Do You Smell Smoke?

During the Summer of 2013, God’s people in Crafton Heights will be spending time talking with and listening to some of the members of the Christian Family whose stories and lives remind us about what it means to live faithfully.  As described below, I’m calling this series “Faces at the Reunion” because I believe that as our family claims its heritage and gets to know each other, we’ll be stronger for it. In worship on July 28, we considered Catherine of Siena and her testimony to the world…  Our scriptures included 2 Kings 23:1-7 (the story of young King Josiah) and I Timothy 4:4-5, 11-16.

I have absolutely no idea who these people are or where this photo is taken.

I have absolutely no idea who these people are or where this photo is taken.

I don’t know how it was where you lived, but when I was younger, the church was a happening place.  My parents joined a church that was meeting in an old farmhouse located in a growing suburb and within a few years, the church went from that dilapidated old structure to a three-building campus that featured a boatload of Sunday School rooms, a state of the art sanctuary, a highly efficient office, and a lot of smiling, capable, competent people.

And every now and then, that church would have a few of us kids get up front during “youth Sunday”.  When I was 16, they elected me to be a Deacon. All along the way, I kept hearing one phrase over and over again: “the young people are the future of the church.”  That congregation spent a lot of money on childcare, Sunday School, and Youth Group – at every turn, repeating the mantra that if they took care of the kids, good things would happen.  And know, beloved, that I am glad that they did this, and that I stand here in some measure because they acted like this. History shows us that that thousands of churches did what my church did in the 1960’s and ‘70’s.

Now, listen: I know that church meant that as an affirmation.  In telling me that I was the future of the church, I think that they meant to communicate an affirmation and an exhortation to stick with it.

SundaySchoolPostcardBut know this: what I heard, frequently, was this: “Some day, son, all this will be yours…”  If I continued to sear my clean clothes and speak politely to my elders and be nice to the little kids, then sooner or later, I would inherit the institution.  People like me would get control of the mechanism of the church. I could even pick the hymns!

Do you see?  What was intended as an encouragement – “you are our future” – was experienced as a diminution – “you don’t really count for anything yet.”  As I say, I know that this is not what was intended; but I also know that millions of people in my generation looked at the church that baptized us and said, “Um, well, thanks, but no thanks.  I’m not really interested in running an institution.”

emptychurchBetween 1970 and 2000, the number of people living in the USA rose by nearly 40%.  In the same three decades, the so-called “Mainline” churches – like the Presbyterians –  lost 14% of their members.  Way more people.  Way fewer of those people in church.

I’m not sure that those people wanted to walk away from God, or from spirituality.  But I know that many of the people with whom I grew up were unable to see the connection between church politics and running the institution and the intimacy of a relationship with Jesus.

The reality is this: children are not “the church of the future”.  Children are included in the church now.  The little friends we see in our midst this morning are objects of God’s grace, recipients of God’s mercy, heirs to God’s promises, and called to participate in what God is doing right now.  Is there some level of age-appropriateness to which we need to be sensitive?  Of course.  But children are not to be put on the shelf until they are old enough to matter, mature enough to take over, or holy enough to be trusted.

This morning we are continuing our series of messages that I’ve called “Faces at the Reunion”, and this week, I’d like to introduce some of you to one of your older sisters in the faith, a woman named Catherine from the town of Siena in Italy.

220px-Catherine_of_SienaShe was born in March of 1347, the 23rd child of a cloth merchant and his wife.  The family was religious, and Catherine had her first experience with Christ when she was five or six years old.  By the time she was seven, she had decided that she wanted to devote her whole life to God. Isn’t that cute, when someone says that?  No, it’s not cute.  It’s awesome is what it is.  How do we teach our children to live in that kind of passion?

Anyway, when she was sixteen, one of her older sisters died in childbirth and her parents pressed her to marry her brother in law.  When she refused, they assigned her management of their entire household – I think that they figured she’d rather just go ahead and marry the brother in law and run that smaller house than be in charge of her parents’ home.  She did this for three years, saying that she had “built a cell in her mind” from which she could never flee.  She said that she was serving her father as if he were Christ, her mother as if she were the Virgin Mary, and her brothers as if they were the Apostles.  By doing so, she said that she taught herself humility and grace.  She also, incidentally, outlasted her parents who eventually released her from the pressure to marry.

She remained in her parent’s home and gave all of what she had, and a great deal of what they had, to the poor.  She had a fascinating ability to see the big picture and the need for the church to be receptive to the Spirit of God while at the same time paying close attention to specific individuals.

SaintCatherineOfSiennaWhen Catherine was 23 years old, she began to send letters of encouragement and inspiration.  Initially, these were sent to her family and close friends, but as she got older, the circle of recipients widened to include people with authority and power.  Most notably, she began to write to Pope Gregory and to plead with him to reform the clergy within the church.  The institutional church was a shambles at this time – about 75 years previous, some of the leaders of the church collaborated with the king of France and moved the headquarters of the church to France.  Many local priests, nuns, as well as bishops and cardinals, were confused as to how to behave faithfully as the top leadership of the church was more interested in court intrigue than in Godly living.  One account of her life puts it this way:

St Catherine before the Pope at Avignon, Giovanni di Paolo, 1460

St Catherine before the Pope at Avignon, Giovanni di Paolo, 1460

She embraced her mission with all of the energy she brought to her prayer, tackling the sinful clergy person by person, winning them over with the purity of her own life, her direct, firm admonitions and her own extremely magnetic personality.

It seemed no one could meet her without falling under the spell of her personal holiness. Priest and bishop would revile her from a distance, then, upon meeting her face to face, fall upon their knees, begging forgiveness and the permission to become her followers.[1]

In fact, there are more than 400 letters that she sent still surviving, and they bear witness to her call to personal growth and responsibility as well as the need for the Church to be responsive in the world.  And know this well, my friends: those letters changed the world.

