Sunday, August 12, 2012

Clare, Abbess at Assisi, 1253

O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we through his poverty might be rich: Deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that we, inspired by the devotion of your servant Clare, may serve you with singleness of heart, and attain to the riches of the age to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
A brief biography of Clare can be found here. The gospel reading appointed to commemorate her extraordinary life and witness to Jesus Christ comes from the twelfth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. It is a familiar text, and a difficult one at that. Jesus says to his disciples: 

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Abba's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 

Like her friend, Francis, Clare took this text quite literally. Also like him, she grew up in an affluent family and before taking vows of poverty lived a life of relative privilege. She found, though, that having money wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It didn’t shield her from life’s problems. If anything, she came to see it as a burden: as something that got in the way of her relationship with God.  And so she gave it all away to embrace poverty as a way of life. 

Talk of money in church makes some people nervous. I am always amazed, and a little troubled, when I hear from people (very often who are outside of the church, and sometimes claiming to be “spiritual but not religious”) that "all the church cares about is your money." We all have our own experiences, I realize. But I’ve pretty much been in church every week of my whole life for over 49 years. I’ve worshiped with Baptists, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, United Methodists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians and I’m sure a few other flavors I’m forgetting about. I’ve heard some good preaching, a lot of mediocre preaching, and some that was horrible. I can be a tough critic of institutionalized religion generally and  of the church in particular.

But I am honestly not sure what church people are going to that talks too much about money! With the sole exception of the televangelists (whom I consider to be more hucksters than preachers of the gospel) my experience is that we talk about money WAY less than we should. Certainly we talk of it way less than Jesus or Paul or Francis or Clare did. And we need to change that if we mean to more faithfully live the gospel and bear witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. 

I think the reason that Jesus and Paul and Clare and Francis talked so much about money was not because they were trying to start a religion that “just wanted your money.” They talked about money (as we must) because it is a false god; because it is an idol. Because, maybe more than any other false god our culture offers, it gets in the way of our love for God. As Jesus said, you’re gonna have to serve somebody. (Alright, so that’s Bob Dylan paraphrasing Jesus!) But what Jesus did say is this: you cannot serve both God and mammon. (Luke 16:13) 

In fact, Jesus talked about money more than anything else except the Kingdom of God (and very often when he talked about the Kingdom he used financial and economic metaphors!) How could a parish that looks to Francis and Clare as models of the Christian faith and life not be honest about money, when both of them voluntarily chose to live a life of poverty in order to more closely follow Jesus? It would dishonor them if we only blessed animals, and ignored the costs of discipleship. I don’t think that to be faithful disciples of Jesus we are all called to sell everything that we have and become Franciscan monks or “Poor Clares.” But as people who look to Francis and Clare as witnesses to faith we also can’t pretend that money—or more accurately, our relationship to money—doesn’t sometimes get in the way of us fully embracing the life that is ours in Jesus Christ.

I have served in a variety of contexts over the past twenty-five years of my ordained life. I began in New Britain, Connecticut, a blue-collar community where I mostly hung out with a lot of students who were working a couple of jobs to put themselves through school. From there we moved to the "gold coast" of Fairfield County, Connecticut. And of course for the past fifteen years we’ve lived in Holden, which I think it’s fair to say is somewhere in between the two socio-economically. 

I share this observation, with you, for what it is worth, based on these past twenty-five years of my ordained life. While it is not a hard and fast rule, I do think the exceptions prove the rule, which is simply this:  those with the most money seem to worry the most, while those with the least tend to count their blessings. Let those with ears, hear! Those with the most, worry that either they will lose it or that it still will not be enough, while those with the least, learn to rely on God and cultivate generosity.  Numerous studies on how much people give away seem to bear this out. 

As with all false gods, the problem with money is that there can never be enough. There will never be enough to guarantee our security. So if we worship mammon, like all false gods, it will disappoint, and we will live in fear. It is an addiction, and it cannot satisfy the hungry heart. 

Moths will eventually consume our best silk ties and our finest Persian rugs. Rust will eventually get to our prized vehicles. This is a fact. This does not mean we cannot or should not enjoy our stuff; in fact just the opposite. We should enjoy it, even as we remember that it is just stuff. But the temptation to hoard it and to cling to it is great and sometimes insatiable. And sometimes that is where our hearts end up.

Clare reminds us that we must be careful with our lives. It is the Church's work to help us to remember what really matters, and to help one another to become more faithful and generous stewards of all that God has entrusted to us. To do that work we must be willing to name that which keeps us from that work. 

We are called to live no longer in fear, but to embrace the life that really is life by entrusting our whole selves, more and more, to God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy. This is the church's work. 

God doesn’t want your money. But God does want your heart, and the Church is called to be a community where disciples are made, and glad and generous hearts are cultivated. Hearts like the one that Clare, Abbess at Assisi, had. (And her friend, Francis, too.)

What Clare discovered for herself is that her money got in the way. What we must all ask, each in our own way, is this: what keeps us from giving our hearts to God?

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