Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

Today my itinerant ministry took me to St. Stephen's Church in Westborough. Their rector is The Rev. Jesse Abell.  Below is the manuscript for my sermon on this last Sunday in October.

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Yesterday in his first annual address to Diocesan Convention, Bishop Doug Fisher encouraged our congregations to take risks and to do the small things. “There is no grand strategy coming out of Springfield,” he said. Rather, there is support and encouragement (and even sometimes prodding) for congregations to try many small things that together make a big difference. None of us alone will bring peace on earth, even if there is a Nobel Prize winner among us. But all of us can be, and all of us are called to be, instruments of God’s peace. With God’s help.

The prophet Joel is one of the twelve minor prophets. I've always thought that label a bit unfair—I mean if you are going to be a prophet wouldn’t it be much cooler to be a major one like Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel? Joel is one of the other guys. His prophetic challenge is only three chapters long and therefore easy to miss, practically hiding between Hosea and Amos. Virtually nothing is known of him except that his father’s name was Pethuel. We know that because he tells us that right up front. (Joel 1:1) From a scholarly perspective there isn’t much to say either, because Joel is difficult to date. Most scholars see it as post-exilic—that is, after the decades long captivity in Babylon. But there are some who argue it could be dated much earlier than that. So there is a lot we just don’t know.

Having said all of that, however, the truth is that both the lectionary and the New Testament writers notice Joel a lot. For a minor prophet he has a lot of heart. He’s the Dustin Pedroia of prophets, we might say. It is Joel, as you may recall, who literally gets to speak the first words of Lent to us each year on Ash Wednesday:

                   Blow the trumpet in Zion;
          sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Blow the trumpet in Zion;
                             sanctify a fast;
                   call a solemn assembly;
                             gather the people.
                   Sanctify the congregation;
                             assemble the aged;
                   gather the children,
                             even infants at the breast. 
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her canopy.  
(Joel 2:1, 15-16)

Today’s reading comes just a few verses beyond those familiar Ash Wednesday words. We heard about how God will remove shame and restore blessing. St. Paul quotes Joel 3:32 in the middle of his most important epistle, his Letter to the Romans. He is making the case there that no one will be put to shame who believes in Jesus. And then he says that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, just one generous Lord of all, for “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Romans 10:13) I want to linger with you on that promise for a bit, and suggest it is gospel work whenever and wherever this happens, this removal of shame and restoration of blessing. 

We all live with greater and lesser degrees of shame. Lewis Smedes has defined shame as “…a feeling that we will never measure up…that we are broken.”  Candidates for shame, he says, are guilt spreaders, overly responsible people, obsessive moralizers, compulsive comparers, approval addicts, people who never feel deserving, people stuck in the shadow of a parent and those condemned by bad memories or their dreams. Did I miss anybody? Shame can, and does, affect us all! Smedes goes on to say that the three most common sources of shame are our unforgiving culture, graceless religion, and unaccepting parents. (Well you knew that was coming, right: in the end it is surely the fault of our parents, especially our mothers!) More shame, more guilt…

Here is the thing though: no matter how counter cultural we are, no matter how healthy our congregation is, no matter how extraordinary our parents may be, it seems that it is still to some extent simply part of the human condition that shame enters in. It is not just nurture but nature. All the way back to the beginning in that Garden of Eden, remember what Adam and Eve felt when they finally notice that they are naked. They are no longer innocent; they feel ashamed. Shame is corrosive for the life of the Spirit and yet oddly (and sadly) the Church in no small measure seems to contribute to the shame that so many experience. I suspect that beyond his arrogance and hubris that is what is going on for that Pharisee in today’s gospel reading. Religion—the very thing that is meant to help us move out of shame and into new and abundant life—very often heaps on more shame.

So Joel insists that it is part of the creative, redemptive, healing power of God to cast off shame so that God's people can live more full and abundant lives, empowered by the Holy Spirit. And my people shall never again be put to shame. And then--just because we might not have been listening the first time--Joel repeats himself just one verse later for good measure. And my people shall never again be put to shame. When we let go of shame (or more accurately, when we allow God's amazing grace to wash over us and claim us as a holy people and allow ourselves to be embraced as God's beloved) then the Holy Spirit's energy is unleashed in new and surprising ways. Blessing is restored. New and abundant life is possible. 

