St Francis of Assisi
The 4th of October is always a special day, because it is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. I first fell in love with St. Francis when I was a student. I was staying with a friend who was studying to be a priest at the English College in Rome. It was January, and the biggest shock for me was how cold it was. The fountains of Rome were all frozen, and the marble floors of the college gave little comfort. So, one weekend, we decided to take ourselves off to Assisi. We took the train, and headed north towards the Apennine mountains. As the train journeyed inland and uphill, it started to snow, and it was quite exciting. After about two hours, we finally pulled into the station, and by now the snow was very deep, and it was getting dark. We got out and looked around, and I remember feeling actually rather disappointed. The town looked a bit dull. But then, I looked up, and there, high above us, clinging to the mountainside like a dream, was the medieval city of Assisi, lit up by the setting sun, shimmering in the snow. It was stunning, and has stayed in my mind’s eye ever since.
During the next few days we walked in the footsteps of St Francis, heard his story, prayed in the churches, played in the snow, throwing snowballs outside the church of Santa Chiara (nearly hitting a nun!), and I remember feeling full of joy. Francis had captured our hearts! And it was joy above all, which was the gift we received from Francis. I think he has been blessing the world with joy ever since.
Hosea 10:1-3, 12
There is a new fence going up. So far it is just the posts. They are taller and more robust. The perimeter expands further, and—fittingly—it is beautiful. There is a new fence going up at the Monks’ Garden at Emery House. Everything grown there is given away. The first beets were just harvested; 100 pounds will be distributed this week at the Newbury Food Pantry.[i]
The garden is in partnership with Nourishing the North Shore. We provide the land and water. They grow, harvest, and distribute. We also host land for the Organic Community Garden. We Brothers share in Nourishing the North Shore’s mission: “to ensure equal access to healthy, local food to all members of the North Shore communities in a manner that builds community, fosters connection, and promotes dignity and self-reliance.”[ii] Food justice is expanding step by step in further work with local schools and with a bigger garden: mission in action.
A bigger garden could be used for exclusion and greed, to horde and squander. In today’s text, the prophet Hosea shows bad and good images. God’s people were like “a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit.” With more fruit, they built monuments to idols, like self-praise, ignoring God. “Their heart is false … The Lord will break down their altars, and destroy their pillars.”
No one covers a lamp with a basket or puts it under a bed, says Jesus. Hiding a lamp makes it ineffective. A lamp is made to share light, to be out in the open so others may see. Matthew adds: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”[i] We are made to shine, to illuminate, to point people to God, not hiding or keeping to ourselves.
Yesterday in the text preceding this we heard a parable.[ii] Like the wild sower, God is recklessly generous, scattering seed everywhere, including where there is little chance of bearing fruit. Like the different soils, we vary in our receptivity, while God keeps loving, generously sharing.
To receive such generosity and to share it means being vulnerable—risky, emotional, exposed—and this is how we are created to be. Fear and shame prompt hiding or hording. Jesus says as a lamp is for a room, we are to receive, be seen, and shine.
When I’m told “be patient,” I squirm. For someone I love notices I’ve been squirming, wondering what will happen, and trying to make something happen. Perhaps we associate patience with being nice or good, yet it usually hurts.
“Be patient,” James writes. Along with the original hearers, I squirm. Be patient like the farmer who waits with a precious crop for the early and late rains to nourish mature growth. The farmer waits not simply for the rains to come but for the crop to survive in the meantime. Insects, weeds, and sun may harm or kill, and the farmer cannot control these.
To be patient is to tolerate or endure discomfort or suffering. The farmer does not know and cannot control what may eat, choke, or scorch the crops. Patience is hard, sometimes excruciating. I have also experienced that “be patient” helps prompt my renewed attention. Perhaps you have too. It is like the psalmist saying: “Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him.”[i] Wait patiently by slowing down from squirm to stillness, from noisy chatter to silence. As anxiety lessens, we can see and hear more, including graced surprises. God comes in unexpected ways that may at first confuse us.
Jesus selected a small group to particularly teach and transform. As Jesus traveled, he saw and called an unusual assortment including uneducated fishermen. Matthew, whom we remember today, is an even more striking choice. As a tax collector working for the occupying Roman Empire, he was considered a traitor, outcast by the Jewish community.
