Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 5, 2014

2014.10.05 “Season of Creation: Feast of St. Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226)” – Matthew 6: 25 – 29

Central United Methodist Church
Season of Creation: Feast of St. Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226)
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 6: 25 – 29
October 5th, 2014

St.Francis (Father John Giuliani)

St.Francis (Father John Giuliani)

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” – Matthew 6: 25 – 29, the New Revised Standard Version

So we did it. As the culmination of our celebration of the Season of Creation, yesterday – on the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, October 4th – we celebrated a Blessing of the Animals. Six dogs and their owners showed up; all the cats stayed home.

Before anyone got there, I wondered if anyone would show up.  As I waited, an unaccompanied squirrel wandered up to the door. In the spirit of St. Francis, I said, “You here for the blessing? “No,” he said, “You got any tomatoes?” I said, “Go in peace, and sin no more.”

In March of last year, an even bigger event raised our curiosity about St. Francis. When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was selected as Pope, he chose the name Francis.  Perhaps your response was like mine:  What – he chose the name Francis, after Francis of Assisi? Right then, we should have known this pope was going to be different. But the other thing I thought was – in the 800 years since Francis, this pope is the first to use the name of Francis? Why is that?

Both events raise the question, who was Francis of Assisi?  What better time than the day after his feast day to find out?

St-Francis-of-AssisiLike you, I know bits and pieces. Every time I go to his hospital in Evanston (St. Francis), and walk up the hall, there he is, a statue in the hall, in a garden with a fountain.  We know he is the patron saint of animals and the environment, but what else should we know about him, that might be of value in helping us follow Jesus in our time, as St. Francis followed Jesus in his time?

whenstfrancisYou know the saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” One of my “likes” on Facebook, Brian McLaren, in commemoration of the Feast Day of St. Francis (October 4th), posted a brief interview with Jon M. Sweeney, the author of a recent book, When Saint Francis Saved the Church: How a Converted Medieval Troubadour Created a Spiritual Vision for the Ages. What we learn is that St. Francis was far more than a statue with a bird sitting on his arm; perhaps second only to Jesus, St. Francis was man who showed us how to live the love of God in the world. A life of love in the world that – thanks to the example of saints like St. Francis – is still within our reach.

Francesco di Bernardone was born in 1181, and was initially named Giovanni, or John. When his father returned from a trip, he renamed him Francesco, or Francis.  Otherwise we’d be talking about Giovanni of Assisi.

Since his father Pietro was a well-to-do merchant, Francis grew up well provided for. Tradition is that he was a talkative, playful, fun-loving boy who had plenty of friends.  By the time he was a teenager he was the life of the party, the kid you’d always invite.  He had money in his pockets. He was good company. He was happy.

But around 1204, at the age of 23, he went off as a soldier to war with a nearby city/state, and either got injured, embarrassed himself, or deserted, or perhaps all three.  Sometimes in life, we don’t really begin to understand ourselves until we experience failure or defeat.

For whatever reason, after that, Francis began to spend a lot of time alone in prayer and silence in the caves, mountains, and abandoned churches around Assisi, like San Damiano. Francis started listening to his heart, and when he started listening to his heart, he heard God talking. One day, he heard the icon of Christ Crucified say to him: “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house, which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”  Francis took this to mean the ruined church in which he was praying, and so he began to repair it.  Looking back, we might say it was not just that church, but the entire Church, which had strayed from the way of Jesus.  Does it give you hope – as it does me – that when the Church is in ruins, God raises up people like Francis to rebuild and revive it?  Are we listening, in case God calls us, as God called Francis?

Soon after, in 1206, came a famous incident in which Francis and his father confronted each other in the public square. With hundreds watching, Pietro demanded Francis return the goods he took from his shop (which he had sold to give the money to the poor) and that Francis apologize.  As Jon Sweeney says, we can imagine the crowd cheering for both sides. “Respect your father!” “Don’t take what isn’t yours!” “Pietro, listen to your son!” The 25 year old Francis responds by telling Pietro and the crowd that he has only one father, his Father in Heaven, and that he will return everything that is Pietro’s, at which point he stripped naked and handed his clothes to his father. Quite a way of making a point.

Soon Francis was joined by others, and the name that he chose for his new order was not Franciscans, but Fraticelli, Little Brothers.  This was amended in Latin to Ordo Fratrum Minorum, or Order of Friars Minor. The intent was to be and to remain small in the eyes of the world; exactly as the rest of Catholicism was not. Eventually, they were joined by a woman, Clare, for whom Francis established an order for women, which would become known as the Poor Clares.

Now, when you think of them, don’t think of those modern Franciscans in those nice brown robes, but young men and women in tattered garments, the cast off robes of monasteries, looking like medieval hippies or the homeless.  They were – in fact – a mendicant order, who begged for their living, as Francis insisted, to keep them reliant upon God. They were not to live as monks or hermits, seeking God in the cloisters, but out in the world, as wandering preachers. This was the age of troubadours, wandering minstrels known as “jongleurs,” and this was Francis ideal, that they would be “jongleurs de Dieu,” troubadours for God. How was God going to rebuild the church through St. Francis? By getting out of the churches, and out among people. Although Francis preached often, he rarely preached in churches.  Does that sound like someone else we know, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism?  What is this saying to us?

Now, we may know St. Francis for his care for animals, but that’s not all he was about. In fact, many of those stories were legends and folklore that sprang up after his death.

