Pentecost 18 September 26, 2010

Amos 6:1a, 4-7                                                                    

1 Timothy 6:6-19                                                                

Luke 16:19-31


Once upon a time there was a young man, the son of a prosperous merchant. He had a love for good times, rich friends, music, partying, and fashionable clothing. One day he was selling cloth in the marketplace for his father when a beggar came by, asking for alms. Finishing his business deal, the young man ran after the beggar, emptying his pockets and giving the beggar all that he had. His friends mocked him for his charity; his father was enraged.

He sought glory on the battlefield, but without success, captured and imprisoned for a year. He suffered a serious illness. He began to spend time alone, wandering in the countryside, praying in abandoned churches. He took to nursing lepers who were shunned by others in society. One day in the marketplace, in a showdown with his father, he stripped off all his rich clothes, renounced his patrimony, and declared his dedication to the poor.

You will have guessed, perhaps, whom I’m talking about: St. Francis of Assisi. Next Sunday we will celebrate St. Francis’ Day, which is October 4, by blessing animals brought here by you and others in the community. Francis has become associated with animals and the environment because he loved them and talked with them. Certainly he loved nature, as he loved the poor, and as his fame and followers grew he built a movement in Christianity that sought to bring religion closer to the people and to its roots in the humble life and service of Jesus. But this is not just something to be sentimentalized, as can happen when we gather to bless household pets. It was a much more radical attempt to be true to the Gospel. Francis’s life involved much suffering, in body and spirit. Next to the Virgin Mary, Francis is undoubtedly the best known and most revered of all the saints, but he is also the least imitated.

The message of the three readings this morning could not be clearer. They speak of the evils of loving money and pursuing riches while ignoring the poor. They remind us that our life towards God and our life towards the least of our fellow human beings – the poor, the sick, the friendless, the outcast – is one and the same. Nor is this just one theme in the Bible; it runs throughout Old Testament and New, beginning to end. St. Francis got it right.

It is hard to live this Gospel in our society today. In the days of my own youth, the 1960s, America experienced a great turn of conscience towards the poor and suffering in our midst and around the world. The Peace Corps, the War on Poverty, the Civil Rights Movement – roused young people like myself, people raised in comfort, to demonstrate and volunteer and work for a more equal society, where all would have opportunity, none would be forgotten and the lines of race and class and privilege would disappear.

That movement of the 1960s and ‘70s accomplished quite a lot, but of course it faded, overtaken by the 1980s where being rich and showing it, “taking care of number one” and letting losers fall by the wayside, became okay again, became indeed the “American way” – was justified as being in the end best for everyone, even the poor. Today, if you listen to the political rhetoric, nobody talks about the poor. We talk instead about the “middle class.” The poor don’t count at all. They deserve our scorn.

This is not the place to talk politics, Republican or Democratic. It is the place to talk at a deeper level, about our vision, our dreams. That is what Jesus talked about, when he came into the world, proclaiming the kingdom of God, where the last would be first and the first last, where those who heard his call would, like St. Francis, give all they had to the poor so that they would be free to follow him.

Many, even most, of our people here at Holy Cross struggle a good deal just to make ends meet. I did a rough count and I would say more than 10 percent of our households have someone unemployed. For some of us, the problem is that we bought into the get rich/live rich ethos of the past 30 years – over-borrowing, over-buying, so that we’re now over our heads in debt. For some there are personal problems of alcoholism, drugs, depression, lack of ambition – though all of these are connected to the winner-take-all pressures of the society in which we live.

So this is not about blaming anyone or asking anyone to do what they cannot honestly do. It is not about guilt-tripping, which never works lasting conversion of life. It is about nudging all of us to “lift up our hearts,” as we sing in the Mass, and catch a different vision – the vision of God’s kingdom, offering something better than material riches, more lasting that personal success. The vision by which we live will determine how we vote, how we treat other people, how we use the gifts God gives us.

Near the end of his life, praying on Holy Cross Day, St. Francis had a vision. In the vision a six-winged angel came to him on a cross and blessed him. When he awoke from the vision, he had received in his body the gift of the stigmata – the wounds of Christ – on his hands and feet and side. Despite attempts to heal them, these wounds never closed and two years later Francis died.

In this life we may never succeed, my friends, in eradicating poverty, injustice, war. But we can follow Francis, follow Jesus, do all that we can where we are – and continue to proclaim, in the face of an indifferent world, the vision of the reign of God.

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