Sermon preached by Maggie Guillebaud on 16th February 2020
Matthew 6: 25-end Romans 8:18-25
A couple of miles below the town of Assisi, with its glorious church dedicated to St Francis, lies a rather ugly structure which contains something rather precious. Santa Maria degli Angeli, a large and chillingly magnificent edifice, houses a tiny chapel, the Porziuncola, in which only a dozen or so people can comfortably stand to worship.
Legend has it that it was erected in the in the mid C4th century. By the time of St Francis in the C13th it had fallen into disrepair and was surrounded by an oak wood, but still in use. It was here that Francis built himself a small hut during that period of his life when he had rejected his family, but was still unsure which path God wanted him to follow , meanwhile caring for lepers in the leper house near Assisi.
One morning in February 1208 he was attending Mass here when the lesson for the day was Matthew’s account of Christ’s Commissioning of the Twelve. Its message went through him like an arrow. Here at last he had found his true vocation – to embrace radical poverty, - or Lady Poverty, as he often described her – and to proclaim the Kingdom of God as an itinerant preacher, taking only the barest of essentials with him on the road, as outlined in the Gospel. At this moment the Franciscan movement was born.
Jesus’ injunction to his followers in today’s Gospel that they are not to worry about how they are to provide for themselves, and certainly not to worry about what they wear, chimes with the Commissioning’s embracing of, if not total poverty, then total reliance on God.
But how are we to react to such a stark message? It is so far from our everyday lived experience. We like hot water to come out of a tap, we like the lights and heating to go on when we wish, and, if we are still driving, to get into our cars and pop off to the shops, go on holiday, or visit a friend. We would rather that Lady Poverty did NOT come knocking at our door.
We need, I think, to understand how rabbinical teachings work when considering these and other similarly tough teachings of Jesus. After all, Jesus was a rabbi, and addressed as such by his followers.
Those of us old enough to remember Rabbi Blue, with his entertaining contributions to Thought for the Day, will know that humour is a tool of rabbinical teaching, as is exaggeration. We remember Jesus’ teaching about faith which can move mountains, or mustard seeds which grow into trees with birds sitting in their branches. Jesus was an extremely powerful teacher, adept at deploying all the tools of narrative, humour, and exaggeration, to get his message across.
So today’s Gospel has to be read, I believe, through the lens of rabbinical teaching: a bit of exaggeration, a bit of humour, but a teaching with a serious point at its core.
Over the last 2000 the Church has come to an accommodation with such directive teachings, for better or for worse – I leave you to judge. Compare Francis’s adherence to absolute poverty and the huge church erected over his tomb. As Christians we try our hardest: try to love God, do the best we can by the Good News as we have received it, support good causes, practise hospitality to the stranger, and attempt to love unconditionally our fellow human beings – perhaps the hardest thing of all. Being a Christian is not, and never has been, easy.
We are living through, I believe, an age of acute anxiety. It is estimated that nearly a quarter of our population suffer from anxiety. That is an enormous figure. It means that a significant per cent of those we encounter every day will be suffering, sometimes in silence, from anxiety, ranging from disabling PTSD, to the milder symptoms of heightened sensitivity to even the smallest perception of threat.
We know, I think in part at least, why this condition is spiralling out of control, especially among the young. Britain, to our shame, has amongst the unhappiest children in the world. And I think there are many reasons for this, from which I would pick out just two: 24 hour news and social media.
24 hour news means that we are all relentlessly exposed 24/7 to a steady diet of calamity. Life becomes one long story of disasters over which we have no control. This changes our perception of the world into one which is threatening, dark, and fearful.
Added to this is the fathomless narcissism fanned by the solipsistic echo-chamber of social media. In an article in The Guardian recently an Australian headmaster railed against what he called Toxic Parenting, citing social media as one of his many concerns. How often do we see parents in public endlessly scrolling through their phones, ignoring their children? What kind of message does that give to their children? That their parents’ phones are more interesting and important than they are? It is as if our attention spans are always deflected from the here and now.
Bullying, trolling, fake news, comparing life with life – mine is infinitely more glamorous than yours – leads many engaged with social media down the rabbit holes of unhealthy and superficial competition with their peers, and fears that others are having so much more fun than they are. For our children this even has its own acronym, FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out.
Anxiety also occurs during times of deep change. Economic, political, social and climate change, and the potential threats posed by Artificial Intelligence and Big Data, of course make us fearful for the future. And in our anxiety we try to make at least those bits of our lives over which we imagine we have control seem less fearful: we try to ban conker fights, are reluctant to let our children walk home from school unchaperoned, and cut down trees so that leaves cannot fall on pavements and make us slip. We do everything in our power to make our lives free from risk. All a waste of time, says Jesus: ‘can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?’ And the irony is that in this search for a risk-free life not only do we bring up a generation of fearful children, but foster a generation of fearful adults. And fearful adults are ill-equipped to deal with change.
Christ’s teaching today does not summon us to some kind of anxiety-free Utopia where we just lie back and everything will be O.K. That would contradict so much of his teaching elsewhere in the gospels about becoming proactive members of the kingdom of God. What he actually says is that we must not sweat the small stuff of our everyday lives, but focus on what really matters in life, that is our life in Christ, our life as a community in Christ, and our hope of eternal life which lives in Christ, all wrapped up in his phrase: ‘Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.’ Worrying about the future, trying to control the future, is a fruitless exercise, not least because it leads us ignore the moment we are living through, which may be glorious.
Francis was famous for his pithy sayings and the one which seems most apposite for today’s Gospel is this: ‘If God can work through me, then he can work through anyone.’
Francis abandoned himself to the starkest injunction of the Gospel to give up everything to follow Christ and rely absolutely on God to supply him with the necessities of life. We, however, have to learn to live with the tension between this literal response to the Gospel and our desire for comfort, stability, reassurance, and an experience of God’s love in our everyday lives. It is not always an easy space to inhabit. But that is where most of us find ourselves.
We may not be up to St Francis’s saintly embodiment of Christ’s teachings, his direct and visceral response to the Gospel, living a life which 800 years later still resonates with the universal Church. But God can, as he says, work through anyone. God locates every one of us here, now, in this Cathedral on this Sunday, and neither condemns nor judges us for the state of our faith, or lack of it, or by what measure we respond to his call, or deal with our anxieties. His is always an invitation to follow him. We are not invited to an obstacle race, where you gain points which will guarantee you a place at the heavenly banquet. We are simply invited to love and trust God, and help build his kingdom. Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness. And why? Because he loves us and wants the Good News of the life, death, and resurrection of his Son to continue to be spread throughout the world he has created.
He can work through anyone, even those of us riddled with anxiety. So what are we waiting for?