As I said, Catherine was 23 when she started sending out her correspondence.  You might be interested to know that it wasn’t until she was 30 that she learned to read and write.  Most of her work was done through dictation – one of the greatest literary minds of the church was illiterate until the last years of her life!

As she matured, Catherine had increasing prominence in the church and the world; she was used as a peacemaking ambassador between various congregations and governments; she is credited with persuading Pope Gregory to return to the Vatican in Rome and to take efforts to reform the clergy, and finally, after a prolonged fast led to a series of strokes, she died at age 33.  In 1970, she was proclaimed as the first female “Doctor of the Church” in recognition of her leadership and influence.

My favorite quote from Catherine of Siena is this: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”

Catherine Be as you oughtWhat would it mean if we were all able to take that sentiment to heart?

The scriptures this morning afford us examples of young people who clearly lived that way.  Josiah was 8 years old when he became king, and in his lifetime he reformed the people of God both through worship life and governing structures.  Timothy was only a young man when he met Paul, but he was charged with launching the church in Europe and giving birth to a new generation of Godly leaders.  Each of these young men, like their younger sister Catherine, were people who started where they were, used what they had, and lit a fire under the people of God.

Do you think…I mean, is it possible…that we could empower our children do this?  That if instead of training our kids to be quiet, sit still and wait their turn, we were able to help them see that the world needs them, who they are, and what they can bring, now?

The only way that we can do that, beloved, is if we are convinced that the world needs us, who we are, and what we can bring, now.

Here is what I’ve learned from Catherine of Siena, and from Josiah, and from Timothy:  God is not waiting for perfectly formed, capable, talented, beautiful, equipped people to show up and take charge of running the institution.

God is looking for people who will, right now, be who they are.  Who will, right now, give what they have.  Who will, right now, serve where they are.  And who will commit to growing into those places where they are not yet fully mature.

In other words, I don’t think that God is waiting for you to get your act together before you try to live a faithful life.  I think that God is calling you to be who you are supposed to be, starting today, and trust that tomorrow you can be a little closer to God’s best for your life.

What does that look like? It seems to me that the first step is an attentiveness to the Word and Spirit of God.  Can we anchor ourselves and our children in the awareness of the truth that God speaks, and that the Bible is a source of life and truth?  Can we, no less than Catherine, create a sort of a cell or a sanctuary in our own minds, where we expect to receive direction from God’s Spirit as we wait and watch and serve?

Another aspect of this would be a commitment to focusing on who God is and what God can do, rather than being so absorbed in my own limitations and faults.  Remember, we’re learning this morning about an illiterate young woman whose letters changed the history of the world.  She didn’t refuse to send the letters just because she couldn’t write them herself – she found a way to get the vision she’d been given to the hearts of those to whom God led her.

As we anchor ourselves in scripture and trust in God’s provision, we need to bind ourselves to the people of God.  Catherine, Josiah, and Timothy all worked to make the community of God a place that was more conducive to mirroring Christ in the world – and they did it by working with others who were committed to the power of God’s spirit.

There are a host of amazing and gifted people in this room right now.  Some of them are in their 80’s and have wonderful stories to tell about how God has met them in their own lives.  Others of them are not yet able to write their own names – but they have already heard that they are fearfully and wonderfully made.  Most of us are somewhere in between… Can we accept the fact that we – all of us – are the church for today?  And that we – all of us – are called to live plainly and powerfully under God’s spirit, in each other’s company, and to the end that our neighbors are blessed?  If we do, I am not sure that we’re going to set the world on fire…but at least our neighbors might smell smoke. Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1]  http://st-catherine-medal.com

The World is (Hazel) Nuts!

During the Summer of 2013, God’s people in Crafton Heights will be spending time talking with and listening to some of the members of the Christian Family whose stories and lives remind us about what it means to live faithfully.  As described below, I’m calling this series “Faces at the Reunion” because I believe that as our family claims its heritage and gets to know each other, we’ll be stronger for it.  The message for July 21 centered on Julian of Norwich and her message of peace and love in a time of fear and uncertainty.  The scriptures for the day included Isaiah 43:1-7 and I John 4:1-6, 13-18

On the evening of May 13, 1373 a thirty-year-old woman lay dying in the village of Norwich, England.  That this was occurring would have caused no significant alarm amongst her neighbors… in the span of a few years, three-quarters of the population of that region had died, mostly because of the plague we know as the Black Death.  This woman had already lost her husband and at least one child.

The Christ crucified of Cardinal Baronius, Tiberio Calcagni,  c,1564

The Christ crucified of Cardinal Baronius, Tiberio Calcagni, c,1564

As she lay on a bed in her mother’s home, the parish priest was called in and gave her the last rites.  Her breath was ragged, but other than that, there was no sense in which she was responsive or even alive.  As he prepared to leave, the clergyman held a crucifix before her and commanded, “Daughter, I have brought the image of thy savior.  Look upon it and comfort thyself.”  People in the room were startled when she focused her eyes on the cross and would not look away.

The priest left, and the cross remained, and the young woman spent hours gazing at the image of the crucified Lord.  All night long, she lay there.  In the morning, her mother could no longer hear her breathing and supposed that she had died.  She put her hands in front of the woman’s face to close the eyes, and when she could no longer see the cross, the young woman started awake – and realized that she had seen a vision of Christ.

In the next few days, she regained herself, and in the following years, these visions, rather than fading from her memory, grew stronger.  She spoke, guardedly, about them – first with a spiritual advisor, a Friar who followed in the way of Francis of Assisi (about whom we heard last week), and then with a small group of trusted women with whom she would study and pray for more than two decades.

