Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, transferred, and beginning of stewardship season
First of all, I want to thank Bill Aliber for giving us a window into his journey as a person of faith and a member of this church family. His is quite a tough act to follow,. How do you compete with the leader of Sinner’s Row?
So, as Bill said, in addition to everything else going on today, we’re starting our annual season of stewardship. If you’ve been in the Episcopal Church a while, that comes as no surprise. If it’s fall, you know the church will be asking you to make a pledge of your financial giving for next year. As former senior warden Steve Rock says, some of us were born with a pledge card in our hands. In fact, I’m grateful to be able to say that your Vestry members have led the way this year, all of them having made a pledge before the campaign began.
So: Stewardship definitely involves money and giving money. But it’s also so much richer than that, theologically. You can define stewardship all sorts of ways, but I’d say being a steward is basically being God’s manager. So, stewardship is the faithful, loving management of what God gives us. And what does God give us? Well, everything – including our pets, as we remember today. But also our relationships, our families, our income and wealth, our bodies, our spirits, our planet. There is no part of our lives that we aren’t called to manage with love, as God’s stewards.
And, as Bill Aliber’s comments showed, when God asks us to be loving managers of everything we’re given, God doesn’t expect us to get the job right on the first try. Our call to be stewards is a call to a journey. And thank God that’s true, because at least for me, I certainly haven’t gotten it “right.”
Some of you may have heard me say this before, but I can remember going to a presentation at our church in Blue Springs one fall Saturday, probably 25 years ago now. It was billed as a chance to get to know the church and its ministries, and Ann and I were new to the congregation. The event ended with a plea for pledges of financial support for the church’s coming budget year – and I was angry. It felt like a bait-and-switch. And how dare they ask me for money when Ann and I were new members trying to raise two little kids on an editor’s salary?
But as I sat in my car and stewed about that, I heard a little voice in the back of my head. It said, “What’s up with the anger? Why does it push your buttons that they’re asking you to give back to God?” This is a pattern I’ve finally come to see about myself – that if something really pushes my buttons, it might be God asking me to consider my own stuff. Whatever I’m pushing back against, that’s probably where God is trying to tug me forward.
So, long story short, we made a pledge. Fast-forward 25 years, and we’ve moved to the point of tithing from our net income, giving 10 percent or more. And the thing is, that journey of loving management of what God gives me – it’s far from over. This may be more than you want to know, but my physical and spiritual well-being could absolutely use some better management. Just because I’ve put in a 12-hour day doesn’t mean I’ve earned a cheeseburger, fries, and a glass of wine or two. Just because I say my prayers in the morning doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be talking with a spiritual director, too. At this point, taking better care of myself is what God’s putting on this steward’s to-do list.
That’s not just the gospel of personal care, which sometimes gets in the way of the real one. The holy irony is that God blesses us with an unlikely journey – a journey of what can seem like downward mobility, a journey away from the goal of personal satisfaction but one that actually brings us up into the last things we’d expect to find – peace and joy. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading, “Come to me, all you that are weary … and I will give you rest…. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28,30).
Well, celebrating the feast of St. Francis of Assisi (even if it is two weeks late) is the perfect time to reflect on this journey away from personal satisfaction and into joy instead. You may know some of St. Francis’ story, but there’s a lot more to it than talking to the animals.1
He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in Italy, born in the late 1100s. As a young man, he lived into the worst you might expect from the spoiled child of a wealthy family – entitled, wasteful, drunken, arrogant. Then Francis got the chance to play soldier and go off to war, so he spent a lot of his father’s money to buy a horse and fine armor. He was taken prisoner, and he spent a year waiting for his father to ransom him. (It would be interesting to get his father’s take on that….) Once he was free, Francis went back to his unsavory lifestyle until he got the chance to go play soldier again, this time leaving as a knight for the Fourth Crusade.
But then, God came knocking. It seems to be a pattern, doesn’t it? – God knocking on the door of the last person you’d expect. A day’s ride from Assisi, Francis heard God calling him to turn back home. It must have been a persuasive moment, because the arrogant man-child did go back home. He resumed his old lifestyle, but he also kept listening to God, who apparently also kept knocking. Francis began to see that he’d been taking the wrong road, that the life he was leading was contrary to the call he heard from Jesus in Scripture.
And one day, Francis encountered what Jesus encountered in last week’s Gospel reading – a leper, a broken, impoverished, smelly man with an awful, contagious skin condition. The leper was the antithesis of everything Francis valued – fine clothes, fine food, beauty, power, strength, wealth, all that. But Francis got off his horse and greeted the leper with the kiss of peace. Contrary to everything he knew, when he greeted that leper, Francis felt not disgust but joy. And it sent him further along his journey.
Francis heard God calling him again, asking him to rebuild a broken-down local chapel. So, Francis took some of his father’s fine cloth and sold it to pay for the repairs. By this point, his father had had enough; he dragged Francis before the local bishop, demanding that Francis return the money and renounce his rights as heir. Well, Francis took it one step further. He shed his fine clothes in the public square, tossed them on the ground, and renounced his connection to his family, acknowledging God as his only Father. Then Francis left with literally nothing more than a brown cloak to begin a life of wandering service to people he would meet, preaching about loving God and the people around us.
Before long, others saw Francis’ joy in the freedom he’d found, and they came with him. Eventually, there were scores of them. Francis organized his companions’ life around a simple rule of giving away their possessions and taking up the cross daily – serving the people they encountered in acts of self-sacrificing love. They owned nothing but the joy that comes with the perfect freedom of following Jesus’ teachings. The story is told that a thief stole the hood of one of the brothers, and Francis made the brother chase after the thief – not to get the hood back but to offer him his cloak as well. Against all the world’s expectations, this movement caught on, with thousands following Francis’ model. Eventually, they had to be organized, and the Franciscan monastic order was born.
What does all that mean for us? Well, you’ll be grateful to know it does not mean we’re supposed to shed our clothes in the public square. But instead, I do ask you to consider this: Think about St. Francis’ model of committing himself to God’s dreams for the world, purposes that seemed contrary to his own personal satisfaction. Think about the peace and freedom St. Francis found – as well as the thousands of others who followed in his path, and the great blessing his movement became to the world. As a steward practicing loving management of all that God gave him, St. Francis didn’t find personal satisfaction in the way his culture taught him. Instead, he found joy.
So: What button is God pushing for you? What unlikely joy is God trying to tug you into? And what simple “yes” will bring you one step closer to it?
1. St. Francis’ story is taken from “St. Francis of Assisi.” Catholic Online. Available at: http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=50. Accessed Oct. 17, 2019.