“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Gal. 6:14)
Francis is among the most beloved of saints, especially here in the American southwest. Franciscan Friars were among the first Christians to come to this land, and Archbishop Lamy’s imposing cathedral basilica in Santa Fe is named for Francis; statues of Francis adorn countless gardens (as does one here in church today), and congregations enthusiastically bless animals each year on the Feast of St. Francis (as we shall ourselves do this afternoon). Even the current pope has taken Francis’ name, hoping to signal a new era of humility and concern in the church for the poor, the earth, and the refugee.
So to invoke the name of St. Francis brings to mind many images, and none as strongly as his idyllic relationship to nature. Francis called the animals as well as the sun, moon and stars his brothers and sisters—even death itself he regarded as kin. In this naturalistic vein, we may also recall Francis’ famous sermon to the birds, when he celebrated their own giftedness as God’s creatures, reminding them to “praise your Creator and always love him; for he gave you feathers to cloth you, and wings so that you can fly.”
These images, however, are actually a rather sanitized version of the real Francis. The historical Francis of late 12th century Italy was more like an Old Testament prophet, living a life of peculiar eccentricity and isolation, while preaching a vehement message of repentance to a corrupt and complacent church and society. Indeed Francis’ preaching to the birds was not just an affectionate gesture toward these creatures, his brothers and sisters, but it was also a prophetic denunciation of the papal court of Rome where his calls for spiritual reform had found few sympathetic hearers—perhaps, he reasoned, if he left the city and went into the fields, at least the birds might listen!
But the dimension of Francis’ life that we most often miss in the rather idealized portrayals of him to which we have become accustomed, is his complete personal identification with the crucified Christ. Francis was absolutely insistent, like Paul in today’s epistle reading, that the only thing in which human beings can put their trust and confidence, is the cross of Jesus. “Even one demon,” he once wrote, “knows more than all of humanity put together. But in this we can glory: bearing daily the holy cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In fact, so close was Francis’ identification with Christ’s sufferings that he is said to have received the stigmata, the sign of Christ’s wounds, into his own flesh. Be that as it may, one thing is clear: the driving energy behind Francis’ itinerant mission was nothing other than an intense and unrelenting awareness of walking the way of the cross.
But here is the remarkable thing: one might think that by focusing on Jesus’ suffering, Francis would have succumbed to a rather gloomy and despairing worldview, as much of medieval spirituality did. Yet for Francis, Christ’s willingness to die on the cross to redeem humankind opened for him a new world of possibility and hope. Francis was able to imagine a world entirely restored and recreated in Christ, and so his life and preaching was dedicated to the proposition that while Jesus calls to us from the cross to confront the darkest and most hidden places of ourselves, he does so in order to bring to those dark recesses of our souls light, beauty, forgiveness, restoration, and renewal.
The great gift Francis gave to the church, if you like, was an ability to imagine what the Kingdom of God might look like in the world of 12th century Italy, and he set out to bring that vision to reality. In a world of crusades, plagues, and wars, Francis could imagine a world of gentleness and peace; a world of beauty and wonder; a world of harmony and equanimity that could be brought about by the practice of Christian virtues such as humility, generosity, charity, and patience.
And whether we realize it or not, this I think is the real source of our enduring affection for Francis. More than just being a companion with nature, he seems to have found a way to inhabit the Kingdom of God in a manner which we desire to live as well. Like him, we too want to have a sense of belonging gently and easily in the world; we too want to feel that sense of fraternal warmth with our fellow human beings that Francis had not only with his monastic brothers, but the whole of creation; we too want to have the sense of life abundant without having to be weighed down with abundant possessions. In short, at some deep level we want to live in the world in which Francis lived; to inhabit the same spiritual terrain as he did; to have the same confidence and hope with which he met the trials of his day.
Like Francis, I think that we at St. Michael’s have been blessed in some measure with the spiritual imagination to think of what the world might look like if it were lived as the Kingdom of God—not in Francis’ 12th century Rome, but our 21stcentury Albuquerque. We see a world in which there is a place for everyone at the table; a world in which the poor are fed and the homeless sheltered, yet also given the hope for opportunity and success; a world in which children are loved, clothed, inspired and educated; a world in which those who grieve are consoled, those who are ill are comforted, and those who are at work are encouraged; and a world in which those who seek to know God more deeply are not only welcomed, but joined in their spiritual pilgrimage. Open hands, open hearts, and open minds: that is the vision to which we recommitted and pledged ourselves at last Sunday’s celebration of new ministry.