Eventually, this woman became what is known as an “Anchoress” .  An anchorite (male or female) was a person who chose to live alone (like a hermit) and had not taken religious vows (like a priest or a nun).  The key difference between an anchorite and a hermit is that hermits would go off to the desert or somewhere else to be alone, and anchorites chose to live in confined quarters in the midst of populated areas. Typically, an anchoress’ cell would be built in the wall of the local church, and it was a room with three windows.  One window, called a “squint”, looked into the church so that the occupant could participate in worship and receive the sacrament.  Another was used to allow an assistant to bring food and drink and to remove refuse.  And a third usually opened onto a porch, where people could come and seek counsel from the anchoress.

Julian of NorwichThis woman is known as Julian of Norwich.  That might be because her name really was Julian, or it might be because the church where she eventually lived for many years was called St. Julian and Edward’s.  At any rate, Julian had a profound influence in her community.  She chose to anchor herself in the midst of town, and challenged people to grow in their own faith.  In that age, one was either “a religious” or one was not.  The “religious” were the ones who joined a monastery or a convent or were in some way or another “professional” Christians.  Everyone else was encouraged to think about God as little as possible, because they’d probably screw it up somehow.  Julian, however, called her neighbors “even Christians”, and taught them to grow deeper into God’s purposes for their lives.

During this time as an anchoress, Julian recorded her visions in a book which has come to be known as The Revelations of Divine Love.  It is believed to be the first book ever to be written in English by a woman.

As she lay dying on that day in 1373, Julian’s mind had been focused on one primary issue: the problem of sin.  How could God allow sin to go on for so long?  She said that she spoke to Christ on the cross, saying, “Why did you not prevent sin from occurring?  If there had been no sin, all would be well.”  The answer she received in her vision was, “It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

The Last Judgment, Raphael Coxcie, ca. 1540

The Last Judgment, Raphael Coxcie, ca. 1540

In this series of visions, Julian came to see that the power of God is primarily the power of love.  Now, I hope that you are not too surprised to hear that, but you need to know that in her day and age, that was astounding and unusual.  If you were to go into a typical church in the 14th century, you’d see the walls and ceilings covered with images of judgment and hell. Every time Christians came to worship, they were reminded that God is really, really angry about the fact that people sin, and that this God sends terror, disease, and warfare to punish people for their sin.  And when they succumb to disease or war, then they go into purgatory or worse, everlasting damnation, because God is so mad at us.

In Julian’s life, her village suffered three bouts of the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War, the Peasant Revolt and the Great Schism…and they had been taught, by the church, that these things were all punishments sent to them by an angry God. And yet, in the midst of these cataclysmic and terrifying events, Julian came to see that God’s intention, in a single word, was ‘love’.

And one might be tempted to say, “Well, sure, it would be easy for her to say that, locked away from the ‘real world’ in an anchorage, with people waiting on you…”

Except for the fact that the very church in which she was locked away was a part of the culture of fear that was shaping the world at that time.  The Bishop under whom she served would regularly behead those people in the Diocese who were caught using the English language to speak about spiritual matters.  Those who possessed English-language bibles were burnt at the stake as heretics.

And yet this brave woman wrote a book for her “even Christians” in the common English language of her day in the hopes that they might come to see and believe that God intends each of us to grow to be like God.  As she wrote, “faith is nothing else but a right understanding and trust of our being, that we are in God and God, whom we do not see, is in us.”[1] I would suspect that it might be a lot more difficult to burn someone at the stake if I thought that there was a chance that God might be in them…

Beloved, listen to this…if the powers that be in the 14th century found that simple message of hope and trust to be threatening, how much more will they oppose it today?

Edvard Munch, The Scream of Nature (1910)

Edvard Munch, The Scream of Nature (1910)

We live in a culture that is driven by fear of the other.  Someone – one of those people­ – is coming for you.  One of those people is going to take your guns, or your job, or take money.  This would be a great country if it wasn’t for them – the welfare cheats or the Republicans or the lobbyists or the gays or the religious fundamentalists.  If it wasn’t for people like the Muslims or the pro-lifers, we’d be all right.

We are afraid of aging.  Afraid of dying.  Afraid of being unpopular, or fat, or smelly, or weird.

How much of what we do is motivated by fear of one kind or another?

To use a very contemporary example, how would our world be different if people like George Zimmerman offered people like Trayvon Martin a ride?  How would our world be different if people like Trayvon Martin felt free to walk toward someone like me and say, “Hi, my name is Trayvon…”?  How different would our world be if people didn’t feel the need to clutch their purses in the elevators, or lock their doors while driving past certain groups on the sidewalk, or avoid eye contact with someone of another race, gender, or ethnicity?

What would happen if we confronted our fears and decided that they would not rule over us?

From the Anchoress' cell at St. Julian's Church, Norwich

From the Anchoress’ cell at St. Julian’s Church, Norwich

Listen to what Julian wrote:  “If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love… He said not ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased’; but he said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.’”

Isn’t that the same message that Isaiah had put out thousands of years previous?  He did not say that God would be with us “if” the floods, or the fire, or the difficulty came.  The prophet assures us that “when” these things happen, we can know the heart of God.

We do not have to act as though the thing that we fear is more powerful than the life we’ve been given.

“Ahhh, Dave, now you’re just being too idealistic.  Maybe you’ve been in your anchorage too long.  This world is a nutty place, Dave.”

Julian saw that, too.  During one of her visions, the Lord asked her to hold something small – it seemed to her to be the size of a hazelnut.  As she turned the tiny delicate object over in her hands, she asked what it was, and learned that it was the entire universe.Julian-of-Norwich-hazelnut

I looked at the hazel nut with the eye of my understanding and thought, what can this be? I was amazed that it could last for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding. It lasts and always will, because God loves it, and thus everything has being through the love of God.  In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second, that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.

