This message is part of our fall stewardship campaign, during which we are encouraged to prayerfully consider the ways God is calling each of us to support the ministries of First United Methodist Church in the coming year. Our stewardship sermon series is entitled “The ‘Saintly Ways’ of Stewardship,” during which we are looking at Christian stewardship through the lens of various saints of the church. Today’s message utilizes the life of St. Francis of Assisi.
Scripture: Mark 10:17-31
How much do you know about St. Francis of Assisi? For those of us who don’t come from a Catholic background, he’s mostly known for his focus on peace-making, his affinity animals, the environment, and all of creation in general. He was probably the world’s first environmentalist. He lived in the 1100’s, and back then he was vocal about protecting the environment. The lyrics to our opening hymn, “All Creatures of Our God and King,” were written by St. Francis, and they reflect his belief that nature itself is the mirror of God. In that hymn we address “brother sun,” “sister moon,” “brother wind,” “sister water,” and yes, “mother earth.” We could probably safely say that St. Francis was a card-carrying “tree-hugger.”
As an official saint of the church, his feast day is observed on Oct. 4. On the first Sunday of October, many churches have a blessing of the animals as part of their worship celebrations. A lot of kids bring their pets to be blessed by the pastor. In one church I worked at, one church member, a local vet, brought his horse to church that day. Interestingly, St. Francis credited with arranging the very first Christmas live nativity with real animals.
Something else St. Francis is knows for is his commitment to economic poverty. He and the members of the Order of St. Francis venerated poverty. It was so central to his character that in his last written work he said that absolute personal and corporate poverty was the essential lifestyle for members of his Order.
What most of us don’t realize is that it wasn’t always this way for St. Francis; it was something he grew into as an adult. He was born into a very wealthy family. His father was a prosperous silk merchant, and his mother was a noblewoman. It’s said that he was handsome, witty, gallant, delighted in fine clothes, surrounded himself with rich friends, and was a lover of material pleasures. In his early years, Francis lived as carefree a live as he could.
However, at his baptism God marked little Francis as his own, and had a plan for him that he would see to fulfillment. Slowly but surely, Francis began to sour on his carefree, pleasure-filled life. Material possessions came to mean less to him than following God’s will. In one instance, on a pilgrimage to Rome, he joined the poor in begging at St. Peter’s Basilica, which had fallen into ruin. After experiencing a vision in which he s
ensed God telling him to help repair the building, he sold a great deal of expensive cloth from his father’s store to assist the priests in their effort.
The problem was, his father viewed this as theft; the cloth didn’t properly belong to Francis. This was the first of many conflicts with his father that ended with Francis renouncing his father and his property. The painting at the right, by Stefano di Giovanni, is called Saint Francis Abandons His Father. From this point on, his life is on a trajectory towards poverty, peace, and a life of total surrender to God.
It’s this last thing – a life of total surrender to God, that’s the chief characteristic of St. Francis. After realizing that all the money and pleasure the world has to offer only left him feeling empty, he came to the conclusion that the only pathway to true meaning is living in complete and utter trust in God. This is what we might call the Way of Poverty. For St. Francis, it denoted economic poverty and spiritual poverty. And by spiritual poverty, I mean what Matthew calls being “poor in spirit” (see Matthew 5:3). Or more commonly known as humility, trust in God. It’s to recognize our utter spiritual bankruptcy before God. Being poor in spirit is admitting that, because of my sin, I am destitute spiritually before God and can do nothing to deliver myself from my situation. It’s to recognize and accept the fact that only Jesus can make me spiritually whole and right in God’s eyes. For us today, The Way of Poverty may not require us to sell everything we have and give to the poor, but it does, and always will, require us to surrender ourselves to God.
The question is, what in your own life still remains unsurrendered to God? What area of your own life are you still holding on to the control of, which is keeping you from experiencing the fullness of joy and life that God has given you? I know what it is for me; I know what I’m resisting surrendering. What it is for you?
For St. Francis, it was his wealth which got in the way of his relationship with God. And for the young man who approached Jesus in today story in Mark’s Gospel, it was his possessions. For him, following the rules wasn’t the issue. Don’t commit murder – check. Don’t commit adultery – check. Don’t steal – check. Don’t bear false witness – check. Don’t cheat – check. Honor your father and mother – check. Check…check…check. Rule-keeping he was good at.
But there was one area of his life that remained unsurrendered. “You lack one thing,” Jesus pointed out. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then, and only then will you have treasure in heaven.”
Mark tells the reader that when Jesus revealed this one unsurrendered area of his life, he walked away discouraged and sad. Why? Because like a skilled surgeon with a laser knife, Jesus honed in on and pinpointed the one area of his life that would be the most difficult to surrender control of.