Now this week you will be receiving (if you have not already) an invitation to consider how you will help make possible the realization of this vision for Building the Kingdom of God in this parish through your own financial generosity in the coming year. As you do so, it would be good to recall that like the life of Francis, our own Christian lives are nothing less than a rich fabric of life-long practices through which we nurture a vision of that world, that Kingdom, which we wish to inhabit, and which we are each helping to build. Generous giving—giving with enough abandon to feel true joy in the doing of it—is one of those practices that makes up Christian living. There are others (hospitality, stability, honesty, patience), but giving is one that especially opens us to God’s grace, because giving is God’s own primary relationship with us. Seen in this light, giving toward the work of the church is not paying a due or meeting an obligation, but rather a cultivation of that pattern of generosity in ourselves which we long for in the whole of God’s Kingdom.
Francis was deeply convinced that one person, every person, makes an decisive difference by how he or she lives. “Sanctify yourself,” he said, “and you will sanctify the world.” Perhaps on this occasion, as we ponder the commitments we will make, we might paraphrase that thought to read, “Give generously, and you will make the world generous.”
As Francis himself prayed: “All-powerful, most holy, most high, and supreme God: all good, supreme good, totally good, You who alone are good; may we give You all praise, all glory, all thanks, all honor: all blessing, and all good things. So be it. So be it. Amen.”
© Joseph Britton, 2015
Of all the clips shown of the Pope shown during his visit to the United States this week, the one that most caught my eye was a short documentary piece by CNN on an unexplained gap in the pope’s early life as a Jesuit priest in Argentina.
As the story is told, the young Jorge Borgoglio was a real hard-ass: doctrinaire, demanding, and unforgiving. In fact, his fellow Jesuits got so tired of his heavy-handedness that from 1990 to 1992 they sent him off in virtual exile to the Argentinian city of Cordoba, where he lived an almost hermetic solitude.
But through those many months of private prayer and reflection, something apparently happened to the future pope: he emerged from the experience speaking more of mercy than of judgment, more of compassion than of dogmatic correctness. He emerged, in other words, as the man we have seen this week: a champion for the poor, a prophet for the earth, a defender of immigrants, holding out hope to everyone, even those condemned to die. You might say that during his exile Padre Borgoglio discovered the meaning of what Jesus tells us in today’s gospel: that Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly—not fearfully and defensively, but abundantly, joyfully, and passionately.
Back in New Haven, Connecticut, where I most recently served as a priest before coming to Albuquerque, I made a habit of walking from time to time around the corner from my parish office to the Yale Catholic Student Center to pay my colleagues there a visit. The facility is stunning: spacious, recently constructed, and designed to be a welcoming oasis for the whole university community. Particularly noticeable is that just after entering the main door, a visitor sees Jesus’s words inscribed in large letters across the entry hall: “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly. John 10:10.”
If the visitor pays a bit more careful attention, he or she will perhaps also notice that underneath that inscription is an oil painting of the donor who made the center possible, a fellow named Thomas Golden. In the portrait, Golden is seated in front of a fireplace, and on the mantle of that fireplace, just over Golden’s left shoulder, is a clock with its hands set to—you guessed it, 10:10—a subtle resonance with the inscription of the biblical verse John 10:10 just above.
Now, you probably know that this verse has sometimes been used to justify a crude sort of prosperity gospel—that is, the notion that following Jesus somehow leads inevitably to material wealth. But that is not the sort of abundance Jesus means. In fact, some translations render the verse, “I came that you might have life, and have it in all its fullness,” which begins to get at quite a different meaning. And as we have seen that meaning enacted for us this past week by the Pope, it clearly has to do with something more than prosperity: it has instead to do with what the Pope—and I dare say we here at St. Michael’s—are committed to building as the Kingdom of God—a kingdom that I want to describe here this morning in three words: caritas, covenant, and community.