What if – humor me for a moment – what if that could possibly be true?  What if God’s love is the strongest force in the universe?  What if God is crazy about you and about the other?  What if all shall be well and all shall be well and every manner of thing shall be well?  What if a small group of committed Christians in the 21st century decided to anchor themselves in a community and then to live as though God made us, God loves us, and God keeps us?

Julian saw this – in the midst of a world filled with war, disease, persecution, danger, and, most importantly, with fear.  Can we?

Can we fix our eyes on the cross and ask God for a vision of love and peace and security that rests not so much on protection from them or those people, but more on God’s commitment to the Creation?  Can we ask God for a vision like that?  And if we can, can we ask God for the courage to live it out in our own century?

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…”  Great God, shape us, your people, to live in that perfect and fearless love.  Amen.


[1] Quoted in Amy Frykholm, Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography (Paraclete Press, 2010)

Each week, I try to have a one-page handout with some information about the subject of the morning’s message.  Here is the information I shared on July 21, 2013

Faces at the Reunion: Julian of Norwich (1181-1226)

During the summer of 2013, we will be looking at the Christian Faith through the eyes of some of the servants of God who have preceded us in this walk.  These men and women left behind a witness that has formed us, whether we know it or not, and in our worship we will have a “family reunion” this summer as we engage in their stories and gain from their experience.

Julian was 30 years old when she received a series of powerful visions.  These came to her whilst she was so profoundly ill that she’d been given the last rites.  She recovered, and over the next four decades would reflect on these visions and eventually record them for the encouragement of the church.  Her book, The Revelations of Divine Love (or The Showings) is widely regarded as the first book to be written in English by a woman.

From The Revelations of Divine Love

And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.

In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second, that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it. But what is this to me? Truly, the Creator, the Keeper, the Lover. For until I am substantially “oned” to him, I may never have full rest nor true bliss. That is to say, until I be so fastened to him that there is nothing that is made between my God and me.

This little thing which is created seemed to me as if it could have fallen into nothing because of its littleness. We need to have knowledge of this, so that we may delight in despising as nothing everything created, so as to love and have uncreated God. For this is the reason why our hearts and souls are not in perfect ease, because here we seek rest in this thing which is so little, in which there is no rest, and we do not know our God who is almighty, all wise and all good, for he is true rest. God wishes to be known, and it pleases him that we should rest in him; for everything which is beneath him is not sufficient for us…

What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? 
Know it well, love was his meaning. 
Who reveals it to you? Love. 
What did he reveal to you? Love. 
Why does he reveal it to you? For Love. 
Remain in this. And you will know more of the same.

 In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse [of thought] was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion. But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’

In preparation for this week’s message, I read Amy Frykholm’s Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography (Paraclete Press, 2010). It’s a brief book and very inspirational.  The Revelations of Divine Love can be found in many places; there are several e-reader versions for under a dollar. Other resources on the life of this “older sister” in the faith can be found here: http://www.julianofnorwich.com/t_resources.php

The Mirror of Christ

During the Summer of 2013, God’s people in Crafton Heights will be spending time talking with and listening to some of the members of the Christian Family whose stories and lives remind us about what it means to live faithfully.  As described below, I’m calling this series “Faces at the Reunion” because I believe that as our family claims its heritage and gets to know each other, we’ll be stronger for it. The message for July 14  focuses on the ways that Francis of Assisi helps us to understand the ways that Jesus calls us to consider, and ask, some serious questions.  The scriptures included Psalm 24 and Romans 8:18-25.

Tree_SparrowThink, for a moment, about all the amazingly great ideas in the history of the world that have simply backfired.  For instance, in 1958 the Chinese government decided that since the Eurasian Tree Sparrow population of the country ate more than 10 pounds of grain per year per bird– enough to feed 60,000 people, it would be smart to get rid of the birds.  Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, the sparrow became virtually extinct…and then the problems started…because while sparrows do eat grain, they also eat insects.  LOTS of insects.  Because there were no birds to eat the bugs, the bugs ate the plants…and thus began the Great Chinese Famine in which an estimated 30 million people died.

saintsofthechurchAnd the effects of a backfired great idea can last for centuries…like when the church decided, sometime around the fourth century, that while all of us are called to live faithful lives, some people do such an amazingly great job at it that they ought to be recognized…and we started to call people “saints” – people who are such great role models for us that we should notice their lives.  But what happened was that we started paying attention to only the good part of those people’s lives…and when we compared ourselves to them, we think, “Wow, I’m a really lousy Christian compared to the virgin Mary or Augustine… I guess I’m no saint.” And then we let ourselves off the hook, because, after all, only saints can be super holy and really faithful, and so the result is that we wind up compartmentalizing or “taming” some gifted Christ-followers and diminishing our ability to be faithful.

Perhaps no one person, at least to Protestants, is a better example of this than Francis of Assisi.  Have you heard of him?  A 13th century Christian leader who has become associated with a love of nature and animals?  Do you know that prayer, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…”?  Yeah, he didn’t write it.  So far as we know, that was written in a French magazine in 1912.  So the one thing that most Americans associate with St. Francis is not accurate…but I am here to tell you that this brother of ours has something to teach the church in the 21st century.

Italy_mapFrancis was born to a wealthy family in Assisi, in central Italy, near the end of the 12th century.  Before we say anything about Francis, let me remind you of the state of the world at that time.  The so-called “dark ages” were ending, and the Renaissance was just around the corner.  Humans were leaving feudalism and barbarianism behind and experimenting with democracy and new freedoms for many.  The church at this point was old.  One writer has put it this way:

The Church was already a good deal more than a thousand years old… And she looked old then; almost as old as she does now; possibly older than she does now…The Church had topped her thousand years and turned the corner for the second thousand; she had come through the Dark Ages in which nothing could be done except desperate fighting against the barbarians and the stubborn repitition [sic] of the creed… The Church looked old then as now; and there were some who thought her dying as now…The freshness and freedom of the first Christians seemed then as much as now a lost and almost prehistoric age of gold…[1]

FrancisSoldierInto this world, Francis was born, and he lived what has been described as “a high-spirited life typical of a wealthy young man”.  He trained as a soldier to fight in Assisi’s army, and was captured and held hostage for more than a year.  His father paid a ransom and he returned, although in ill health.  After recuperating, at least somewhat, he prepared to set out for battle once more – but the night before he was to depart he had a vision calling him to a life of simplicity and poverty – and in that vision, he was told to rebuild the church.

