Sunday, August 11, 2013

Poor Clare

On this day in 1253, Clare of Assisi died, making this her Feast Day. The gospel reading appointed to commemorate her extraordinary life and witness comes from the twelfth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. 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. 
I am reading a new biography of St. Francis - Augustine Thompson's Francis of Assisi: A New Biography. Thompson recounts the story of the days when Francis was still trying to discern his vocation and he went with two other penitents to see a priest in San Nicolo, asking the priest to show them "the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ." The customary medieval practice of sortes biblicae had the priest open the missal (not the Bible itself which would have been harder to find) to "random" texts - trusting that this tarot-card-like reading of Scripture would be guided by the Holy Spirit. The priest landed on Mark 10:17-21, Luke 9:1-6, and Matthew 16:24-28 - in particular these three verses from those appointed gospel readings:
  • Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me;
  • Take nothing for your journey, no staff or bag, nor bread, nor money, and do not have two tunics;
  • If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his Cross and follow me.
Like her friend, Francis, Clare took these texts literally and seriously. All are about the radical call of discipleship. While one might wonder how the history of the Church would have been different if the priest's finger landed somewhere else the truth is that these texts, like these words from Luke 12, take us to the heart of the radical call of Jesus in every generation. 

Like Francis, Clare grew up in an affluent family and before taking vows of poverty she lived a life of relative privilege. She discovered, however, that having money was not all it was cracked up to be. It could not 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 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 five decades now. 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 just awful. I can be a tough critic of institutionalized religion generally and  of the church in particular. But I am honestly not sure what church is talking as much about money as Jesus did. 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. 

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.) I think the reason for that was not because he was trying to start a religion that “just wanted our money.” He talked about money (as we must) because it is a false god; 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) 

Moths will eventually consume our best silk ties and our finest Persian rugs. Rust will eventually get to our prized vehicles. 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.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. 

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 a people 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. The Church is called to be a community where disciples are made, a place where glad and generous hearts are being cultivated. Hearts like the one that Clare, Abbess at Assisi, had. 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 is keeping us from giving our hearts to God?

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