Sunday, October 6, 2019

Instruments of God's Peace

I am here today, Holy Spirit, Sutton - to talk with you about St. Francis of Assisi, parking lots, and signs. In that order.

From 1998-2013 I served as the rector of the only parish in our diocese that bears the name of St. Francis. When I went to Holden, I knew that statue in the garden and I knew he kind-of-sort-of-but-not-really wrote a prayer about being an instrument of God’s peace. But during my fifteen years at St. Francis, we became close friends. I read at least four biographies on him and blessed a lot of animals, including donkeys and snakes. Over the years, as I got to know him better. I started calling him Frank.

There are two “snapshots” in Frank’s life that you may or may not know about. I think they take us deeper into the witness of this guy before he was talking with the birds and I want to tell you about those today.

Francis lived in the latter days of the twelfth century, in the Umbrian town of Assisi, half-way between Rome and Florence. Assisi sits on a hill and it’s obvious that the narrow streets were built long before the automobile. In 1182, an infant boy was baptized in the cathedral font of Assisi. His mother was a religious person who decided to name her son after John the Baptist, the one who “prepared the way” for Jesus. He was therefore christened “Giovanni,” the Italian version of John.

Francesco was the nickname given to him by his father. Francesco means “little Frenchman.” Assisi was moving from a feudal society to a mercantile society. Giovanni’s father was a cloth trader who traveled regularly on business to France. Presumably it was because of his dad’s love for all things French that he picked up the nickname, which stuck.  Francis may have even traveled with his dad on a business trip in his teenage years. If he did, then he would have seen a new cathedral being built in Paris that would be named for the mother of our Lord: Notre Dame.

By all accounts, little Giovanni/Francesco was a spoiled rich kid. It can happen when parents are upwardly mobile. They sometimes indulge their children so that they will have the “opportunities” they never had. His father expected him to follow in his path in the family business. Something happened, though—it’s not clear what—that led to a change in his worldview. Some say he came down with an illness that left him bedridden for a long period of time. In any case, he ended up in the military, wanting to become a knight. It left a mark on him as military service usually does. Two “core values” for knights were a commitment to largesse, i.e. to give freely, and to always be courteous. Yes, sir. No thank you ma’am. I mention that because as profoundly shaped as Francesco would be by the gospel, these military values also played a role in shaping who he was becoming, and in fact dove-tailed with his reading of the gospel.

Then Francis has this powerful religious awakening in the church in San Damiano. While praying, he hears Christ calling to him “Francesco, repave the parking lot! Make a new sign!” (Just kidding; I’m wanting to make sure you are still awake!) What he heard was, “rebuild my church.” He takes that literally at first and starts to do some much needed repairs.

The moment of ultimate conflict in Francesco’s life comes soon after, as he starts to take his faith more and more seriously and he realizes that “rebuilding the church” is about something more than repairs to the building. His father calls the bishop, a personal friend, to talk some sense into the boy who was beginning to spend a little too much time at church. Part of what was happening is that he was being very generous with his father’s hard-earned money. All of this brings us to that first “snapshot” – a defining moment in his life.

In the upper church in Assisi there is a fresco that I stood in front of when I was there, trying to imagine the turmoil and the sense of shame and betrayal that both father and son must have felt that day in the public square as Francesco went, shall we say, “al fresco.” He takes off all his clothes and he gives them back to his father and tells him he wants nothing to do with him anymore, that he has only one father, his father in heaven. There is such humanity and pathos in that scene. And even if he is a much-beloved saint, I think we make a mistake if we turn Francis into the hero of this moment and his father into the devil. I imagine his dad, especially within his context of a changing world where there were increasing opportunities for those willing to work hard as honestly wanting the very best for his “little Frenchman.” He must have been devastated. The problem is that father and son don’t see eye-to-eye on what is best. Their core values clash and Francis has to live the life he believes God is calling him to, not his father’s dreams. I have often wondered if this isn’t a kind of inverted story of the prodigal son: instead of the father running out to embrace the son, Francesco’s father seems almost to be recoiling. Who is this kid and what has happened to him?

As a parent I can’t help but to feel some empathy for the father. That isn’t the same as saying he was right: we raise our kids in order to let them become adults who will find their own path to God and their own way in the world. When we baptize them we are giving them back to God and trusting that they won’t do that alone. But they are never meant to be our clones. Moments like this one are so hard, not just for father and son (not to mention the bishop) but for all the rest of us who are eavesdropping on a family matter being played out in the town square. It’s a sad and heart-wrenching moment. At least to me it is. Yet I think it surely must also have been a defining moment in Francis’ spiritual journey. For Francis, at the heart of the gospel was a call to embrace poverty as a way to share in Christ’s suffering. His father simply couldn’t understand that after all the sacrifices he had made to make life better for his son. And so father and son go their separate ways. There is no evidence that they ever reconciled.

