teach them thereby to commit the care of their lives to him, and give all their thoughts to the preaching of the Holy Gospel. When the Missal was opened a third time they came upon these words: If any one will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
Then St Francis, turning to Bernard, said: “This is the advice that the Lord has given us; go and do as thou hast heard; and blessed be the Lord Jesus Christ who has pointed out to thee the way of his angelic life.” Upon this, Bernard went and sold all that he had. Now he was very rich, and with great joy he distributed his wealth to widows, to orphans, to prisoners, to monasteries, to hospitals, and to pilgrims, in all which St Francis assisted him with prudence and fidelity.”
Bernard would become the first of thousands of people inspired by the life of Francis and together they founded the religious order that still exists today, the Friars Minor.
The power of this story is not so much how extreme Francis and Bernard took their call and gave up literally every single thing they owned (although that may be one of the reasons we are still telling the story today). The power and the message of this story is that Francis and Bernard embraced vulnerability.
Vulnerability is not fun. It’s not something we specifically look out to be in our everyday lives. But if we take even a glance at scripture we’ll see that God can only use us to the extent that we are vulnerable. Abraham left his home for a land he knew nothing about. Moses who was terrified of public speaking led a nation to freedom. David put down his armor and approached a giant with nothing other than a stone and a sling. In today’s first reading we encounter the call of Ezekiel, who was reminded of his own mortality each time God addressed him, “Mortal, I’m sending you to them.” And even Christ himself, entered this human life without even a safe place to lay his head. God uses those that allow themselves to be vulnerable. When we let go of our comfort zones and our attachments and place all of our dependence upon the God who created us, we discover that God will take us to places we’ve never dreamed of.
But to be vulnerable, we have to LET GO. To be vulnerable we need to give up our attachments! To clothe ourselves in humility we must be willing to step out of our comfort zones into the nakedness of our own mortality and be used by the God who creates something out of nothing!
Saint Paul discovered this truth. When burdened by his own weakness and pain, he asked God to take it away. But we read in today’s second lesson that God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
This is good news. Because I have weaknesses. You have weaknesses. We all have weaknesses, but that does not disqualify us from being used by God to effect change in the world. In fact, it qualifies us.
Why is that? Why doesn’t God use the people who have it altogether? Why doesn’t God use the people who have perfected their talents and gifts? The people who always know the right thing to say and always do the right thing in every moment?
For one reason. Those people don’t exist. There are 7 billion people in the world and not one of them have it altogether. We are all one of two things. We are all either vulnerable or pretending not to be vulnerable. The sooner we fess up to our weaknesses and insecurities, the sooner we will begin to hear the voice and direction of God on our lives. Weakness is opportunity for God’s strength. Power is made perfect in weakness.
So be like Paul and wear your imperfection like a badge of honor! Own up to it! See what God can do. Take a moment this week, sit down, and ask God what you are hiding. To what are you still so attached that it’s getting in the way of you being used by God? It might just be your wealth and possessions! And it also might be something even more scary. It might be your fear of disappointing others. Perhaps its your broken relationships. Maybe its your disgust for the poor, the marginalized, or the immigrant. Maybe its your anger. Or maybe its simply your inability to believe that your are deeply and utterly loved by God. Whatever it is, find out, and then lay it on the table before God and see what happens.
The heart of the Franciscan tradition is this idea of vulnerability and humility, and its inspired by the very life and work of Jesus. Francis didn’t just get these ideas from anywhere. Francis saw in Jesus a life marked with vulnerability and humility and a mission to love in the midst of it and wanted to be part of a community whose sole aim was to do the same thing.
In a few minutes we’ll be sharing bread and wine together as we do every week. The Eucharist is a powerful example of power being made perfect in weakness. There is no image more vulnerable than Christ on the cross offering his body and blood and yet look at how God has used that sacrifice to change the world. For that reason, Francis loved the Eucharist. Every chance he got he went to the Eucharist and urged others to do the same. In the Eucharist we are reminded that Christ gave everything up for each of us and are being invited to give everything up for him. Many years after Bernard joined Francis in his simple life of poverty to follow Christ and thousands of others followed in his footsteps, Francis wrote a letter to the whole order. In the letter he includes a poem about the Eucharist and the power of humility. I’d like to close by sharing it with you.
“Let the whole of mankind tremble
the whole world shake
and the heavens exult
when Christ, the Son of the living God,
is [present] on the altar
in the hands of a priest.
O admirable heights and sublime lowliness!
O sublime humility!
O humble sublimity!
That the Lord of the universe,
God and the Son of God,
so humbles Himself that for our salvation
He hides Himself under the little form of bread!
Look, brothers, at the humility of God
and pour out your hearts before Him!
Humble yourselves, as well,
that you may be exalted by Him.
hold nothing of yourselves for yourselves so that
He Who gives Himself totally to you
may receive you totally” (A Letter to the Entire Order 26-29). Amen.