Two of the most famous stories among hundreds have to do with birds, and a wolf. It was said that one day that while traveling, they came upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side.  Francis told his companions to “wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds.” The birds surrounded him, intrigued by his voice, and not one flew away.

The other story is that in the city of Gubbio, where Francis lived for awhile, there was a terrifying and ferocious wolf.  Francis went out, found the wolf, and negotiated a settlement, while the wolf lay at his feet. (Guess you could say Francis was a “wolf-whisperer.”) Handy skills if you want to take your chances.  Thanks to these stories, this is why St. Francis is often portrayed with birds or a wolf or both.

We should note – in passing – that St. Francis was the first to recreate a live nativity– using real animals – around 1220.  His “Canticle of the Creatures,” (a version of which we sang), was the first vernacular Italian poem. St. Francis was also the first to receive the Stigmata (the wounds of Jesus) in his own body, which happened while he was praying on La Verna in 1224, shortly before his death. And unfortunately, the Prayer we associate with him, the Prayer of St. Francis, was not written by St. Francis, but only about a hundred years ago, possibly by a French priest, Father Esther Bouquerel (1855-1923), although most everyone agrees it captures St. Francis’ spirit and message.

In his book, When Saint Francis Saved the Church: How a Converted Medieval Troubadour Created a Spiritual Vision for the Ages, Jon Sweeney identifies six areas in which Francis’ message transformed the Christian message in his time, resurrecting it in a way more true to the way of Jesus.  Let’s take a look, to see what we might learn.

  1. St. Francis transformed Friendship. In his time there were clear and distinct lines of gender, religion, and status, and – like Jesus – Francis crossed them all. He turned his back on his life of privilege, and befriended everybody: beggars, lepers, his new brothers and sisters, everybody.

Francis takes Jesus as his guide, and over the next 20 years, practices what he preaches. We see Francis sitting in boats with fishermen who are anxious about their small catches. He visits towns where rivalries are splitting people apart. He works side by side in the fields with people before he ever says a word about God to them. He wants to sit and talk with a sultan in order to understand him better.

  1. The Other. Francis demonstrated a profound respect for invisible, discarded, and demonized people, creatures, and other unknowns. He had nothing to gain by doing so, but he included them as equals in his life, including the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. This inclusiveness was the essence of how he changed monasticism and how he believed every person should act in the world.

For example, in 1219, at the height of the Crusades, Francis traveled to Eygpt to visit with Sultan al-Kamil. That would be like President Obama sitting down to talk with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. As Jon Sweeney says, “Besides poverty, hospitality was the chief Franciscan virtue.”

  1. Poverty. Francis took poverty on personally and voluntarily, within and for himself, rather than simply as a subject of concern in the lives of others. He did not make poverty a virtue in and of itself, but he focused attention on how being poor was a better way to understand the message of Jesus. Anyone could join, and in the decades afterwards, thousands did, wanting to live like Francis. But not everyone could handle Francis’ ideal of poverty, which was humility, simplicity, and downward mobility. It was difficult then, and difficult now.
  2. Spirituality. Spirituality was valued higher by Francis than theological understanding, and his personal spiritual life set him apart from nearly every other leader in the Church in his day. He was more concerned about “orthopraxy,” doing the right thing, than orthodoxy, believing the right thing.

As an example, there is the story of a young man who wanted to be a follower, who felt that he needed his own prayer book. For Francis, even owning a book was a slippery slope:  you want a book, next you’ll want a shelf, next you’ll want a room for the shelf and a house for the room. So when the young man asked Francis, “May I get one?” Francis said, “Please don’t!”  “Why not?” said the young man.  Pointing to the young man’s heart, Francis said:  “Because here is your prayer book. Here is your prayer book.”

  1. Care. Francis was almost Buddhist in his gentle attention to, not just people and creatures, but things. It was his care-full-ness in little things that made him the environmental saint we know today. In no other area do we see so clearly how Francis was a man ahead of his time.

Leonardo Boff says that “Francis demonstrated wth his life that, to be a saint, it is necessary to be human. And to be human, it is necessary to be sensitive and gentle.”  Which Francis was, to all things.

  1. Death. Francis embraced death, not as a fatalistic gift, but as an important part of life, our final transformation. His welcoming of death was almost without precedent in Christian teaching; we might even go so far as to say way ahead of the understanding of death in our own time.

Even the last line in his Canticle of the Creatures is “Praise to you, O Lord, for our sister death and the death of the body from whom no one may escape.”  It is said that as he was dying he asked his brothers to strip him and lay him on the ground, that he might be near the earth.  And so he died on the night of October 3, 1226, at Portiuncula, the small church he loved in the valley below Assisi, at the age of 46.

Today, eight centuries later, reforming popes take his name, three million people a year make pilgrimage to his tomb, and on his feast day, in the tradition of St. Francis, our animal companions are blessed all over the world. It is said his most common remark to people was, “May the Lord give you peace.” In the tradition of St. Francis, may our prayer be, “Lord – like our brother St. Francis – make me an instrument of your peace.”  Amen.

[Much of the material referenced in my sermon is from and available in greater explanation and detail in the book referenced above: Jon M. Sweeney, When Saint Francis Saved the Church: How a Converted Medieval Troubadour Created a Spiritual Vision for the Ages, Ava Maria Press, September 8, 2014]

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