At first, he assumed that meant to rebuild the church in his hometown, which was suffering from neglect and in sore need of repair.  Francis sold all of his possessions to buy building materials, and when that was not enough, he sold some of his father’s, too.  His father, none too pleased, had him arrested and hauled into court.  The judge was trying to make it easy on Francis, and said, essentially, “Look, apologize and give the money back and there’s no harm…”  But Francis was resolute, and turned his back on his family and his wealth – he stripped his clothes off and left them on the courtroom floor, vowing to never again owe anything to any man.  He began to beg for building supplies, and then came to see that perhaps he was being called to rebuild the church as a whole, rather than the church building.

Benozo Gozzoli, Scenes from the Life of St. Francis (1452)

Benozo Gozzoli, Scenes from the Life of St. Francis (1452)

To this end, he attracted some followers and he founded three orders of Christian service.  The first of these, “The Little Brothers”, or “The Order of the Friars Minor”, consisted of men who slept on the ground and ate what they could find as they preached the gospel of peace and reconciliation.  “The Order of St. Clare” was begun for women who experienced a similar call, and later on, the third order allowed for a world-wide following of Francis’ lifestyle.

Francis was known for his commitment to creation and the environment.  There are scores of stories that point to his preaching to the animals and his connection with nature.  In fact, Francis is credited with being the first person to ever set up a nativity scene in which the animals welcomed the birth of the Christ child.

The Trial by Fire of St. Francis before the Sultan, Fra Angelico, 1429

The Trial by Fire of St. Francis before the Sultan, Fra Angelico, 1429

As he aged, Francis became increasingly concerned with the rising conflict in the Middle East.  In 1219, he went to Egypt where the Christians from Europe were attacking the Muslims from North Africa.  He begged the Christian commander to stop the assault, and he was refused.  Unarmed, he walked into the Muslim camp and found the Sultan, al-Kamil.  He said to the man, “I am sent by the Most High God, to show you and your people the way of salvation by announcing to you the truths of the Gospel.”  He said that he would stay with the Sultan and teach him about Christ.  While the Muslim was reputed to have said, “If all Christians were like this, I would most certainly become one!”, in the end, he wavered.  At this point, Francis issued a challenge: light a big fire in the midst of the city, and Francis and one of the Muslim imams would walk into the blaze – Francis was convinced that he would survive unharmed and thus prove the truth of Christ’s claims.  The Sultan turned down this offer, but offered Francis money, which he refused.  Eventually the Sultan asked Francis to leave because he was afraid that his men would be attracted to the Gospel that this funny little Italian was preaching.

Francis returned to Italy and worked to lay the foundations for his religious orders.  As his health diminished, he handed leadership of the movement to others and sought increasing times of solitude and silence.  He died in 1226, leaving a legacy of thousands of followers.

As we look at the life of Francis in our own context, it seems to me that there are several challenges that he might bring to the church and the culture of the 21st century.

The first of these, and perhaps least-surprising given his legacy, is the affirmation brought to us in Romans 8 that the creation matters.  As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of stories about Francis and the animals.  One of the most famous involves the town of Gubbio, which was being terrorized by a vicious wolf that was so ravenous that it ate not only farm animals, but people, too.  The townspeople took up arms and went into the forest to kill all the wolves.  Francis begged them to stop, and went into the woods to find the beast.  He is said to have made the sign of the cross and command the wolf to lay down, and he said, “Brother Wolf, I want you to make peace with the townspeople – you must each stop harming the other.”  The wolf somehow indicated to Francis that he needed to eat, and so he killed.  Francis led the wolf into town, and made the townspeople promise to feed the wolf as they did their own dogs.  Supposedly, the wolf “shook” with Francis and lived among the people, going door to door, for two years until it died of old age.[2]

FrancisStatueIf you see a statue of St. Francis, I can bet he’ll be holding a bird.  And it’ll be in a garden.  We connect Francis with nature.  I wonder what this Christ-follower would say about our culture’s relationship with the environment?  What would you say are the theological implications of genetically modified seeds that are changing the way that the planet eats?  What would you say are the theological implications of the factory farms on which most of our meat is produced?  You may have noticed in the news that our nation’s largest producer of pork, Smithfield Foods, is being bought by the Chinese, and that’s setting off a political firestorm.  What would Francis say about the condition of those pigs, and the people who raise them?  Does God’s care for the creation extend to hogs who are confined to crates in which they cannot move, force-fed antibiotics, and create a sea of sewage that is toxic to anything in its path?

I’m not interested in arguing about any specific issue here – but I do want to note that the church of the 21st century needs voices like Francis who will help us think critically about what it means for us to exist with creation, and to steward creation in such a way so that when we are called to account before the Creator we will have a leg to stand on.

Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337),  St Francis before the Sultan (Trial by Fire)

Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337), St Francis before the Sultan (Trial by Fire)

The other area in which I find a significant challenge from the life of Francis is echoed in the reading we heard from Psalm 24, about the earth and all its people belonging to the Lord.  I mentioned Francis’ travel to Egypt in response to the carnage that we call the Crusades. You may know that, at the end of the day, “our team” lost, and the Muslims retained control over the Holy Land and much of the Middle East. You may not know, however, that the leaders of Islam reached out to the Franciscan orders and invited them to come and be present in the Holy Land – the only western Christians permitted to remain – because they remembered, and were grateful for, the way that Francis himself treated Muslims with respect and love.

