Learning from Francis

Learning from Francis (Mark 9:30-37; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8) – Jennifer Hosler

Who is the Greatest? First Reading: Skit on Mark 9:30-37 (paraphrase)

[narrated, with 4 actors] Jesus is walking along a road with his disciples, traveling through the region of Galilee. Jesus has been doing ministry for a while and he knows what is going to happen soon. Some religious leaders don’t like how Jesus is teaching about God, healing people, and showing love to the types of people that no one really likes. Jesus has been teaching that God really cares about showing love and mercy to everyone. This has made some people mad, so Jesus knows that he is going to get in trouble soon – big trouble – but he is not going to fight back with violence.

Since Jesus’ disciples are the people who follow him and look to him as a teacher, Jesus needs to tell them what is going to happen soon. So while they’re walking, he turns to them and says, “The Son of Man (meaning Jesus) is going to be killed but after three days he will rise again from the dead.”

After Jesus says this, the disciples nod – but they don’t really understand and are too embarrassed to ask. As they keep walking, the disciples nudge one another and ask, “Do you know what Jesus is talking about? I don’t know what Jesus is talking about.” Then they do more walking. Walking, walking. The disciples start walking a bit slower than Jesus, kind of lagging behind. It’s kind of obvious by their hand motions that they’re arguing with each other.

Eventually, Jesus and the disciples get to their destination and enter the house where they are staying in Capernaum. Once they get inside, Jesus asks, “So, what were you arguing about on the road?” The disciples look at one another and they have guilty looks on their faces. They look everywhere but at Jesus and no one says anything because they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest disciple.

Jesus sits down and says, “Anyone who wants to be first, who wants to be the number 1 disciple, should be the last person—the person who serves everyone.” Jesus calls a little child over and says, “Anyone who welcomes little children welcomes me, welcomes God, the One who sent me.”   [end]

Second Reading: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8

Learning from Francis

I love how Jesus simply asks his disciples, “So guys, what were you arguing about on the road?” Jesus has just talked about the sacrifice of love that he would soon make. The text says that they don’t understand when Jesus was talks about sacrifice and service. When they start arguing on the road, we see that they really don’t understand what Jesus is talking about. Somehow, even though they are literally walking with Jesus, the disciples are still struggling with pride and envy and self-importance.

Tomorrow, as we said earlier, is Peace Day, or the International Day of Prayer for Peace. As you heard in the announcements, we will mark the day by a prayer service at 7 PM tomorrow. While we are preparing to pray for peace, our city has been preparing for a special visitor. Pope Francis, the leader of a billion Catholics in the world, is making his first ever trip to the US. And he’s coming to our city first. That’s pretty cool, though I know some people might complain about the traffic.

A lot of people, Catholic or not Catholic, are excited and interested. Yesterday, Ebenezer United Methodist Church had a community day. I attended part of it and I was talking with one of their members. She said, “Someone asked me, ‘Why are you so excited about Pope Francis? You’re not Catholic.’” She told him, “Because I’m a human being!”

Pope Francis has enthralled many people, but not just because he is a powerful religious leader or the head of a country (a tiny one – but the Vatican is still a country). Not for those reasons alone—but because he is all of those things and at the same time, he welcomes the sick, cares for the poor, does ordinary things like pay his own bills, washes the feet of prisoners, and speaks out strongly about the gaps between the rich and poor, the powerless and the powerful.

Pope Francis captivates people because he’s a powerful religious leader who is also humbly and honestly, trying to live out the love and peace that Jesus taught. Francis does this on a small scale – giving dignity and love to individuals he meets – and on a large scale, helping to heal the relationship between United States and Cuba.

People often let power and authority go to their heads, much like the disciples wanted to. “Hey, I’m the greatest. So you’ll have to listen to me and you’ll need to do things for me.” But Francis seems to understand how to be a wise leader. Our James passage says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (3:13).

A few verses later, James asks rhetorically, “What is causing all the conflict and fighting among you? It’s your selfish desires—putting yourself first” (4:1). The root cause of conflict, James is saying, is selfishness. Can all conflict boil down to selfishness, in some way or another? When individuals or groups or countries care more about their needs and feelings than they do about the needs of others.

There are two types of wisdom, James says: one “wisdom” tells us we should always do what is best for us, to meet our own wants and ambitions. The other wisdom, God’s wisdom, is “first of all pure, then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (3:17). “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness” (NIV, v. 18). Francis gets a lot of attention because he is trying to live out God’s pure and peaceful wisdom, even though most cultural forces in our world tell us that we need to prioritize our own wants, we need to lift ourselves up or our group up above others.

Making Peace between Churches

Raise your hand if you’ve attended a Catholic mass before. As you all probably realize quite well, especially those of you who’ve been to Catholic masses, this is not a Roman Catholic Church. Christianity has a spectrum of denominations: some are referred to as “high church,” with hierarchies and specific rituals to abide by, while others are referred to as “low church,” meaning that there is very little hierarchy and formal ceremony. In the Church of the Brethren, we’re a low church. Traditionally, we have called ministers from within the congregation and not given them formal titles. We’ve called each other brother and sister, rather than Father or your eminence. While sometimes the orders of our services are similar between Brethren congregations, but it’s because of culture or style rather than theological necessity.