Is it any surprise, then, that when it comes to describing that great outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost that it is once again to this minor prophet Joel that Luke turns—in fact to the very words we heard this morning?  I know it’s been twenty-three weeks now but do you remember that amazing day in Jerusalem, as the Holy Spirit comes blowing through the crowd like a rushing wind and it makes Luke think about Joel, and the removal of shame and the restoration of blessing:  

                    I will pour out my spirit on all flesh
                              your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.
                    Your old men shall dream dreams,
                              and your young men shall see visions.
                    Even on the male and female slaves,
                             in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

That vision, I submit to you, is ever held before us. It defines who we are and who we are called to be as one holy catholic and apostolic Church. The truth is that while we may not have a lot of history about Joel and the scholars call him a minor prophet he has a lot to say, a lot that the Church in our day needs to hear. The challenge of these words is not really in understanding them, I don’t think. It’s in living them. It is not in talking the talk, but in walking the talk.

Sadly this is what that pious pray-er in in today's gospel reading fails to see: his neighbor. He cannot see that they are bound up together; that the work of the Spirit is always breaking down walls, that love of God and love of neighbor are two sides to the same coin. If men are raised up while women are put down, you will always find shame, not blessing. If the young are disparaged at the expense of the old (or vice-versa) you can be sure it is not yet the work of the Spirit. As long as there are separate sections on the bus for white and black, or separate parts of town, life is not yet what God intends for it to be. The work of ministry is about tending to this new creation.

Maybe Joel’s greatest gift to us is an unintentional one: a reminder that ministry isn’t just about the big guys. Wherever ministry happens—in large ways and in small ways—wherever women and men, young and old, slave and free, gay and straight are being woven into this fabric of God’s new creation there is cause for celebration. This is what we dream of, and pray for, and work towards.  None of us can do it all, or alone—not a little prophet like Joel or a little church like this one or a little diocese like ours or a little denomination like our beloved Episcopal Church. But with God’s Holy Spirit working in us, we can do infinitely more than we could previously ask or imagine. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost

Today I was at Christ Church in Fitchburg, a wonderful parish served by the Rev. Bennett Jones, Rector, and the Rev. Carolyn Jones, Associate Rector. Below is my manuscript for today's sermon. 

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The Year C lectionary has us focused on Luke’s Gospel. Especially since Pentecost Sunday—twenty-two weeks ago—we have been moving slowly and methodically through Luke’s telling of the good news of Jesus Christ. Even for those who have been in church every single Sunday since May, however, you may find it difficult (as I do) to maintain the flow of the narrative. So to review: over the past five months we have been “on the move” with Jesus and his followers, making that long journey from Galilee to Jerusalem toward the cross – a distance of about 120 miles or so at a walking pace. Over these past couple of weeks, the conversation along the way has turned to prayer.

Now I’ll get to that, but let me just take a short detour and just say a word about this “people of the Way.” I think the Church in our day is beginning to rediscover the power of this metaphor, of our roots, of what it means to be a people who not only sit in beautiful church buildings like this one to worship Jesus, but who take up our cross to follow him into the world beyond these walls and into our homes, our schools, our workplaces, and the streets of Fitchburg. We, too, are called to be a people on the move—a people on the Way. Quite frankly that looks different in Holden or Westborough or the Brookfields than it does in Fitchburg or Gardner or Worcester. Context matters and one size will not fit all. But part of what I am learning in this new job is that even so, there is way more that binds us together than keeps us in our silos. We face similar challenges in a secularized consumer driven postmodern world, which means we need to be a people who are on the Way together.  Whatever else our challenges and our differences may be, we are called to share this work in the name of the risen, living Christ.

So back to this conversation that Jesus is having with his disciples about prayer. Last week, as you may recall, we heard the story about the healing of ten lepers in the region between Samaria and Galilee. Only one of those ten returned to say, “thank you.” And he was a Samaritan, Luke tells us with some incredulity! This encounter reminds us that gratitude takes us to the very heart of what Christian prayer is all about. Not too long ago, a friend of mine posted these words as his Facebook status: “Envy is the art of counting someone else’s blessings.” We might turn that around and remember that gratitude is the art of counting our own.  Or as Meister Eckhardt put it: “if the only prayer you ever say is thank you, it will be enough.”

So today, Jesus is speaking about persistence in prayer. He sets before us this parable of a persistent widow who wears out a corrupt judge in her pursuit of justice. It’s important to note that this is a parable, not an allegory. Sometimes people get confused. A parable is meant to help us think in new ways, to break through our defenses and to challenge our theological certitudes. Very often parables are meant to leave us scratching our heads and wondering what just happened. In an allegory, the characters are meant to stand in for something else: so if this was an allegory then the unjust judge would be like God. But that gets confusing and unhelpful and I don’t think that’s the point here. If God is like the unjust judge, then He just answers our prayers to get rid of us, because we have been so annoying. But the God who hears our prayers created us in love and has claimed us in love. God wants to spend time with us in prayer.