Walking along, likely amid a crowd asking questions, Jesus saw Matthew. Jesus paid attention to the periphery and saw those looked down on or overlooked. Looking widely, Jesus saw Matthew, saw a human with dignity and worth. Matthew, an outcast seen and invited in, experienced Jesus’ mercy.
“Why eat with tax collectors and sinners?” say self-confident, serious, secure religious folk. Condemn traitors. Build barriers. Stick together. Keep yourselves clean.
“Go and learn what this means,” Jesus said, “‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’” Matthew followed Jesus to learn what this meant spending his days Peter, James, John, and other unlikely companions.
How do we learn mercy? Here are three ways: Look, Honor, and Receive. Look widely. Pay attention not only to those close to you. Look to the periphery, see and welcome the outcast and stranger.
Honor mystery. We Brothers say in our Rule of Life: “… we honor the mystery present in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, strangers and enemies. Only God knows them as they truly are and in silence we learn to let go of the curiosity, presumption and condemnation which pretends to penetrate the mystery of their hearts.”[i]
Receive wisdom. What do others have to teach you, especially companions you didn’t or wouldn’t choose?
We remember St. Matthew, one whom Jesus selected, shaped, and sent with love. Following, we continue to learn mercy. Look widely. Honor mystery. Receive wisdom.
Jesus presumes we have a dual citizenship. We belong both to earth and to heaven. We could say that the one – heaven – is our beginning and our end. The other – earth – is where we find our way. We have dual citizenship. Today’s Gospel lesson is an alert to what we treasure, that is, to what we give ultimate value, importance, and worth.The English words “worth” and “worship” come from the same etymological root. What we worship – to what we give ultimate worth – will have the highest claim on our life and our attentions. What we treasure the most we worship.
Jesus is not being a killjoy. He is certainly not telling us not to treasure earthly life. Jesus is certainly not telling us not to enjoy earthly life with it many beauties, and wonders, and opportunities. Nor is he warning us not to invest in life. Invest in life! Absolutely! Jesus was passionate about our living life abundantly on this earth.[i]Jesus’ point is about where and how we apply “treasure” to our earthly life. He commends us to invest in treasure that will last, treasure that will last into eternity.[ii]Think of yourself as a trustee of your earthly life, not an owner or possessor. Legally, we may be called “owners” of any number of things, but I’m speaking here the language of the soul. We are trustees of life, which is temporarily entrusted to us.
You might find it meaningful to take an inventory of your life. Consider the physical things to which you have been entrusted – finances, properties, heirlooms, knickknacks, whatever. Sooner or later you will probably need to do some estate planning with your lawyer, and inventorying with your family and friends. But alongside these “durable goods,” do an inventory from your soul’s perspective: how it is you hold the intangible elements of your life: your reputation and stature, your abilities, your titles, your attributes of mind and body, your relationships. Acknowledge and cherish their importance, be deeply grateful for them… and simultaneously remember they will all die with you, and most likely diminish before you die.
All these things which you could call your “possessions” – both the tangible and intangible – give them up. I’m not saying to disregard them or devalue them. Quite to the contrary, I’m speaking of “giving them up” like an offering, acknowledging to God how God has entrusted you with them, temporarily. In the ancient vocabulary of the church, this is called “an oblation,” living your life as an offering, and offering of thanksgiving.[iii] This is a way to treasure life on earth in a way that mirrors the treasure of life in heaven.
Oblation might be too archaic a word for you to use. If so, find another word, another phrase that allows you to live life abundantly on earth, and on speaking terms with life in heaven. The phrase I’ve latched onto is “living my life with nothing to lose.” You cannot lose what you have already given up. Live your life with nothing to lose. Do this. Find the language, find the prayer and practice, that enables you to treasure the fullness of life: life for now and life to come. Live your life wholeheartedly. As Jesus says, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
[ii]“…For to your faithful people, o Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 382).
[iii]“Oblation,” from the Latin oblation: an offering, presenting, gift. he prayer, as we set the altar for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist is: “Let us with gladness present the offerings and oblations of our life and labor to the Lord” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 377).