Now, this is crazy talk…and I promise, I’m not intentionally trying to get anyone angry this morning, but let me ask a foolish question.  What do you think would have happened if on the morning of September 12, 2001, we announced that we were going to send one million teachers, nurses, civil engineers, and missionaries to Afghanistan?  What if our campaign of “shock and awe” in Iraq was focused, not so much on the superiority of our weaponry as the depth of our love?

I know, I know, I’m a nut job or a whacko or un-American or something terrible for asking the question.  It’s a crazy question, isn’t it?

MQ-9 "Reaper" Drone

MQ-9 “Reaper” Drone

Why?  Who determines that to be so crazy? Why is that crazier than attacking them militarily?  Right now, an MQ-9 Reaper drone costs $12,548,710.60.  In the last five years, we’ve had at least 60 drones crash in Afghanistan and Iraq and a hundred worldwide[3].  For comparison’s sake, the cost of a single drone will provide 110 people a four-year scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh.  What would happen if we said, “instead of bombing the daylights out of your country, we will give every one of your children a quality education?”

We will never know, of course, because we can’t even ask that kind of question in our world.  I’m a fool to have brought it up.

But Francis walked from Italy to Egypt in the middle of the Crusades because he apparently thought that we might more closely follow Jesus in seeking to make more Christians, rather than destroying all Muslims.  Not every crazy idea is Christ-like, just because it’s crazy.  But I’m here to say that the church of Jesus Christ will need more people in the 21st century who are willing to ask disturbing questions and to walk behind those questions in service to God.

G. K. Chesterton, a British writer and philosopher from the last century, called Francis the “mirror of Christ.”

Saint Francis is the mirror of Christ rather as the moon is the mirror of the sun. The moon is much smaller than the sun, but it is also much nearer to us; and being less vivid it is more visible. Exactly in the same sense Saint Francis is nearer to us, and being a mere man like ourselves is in that sense more imaginable. Being necessarily less of a mystery, he does not, for us, so much open his mouth in mysteries…[4]

Francis of Assisi has given many people amazing insight into the life of faith.  He retraced the footsteps of Jesus by seeking to honor the earth and all those whom God made.  Some people who could not see Jesus at all came to love him because of something that they saw in Francis.  The question for the church today is, “Can I follow him, who followed Christ?  Can I follow him in such a way that people might see Christ in me?  Can I live gently in this world that God has made?  Can I love even those people whom I find to be offensive, or who have harmed me?”

474px-Saint_Francis_of_Assisi_by_Jusepe_de_RiberaThose are crazy questions.  Maybe it won’t surprise you to know that one of Francis’ nicknames is Le Jongleur de Dieu – which might translate as “God’s jester” or “the fool of God”.  He called his followers the Jongleurs de Dieu because he claimed for them both innocence and jollity – whilst holding them to telling the truth.  The church needs more fools like that in the 21st century.  I would encourage you to give it a try – to come up with some absolutely crazy questions in the week to come…and to ask them of Christ…and to see where they lead you.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Each week during this series, I’ll be providing a one-page handout at the church to help illumine the person considered.  Below is the material that was available on July 14.

Faces at the Reunion: Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)

During the summer of 2013, we will be looking at the Christian Faith through the eyes of some of the servants of God who have preceded us in this walk.  These men and women left behind a witness that has formed us, whether we know it or not, and in our worship we will have a “family reunion” this summer as we engage in their stories and gain from their experience.

Francis (from Italy) was the first Christian to set up a nativity scene!  He was a model to the church in terms of taking the words of Christ seriously and seeking to live them in his daily life.  He is widely referred to as both “the mirror of Christ” and “God’s fool”.  He strongly believed in the importance of laypersons reading and studying the Bible in their own language, and he usually wrote in the local language himself.

The Canticle of the Sun by Francis of Assisi

Most High, all-powerful, all-good Lord,
 all praise is Yours, all glory, honor and blessings.
 To you alone, Most High, do they belong;
 no mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your Name.

 We praise You, Lord, for all Your creatures,
 especially for Brother Sun,
 who is the day through whom You give us light.
 And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor,
 of You Most High, he bears your likeness.

We praise You, Lord, for Sister Moon and the stars, 
in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair.

We praise You, Lord, for Brothers Wind and Air, fair and stormy, all weather’s moods,
 by which You cherish all that You have made.

We praise You, Lord, for Sister Water, so useful, humble, precious and pure.

We praise You, Lord, for Brother Fire, 
through whom You light the night.
 He is beautiful, playful, robust, and strong.

We praise You, Lord, for Sister Earth, who sustains us 
with her fruits, colored flowers, and herbs.

We praise You, Lord, for those who pardon, for love of You bear sickness and trial.
 Blessed are those who endure in peace,
 by You Most High, they will be crowned.

We praise You, Lord, for Sister Death,
 from whom no-one living can escape.
 Woe to those who die in their sins!
 Blessed are those that She finds doing Your Will.
 No second death can do them harm.

We praise and bless You, Lord, and give You thanks, 
and serve You in all humility.

Other quotes from Francis:

“Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.”

“He who works with his hands is a laborer.

He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.

He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”

“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”

For a detailed booklet on St. Francis written by famous curmudgeon G. K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936), visit http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/stf01010.htm   It is a long read, but fascinating.  Other resources on the life of this “older brother” in the faith can be found here: http://www.paracletepress.com/books-spirituality-franciscan.html

The Restless Heart

During the Summer of 2013, God’s people in Crafton Heights will be spending time talking with and listening to some of the members of the Christian Family whose stories and lives remind us about what it means to live faithfully.  As described below, I’m calling this series “Faces at the Reunion” because I believe that as our family claims its heritage and gets to know each other, we’ll be stronger for it.  The message from Jly 7, “The Restless Heart”, took as its texts Acts 8:9-25 and  Romans 13:8-14.

dusty-bibleThe conversation went something like this: “So, the Bible is done, right?  I mean, nobody is adding anything else to it, are they?”