As for this widow, I suspect that most of us, when we hear about widows, tend to think of little old ladies. I have known my fair share of them, but none more influential on my own journey than my maternal grandmother – a woman who outlived her husband by decades. In fact I never knew my grandfather, who died when my mother was still a child. So my grandmother cut it very close financially, literally living from social security check to social security check. Yet never did I hear her complain about money. She was a strong and wise woman who counted her blessings every day. So maybe we picture someone like her.

But I wonder if it helps us to hear that parable in new ways by picturing “the widow” as someone more like, say, Julia Roberts in the film Erin Brockovich—who takes on a corrupt legal system because she’s is out of options. Or perhaps Sally Field in Places of the Heart, a young widow desperate to save her farm and get the crop in against all odds. Or even my own grandmother before I knew her, when my mother was still a little girl and she was raising her on her own. All of them embody determination and tenacity, perseverance and courage, and hope.  

The widow in our parable keeps coming to the judge to plead her case, day after day after day, because she has no other recourse. Until finally she does just plain wear that old judge out, who decides the case in her favor simply because she was such a pain in the neck. That woman will do whatever it takes, like a young widow raising her children alone or trying to hold onto the family farm or fighting against a corporation that is polluting this good earth. And so, Jesus asks: what would happen if people prayed with that same kind of determination and persistence?

What if we really did pray like that widow—as though our lives depended on it? It seems to me that much of what passes for prayer in the church is just plain anemic. Sometimes we pray as functional atheists, praying because we know that is what Christians are supposed to do. But deep down we aren’t really sure we expect much to happen, either in the heart of God or in our own hearts. But Jesus invites us to take note of this persistent widow and then says: pray like her.

That doesn’t mean we will always get exactly what we asked for. I sometimes joke when I am asked to pray for good weather or a Red Sox victory that I’m in sales, not management. But underneath the joke lies a more serious point. We are all in sales; not management. Ultimately God gets to be God. We can and should offer prayers of intercession and petition with persistence, but there is always a shadow side to such prayers, because if we aren’t careful it can start to be like we are telling God how to do God’s job!  So we can and should keep praying for that friend who has inoperable cancer. But the answer to that prayer may not be a miraculous cure. It might be that our friend finds the courage and trust to die well and with fewer regrets and after reconciling with an estranged family member. We may be praying that God would send an angel to guard over our friend in her time of need, but the answer to that prayer may be that God means for us to go knock on her door and hold her hand so that she will know the love of God through us. Such answers to prayer are not always the ones we want, but they may well be the ones we get. They are not evidence that God wasn’t listening, but rather, raise the question: are we?

The catechism of the Book of Common Prayer says that prayer is “responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” (BCP 856) That’s a pretty expansive definition of prayer. Many of us carry around an unexamined view of prayer that is pretty passive: something like being seated on the lap of a Santa-Claus God with our wish lists. So I think Jesus invites us to rethink this by putting this persistent widow before us today. Pray like her,he says. Pray like you mean it!

Next weekend Jesus will still be “on the way” and he’ll still be talking about prayer. I’ll leave that text for your rector, but here’s a preview of that coming attraction: there will be these two men praying in the temple, one a Pharisee and one a tax collector. The Pharisee prays in a way that isolates him from his neighbor—he even has the audacity to say out loud, “thanks that I’m not like that guy!”  In contrast, the tax collector offers a humble prayer that neatly summarizes the first three steps of a twelve-step program:  Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

As this week unfolds, I invite you to reflect on your own prayer life. There is not one right way to pray. But we can all improve our prayer lives if we link these three gospel readings together like beads on a prayer chain. Taken together, last week, this week, and next week we are invited to do three things toward that end: first, cultivate gratitude. On the worst of days, waking up in the morning is better than not. There is so much to be thankful for, so make a list, and count your blessings. Second, be persistent in prayer. Even when it feels like nothing is happening, keep at it. Be like that widow. And third, be humble. Remember that you cannot confess someone else’s sin; only your own. All of us fall short of the glory of God. Yet God’s grace is bigger than our failings.

Pray without ceasing, by thought and by deed, with or without words. But keep praying—as if your very life depends on it. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Tenth Leper

Today's gospel reading comes from the seventeenth chapter of Luke's Gospel. I have a Sunday off and am not preaching this weekend, but I'm reprinting a sermon below (slightly edited) that I preached the last time it came up in the lectionary, three years ago at St. Francis Church in Holden

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When asked to describe the nature of true worship, Martin Luther responded succinctly: “the tenth leper turning back.” Since celebrating the Feast of Pentecost twenty-one weeks ago, we have been “on the way” in Luke’s Gospel with Jesus and his followers, making our way to Jerusalem. Luke has organized these encounters that Jesus and the disciples have “on the way” to reveal something about the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim and establish.