What does it have to be that? he must have wondered. Why can’t it be something that’s easy for me to give up control of? Isn’t it good enough that I keep all the rules? I go to Temple every week. I say grace before every meal—even in public. I read my Bible and pray every day. I serve on Finance Committee at Synagogue. I give alms to the poor. I don’t hang out in the pub, and mostly associate with respectable people. With all that I do right, why does he now require that I let go of my stuff? Doesn’t he know how long it’s taken me to acquire it all…and that it’s stuff that’s important to me. And besides all that, how come he didn’t come down on ol’ man Benson? He’s got way more stuff than me!
Now, to be fair, contrary to how this rich young man is usually portrayed by modern commentators, we don’t know how he responded to Jesus beyond his initial dismay. Even though Mark doesn’t tell us any more about him, I’d like to think that after struggling with what Jesus said, he, like St. Francis, eventually saw the truth, and followed through, selling his stuff, giving the money to the poor, and became a follower. We’ll never know, but it’s certainly possible.
So, back to us. What is it that shackles you, and keeps you less free to follow God? My guess is that it’s probably the one thing you just can’t imagine surrendering control of, either because it’s too important to you, or it’s simply too difficult a challenge to up. Like when you try to give up smoking, or anything that’s addictive in nature.
Now, in regard to that which is common to us all, I’ll tell you what I think is the #1 thing that impedes our freedom to fully follow God. It’s our resistance to the foundational principle of Christian stewardship, which is this: Every single thing I have belongs to God. Everything that I could call my own, all that I own, is, in truth, not mine but God’s. God owns it all. Not me, but God. God’s entrusted unto me everything that’s at my disposal—my family, my home, my job, my time, my friends, my skills, my interests, my thoughts, my struggles, my money, my dreams, my possessions, my, debt, and yes, my money, including my pension or 401k. The thing is, he’s not given it to me to use as I personally desire or see fit, but to manage it; to manage and take care of it in accordance with his directives. This is the foundational principle of Christian stewardship.
With this in mind, just as St. Francis realized that the cloth he sold wasn’t his to sell, he asks us, Is your money yours to give? If the answer is no, then his follow-up question is, Could it be considered theft when you use your money first for your own pleasure and purposes, and then give to God from what’s left over?
After coming to faith in Christ and having a basic understanding that Jesus is in charge of my life as Lord, it’s not a huge leap to intellectually agree with this stewardship principle, that God owns it all. Where it becomes a challenge is translating belief into behavior. If God owns it all, and God’s Word tells us to give to God “off the top” of what we make and not from what’s left over at the end of the month, why is it such a challenge for most of us to actually do that?
For example, why is it that when we’re creating our personal budgets we tend put “Ministry and God’s Work” near the bottom of the expense column rather than at the top? What keeps us from putting it at the top of the column, inserting an amount that’s 1 or 2% greater than what we gave last year, then figuring out a way to cover the rest of the expenses from what’s left over after that? Even if we believe it’s the right thing to do because it’s God’s in the first place, what keeps us from doing that? Probably the same thing that made the rich young man walk away discouraged – the belief that it’s just too challenging if not altogether impossible.
Total surrender to God – the Way of Poverty – is never easy. Following after Jesus entails taking up my ____? In Mark 8:34 Jesus told the crowd, “All who want to come after me must say to themselves, take up their crosses, and follow me.” To say no to oneself is to resist thinking “I can’t” because it seems to me I can’t. To say no to oneself is to say yes to God, to say yes to doing things God’s ways – not because they make sense and align with my way of thinking, but because they are God’s ways, and God’s way are better than my way.
Following Jesus will always be difficult, but keep in mind that ease is not the goal in life. St. Francis came to this conclusion. Following Jesus may not be easy, but there is a payoff. Jesus said that “anyone who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, or farms (property) because of me…will receive one hundred times as much now in this life—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, [property], as well as persecution. And, in the coming age, they will have eternal life.”
I’m not sure this is meant to be a law per se, that if I sign over my house to Share the Warmth I will wake up one day to discover that someone else signed over their home to me. That could happen, and I’ve talked with people who’ve surrendered over a valuable item, such as a car, and found themselves a recipient of a similar item soon thereafter. But it is to suggest that despite the challenges that come with surrendering yourself to God, what you’ll gain will be far greater than what you might otherwise keep for yourself.
Perhaps the charge for each of us this week is to do two things. First, identify for yourself what aspect of your life you’d rather not surrender to God… or don’t think you have the ability to surrender to God. And whatever that may be, to then take the first step towards surrendering it – actually saying the words, “Jesus, since you own it in the first place, I surrender this part of my life over to you.”
Second, consider how you might align your belief that God’s the owner of all you have with a lifestyle that reflects that belief. Lay this before God in prayer this week. Specifically, ask God to lay on your heart a specific percentage of your incomes he wants you to return to him. I’m not telling you what that should be, or whether it should be greater or lesser than what you’re giving this year. But I would encourage you to seek God’s counsel in this matter. And then, after you’ve discerned answers to both issues, commit yourself to trusting God to provide what is needed. Begin every day with the proclamation, “I surrender all!”