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Magic, Bird, Francis and saving the tilting church
As a big fan of the NBA and the 76ers, I suffered a little this week when, Doug Collins, the former head coach of the 76ers, announced his resignation. The Sixers ended their 34 and 48 season (that’s 34 wins, 48 losses) this week and Doug Collins told us he was quitting—over the last few months, Collins was particularly mean spirited regarding his players (many of whom were playing pretty poorly). He told us this week that he decided to quit near Christmastime. So he endured some suffering for a long time, but of course, so did the fans of the Sixers a perennial favorite for a high draft pick in the NBA.
Not only are the 76ers not so good, the NBA has been on its post-Michael Jordan decline for about 15 years. Its NBA Finals dropping to an all-time low of 6.2 in 2007 (that means that 6.7% of the nation was watching), and it was nearly that low in 1981 (6.7). Compare that to 1987 when nearly one-in-five people were watching, again in 1998.
The NBA, much like the church, is generally not that interesting anymore. Caught up with narcissistic personalities that give glory to themselves and not the group, with no real definable mission besides making itself look great both the church and the NBA need something of a revolution, wouldn’t you say? According to a Pew study over a third of the country that’s under 30 considers itself to be irreligious. The movement is become stale.
So what do we do when we are becoming increasingly irrelevant? Let’s look back at both the history of the church and the NBA to draw some connections. I’m going to use broad strokes to draw comparisons between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and St. Francis and Clare of Assisi. It might be the first time that’s happened, so thanks for working with me.
In the late-1970s, the NBA wasn’t really being watched and games weren’t being attended. As I said before a small percentage of the country watched the games at home and almost no one was actually going to the games. The league was filled with scandal, lack of competition, drug use, and so on. It was a hot bed for corruption and people voted with their feet.
And in the 1200s, the Church was suffering from just as much corruption. The church was recovering from the “Great Schism,” an event that divided Christianity in Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. That occurred in 1054 when Pope Leo IX and Patriach Michael I excommunicated one another. Fifty years later, it’s not surprising that the Church began one of the darkest seasons in its existence: the Crusades, wars between Christians and Muslims took place in the eleventh and thirteenth centuries.
Both organizations were in need of a serious change. Some individuals who loved them and what they stood for, saved them.
In 1978 Larry Bird was drafted to the Boston Celtics and in 1979 Magic Johnson was drafted to the L.A. Lakers. Their work ethic, love of the game, and rivalry brought people to watch the NBA in numbers that hadn’t been seen in years. They brought both of their teams to the NBA finals numerous times each and by 1987 had captivated nearly a fifth of the country in watching their contest. They really redeemed the NBA from some of the darkest ages it knew and brought into a new age. Between the years 1981 and 1982, for example, NBA viewership doubled.
Those there aren’t Neilsen ratings for the Church in the same way as the NBA, in the period of warfare and darkness that occurred in the 1200s, there was a beacon of light named St. Francis, who, through his devotion to prayer and discipline, helped sustain the whole movement.
St. Francis was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant and enjoyed a luxurious and worldly life. He was known for loving pleasure, money, and excess. He loved to party and loved to life luxuriously and excessively.
In 1201, he joined the military expedition against Perugia, primarily to build his reputation, and was taken as a prisoner. He was taken as a captive. When he returned, he changed. He stopped fraternizing with his companions, in their excess, and vowed to life a life of simplicity. His friends wondered if he’d ever marry, he reassured them he would—to Jesus, to the Church, to Lady Poverty. He monastic life started then, when he would relate to lepers and he started begging at the doors of churches.
One day, when he was begging outside of the church, he heard an Icon of Christ Crucifeid utter “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” He helped the church that he was praying at, and sold his clothes that he father had given him, and help the preist.
His father tried to change his mind by threatening him and beating him, but he renounced his father, and got rid of all of his garments, and started begging in Assisi and restored many chapels in the area.
He heard a sermon based on Matthew 10 in 1209 that led to him founding the Franciscan order. He was inspired by the disciples’ voluntarily vowing to be poor for Jeuss.
He vowed to live a life of poverty for the sake of Jesus. Within a year, he had eleven followed and the order of St. Francis began. He influenced many, including Clare of Assisi, and realized she had a similar calling. In 1211, she founded the Order of Poor Ladies. She wrote the Rule of Life, the first monastic rule to be written by a women.
The crooked church that surrounded Francis and Clare was being held up by them. Pope Innocent III, had a dream that St. Francis (a patron saint that never entered priesthood, mind you), was supporting the tilting church.
The Franciscan Order, led by Francis and Clare, held up the church during a dark age. Let’s look to them again and see how they can influence how we act.
First, let’s vow to live simply. Give up everything you have to follow Jesus—be that radical, just like the disciples did when they first followed Jesus The cornerstone of the Franciscan movement is poverty—in a world where the income gap between the poor and the rich grows and grows, it’s not surprising that the latest Pope took the name of Francis to be his own. He wants to speak to the world’s oppressed and the world’s poor and has already developed a reputation for it.
In your life, give something up and get rid of it. Think about your life, the excess that you have, and give some of it away. A lot of us are thinking about our congregation’s modest financial goals and doing our part in helping with the cause. The truth is, if you are worried about money, give yours away and see what happens. Let us vow to not be worried about having enough and trust the God will fulfill us, and not a fat pay check, or a nice cushion in our bank account, or whatever else.
In the same spirit of poverty, let’s try and vow to life like Jesus. Just like when Jesus predicts his death in Luke 9, we need to deny ourselves and follow him. Sacrifice what you need to for Jesus. If you try and save your life, you’ll lose it—just like the church was going to in the 1200s when it wanted to violently spread its influence. Lose your life for Jesus. What good is it for someone to gain the whole word, but forfeit his soul? That’s the ultimate Fransciscan prayer and one for our narcissistic country and age.
St. Francis so wanted to imitate Jesus that, rather than parsing through endless books and theologies to come up with the definite determination of what “following Jesus” meant, he literally imitated him. He is credited with curating the first Nativity scene, and for maintaining the discipline of the Stations of the Cross (the ritual of journeying with Jesus on his way to crucifixion and resurrection). Imitating Christ, in fact, may be just a matter of literally doing what he did.
What does that look like for you? Try this out this week, read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, and try to do something just like Jesus did.
Vow to live out the mission. St. Francis, known for his monasticism, simplicity, and quietness, still lived out a mission during his life. He was so determined to spread the Gospel to all of God’s creatures, he has become known as the patron Saint of animals (that’s why you always see him with a bird on his shoulder or something like that). But more than just cute images, he actually tried to change the world through love and relationships. Most famously, he journeyed to Egypt to try and convert the sultan, Malik-al-Kamil.
Rather than waging war with the Muslims, like thousands of Christians around him, he actually tried to “love his enemy.” He visited Egypt and was a light, again in the dark ages, and even though his conversion attempt didn’t work (nor was he martyred, which seems to always be a secondary goal for people like Francis), his committed to peace was strengthened.
Francis’ life was a whole cloth, a lover of the environment, of animals, of peace, and simplicity, and still of mission. Definitively, St. Francis and Clare and their orders, were game changers in the church. We’re praying for those same kind of game changers today.