Today, however, we seem to have taken a detour. Luke in fact begins by reminding us that we are still “on the way” to Jerusalem, but then adds that Jesus is now "going through that region between Samaria and Galilee.” We should pay attention! It’d be like saying that on the way from Worcester to Boston they stopped in Providence. It’s not really on the way!

There are three possibilities for such a detour. One is that Jesus has gotten lost, which is highly unlikely. In fact, since faithful Jews aren’t supposed to be anywhere near Samarian soil, it seems Jesus is making a point here. A second possibility is that Luke doesn’t have a very good sense of first-century Palestinian geography. Since all of the gospels, including Luke, were written decades after the events being recounted, it is quite possible that Luke has gotten his geography wrong. But most scholars think there is a far more likely third possibility (and I agree with them): that both Jesus (and Luke) know exactly what they are doing and a serious theological point is being made here. Jesus is stepping across a boundary where ethnic and religious tensions are palpable. Think about a detour to Belfast when tensions were highest between Catholic and Protestant Christians there or to Los Angeles after the Rodney King beating or maybe in East Jerusalem today, where tensions between Muslims and Jews remain intense. Luke is putting us on notice: while we are still “on the way” to Jerusalem, something important that reveals something about the Kingdom of God is going to happen in this little village…

Only Luke gives us that other famous Samaritan story, the one about the so-called “Good Samaritan.” For any self-respecting first-century Jew, of course, that phrase (Good Samaritan) would have been considered an oxymoron. Everybody knew that Samaritans represented that which was never good: that which was to be feared as unholy and polluted. Jesus has crossed the tracks, and is in the part of town where when you hit a red light you don’t stop. He’s traveling through that region between Samaria and Galilee when they come to a village.

Now in case anyone reading Luke’s Gospel has missed the point, we get hit over the head a second time by a 2x4 when Jesus encounters a group of lepers there. Not only is he in a place considered unclean, but now there are lepers everywhere. People with leprosy were considered to be ritually unclean and not allowed to come into contact with “normal people.” Hence the leper colonies where they lived away from the community. They keep their distance because coming into contact with someone who had this ailment would make you ritually unclean. In fact, as you approached a leper, they were required to shout out: “unclean, unclean” as a kind of warning, just to be sure that you don’t walk up to them accidentally to ask for directions. Imagine such a life: suffering not only from a terrible disease but being socially ostracized as well. And then notice that while they do approach Jesus, Luke makes it clear that they “kept their distance from him.”

Keeping their distance, they shout out to Jesus for mercy. And then Jesus sends them along to the priests, because the Torah says that before they can re-enter the community the priest must pronounce them ritually clean. As they turn to leave they find their skin disease is healed. But they still need that “ok” from the Temple authorities before they can re-enter society. They know that, and everyone with Jesus knows that; and besides Jesus has just told them to do that. So off they go.

But one of them turned back. Now it may be fair enough as you hear this to say, “Hey, cut the nine some slack because they are just doing what Jesus said to do.” But that really isn’t the point of the story. The point here is something that every parent I know tries to teach their children from a very young age. And even when you don’t know much about Middle Eastern geography or the ritual laws about leprosy, this part of the story easily translates from first-century culture to our own day: it doesn’t cost you anything to say “thank you.” They can get on their way soon enough. But their lives have just been radically changed. This is huge! And yet they have tunnel vision: must get to priests! Only one of them takes the time to turn back and say, “thank you!” And that is what Luther meant when he said that true worship is to be like this one. Or as Meister Eckhart put it: “if the only prayer you ever say is ‘thank you’ it would be enough.”

We all know this. But it takes practice. We are surrounded by miracles and you would have to be blind to live in New England in October to not notice. We are part of a faith community that nurtures and sustains our faith. We experience, even on the most difficult of days, blessing upon blessing. And so we gather here each weekend to share the Eucharist which means “thank you God.” We recite the ancient words that are rooted in the Passover story from Exodus, to thank God for bringing us out of the bondage of slavery and to the Promised Land. We gather to thank God for this good earth and the gifts of bread and wine. As we’ll say in a few minutes: “It is right and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere, to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”    

We come here to say our prayers in order to become more like the one who turned back, because it takes us to the very heart of the gospel. Ten were healed of their leprosy: their skin got better and they were all presumably pronounced ritually clean and allowed to re-enter society. But only one of them truly got well. He isn’t just “not sick” anymore. He’s alive. He's grateful.

