Saint Francis de Assisi was born to Pietro di Bernardone, a rich cloth merchant. He had every advantage that one might expect of a young man born to a wealthy family in the Middle Ages. As a young man, Francis was a troubadour and wished to be a writer of French poetry. In 1201, he joined a military expedition against Perugia where he was taken as a prisoner and was not released for a year. A strange vision made him return to Assisi. He claimed to have had a mystical experience in the Church at San Damiano. Francis claimed to see the crucifix come to life and say, "Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins". He thought this to mean the ruined church in which he was presently praying, and so sold his horse and some cloth from his father's store, to assist the priest there for this purpose. As you can well imagine, his father was not pleased. As a matter of fact, you might say his father was royally pissed off.
So Francis did something very interesting. He renounced his father, leaving his inheritance behind him as well as the clothes his father gave him and walked off out of Assisi butt naked to live the life of a beggar. He went forth and began to preach the gospel of Christ. Many miracles are ascribed to him, but we won’t go into those here. He would be the founder of the Franciscans, and a hell of a lot of places are named for him, San Francisco, for one. What is important here, is that Francis had spiritual revival. His life was changed, so much so, that he chose to renounce all his wealth and position to live the teachings of Jesus much in the same way that young Gautama renounced his royal position to seek enlightenment.
We wrestle with faith. We look for meaning in life. We try different paths. Some folks, most folks I guess, are raised in a faith tradition without giving it any thought at all. I know a lot of people who say they believe in something, but after only a little conversation, it becomes clear that they know next to nothing about that which they believe. Still, many search for truth. Others are slapped in the face with it. And many people come to find belief in some kind of faith tradition, whether it be Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, Wikka, there are too many to list them all. The real question is not what you believe, but what do you do with that belief.
Many people own their beliefs in the same way that most young people own guitars. They have them, but they don’t play them. This, of course, comes from our western idea of thinking of faith as a noun, as something you have. But, as I have pointed out time and again, faith is a verb. It is something you do. Once you arrive at a belief, it has to move you. If it does not, then I would suggest that you don’t really believe it. Because if you did really believe it, you would do something with that belief. Faith is not like that suit that you keep in the closet and only take out on important occasions. Faith is something you put into practice, whether you want to or not. For example, look at what the young prophet, Jeremiah had to say about his faith in God:
“You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed. All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I must cry out, violence and outrage is my message; the word of the LORD has brought me derision and reproach all the day. I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.” (Jeremiah 20, 7-9)
Jeremiah doesn’t sound so happy about his faith here, but what the hell can he do? Ever since he became touched by the divine, he had a miserable time. Jeremiah interspersed efforts to warn the people with pleas for mercy until he is ordered to "pray no more for this people" -- and then sneaks in a few extra pleas between the lines. He engages in what may seem like strange behavior, but which might be described as 'acted parables', such as walking about in the streets with a yoke about his neck and engaging in other efforts to attract attention. He is taunted, put in jail, at one point thrown in a pit to die. He was often bitter about his experience, and expresses the anger and frustration he feels. He is not depicted as a man of iron, and yet, so certain is he of his faith, that he buys his family’s estate in Babylonian occupied land.
Jeremiah was not happy, but what else could he do but speak the words he was told to speak? Those preachers of prosperity don’t like to talk about Jeremiah. The truth is that there is no promise that you will have an easy life if you come to believe. If anything, the stories contained within the bible would seem to indicate that once you commit yourself to God, things are going to get rocky. Now whether this is due to God putting you to some kind of test, or whether the powers of evil are doing their best to distract you from your goal, nobody can say. The point of faith is that no matter how bad things get, you will get through them. If you understand this, then the bad times are much easier to accept. But we don’t like bad times. Even Jesus had to deal with those issues.
“…Jesus began to show his students that he would go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, ‘God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.’
“He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do. Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross (in Greek, literally a stake for the purpose of capital punishment) and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (Matthew 16, 21-29)
Even Jesus had to face temptations to walk away from his mission. He didn’t want to die. The night he was arrested he would ask his father (as in God) to “take this cup away from me.” Now some of what Jesus says here was almost certainly added by early church fathers in Antioch where Matthew was written. It is probable that Jesus did not know exactly how he would be put to death, or about his resurrection. But it is fairly certain that Jesus was aware that his ministry would eventually lead to his arrest and ultimate death. Not knowing about those things is where the faith comes in.
Those are strong words that he uses against Peter, however. And while Luke makes no mention of Jesus’ rebuke of Peter, it is mentioned specifically in both Mark and Matthew, so the tradition was there. Luke liked to paint a much rosier picture of the disciples than either Mark or Matthew. Those words against Peter hearken back to that time Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism where he was tempted to forego his mission. But Jesus stood firm against the temptation, as would Peter too, eventually.
The point Jesus is trying to make here is something we all know, but find difficult to put into practice. We know the right thing to do. We don’t always want to do it. And we also know deep down that the road to anything worth attaining, even enlightenment, isn’t going to be an easy one. Many times, when you try to do the right thing, you must face great hardships. Look at those people who chose to help the Jews in Nazi occupied Europe. Many paid with their lives. If you do the right thing, you will be ridiculed and tormented by many. Do the right thing anyway.
I have had to make choices in my life many times over the years. And if there is one thing I have learned being alive as long as I have is that the correct path is usually the one more difficult. We have to be willing to stand by what we believe no matter what happens. Because, if you don’t, then I guess you don’t really believe it. If racism is wrong, then you say something when your buddy tells a racist joke, even if it costs you your friendship. I’ve long since stopped caring about what people think about me. People can think what they want. I won’t stay quiet for the sake of not offending anyone. And I have paid for this. Don’t think I haven’t.
There is another story in the Old Testament about three guys, friends of the prophet Daniel, who refuse to bow down to pagan images upon the pain of death. Because they refused to back down, they were to be thrown into a “fiery furnace”. And when the kind gave them one last opportunity to renounce their belief in God and save themselves, they responded, “Look king, maybe God’s gonna save us and maybe He isn’t, but either way we’re FREE OF YOU!” (Paraphrased, of course). So the king threw them in the fire and according to the story the king saw the forms of the three guys as well as the form of a fourth person who looked “as the son of man.”
Mother Theresa had many doubts and struggled desperately with her faith her entire life. She often felt lost and abandoned, according to her writings only disclosed after her death. Critics often point out her feelings of despair claiming that faith in God has no answers. But I think they miss the point. The point is that Mother Theresa did believe. She just didn’t feel that faith. She didn’t feel the presence of God in her life. It didn’t matter. She believed and she kept right on doing what she was doing, out of faith. Faith isn’t something you feel. It isn’t a noun. It is something you do. I leave you with this poem, written by Mother Theresa. It says it better than I could.
Do It Anyway
People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered.
Love them anyway!
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
Do good anyway!
If you are successful, you will win false friends and enemies.
The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway!
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway!
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
People really need help but may attack you if you help them.
Help them anyway!
Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you've got anyway!
You see, in the final analysis,
it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway