Today is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. The parish I serve, that bears his name, was founded in 1952. We use the occasion of our patronal feast day to celebrate our birthday. At fifty we had a gala event that included welcoming back the third and fourth rectors of the parish as Preacher and Presider. Turning sixty will be a much lower-key affair, but this weekend we will nevertheless be celebrating Holy Baptism, commissioning this year’s confirmation class, welcoming our new bishop-elect to Holden, remembering the saints who have been interred in our Memorial Garden, and blessing animals. In December, St. James’ Parish in Great Barrington, will turn 250. By diocesan standards, we are still “just a kid.” Even so, I think we are starting to come of age as a congregation.
When I think about St. Francis—the person, not the parish—I think about four key aspects of his life that I believe have guided and should continue to guide St. Francis the parish as we continue to grow into the full stature of Christ. I think about animals, money, Muslims, and peacemakers.
Even people who are “spiritual, but not religious” love St. Francis because he loved all creatures of our God and king and because he was an environmentalist before it was even cool. The image of him in our gardens preaching to the birds is a great one and even as a guy with allergies to animal dander I have grown rather fond of the annual service of blessing the animals and seeing how important cats and dogs and all kind of other creatures are part of the lives of people's families. I think that as a parish that bears Francis' name, we need to continue to be caretakers of God’s good creation, not only in blessing animals, but in caring for this fragile earth, our island home.
The image of Francis taking all of his clothes off and renouncing his father's wealth on the public square in Assisi counters the rich young ruler in the gospels who is not able to do that, who walked away from Jesus sadly. Francis boldly embraces the radical call of the gospel as it relates to money. Naked we came into the world and naked we leave it. I think we need that story, but personally I know I am not nearly so radical as Francis. My goal is to pace myself so that I am divested by the time I die. I don’t confuse this with the bold witness of Francis, but I am inspired by his radical trust to trust God a little bit more one day at a time. And to remember that my stuff is not me, and that it very often gets in the way of remembering that I am a beloved child of God. I came across a great quote recently attributed to Francis that I had never before seen, but that goes to the heart of what his witness about wealth is all about: "What a person is in the sight of God, so much he or she is and no more." This is harder to remember when we are over-encumbered; Francis reminds us to lighten up (literally!)
In the midst of the Crusades, Francis went to the Middle East to speak with Sultan Malik al Kamil. Each shared with the other about his faith, at a time when people were killing each other in the name of God and to try to claim God’s holy land as their own. We need that kind of courage to be who we are, as followers of Jesus, while at the same time fully respecting the dignity of every human being. In encountering the other, we discover more about ourselves. We are, as Bono puts it so well, one- but we're not the same." Even so, we get to carry each other. We need, if we mean to be the Church in the decades ahead, to cultivate interfaith dialogues.
This commitment shows us how to become instruments of God’s peace. Whether or not Francis actually wrote the famous prayer attributed to him, he definitely lived it. And that work continues. Twenty-six years ago, the town of Assisi became a key place for global peace work, inviting people of many different faiths to come together to bear witness to the world that religion can be used as an instrument of peace, rather than an excuse for war and terror. My prayer is that St. Francis, Holden will be an outpost for Assisi in this work, doing our part to be instruments of God's peace locally. Perhaps the recent conversations we have begun about faith and politics will show us some ways to do this even if "thinking globally and acting locally" means that our work begins with helping to change the tenor of Town Meetings.
Focusing on stewardship of God's good earth and of our own stuff; encountering the other in mutual respect and without fear, toward the goal of being instruments of God's peace; I think these goals may keep us busy for at least a generation, until we reach 100.