Sunday, October 04, 2020

The Feast of Saint Francis

Phillipians 3

7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

He preached to the birds, he befriended a wolf, and he rebuilt ruined chapels.  

Like many saints, he was a reformer, directing the church back to founding principles: repentance, care for the sick, and a call to poverty.  His movement, the Friars Minor, grew from the strength of his personality and the compelling example he set.  He was no revolutionary, and he never sought to break with the church—something that disappointed his critics.  He is perhaps the best known saint after Mary herself, and certainly among the most loved.

Francis began his life with wealth and position.  His father was a successful cloth merchant in Assisi, his mother a French noblewoman.  And Francis lived into this wealth.  He had a reputation as a wild young man, a rogue with deep pockets and easy charm, which made him very popular.  

The first change to this life of ease began in war.  Enlisting to fight—some say to demonstrate his love for luxurious costumes—he was captured in battle and held for a year.  Finally ransomed by his father, he returned a changed person.  He began to spend less time at business and more time in prayer, mostly outside Assisi in small chapels.  He developed an affinity for the poor, and when he went on pilgrimage to Rome, he spent much of his time around St. Peter’s with local beggars.

Returning to Assisi, he continued to pray in remote chapels.  On one occasion, Christ spoke to him and said "Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins."  He took this direction literally, rebuilding ruined chapels and gathering fellow-minded followers.  

His father, you can imagine, was not impressed.  Fearing that all this wealth would one day be spent on these projects, his father sued to disinherit Francis.  The climax of the case saw Francis renounce his father, and famously disrobe, returning his clothing.  As his local fame increased, so did his followers.  

And Francis soon understood the command to rebuild the church as metaphor.  He directed his followers to care for the poor, tend to lepers, and share a message of repentance, brotherly love, and peace.  He and his followers rejected possessions, survived (in the early days) by begging, and saw themselves as standing against the surrounding culture.  

Perhaps this is at the heart of his lasting appeal.  Like the hippies of the 1960s, Francis and his group defied the dominant culture.  They wore simple tunics, and went barefoot—earning them the name pazzo, meaning madmen.  Labelled fools, Francis called himself “a new kind of fool.”  He spoke about himself and his followers as Jongleurs de Dieu (which means something like "jesters for God").  And together they were also referred to as poverello (little poor ones) for their refusal to accumulate possessions.*

All of this points to a departure, a turn from one life to another life altogether.  It defines the life of Francis, and it defines the life of St. Paul.  We hear this in our reading from Philippians: Paul’s recitation at the beginning, his former c.v., and then the conversion that follows.  Listen once more to the source of his early confidence: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.”  

But his confident recounting of the past is then transformed into new confidence in the present:  

But whatever were gains to me, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I now consider them garbage…

In both Francis and Paul we see the same pattern: renunciation, redirection, and rededication.  They discard comfort (Francis) and confidence (Paul) for the sake of Christ.  They redirect their effort to care for the poor (Francis) and the poor at heart (Francis and Paul).  And they rededicate themselves to the gospel of Jesus Christ, building a church (Paul) or rebuilding a church (Francis) to reflect God’s glory.  Whatever was gain is now considered loss for Christ Jesus.

About now you may be wondering how this tiny temple to Methodism (Central) ended up marking a feast day on the Catholic calendar and engaging in so much hagiography—recalling the lives of the saints.  It turns out that Francis is also venerated by Anglicans—our ecclesiastical forebears—and most other traditions too.  Oddly, scholars can find no mention of Francis in the writings of John Wesley, strange because they had much in common.  They shared the same concern for the poor, the same desire to preach Christ in the open air—directly to the people—and the same desire to rebuild the church.  They even shared a love for God’s creatures, Wesley preaching against cruelty to animals.**

What these reformers share is a desire to return to the primitive church.  Reading scripture, considering the relationship between Christ and his disciples, and trying to find the heart of the message—these are the hallmarks of the reformer’s project.  Time and trouble create a complicated church, and the task of the reformer is to return the church to first principles: forgiveness, care for the vulnerable, and peace—peace between people, and between people and the earth.

And this last point, perhaps, explains Francis’ lasting appeal.  Each generation can find in Francis the simple and unifying message they need in troubled times.  In the 60s it was an end to war, and the sense of sisterhood and brotherhood of all peoples.  Today, it’s the environment, and a saint that can bless our need to care for creation, to guide us back to a peaceful relationship with the one Francis called Sister Mother Earth.  To this end, I want to conclude with the story of the Wolf of  Gubbio.

Fear of wolves lived in the hearts of many in the middle ages, and none more than rural people.  Wolves were a threat to livestock, and a threat to the lone traveller, particularly at night.  While Francis was living near Gubbio, the townspeople were contending with one such wolf.  The town, in effect, was under siege.  Attempts were made to kill the wolf, but to no avail.

Francis, deciding on a new approach, departed the town walls, and found the wolf near its lair.  Making the sign of the cross, he spoke to the wolf, offering a simple exchange.  Past wrongs would be forgiven, and food shared, if the wolf left the people and their animals alone.  The wolf extended a paw and Francis took it.  It is said that the people befriended the wolf, and mourned when it died, even (according to tradition) burying the wolf in the churchyard.  All of this, of course, was regarded as legend, until 1872, when the skeleton of a large wolf was discovered near the outer wall of the church.           

Knowing Christ Jesus, understanding his way, we can live new lives of love and mercy.  Knowing Christ Jesus, understanding his way, we can live differently on the earth.  And knowing Christ Jesus, understanding his way, we can rebuild the church for each new generation.

May God bless us and the world God made.  Amen.

*Thanks here to my neo-Franciscan friend Ted.  

**Sermon 60, “The General Deliverance,” §1-2




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