The first of those three words, caritas, is one of the New Testament words for love, as in that famous passage from I Corinthians 13: “three things endure, faith, hope and love (caritas), but the greatest of these is love.” This love is not of a romantic sort, nor is it of the familial kind (despite the fact that I Corinthians passage gets read at almost every wedding). Rather, caritas is the spirit of fraternal empathy that causes us to reach out in loving concern to each and every person, whoever and whatever they are. Caritas involves extending God’s unconditional love, acceptance and mercy uniformly, in a genuine embodiment of the “all are welcome” about which we sang in our opening hymn.
Covenant, then (the second of the three descriptors of God’s kingdom), is derived from the understanding that to support the love with which we wish to engage the world, we must first be bound together by certain common commitments that ground our identity in Christ. In short, covenant implies that we are committed to do, what Jesus asked us to do: to break bread together, to remain faithful in prayer and the reading of scripture, to be generous in the sharing of ourselves and our resources, and to live out the Golden Rule by treating others as we would have them to treat us (a principle about which Pope Francis not-so-subtly reminded the members of Congress this past week). These commitments bind us together in a pattern of relationship—the baptismal covenant—and they are what make the caritas (the loving concern) of God’s kingdom real and tangible.
Then the third of the descriptors of the kingdom—community—reminds us that we discover these other two dimensions (caritas and covenant), only when we recognize that we are all part of striving toward what Pope Francis repeatedly named this week as the common good. The Christian view of life is unequivocally convinced that life’s meaning ultimately comes from being committed to something larger than one’s self. This after all is the core of Jesus’ teaching, as he tells us over and over that only in losing our life do we gain it, only in giving up the priority of the self to make room for the Other (whether it is the stranger, the foreigner, or the person in need) do we find a true sense of purpose and joy.
I am relatively new here at St. Michael’s—obviously. But from the day that I first arrived, I couldn’t help noticing that there seems to be a phrase almost hanging in the air around here, which is “open hands, open hearts, open minds.” (There is, for example, a sculpture in the front office called “open mind,” as if to remind us of this theme each time we come and go.) I heard vestry members use the phrase; I saw the open hands and hearts of volunteers in the food pantry, St. Martin’s shelter, and community connections; I heard staff members use the phrase; I came across it in parish publications. So it seemed natural that in setting up today’s celebration, we should claimed the obvious by adopting “open hands, open hearts, open minds” as a unifying theme for going forward together as we make this common act of renewal of ministry in this place.
Because the abundant life—the fullness of life—to which Jesus calls us is just that: a life lived in openness, openness both to the blessings that God so freely gives us, but also to the commitments to which God calls us. The abundant life is one that has such a strength of character, a generosity of spirit, and a curiosity of mind that it opens us to engage the world as it is (neither minimizing its sorrows and pains, nor overlooking its beauty); the abundant life opens us to a sense of the generosity of God’s grace and mercy (neither turning a blind eye to injustice, nor failing to do good for those who are in need); the abundant life results in an awareness of the rich complexity of life that opens us to new insight and understanding (neither forgetting the wisdom of our forbears, nor resisting the changing perspectives which experience urges upon us).
Open hands, open hearts, open minds. These are the markers of the true abundance, the true fullness, to which Jesus calls us, and which Jesus offers us. This is the life that once desolate Padre Borgoglio discovered in his dark night of the soul, and he has never been the same. And the same Spirit that worked such a miracle in him, is working it in us as well. Just look around you: the signs are there, in the open hands, hearts and minds that are the true heart and soul of St. Michael’s parish. Thanks be to God!
(And by the way, as you leave church today … check what time it is on the new clock in the entry hall. I’ll give you one guess.)
Solomon prayed [to the Lord],
“Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.” (I Kings 8)
For the past several weeks, the gospel lesson has focused on the theme of Jesus as the bread of life, and I think we have pretty well dealt with that topci—at least for now. (there will always be more to say). So I want to circle back this morning to the lessons from the Old Testament which we have largely ignored, and pick up on the story of King Solomon.
If you were here last week, you may remember that we heard how King David, Solomon’s father, had just died. This was the great King David—slayer of Goliath, chosen by God from among Jesse’s sons and anointed by Saul, mighty warrior, author of psalms, ancestor of Jesus. Solomon, his son, clearly had some big shoes to step into as he ascended the throne, and so as we heard last week God was mightily impressed when instead of asking for fame or riches or power, Solomon simply asked for wisdom. That’s where we left off ...