When the Church of the Brethren began in 1708 in Germany, it was a time when Christians were persecuting each other and forcing those with different beliefs to flee or face imprisonment or death. Depending on the flavor of your local ruler’s faith, you could be safe or you could be harassed. The early Brethren – people who baptized adults and preached nonviolence and read the Bible together in the homes – were considered weird by other Christians. They fled to Holland as refugees and eventually to the United States, where William Penn founded Pennsylvania, a colony defined by religious freedom. The Brethren became committed to nonviolence at the beginning because they saw how much fighting had destroyed lives and communities in Europe.

For hundreds of years, different denominations of Christians didn’t get along well. Some found the others’ beliefs uncomfortable or laughable; some didn’t recognize others as Christians at all. But that changed over the past 75 years or so: Christians have come a long way in bridging these differences, including between high churches and low churches, between Catholics and Protestants and Anabaptists.

In 1950, the National Council of Churches was formed between Orthodox and Protestant Christians. It was an organization that helped Christians from different denominations learn about the others’ beliefs and also work together for social justice, including on civil rights.

From 1962 to 1965, the Catholic Church held the 2nd Vatican Council, a series of theological debates and discussions between Catholics that led to dramatic changes in the ways that Catholics related to other Christians and other faiths. Vatican II encouraged Catholics to build relationships with non-Catholic Christians: to pray together, study the Bible together, and work together with other Christians. These gatherings, part of an ecumenical movement, built relationships and created peace between many churches and individual Christians.

Recently, I became friends with another graduate student who commutes from DC to Baltimore. She’s from Spain and she’s Catholic. We didn’t talk about our faith at first but apparently, there were some hints and she suspected I might be a Christian. So she asked me outright, “Are you a Christian?” (I was talking about my interest in interfaith dialogue, so talking about faith wasn’t completely out of the blue) Later, my new friend said that the way she asked was intentional. She explained, “If I ask you if you’re Catholic and you’re not, the conversation might end there. If I ask more broadly, are you Christian? I’m more likely to find something that we have in common and the conversations can continue.”

Peace is built on relationships and by finding common ground. With the ecumenical movement, Christians recognized that we all were trying to follow Jesus, even if that looked somewhat different on a Sunday morning or when we dunked or sprinkled people into the faith. Christians started realizing that it wasn’t biblical to think about themselves as the greatest denomination or to look down on other denominations as less important.

Looking Backward to Press Forward

There are a lot of ways that this world and our lives aren’t peaceful. If you read the news, you probably see that there’s a lot of work to do. This can honestly be quite discouraging. Syria has been destroyed by four years of violence. Millions of people have been displaced, have fled, are fleeing – and they’re not receiving the welcome and relief that they need as refugees in need.

At home, some people are still talking about Muslims as if just the act of being Muslim is crime. This week, we saw a creative and intelligent boy get handcuffed and arrested for making a homemade clock and bringing it to school to show a teacher. Suspicion arose mainly because he is Muslim.

At times, it appears that there are insurmountable odds to making peace. In times of discouragement like this, we can often only find the courage to work for peace by looking back at how far we have come. So how far have we come? Just looking from the start of the Brethren to now – we’ve come a long way in relationships between Christians.

The ecumenical movements of the 20th Century built peace: they studied what the Bible said about peace, they applied it to their context, and took tangible steps to get to know others who were different from them.   Because of their work, we can now have fellowship with people who were once “those people,” those Catholics, those Presbyterians, or those Methodists. Now, we can call them sisters and brothers; we can work with each other and learn from each other about how to increase the love and peace of Jesus in the world.

I believe that God can use us to transform other situations as well: James’ truth is like a proverb but also like a promise: peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. We may not know when the harvest time is, but God is calling us to faithfully plant seeds of peace in our relationships, in our neighborhood, our city, our country, and this world.

Make me an Instrument of Your Peace

While I’ve been thinking about Pope Francis this week, Pope Francis hasn’t been the only Francis on my mind. Francis was not the Pope’s original first name: it was Jorge. After being called as Pope, he named himself after a much older Francis, Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis was a 12th century priest who focused on caring for the poor, who is known for praising God for creation. Saint Francis wrote a prayer that really aligns with our scripture texts today – turning away from selfish ambition and self-promotion, turning outward to care for others. Peacemaking is complicated and difficult – but it is built by adding together a bunch of simple acts, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Turn to the prayer found on page 733 in the blue Hymnal. I invite you to read over it silently for a few moments.

  1. What words or phrases stand out to you?
  2. Think about an area of your life: your friendships, your family or romantic relationships, your school, your workplace, your neighborhood, your country, or even the world, where peace is missing.
  3. Where is God calling you to be an instrument of peace, to live out God’s wisdom of love? [sharing as people feel led]
  4. What actions of Pope Francis speak to your life and your context? What words of Saint Francis call you to be an instrument of peace? Let’s close by praying the prayer of Saint Francis together:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light,

where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled, as to console;

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. AMEN.

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