“Um, I would find that highly surprising…”

“And nobody has really added anything to those stories for about two thousand years, right?”

“Essentially, sure.”

“Well, what if Jesus doesn’t come back for another two thousand years?  What stories are we going to use? Won’t the Bible seem really old then?  How will people know how to live in their own time and place?”

And that question – beautiful in its simplicity – got me to thinking about the fact that when we have been at our best, the church has, for two thousand years – been trying to help people do that very thing.

And I thought about a trip I took one time to a little town in New York, where we were going to celebrate my grandparents’ wedding anniversary.  I had grown up thinking that I knew my family: 1 brother, 1 sister, 1 mother, 1 father, 4 grandparents, 19 cousins.  But at this event I kept seeing strangers go over and kiss my mother or worse, come and start tugging on my cheeks.  And I realized that I most certainly did NOT know my family…

So this summer, I’m going to invite you to a family reunion of sorts.  You won’t meet any of my cousins, but we’ll find a few sisters and brothers that you might not have met yet – but who have worked hard to help our Christian Family have a deeper understanding of what it means to follow Jesus faithfully.

hippoOn November 13, 354 AD in the town of Hippo in what is now Algeria, North Africa, a Christian woman named Monica and her pagan husband had a son, whom they named Augustine.  This boy, raised in the cradle of the Roman Empire, turned out to be one of the most profound influences on your life…and your faith.  After his conversion to Christianity, which we’ll hear about in a moment, he rose to a position of great prominence and influence.  He was one of the most important people who helped turn Christianity from a “movement” into an “institution” – that is, his preaching and writing gave shape to the church at a crucial time in her life.

For instance, Augustine was the first person to really define what a sacrament is.  People had been having worship for three hundred years, but nobody had been able to put into words exactly what was happening.  Augustine put it this way: “The word is added to the element, and there results the Sacrament, as if itself also a kind of visible word.”[1] Augustine taught us to distinguish between the sign (say, the pouring of water) and the thing that is signified (say, the forgiveness of our sin).  It sounds like “Christianity 101”, but hey, someone had to help us figure out this stuff – and more than anyone else in the first few centuries, it was Augustine.StAugustineRestless

The two works for which he is best remembered are Confessions and The City of God.  The latter book was written after the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410.  For as long as anyone could remember, Rome had been synonymous with strength and stability; for a hundred years, Rome had been a “Christian” Empire.  Now the Goths had overrun the world’s city and the culture was changing.  There would be new rules, new customs.  People were dying to know – how can we still be Christians if the world around us is changing…I know, that sounds crazy to us, who live in a time of such great global and cultural stability when things don’t ever change, but trust me, nations rise and fall, empires change, and so do cultures and behaviors.  Augustine wrote The City of God to help believers explore how to live lives of faith in the midst of change.  And he did it 1600 years ago!

His earlier work, Confessions, is regarded as the first work of autobiography, and it contains a memoir of his conversion to the Christian faith.

He begins by describing his childhood, and how he had been raised in comparative wealth.  His great intellect was obvious to anyone who knew him, and he was educated at the finest institutions.  He became involved with the cult of Manichaeism, a belief that denied the reality of a loving creator and instead taught that humanity and all of creation are a result of a curious conflict between good and evil.  The human being – body, mind, and spirit – is simply a battleground on which the forces of good and evil wage war.

During this time of adolescence and young adulthood, Augustine experimented with all sorts of behavior.  In particular, he became engrossed with sexuality.  As he descended deeper and deeper into what he would later see as sinful brokenness, he was increasingly uncomfortable – but he did not have the strength to leave it behind.  In fact, one of his most famous prayers is this: “O Lord, make me chaste…but not yet.”

I think that some of you know how that feels – that there is some behavior – some anger, some lust, some substance, some pride – that you think is probably not right, but you are not yet convinced that you want to give it up.  You have prayed, “O Lord, save me from this thing…next week”.  Because we love our secret sin, don’t we?

At any rate, when he was 31 years old, he was reflecting on his situation – one that he termed as having “a restless heart”.  Listen to his own words:

conversionI was asking myself these questions, weeping all the while with the most bitter sorrow in my heart, when all at once I heard the singsong voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain “Take it and read, take it and read.” At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall.

So he grabbed his Bible and it fell open to the passage we heard a few moments ago: Romans 13:13-14, which reads So behave properly, as people do in the day. Don’t go to wild parties or get drunk or be vulgar or indecent. Don’t quarrel or be jealous. Let the Lord Jesus Christ be as near to you as the clothes you wear. Then you won’t try to satisfy your selfish desires.”

In his own words:

I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.[2]

He knew the truth, and he would later reflect on it this way: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

This experience is crucial to understanding Augustine and his impact on our church and on our faith.  He knew what it was like to wrestle with sin.  He had been broken.  He knew what it meant to do things that he didn’t really want to do, and to be unable to do things that he knew he really should do.  More than any other church leader before him, Augustine came to see that Christians fall into sin time and time again, and that the only response possible is to throw oneself onto God’s mercy and trust in God’s forgiveness.  A sinless life, he said, is impossible – so trust God.

Peter's Conflict with Simon Magus by Avanzino Nucci, 1620

Peter’s Conflict with Simon Magus by Avanzino Nucci, 1620

In my preparation for this message, I did not find anyplace where Augustine preached about Simon the Magician in the book of Acts, but I am convinced that this would have been one of his favorite stories.  In Acts 8 we heard the story of a pagan charlatan who used smoke and mirrors to impress the public and enrich himself…but he seemed to know that there was more.  When he heard the apostle Philip preaching the Good News of Jesus, he believed!  He received baptism, and he became a disciple who followed Philip around seeking to soak up as much as he could…

Until his old demons came back and he started to think about all the money he was throwing away by following Jesus…and all that he could make if he could just bottle up a little of that “Holy Spirit” and pour it out at will.  When the Christians rebuke him for this, and name the sin in his life, then he confesses his sin (again!) and seeks to be faithful.

