Pastor Brian Rajcok
One of the most powerful call stories is that of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis grew up in the late 1100s, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant named Peter Bernadone. Young Francis apparently partied a lot and dreamed of becoming a big war hero. But after he was captured and imprisoned in his first battle, he perceived the brokenness of seeking adventure in war and began to have a change of heart. During this period, one day he was praying in an abandoned little chapel outside of town. He heard the voice of God say “Francis, rebuild my church.” Later he realized his call was to rebuild the entire Catholic church, but at the time he took it to mean renovate the little chapel he was in.
So well-meaning Francis started selling lots of his dad’s expensive merchandise and using the money to rebuild the fallen-down chapel. Now his father wasn’t too happy about this. He was already embarrassed to hear Francis was hanging around with lepers now. And when he caught his son selling his things he dragged Francis in front of the bishop of Assisi and demanded he order Francis to pay him back for everything. Francis willing paid back everything and said: “From now on I will no longer say, my father Peter Bernadone, but Our Father who art in heaven.” Francis gave back to his father not only what he sold, but all his money and everything he owned. He renounced all his wealth and his inheritance and even took the clothes off his back and placed them on the ground as a sign of renouncing all possessions. Thus began the religious life of Saint Francis of Assisi.
Not all of us have a dramatic call story like that. But all of us have a calling of some kind. St. Francis felt the call to live a life of absolute poverty in complete trust of God. Theologians emphasize that it wasn’t just poverty alone that was important to Francis. Poverty allowed for the challenge of absolute dependence on God. That’s the real key to this spiritually. He never had any possessions and was challenged to trust God every day that God would provide all he needed to survive. Such spiritual trust was necessary for Francis now, when before when he had wealth it was optional and easy to forget about. Renouncing possessions also provided a new freedom for Francis, freedom from possessions possessing him. And this gave him great joy.
It is this kind of trust and absolute dependence on God that Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel lesson. In what we just read from Luke Jesus has some strong words for those who were reluctant to follow Him. I had a seminary professor who emphasized that this is a major turning point in Luke’s Gospel because, as Luke says here, Jesus “turns his face toward Jerusalem”. And in case we miss it, he says it again: Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem. And so Jesus’ words need to read in light of the fact that he is now on his way to suffer and die, and apparently doesn’t wanna be bothered by anybody who’s only half-in.
Whatever the reason for Jesus’ strong statements, it’s clear that Jesus demands a lot from his followers. But it’s important to recognize He demands a lot not because we need to earn His love and forgiveness—we already have that 100% absolutely unconditionally. But Jesus calls us to grow into the children of God we were created to be. Like C.S. Lewis said, “As any parent would, God loves us even before we take our first step. But God also desires us to become fully walking adults.” This metaphor of the spiritual journey as learning to walk is helpful. God loves us before we take our first step on the journey, but Jesus makes clear that it is hard learning to walk. It’s demanding. It’s costly. It means being willing to surrender our lives to God and leave everything behind. Being willing to leave home and not look back. Being willing to give everything up for God.
For Jesus’ early followers this literally meant leaving home and following Him. For Francis this meant renouncing his wealth and taking up a life of poverty—of utter dependence on God. But the outward actions of disciples following Jesus or Francis renouncing worldly possessions are physical outcomes of an inward source. They’re outward expressions of an inward thing that happens to us.
The leaving home and the renouncing of possessions are outward expressions of inner states of being. The first and most important thing is to change on the inside. That must happen first. To surrender our will, to devote our life, to offer our very self to God. And when we surrender our entire being to God some crazy things might happen on the outside—like they did to Francis. Or we may stay put because we’re called to be right where God’s put us already. We don’t where the Spirit will lead us. But we need to clear our inner space so the Spirit can direct us to discern God’s call.
The real spiritual challenge is the work on the inside. It’s surrendering our will to God. Mystics and saints in every era say the focus of Christian transformation is about fully surrendering our will to God. Surrendering our will to God’s plan for the world. Surrendering our will to the divine will, to the sacred flow of the universe. We are all called to that first and foremost. The result on the outside will be different for everyone, but the inner work is the same.
Now this type of dramatic change usually doesn’t happen overnight. Jesus’ call will gently work its way into our consciousness and the persistence of the Holy Spirit’s voice, challenging us to grow, will create a new openness in us as our will aligns with God’s. Our calling may be to a deeper prayer life. To practice Healing Prayer ministry or develop a practice of contemplative prayer and meditation. It may be to join a social justice movement and fight for those on the margins. It may be to more lovingly care for your children or your aging parents. It may be taking up a new ministry here at St. Matthew, as part of our congregation vision process—maybe God is calling you to be the catalyst for a new ministry in this community.
God is calling each of us to something. The first step, as I’ve said, is to be open to whatever. That’s what I mean by surrendering your will to God. Letting go of selfishness and being open to whatever. This isn’t easy, it often takes a lifetime of practice to really get it. There will be moments when we feel completely surrendered, and moments when resist where the Spirit is moving us. Personally there are some days when I feel completely surrendered to whatever, and other days when I feel that self-will coming through again. But when we strive every day to surrender a little more, be open a little more, it will transform us.
On his deathbed St. Francis said to his followers: “I have done what is mine to do. Do what is yours to do.” We may not be called to renounce all our possessions. But we may be called to give up a few more dollars so that others can climb out of poverty. We may not be called to start a new order of monks. But we may be called to take on leadership in a new ministry. We may not be called to leave our family behind. But we may be called to let go of unhealthy relationships. We may not be called to follow Jesus to Calvary. But we may be called to follow Him to Capitol Hill and protest a system that willingly allows homelessness and poverty to be side-effects of business as usual.
We may not be called to do what’s been done before, but we’re all called to that same inner surrender and to work (even little by little) to turn our wills over to God and follow Christ’s calling in our lives.
 Paraphrased from “Mere Christianity”