Two thousand years ago, believers in Jesus were dying because of their belief; they were tortured, and imprisoned and put in chains for their faith. For the believers of the first three centuries after Jesus, these martyrs were role models. They formed a great cloud of witnesses surrounding the faithful.
I had planned to talk this week about the challenges of being a Christian, and how even today, people are dying for their belief in Jesus. But I changed my mind.
Instead, I want to share some stories of the cloud of witnesses that surrounded me last week. I was at the annual meeting of the Order of Lutheran Franciscans. It’s a community of Lutherans who follow the Franciscan way of life, while living in the world. Many of the members are pastors, pastor’s wives, others are ministers of music, or hold other jobs. They do ministry with homeless people or people who are in prison.
Like the Roman Catholic orders we are more familiar with, Lutheran Franciscans have vows: chastity, poverty, and obedience. Lutheran Franciscans wear brown habits with hoods and a Tau cross. It’s shaped like a “t”, or tau in Greek.
I discovered this group on the internet, and made contact with them. It turns out their meeting was in Orlando, so I was able to go and meet with them. I was greeted with hugs, and more hugs, and more hugs. The hugs continued all week. I intentionally sat with different people at meals and during training sessions so I could get to know their stories.
First, I need to say a little about Francis of Assisi. He was born about 1281, the son of a fairly wealthy cloth merchant. He had a revelation, seeing suddenly that God loves all people, regardless of their social status. He removed his clothing, choosing instead a simple monk’s habit. He heard God say to him, rebuild my church, and he took the challenge literally, restoring churches that were falling into ruin.
We know of his passion for nature, seeing animals and plants as an expression of God’s love for all creation. You may not know of his extreme passion for following Christ’s way of living by loving and giving. He begged for work, so he could eat, and feed his followers. He regularly gave away his habit to those who seemed to need it more. Soon after his revelation, Francis was joined by a young woman named Clare, who cared for the women who followed Francis.
We modern Lutheran Franciscans live in the world, have jobs, and homes, and families. I say “we” because I am becoming one. We worship several times a day, care for others as Francis and Jesus would, learn about following Jesus more closely, and learn about ourselves so we can remove barriers from loving Jesus and others even better. Francis and Clare are among the cloud of witnesses who surround us.
So, some stories of my new cloud of witnesses among the Lutheran Franciscans. Don is on the left, and became a good friend quickly. He laughs easily, tells fun stories about his life and family, and believes deeply. He quit college to support his wife through college and seminary. Right now, they have too much debt for him to return to school. Eventually, he will make it to college and seminary. As we prepared to leave for home on Thursday, he gave me his own Tau cross. I cried tears of joy as he hung it on my neck. Because I have some work to do before I receive my own, Don wanted me to have one now.
Brother Christopher is the leader of the order, called the Minister General. He made many of the arrangements for our gathering, led worship, and preached at our closing worship service. He shared his experience of the chaos he experienced while in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and how we all grow from chaos. He also made himself vulnerable, and revealed some deep secrets and fears during confidential small group meetings.
Sister Dede is among the older members of the order. Almost the opposite of Don in temperament, Dede shared her story with me. Living simply, raising her children on a small budget, she chose to avoid meat because it was so costly. Even when she can afford meat, she prefers to eat vegetables. Although she is quiet, she has strong opinions, great wisdom, and participates in group activities with the spirit of a teenager.
Trevor is a young man who preached during one service. He told his own story of coming to faith by using the story in which Jesus heals a blind man. Jesus begins by asking, “What do you want me to do for you?” At first I thought, a nice young man, a nice simple message, but soon, I was astounded by the power of his sermon. What, indeed, do we want Jesus to do for us?
Ian is the youngest member of the order. He grew up in a household where he was to be seen and not heard, and taken to church on Christmas and Easter. In high school, he wanted to be in both band and choir, but had to choose, and chose band. Then, a friend invited him to join his church choir, which he did. After two or three years, he began to think about getting baptized and began to study more about being Christian. Monastic orders intrigued him, and then he learned about the Lutheran Franciscans. At age 18, he became a postulant, a beginner, and is now a full brother in the order. He expresses his faith by leading boy scouts and cub scouts at his church, and being a scout camp program director. When he finishes college, he will go to seminary to be a pastor.
So, what can we say about this cloud of witnesses? They are as varied an any group of people, and they have committed their lives to serving God as well as they can, with Francis and Clare as their role models and witnesses. And they are my sisters and brothers.
I have one more story. I have always respected Mary, Jesus’ mother, for her courage and willingness to do whatever God asked, in this case, give birth to the savior, Jesus. Mary has always been among the cloud of witnesses for me, but at this retreat, she became more personal, in part due to Trevor’s message, in part influenced by the simple beauty of this sculpture. I know many see her as Mother, but, as hard as I try to see her this way, when I think Mother Mary, my own mother’s face pops into my mind. That just doesn’t work, for a whole lot of reasons! This week, however, Mary became my sister, one of those who will guide me in the process of becoming a Lutheran Franciscan. Mary my sister opened my heart to see Jesus, and Francis and Clare, through new eyes and a renewed heart.
You are also among my cloud of witnesses. I learn from you. I admire your faith, your passion, your determination. I wonder, who are those who make up your cloud of witnesses? How do they lead you or challenge you or support you? Have you ever thanked them for the role they play in your life? And, for whom are you a witness? Do you remember that others are watching you, and including you in their cloud of witnesses?
Please pray with me. Lord Jesus, we give you thanks for the gift of life. And we thank you for the cloud of witnesses who surround us, and teach us about you. Help us to follow you more closely, and to be witnesses for those who are watching us. Amen