Scripture: Luke 4:14-21
Let me tell you the story of a young man, who was given the name Giovanni at his baptism. Giovanni was born into a wealthy and large family; he had 6 siblings. His mother came from a well-to-do family herself, and his father sold high-end fabric, specializing in silk. His father was away in France when Giovanni was born, and when he arrived home he decided he wanted his new son to be called Francesco, which means the Frenchman, possibly because of what had happened during his business trip. Francesco embraced the life of luxury that he had been born into. Had there been tabloids at the time, his picture would probably have been in them. Then, around the age of 18 or 19, he decided to join the military. Sent out on a military expedition, he ended up being captured, and spent a year as a prisoner of war. Some say it was during this year that Francesco began to change. Yet when he returned home after his release, there was no real discernable difference in how he chose to live his life. Before going back off to fight again, he became seriously ill, and this illness also created a spiritual crisis for him. After recovering, as he went back off with the military, he had a strange vision, in which he returned to his hometown, but had lost his taste for the extravagant life he had led. A year later, as he once again set out, he had another vision, directing him to return home once again, which this time he did. He took a pilgrimage to Rome, and there he spent time with some beggars. He returned home from his pilgrimage, began living a very simple life, and started to preach on the streets, soon developing a following. Any guesses as to who this young man was?
Hopefully some of you have heard of Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order of the Catholic Church. Francis spent this rest of his life living in very simple conditions, having no more than the bare minimum of what he needed. He lived in tune with nature, and is often portrayed with animals. He restored several chapels in the area around where he lived. He and his followers, which included women, some of whom formed the Order of Poor Clares, served the poor.
Part of the story is that many of those who knew Francis growing up were not happy with the changes they saw take place, as he went from a carefree wealthy party boy who did his duty by going off to fight, to a young man who literally dropped the life he had known, shedding his fancy garments, and was radically transformed. While we have no evidence that Jesus was ever a party boy, the scene is today’s reading is a similar situation. Jesus is returning to his hometown, and with some pretty bold things to say. People were expecting that when the Messiah came, he would look like the knight-in-shining-armor, leading the Jewish people to a military victory over Rome. So it’s one thing to proclaim that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him, but then he also rubs salt into that by saying that what he will do is care about the poor and oppressed, the blind and the captives. Let’s just say that this doesn’t go so well, I mean, who is Joseph’s son to be talking like this. He says a few more things, and next thing you know, the people are trying to throw him off a cliff, so he heads out of town.
As we do our survey of the Bible, there are a few themes that stand out, and that show up again and again and again. One is what we looked at last week, that God has claimed you as a beloved child of your creator. Another is that God isn’t focused on, and didn’t become human primarily for, the wealthy and privileged. No, God came for those on the margins of society, for those not welcomed at the fancy dinner parties, for those who nobody wanted to talk to, for those who were broken, for those who needed healing. When God made the Israelites the chosen people, God wasn’t choosing a military powerhouse. No, the Israelites were a small, minority group, not very powerful, and soon enslaved. The wealthy and the popular are welcome to join in the party, but the party isn’t about them. That’s the kind of God we have.
Not many of us will have the radical transformation that St. Francis had, or return to our hometown only to be driven to the edge of a cliff. And while I think asking questions about how we chose to live and what we chose to buy is important, I don’t think we are all supposed to live in poverty either. But Jesus’ proclamation about why he came is still something we are supposed to hear and act upon. We have a new Francis, one who can helps us see both the complexity and the calling of following Christ today. A year after Francis became Pope, Jim Wallis wrote a piece for Sojourners on the new Pope. He looks at how Francis is trying to make it not about him but about the Christ he follows, and poses these questions to Christians today: “Are we Christians ready and willing to follow Jesus? Are we ready to love, embrace, forgive, and show mercy as Jesus would have us do? Are we ready to stand with and give our lives for the poor and call the global economy not just to charity, but to justice? Are we willing to take “a preferential option for the poor,” and apply it to both our personal and public lives?
These are big questions, and ones we will spend our lives figuring out, especially as you graduate and begin careers from one of the most prestigious universities in the country. But the fact that they are big, daunting questions doesn’t give us an excuse to ignore them. So are you ready and willing to follow Christ? Amen.