Snapshot 2: in 1219, Francis heads off to the Middle East during the time of the Crusades. War is always hell, but the Crusades were particularly brutal, as perhaps only religious conflicts are. Yet Francis goes down to Egypt to the sultan’s palace to meet with a caliph who is roughly the same age as he is—late thirties. The Muslim leader (most likely a Sufi mystic) is fond of religious poetry, intellectually curious, and on good terms with the merchants of Venice. The two men meet and Francis tries to convert him to Christianity. That doesn’t happen, but they depart in peace and on good terms. In the heart of the Islamic world, in the middle of the Crusades, Francis bears witness to the love of God he knew in Jesus. But he also listens and treats the other with dignity and respect.

The word crusader literally means “he who bears the cross.” In the twelfth century and to this very day, however, that word sends chills down the spines of people who remember the atrocities done in the name of Christ and in the name of the cross, especially in the Muslim world. Our language is so easily manipulated in times of war, isn’t it?  Yet Francis bore witness in the midst of all of that to another way. He was the true crusader: for him the “way of the cross” meant the way of mutual respect and conversation, being an instrument of peace in a world gone mad, living with hope for the dawn of a new day. Never lording it over someone else. Following the path of love.

So there you have it: a public rift with his father and a private encounter with a Muslim in the Middle East, trying to bring peace on earth and good will to all. We are all complicated, aren’t we? Francis was no exception. So many of us come here today knowing how Francis loves all creatures great and small, and that his life was a kind of prayer (even if he did not actually write those words) about being an instrument of God’s peace. “Where there is hatred, let us sow love” and all that.

But in these two snapshots I see humanity and risk and the reality of how hard that can sometimes be. The snapshots could have been otherwise: his father could have “embraced him in a reenactment of the story of the prodigal son. The sultan could have told Francis to go to hell, or worse. But each stands as a witness, I think, of what it means to “rebuild the Church” once we get the physical plant in order. It’s about vulnerability. It’s about relationships. It’s about risk. It’s about the way of the cross, which is the way of love. The word “crusader” may beyond reclaiming. But we should at least notice that it doesn’t mean what the culture said it meant, even in Francis’ time.  The way of the cross is not about lording it over others, or invading their country or telling them what god they must believe in. It’s about bearing the sign of the cross as a sign of our own weakness and vulnerability. And yet also as a sign of hope. As we heard today from St. Paul, “may we never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 6:14)

We have an opportunity to be cross-bearers whenever we stand with the poor and the vulnerable. Like Francis, we may sometimes travel to distant places in order to be instruments of peace and agents of reconciliation. But like Francis, we do well to remember that sometimes the much harder work is in reaching across the kitchen table or in the public square. Sometimes the work of reconciliation that is needed most is the work of healing the rifts that emerge between father and son, or mother and daughter, or brother and sister. Sometimes the work of reconciliation is hardest of all in a parish church, which falls somewhere between family and international conflicts. We expect that congregations will be places where love is made manifest. But the truth is that wherever two or three gather together in Christ’s name there is sure to be conflict.

Yet that’s never the last word. As instruments of Christ’s peace we are called to be people who seek more to understand than to be understood. Like Francis and Andrew and John and all the rest, in every generation, we are called to rebuild the Church. I love what you have done in this worship space. I have no doubt there are still some who miss the pews, but walking in here are outward and visible signs that this is no longer two parishes but one, guided by the Holy Spirit. I give God thanks for that. As for the parking lot! Let me be clear – I don’t usually go around telling parishes to focus on parking lots. But yours was pretty sad and what always bothered me was that there was good ministry happening here, but the neighbors would have a hard time imagining that. And also it was dangerous to drive my car up here!

Sometimes the work of rebuilding the Church, as in San Damiano and so also here, is literal. New signs and new parking lots are outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual grace that is happening here. 

I give thanks for it all today: for Francis, the new parking lot and your sign – in that order. For Laura and your wardens and the vestry here and for the work that Lisa also did to help birth this new parish. 

Above all, I give thanks for all of you, doing the work that God has given you to do, that work of healing and reconciliation in a world so desperately in need. I am grateful for your witness to this part of God’s kingdom as people walking the way of the cross.