Before he was a saint, Francis of Assisi was a soldier. Captured in the battlefield and imprisoned, it took his father a year to raise the money to secure Francis’s return. After a recovery period, Francis received a call to return to the fighting. Father proud, future bright, Francis sets out for the field of battle. Along the road, he meets a poor man, gives the man all his armor, and returns home.
It seems that Francis had been praying; praying to know God’s desire for his life. God had set the young man’s heart ablaze with love. Francis begins to see the poor; including the poor who worked eighteen hour days—with little to eat and less rest—in his family’s cloth-dying business.
In the story of the rich young ruler, Francis heard Jesus speaking directly to him: “Go, sell all that you have, and give the money to the poor.” And Francis did; even things not really his to sell. His father, offended, had Francis thrown in prison.
Not even that put out the fire in Francis’s heart. For Francis had come to believe that God was calling him to live as Christ lived; heart ablaze; all flame for the love of God.
Taking Francis to see the bishop, his father hoped that the bishop would talk some sense into his son. The plan backfired. Standing in the sanctuary, Francis removed his clothes, folded them, returned them to his father, and said: “I have been happy to call you my father; but now I can truly say, ‘Our father, who art in heaven…’”
Francis burned so brightly, people began to join him; little mobile monks, trying to live as Christ, with the poorest of the poor; so the whole world might burn as one heart, one family, one flame.
Jesus enters the world; his heart ablaze with discriminating fire. The flame of love he bears for God consumes every unnecessary thing while carefully preserving the essential. The blaze penetrates flesh and blood, and yet leaves a person’s heart quite intact and strangely warmed.
The fire that comes to earth in Christ Jesus flows from “the very molten center of God’s love” (Mogabgab). It comes as holy impatience, as frustration with limits we humans place on our living, as truth about the flashlight beam most of us call the bonfire of our faith. Jesus urgently wishes for the molten fire of the love of God to set all the earth ablaze. “How I wish,” he says, “the flame was already kindled.”
The fire that Jesus comes to kindle on earth flames up in families in unexpected ways: in the husband who resents the time his wife spends at the homeless shelter; in the wife whose resentment grows because her husband does not go to church and the children have started to notice and every Sunday brings a fuss and a fight; in adult children who realize how much money their mother gives to mission and so they have her declared incompetent, preserving their inheritance (Taylor).
What distresses us about these stories is that Jesus refuses to say it should be otherwise. Instead, he says that relationship struggles, particularly in families, prove inevitable when hearts blaze with love for God.
Jesus himself cannot escape this inevitable tension. His own family relationships are not spared. Perhaps Luke captures it best, describing the day Jesus’ mother and brothers journey to the town where he is teaching in order to see him. The crowd’s size prevents them from making their way to him. Someone, anxious to please Jesus, wades through the crowd to announce their arrival.
Receiving the news, Jesus replies, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”
Some hear these words of Jesus as an attack on his family; and by extension on families in general. Another possibility exists. Jesus does not, as I read Scripture, despise or disdain families; his own or any other. Jesus does, however, clearly intend to redefine what family means.
Family, according to Jesus, has little to do with chromosomes and genes (Taylor). Family has to do with the one in whose image we are created. For Jesus, family has to do with serving the same God and with the willingness to become all flame (Desert Fathers). And the blood ties that matter in the family of Jesus’ creating flow from his own blood, poured out, that all might have life. This family gathers regularly at his table to share the meal he offers; the most important family of all.
“Could I introduce you to Karen?” A congregation member, a psychiatric social worker, posed the question. “Karen’s parents left her with a cult at a very young age. The cult considered themselves a spiritual community. They broke her with abuse and violence. Karen’s got nobody, only her two sons. And even though they belong to one another, they are not going to make it on their own. I wonder, could this church become family with them?”
Karen and I met and talked. I have never met a more thoroughly broken human being; her spirit, her personhood—fractured. Speaking with Karen meant conversing with a number of persons. She had clarity about some things: her boys needed a family, people who wouldn’t hurt them, and she needed a healing place and relationships with adults not based in fear.
Six of us from the congregation gathered regularly to pray. Hard. What is family beyond what we are born with? How could our church create a space for these three people to explore identity, community, rootedness? How could we be family with them and also allow them to remain family with one another?
People found them a place to live, a car, and helped enroll the boys in school. Karen found a job she could manage. And slowly, congregation members drew Karen and her boys into a network of family and friends.
Everything did not go smoothly. Truthfully, we struggled; as families struggle. Yet everyone held together; everyone held as steady as they could.
When the boys finished high school, Karen and her youngest son drifted away. John, the eldest, stayed close. He had found a father figure among the leaders in the youth ministry; a man whose daughter died of leukemia at a young age. They strengthened one another.
The church supported John with college. After college, he married a young woman in the congregation.
About five years ago, I returned to that church to preach. A young man, calm and confident, with a kind and gentle wife, approached me. “I don’t know if you remember me, but I remember you,” he said. “I’m John. And I want to thank you for all that you did for my family. We found people in this church to love us, and I know that wasn’t easy.
“When I was little, I thought my family was so messed up, I would never make it. In this church, God has given me people willing to share their life, to be family to me, who never judged my mother. I just want you to know how very grateful I am.”
Family: one in God’s molten love, one in the kindled fire, one in the willingness to become all flame.
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
Barbara Brown Taylor, “Family Values,” Gospel Medicine, Cowley Publications, 1995.
John Mogabgab, “Editor’s Notes,” Weavings, March/April 2003.
Trans. Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, 1975.
James Howell, “A Wrecking Ball Outside,” Pulpit Resource, Vol. 32 #3, Year C.