Sunday, October 1, 2017

Living the Prayer of St. Francis

Preaching and Presiding today at Christ Church, Rochdale.

Seven hundred and ninety one years ago this Tuesday, Francis of Assisi died. We will celebrate his Feast Day on Wednesday. For today I want to ask a question: what can a man from Umbria who lived eight centuries ago teach us today about following Jesus?

From 1998-2013, I served as the rector of the only parish in our diocese that bears the name of St. Francis of Assisi. When I went to Holden, I knew next to nothing about him. But during my tenure we became close friends. Many of you have, I’m sure, seen the familiar statue of St. Francis hanging around in gardens; in fact I think there is one around this building if I’m not mistaken. He is pleasant enough; often some birds are there chatting with him or some animal is sitting at his feet as Francis preaches the gospel at all times, sometimes even with words.

But to encounter him in the flesh we have to travel back to the latter days of the twelfth century, to the Umbrian town of Assisi, half-way between Rome and Florence. Assisi sits on a hill and it’s obvious that the roads were built long before the automobile. So you park at the bottom of the hill and you walk up and up to the narrow streets where you can almost imagine walking into good old Francis, no longer a statue but a real person in a real time and place.

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. And so he was christened “Giovanni” – the Italian version of John. Francesco, which means “little Frenchman,” was the nickname given to him by his father, who loved all things French.

In the latter part of the twelfth century, Assisi was moving from a feudal society to a mercantile society. That led to clashes between social classes: the old guard and the “nouveau riche” merchants like Giovanni’s father, who was a cloth trader who traveled regularly on business to France. Francesco may have even traveled with his dad on business trips in his teenage years. If he did and they got to Paris, then he would have seen a new cathedral under construction that would be named for the mother of our Lord, Notre Dame.

By all accounts, Francesco was a spoiled rich kid. It happens sometimes when parents are upwardly mobile and they indulge their children so that they will have all of the “opportunities” they didn’t have. His father expected him to follow in his path in the family business. Something happened, though—it’s not clear what—that led Francesco 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 and decided to become a knight.

When someone says “semper fi” to you, you know that they are shaped by a whole set of values that make that person a marine. Knights in the Middle Ages were something like that, and the equivalent of “semper fi” was the notion of chivalry. Two “core values” for knights were a commitment to largesse, i.e. to give freely, and to be always courteous. Yes, sir. No thank you ma’am. I mention this because as profoundly as Francesco would be formed by the gospel, these military values also played a role in shaping who he was becoming and they stayed with him. Generosity and courtesy permeate the Rule of Francis. Obviously these are gospel values, but they were also reinforced by his training as a knight. I suspect that the same could be said for many of us: hopefully our core values are rooted in the gospel, but our families and our work also leave a mark.

And then Francesco had this powerful religious awakening in the church in San Damiano. While praying, he heard Christ calling to him “Francesco, rebuild my church.” Some might call this a “conversion experience,” which is fine. But I prefer to think of such experiences as “awakenings” because they remind us that it’s about what God is doing in our lives, not the other way around. That is to say, at that cathedral font, baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, he had already been “claimed and sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever.” It isn’t God’s fault he was asleep to that reality for so many years! In any event, he finally “woke up,” and when he did he began to literally rebuild that chapel in San Damiano, like a good junior warden.

So Francesco had “gotten religion.” A little too much from his father’s perspective. So his dad calls the bishop (who happens to be a personal friend) to talk some sense into the boy, who was beginning to take his faith just a little too seriously. Part of what was happening is that his commitment to largesse was making him very generous with his father’s hard-earned money.

If you ever go to Assisi and perhaps some of you have been, there is a fresco in the upper church that captures a heart-wrenching moment on the town green: Francesco, his father, the bishop, and a whole lot of nosy neighbors. I stood in front of it and tried 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,” taking off his clothes and giving them to his father and saying, “now I don’t have anything that belongs to you. I’m as naked as the day I was born. You are no longer my father; my only father is the one I have in heaven.” The bishop is so embarrassed he takes off his chasuble and covers Frank up.

There is such humanity in this scene, long before Francis became a statue in the garden. Even if he is canonized, I think we make a mistake if we turn him 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 son. 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. Families are like this sometimes as we navigate our way from generation to generation.

I have sometimes 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 in that fresco, as if he’s asking: “who is this kid and what has happened to him?” With all due respect to Francesco, as a parent I can’t help but feel some empathy for the father. That isn’t the same as saying his father 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. But moments like this one are so hard not just for father and son and for the bishop but for all the rest of us who are eavesdropping on a family matter being played out on the town square. It’s a sad and heart-wrenching moment, at least to me it is. Yet it is also a defining moment in Francesco’s spiritual journey.

So we get this very public rift in a small town. 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.

I want to tell you about one more encounter in Francis’ life that you might not already know about. In 1219, he 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 he 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 can be so easily manipulated in times of war. Yet Francis bore witness in the midst of all of that to another way. He was a true crusader because for him the “way of the cross” meant the way of mutual respect and conversation and humility, and trying to be an instrument of peace in a warring world. It meant sowing seeds of love instead of hate, and living with hope for the dawn of a new day.

I suspect most of you didn’t come here today to hear stories about St. Francis. We don’t worship the saints, but we try to see their lives as a witness that inspires us to do what they did: to see Jesus more clearly, and follow him more nearly, and love him more dearly. Francis models that in a way that I think is still relevant for twenty-first century Christians and it’s about more than loving our pets. We honor St. Francis when we care for this planet, this fragile earth, our island home and love all creatures of our God and king. But we also honor Francis when we risk interfaith dialogue with Muslim neighbors, and when we choose not to wield power over others but to bear the cross as a sign of hope and of our own humility and vulnerability. We honor Francis we commit ourselves to be instruments of peace by sowing love, and pardon, and union, and faith, and hope, and light and joy wherever we may find ourselves.

In today’s epistle reading, from Paul to the early Christians in Philippi, we heard these words:

If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

That mind of Christ does not mean we will all agree or vote the same. The mind of Christ is to be cross-bearers and peace-makers whether we are traveling to distant lands or reaching across the dinner table. We are called to be of one mind, which does not make us the same but as a contemporary Irish theologian puts it, “one love, we’re not the same…but we get to carry each other.”

May we not just pray the Prayer of St. Francis, but try to live it, always with God’s help. In a world where there is so much hatred and injury and discord and doubt and despair and darkness and sadness we have our work cut out for us. But we keep sowing seeds.