Then today, we have heard Solomon beginning to exercise this gift of wisdom. The setting is this: Solomon has just completed one of his greatest accomplishments—the building of a temple to house the Arc of the Covenant, which contained the Ten Commandments, the founding documents of the people of Israel. If you want an image of the importance of this building, think of the National Archives in Washington, where our own founding documents are kept (the Declaration of Independence and Constitution). In the narrative, we have just come to the dedication ceremony, and all the elders and heads of the tribes and the people are gathered round to witness the installation of the Arc into the temple. It’s a grand occasion, made for television, and even God does not disappoint, sending a cloud to hover in the house of the Lord so that the glory of the Lord fills its very halls.
So now come the speeches. Saul as king turns to address the people, and his remarks turn out to be more of a sustained prayer to the Lord rather than a speech, asking God’s blessing upon the new house of worship.
But his prayer is interesting. Although this is a great national ceremony in the life of the people—the dedication of their first ever permanent shrine—he prays not for security; nor for prosperity and abundance; nor for victories over enemies, nor stability and success. He prays instead for God’s own steadfastness: that God will always be present in this place, to hear the prayers of the people, and to offer them forgiveness and grace. His prayer is really quite remarkable for its humility and tone of supplication: “Lord, although it is we who have built this grand and impressive edifice, even so we now humbly beseech you to deign to dwell within it.” There’s no hubris, no triumphalism.
Solomon—in his wisdom, so to speak—seems to understand at some deep level that sometimes the most that we can ask of God is simply to be with us (like that beautiful prayer from the evening office: “Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past …”). This utter simplicity of intent is especially true, I think, of the prayers we make in our most difficult moments, when the way forward is not at all clear. In such moments, sometimes the most we can do is pray, “God, be with me.” Moments like the shock after an unexpected accident; the empty silence that follows a bad diagnosis; the numbness that settles in after the news of a loved one’s death; or of a betrayal by a close friend of spouse; or the discovery of a trusted colleague’s dishonesty. In due time, our prayer will be for direction, or guidance, or reconciliation. But first, in moments like these, our heart can often only cry, “God, be with me.”
I don’t know if you have had the experience of walking the halls of a hospital late at night—many of us have, I’m sure. In the wee hours of the morning, there is a hushed aura of pain and death that hovers in the halls. I learned for instance during my own clinical training that more people die at 2:00 am than at any other hour of the day. It’s the low point of the day, before any sign of dawn. And in those dark hours, I found as a hospital chaplain that this prayer quickly comes to mind: “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.” That is one of those moments, when it seems that the most we can pray is for God to keep watch with us, to be present, to be near.
We all come to this temple, our own house of prayer, seeking week by week the very same thing for which Solomon prayed: that God will be present, will heed us, and will hear our prayer. Sometimes, that prayer may be very concrete, and we may know already in what direction we need to be moving, and we come asking for strength for the journey. But there are other times when our anguish is such that our prayer may be for nothing more than that God will keep watch with us, be present with us, and sit with us to comfort us. In such moments, such a prayer can be enough.
When this church of St. Michael and All Angels was itself dedicated some years ago, the community prayed words much like those of Solomon: the bishop led us in asking God to “make this a temple of your presence and a house of prayer. Be always near [he continued] when we seek you in this place. Draw us to you, when we come alone and when we come with others, to find comfort and wisdom, to be supported and strengthened, to rejoice and give thanks … so that our lives may be sustained …” And my sense is that this community is indeed such a place: a temple where our commitment to prayer, and to one another, brings those two things together in powerful ways.
No wonder, then, that our psalm leads us today in singing, “How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord.” Psalm 84 celebrates the house of the Lord as a place of safety—where the sparrow may build her a nest and lay her young. It is a place of springs in the desolate valley (a metaphor that ought especially to touch us desert dwellers). And it is a place of joy and of refuge.
And all these things are made true because above all, this house of the Lord is a place where, like Solomon’s temple, the Lord remains faithful and steadfast with his people. Here is a place where the Lord from his heavenly dwelling place, both hears and is moved by the prayers of the people to heed and abide. Here the Lord keeps watch, tending the sick, giving rest to the weary, blessing the dying, soothing the suffering, pitying the afflicted—yet also shielding the joyous. All for his own love’s sake, Amen.