The Rt. Rev. Frank S. Logue, Bishop of Georgia, gave this sermon for an online worship service from St. Francis of the Islands Episcopal Church on Wilmington Island, Georgia, on October 4, 2020.
Simply following Jesus
Simply following Jesus. This is what transformed the life of Francis of Assisi. Simply following Jesus. And once the Holy Spirit got a hold of Francis, he went out and changed the world.
I want to share how you and I can find a more peace in the week and months ahead and in this, we have the able guide of Francis. Today is the church’s Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi and through his life, we find the way to the peace Jesus offers in today’s Gospel reading, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” First, I want to share something of the life of Francis who rose to Kardashian-level fame in his own lifetime. Okay, maybe Mother Teresa levels of respect.
Francis had been born to a life of privilege in a new Italian middle class that was coming into its own. This was a new upward mobility unknown to previous generations. Italy in the 1200s, like much of the world at that time, was divided into the nobility and the rest. The nobles were the majors, mayores, in Italian and everyone else was minores, minor. Francis’ father, Pietro de Bernadone, was a wealthy textile merchant who had moved his family from the minors to the majors. He wanted his son to take his place among the best and brightest of Assisi.
As a boy Francis had dreamed of earning glory in battle. He enlisted, along with the other young men of Assisi to fight in a feud against Perugia, a neighboring town in the Umbrian hills. In his first battle, Francis was captured and made prisoner of war. He became gravely ill while he waited for his eventual release. Defeat in battle and illness in prison caused Francis to turn away from his visions of glory.
Francis would go through a series of experiences that led to a deeper and deeper conversion of life. Rejecting the paths before him in battle and in commerce, Francis was led to simply follow Jesus. The way he set the course for the movement he would start is kind of funny from today’s perspective. Francis went into Church of Saint Nicholas in Assisi with his friend Bernard and the two opened a Gospel book three times, trusting that when the opened the pages and Francis put his finger on a random text, that the text under his finger would be a sign from God of how they should live.
This trust in God is why we read in our Gospel for today, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”
Francis and Bernard had a child-like faith as they entered St. Nicholas Church. The Holy Spirit guided them to Matthew 19:21, which told them to “sell all that you have and give to the poor”; then to Luke 9:3, which said to “take nothing on the journey”; and then finally to Matthew 16:24, which said, “Follow me.”
Those three passages led to a life of simplicity focused on the poor. And the example of first Francis and Bernard and then others dropping out of the up and coming set to simply follow Jesus was compelling. More and more young men joined the movement. In time, Francis founded a religious order and he gave it the name the Order of Friars Minor. Intentionally rejecting the mayores, the majors, Francis identified with the commoner, the lost and the left out, and he wanted for himself and those around him, a minor life, grounded in humility and trusting God.
With all this in mind, I want to turn back to Jesus words in our Gospel reading, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
2020 is a weary year. Every load is heavier. Everything is more difficult.
Past those comforting words, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” we read, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart.”
In preaching on this passage, the great Christian bishop and writer Augustine of Hippo said, “You are not learning from me how to refashion the fabric of the world, nor to create all things visible and invisible, nor to work miracles and raise the dead. Rather, you are simply learning of me: ‘that I am meek and lowly in heart.’”
Augustine would go on to give the example of building a great building begins with the foundation. He said, “The taller the building is to be, the deeper you will dig the foundation.” Augustine was pointing to those words, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart.”
A yoke is how one puts two animals together to pull a wagon or plow. Wise animal husbandry has long shown that yoking the experienced ox with a younger one will teach the young ox how to plow while the older one bears most of the weight. Jesus offers to be right beside you, shouldering your burdens so you don’t bear them alone. The way this happens is humility. Humility is not a lack of self-esteem or beating yourself up. Humility is a right view of yourself.
Being humble means acknowledging that God is God and you are not. As Augustine put it, “I am not in charged with refashioning the fabric of the world.” This connection between humility and finding peace is not a connection made just in this one verse of scripture.
For example, in the First Letter of Peter we read, “All of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, for he cares for you.”
First clothe yourselves in humility and then cast your anxiety on Jesus, for he cares for you. This is how you let Jesus shoulder your burdens. Here is what it looks like in the week ahead for all who are weary:
Humble yourself enough to admit that you don’t have all the answers. You are not a beauty pageant contestant longing for world peace. You can’t control world events or make any of the biggest concerns go away by stewing over them. Why spend the night tossing, turning, and worrying? God is going to be awake anyway. Offer your weariness, your burdens, your anxieties, your fears to God in prayer. Pray for God’s will rather than your will. And then go to sleep. If you can do this an amazing thing will happen.
At a practical level, neuroscience reveals what God knew all along, that when you get weary and anxious, you move from thinking clearly to working out of the lowest level of your brain where fight or flight are the only options. There is nothing wrong with that response in the right circumstances. After we finished building the church building at King of Peace, when I was starting that congregation, I was pulling up the erosion control fence alongside the building. In reaching around the back side of the fencing to grab a stake, I exposed a cottonmouth moccasin who coiled back when its own primitive brain kicked in. This is one of those occasions when my body decided for flight rather than fight. It didn’t take me long to look at that snake. I jumped back, practically levitating, with my heart racing. The snake slithered away. The adrenaline that flooded my system kept me anxious after the threat had long passed. But that was just my God-given alert system keeping me ready in case of a renewed threat.
That anxious response is a gift in the right circumstances. But as a day to day way of living, being on high alert is not healthy. And when all of us go around bumping into one another as we navigate the pandemic, that sort of anxious way of dealing with life is bringing more hurt than healing. The deep wisdom already in scripture is what happens when you opt for humility. God is God and you and I are not. Thanks be to God!
Francis dug a deep foundation of humility and God did something marvelous with it.
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” If you need that rest this week, just know that Jesus is already yoked with you, ready to pull the load, but you have got to let go of solving the world’s problems and even the difficulties you face at home and school and work. Turn off the TV. Stop doom scrolling the news on your computer. Stay away from Social Media. Let God be God. You get that at this point, I am preaching to myself, right? But I suspect we all need to hear this.
The point is simply that a right view of yourself helps you put our trust in God rather than in your own power or intellect. Like Francis of Assisi and all those who have simply followed Jesus, you need to know that the maker of heaven and earth knows you, loves you, and wants you to stop feeding your anxiety. If you can do this, you will find that God is faithful and will lighten your burdens and give you rest.