Thursday, September 30, 2010

Lord, Make Us Instruments of Your Peace

For the past thirteen years I have served as the rector of a parish that takes its name from a thirteenth-century Umbrian, Francis of Assisi. This weekend as we celebrate our patronal feast day, I am particularly mindful of his encounter with Sultan Elek-al-Kamil in 1219.

For those whose history of the thirteenth century may need refreshing: this was a time when Christians from Europe got it into their heads that the “Holy Land” (which was at that point part of the Muslim world) ought to be recaptured and Christianized. It was, in other words, the time of the Crusades. So Francis sails across the Mediterranean to Egypt where he is given a pass to travel behind enemy lines to meet this Sultan.

When he gets there, he stands in front of him to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ — with words. Trying to proselytize a Muslim in the midst of the Crusades was grounds for on-the-spot decapitation. But Kamil, a wise and moderate man, was impressed by Francis’ courage and integrity. So when Francis finished telling the Sultan all about Jesus, Kamil replied:

Listen, Frank: I have my own beliefs. And as a Muslim, I’m as firmly convinced of the truth of my own faith as you are of the truth of Christianity. So can we just let that be? But listen: why don’t you plan to stay here for another week or so and we can get to know each other a little better?

And so he did. And over the course of that time together, Francis became equally impressed by the religious devotion and compassion of the Sultan. In other words, each learned something real about the other beneath all the propaganda. And by all accounts, both of them were changed.

For Francis, the way to God was clear: the way to the Father is through the Son, and the way of the Son was about death on a cross outside of Jerusalem, a death that birthed a new creation. Francis travels to the Middle East because for him that good news brought about such radical change in his own life that he wanted to share it with others. He wanted to preach the gospel at all times, when necessary with words. (Even if in so doing he might lose his head!)

Yet, without sacrificing his own deeply held convictions, Francis also remained open and willing to listen to the deeply held convictions of the Sultan. That allowed him to engage a real person and not a straw man. He remained humble enough and patient enough and kind enough and loving enough to listen and not just talk.

This suggests to me a model for evangelism that is not just about telling other people what we believe and then insisting that they must believe as we do. Francis respected the Sultan’s dignity as a child of God. When we listen, we are saying something just as important about our faith as when we speak. We are also just as likely to be changed ourselves as to change anyone else’s mind. I cannot help but to wonder how the history of the world would be different if there were more Christians like St. Francis along the way (and fewer Crusaders) and more Muslims like Kamil (and fewer Jihadists.)

This takes us to the very heart of the St. Francis Prayer. It is too easy for us to pray that prayer and let it hover in midair. But as we allow the peace of Christ to cast out fear in our own lives we are called to let it move through us as we live into our vocation to be instruments of God’s peace in the neighborhood and beyond. We don’t need to go halfway around the world anymore to be peacemakers: many of us just need to take the risk of traveling halfway around the block. Where there is misinformation (and the bearing of false witness surely must in our day include spreading lies on the internet)we dare to speak truth. Where there is hatred, we sow love.

We honor Francis, I think, not only by blessing animals and being better stewards of God's good earth, as important as those are. We honor Francis, and serve Christ, when we risk authentic encounters with people of other faiths, especially Muslims.

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