And it’s not just Simon, nor Augustine.  How many of you know what it’s like to be here, to be committed, to be ready…and then to screw up big time?

Augustine was monumental in helping our Christian family understand that to live faithfully, we need both personal decisions and communal accountability.  Too often in some congregations, we seem to expect only one or the other of those things.  Some churches teach that “we’re all in this together.  Come on in, get baptized, join the club, and we’ll take care of it as a group.”  Others seem to say, “Look, it’s all about you, and whether you’ve made a decision to follow Jesus.  Have you asked him to be your personal Lord and Savior?  Good.  Then you’re over the line and your work is done…”

828augustineAugustine shows us that the personal decision does matter – a great deal.  Our decisions matter.  But it’s not just one and done – say the magic words and get into the company of the faithful, end of story.  No, we need to be converted.  And then, together, we are re-converted.  And re-converted.

I had a friend who played football for Pitt when Pitt was national champion in 1976.  Just after graduation, he became a Christian, and made a decision to follow the Lord.  Three weeks after that, he got married.  The guys on the football team thought it would be funny to take him out and get him really drunk, and then they brought a stripper in.  When she had done what she came to do, she was in an adjoining room getting herself dressed and they stripped my friend down to his boxers and threw him into the room with her.  He stood up, swayed a little bit, and stammered out, “Listen…you don’t have anything to worry about from me…last month, I became a Christian!”

The woman eyed him up and down and said simply, “No kidding?  I’ve been saved four or five times myself!”

Listen, I’m not holding out my drunken friend or his bachelor party entertainment as models for Christian growth…but I am here to say, with Augustine, that sin happens.  We orient ourselves.  We decide that we want to grow, we want to follow, we want to be faithful.  And then, sooner or later, we screw up.

Augustine would say, and I would agree with him, that the question is not really “will you struggle with sin?”  Rather, the question is, “how will you react to your struggle with sin?”  When you blow it, will you be ready to wake up and trust God in the morning?

If you have not yet trusted God to direct your life – if you are still holding back somehow and have not sought to open your restless heart to God’s healing, why not?

And if you have trusted in the grace of God, but are not growing in your ability to live faithfully, what’s holding you back?

And if you struggle with sin and brokenness in the process, well, then, don’t be surprised.  Confess it, and teach your restless heart to rest in God’s amazing grace.  And live your faith, again, tomorrow.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1]Homilies on the Gospel of John, quoted in Bernhard Lohse’s A Short History of Christian Doctrine (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), p. 137.

[2] Confessions,  Book VII, Section 12

The material below is a copy of a handout that I shared with the people who were in worship on Sunday.  It contains a little more information on Augustine as well as some of his writing.  I pray that you enjoy it!  

Faces at the Reunion: St. Augustine (354-430)

During the summer of 2013, we will be looking at the Christian Faith through the eyes of some of the servants of God who have preceded us in this walk.  These men and women left behind a witness that has formed us, whether we know it or not, and in our worship we will have a “family reunion” this summer as we engage in their stories and gain from their experience.

Augustine (from North Africa) was one of the most influential Christian thinkers, writers, and pastors of the early church.  Some have said that apart from the Bible, his Confessions is the most widely-read book of all time.  He grew up as an unbeliever, had a dramatic conversion experience in his 30’s, and went on to shape the church as we know it today.

From The Confessions of St. Augustine, Book I (Translated by Edward Bouverie Pusey )

Oh! that I might repose on Thee! Oh! that Thou wouldest enter into my heart, and inebriate it, that I may forget my ills, and embrace Thee, my sole good! What art Thou to me? In Thy pity, teach me to utter it. Or what am I to Thee that Thou demandest my love, and, if I give it not, art wroth with me, and threatenest me with grievous woes? Is it then a slight woe to love Thee not? Oh! for Thy mercies’ sake, tell me, O Lord my God, what Thou art unto me. Say unto my soul, I am thy salvation. So speak, that I may hear. Behold, Lord, my heart is before Thee; open Thou the ears thereof, and say unto my soul, I am thy salvation. After this voice let me haste, and take hold on Thee. Hide not Thy face from me. Let me die- lest I die- only let me see Thy face.

Narrow is the mansion of my soul; enlarge Thou it, that Thou mayest enter in. It is ruinous; repair Thou it. It has that within which must offend Thine eyes; I confess and know it. But who shall cleanse it? or to whom should I cry, save Thee? Lord, cleanse me from my secret faults, and spare Thy servant from the power of the enemy. I believe, and therefore do I speak. Lord, Thou knowest. Have I not confessed against myself my transgressions unto Thee, and Thou, my God, hast forgiven the iniquity of my heart? I contend not in judgment with Thee, who art the truth; I fear to deceive myself; lest mine iniquity lie unto itself. There- fore I contend not in judgment with Thee; for if Thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall abide it?

From The Confessions of St. Augustine, Book X (Translated by Henry Chadwick)

Late have I loved you,
beauty so old and so new,
late have I loved you.

And see, you were within,
and I was in the external world and sought you there,

and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely things
which you made.

You were with me, and I was not with you.

The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you they had no existence at all.

 

You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness.

You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness.

You were fragrant,
and I drew my breath and now pant after you.

I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you.

You touched me,
and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.

 

For more information about Augustine, see http://www.reasons.org/articles/augustine-of-hippo-part-1-of-2-from-pagan-to-cultist-to-skeptic-to-christian-sage