Can I say it this way—“he’s saved?” That word makes Episcopalians squirm a little bit and I get why: it’s a little like the word “evangelism” or “stewardship.” Often when someone asks us whether or not we are “saved,” we may be tempted to run the other way. But that is in fact the Greek word used here: the root sozo literally means “to be saved” or “to be made well.” In the old King James Version it says, “Your faith has made you whole"—which of course is what salvation is really all about.

Being saved isn’t about something that happens to us after we die. The abundant life that Christ promises begins here and now and this story before us today suggests that we take hold of that new life—we are made whole—when we cultivate gratitude in our lives. That part, at least, of this reading is really very simple. Sometimes we come to Church and the readings make no sense immediately: our cultural and historical distance from them makes them hard to understand. We don’t immediately know that this village is not literally “on the way to Jerusalem” or that what we call Hanson’s Disease today carried with it a social stigma that isolated people from the wider community.

But really those are just details that make it real: the point of this story happens every day. It happens in the waiting rooms of ICU at our local hospitals; it happens around our dinner tables or picking apples or hiking up Mount Wachusett on an autumn day. Miracles abound. That doesn’t mean that life isn’t sometimes hard, although it’s hard to imagine any life more difficult than being a leper in a small Samaritan village. But too often we’re too busy moving on to the next thing; the miracles are all around us but we must get to work, must get to class, must get to the doctor, must get supper ready, must even sometimes get to church. Focused on the next thing, it’s too easy for us to forget to stop and say: “thank you, God.” So I think Luther had it just right: true worship is the one who returned. Discipleship is about cultivating gratitude, until we learn to become givers ourselves.  

Let me then close with the words of one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamotte. She says that she has two favorite prayers that she tries to pray every day: one in the morning and one at night. When she gets out of bed, she simply prays: “Help me. Help me. Help me.” And at the end of the day, before her head hits the pillow: “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Those are really good prayers. And they will take you a long way down the path of being made whole, if that is what you seek. They will take you a long way toward embracing the saving love that is in fact already ours in Jesus Christ.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Sermon for the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

The Feast of St. Francis falls on October 4, but an increasing number of parishes transfer this feast to the first weekend in October and include an opportunity over the weekend for the blessing of the animals. I am at St. John's in Sutton, this weekend where the rector is The Rev. Lisa Green. Below is a copy of the manuscript for the sermon I preached there.

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For more than fifteen years 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 next to nothing about him, but during my tenure we became close friends. By the time I left, I had taken to calling him "Frank." 

Many of you have, I’m sure, seen the familiar statue of St. Francis. He is pleasant enough; often some birds are there with him or some animal is sitting at his feet. 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 which is half-way between Rome and Florence. Assisi sits on a hill and it’s obvious the roads were built long before the automobile: so you park at the bottom of the hill and walk up. In many ways as you walk the narrow streets it feels like you are going back in time and one can almost imagine walking into good old Francesco, 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 your patron saint here, John the Baptist—the one who “prepared the way” for Jesus. He was therefore christened “Giovanni”—Francesco was a nickname given to him by his father. 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, a cloth trader who traveled regularly on business to France. Francesco means “little Frenchman”—presumably because of his dad’s love for all things French.  Francis may have even traveled with his dad on business trips in his teenage years; if he did and got to Paris then he would have seen a new cathedral being built there that would be named for the mother of our Lord, Notre Dame.

By all accounts, Francesco was a spoiled rich kid. It can happen when parents are upwardly mobile, who sometimes indulge their children so that they will have “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 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.

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 a knight were a commitment to largesse, i.e. to give freely, and to be always 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. Generosity and courtesy permeate the Rule of Francis: obviously those are gospel values but they were 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 Francis 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 it a “conversion experience,” but I prefer to think of such  experiences as “awakenings” because they remind us that it’s about what God was doing in his life, not the other way around. That is to say, at that cathedral font 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 began to “wake up” and when he did he began to rebuild the church in San Damiano, quite literally at first. The moment of ultimate conflict in Francesco’s life came when his father called in the bishop, a personal friend, to talk some sense into the boy who was beginning to take his faith too seriously. Part of what was happening is that he was being very generous with his father’s hard-earned money.

In the upper church in Assisi there is a fresco of Francis and his father. I stood in front of it for some time, 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.”

There is such humanity in that scene, long before Francis became a statue in the garden. Even if he is canonized, 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 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.

I wonder 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? With all due respect to Francis, as a parent I can’t help but 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. 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 in the town square. It’s a sad and heart-wrenching moment—at least to me it is, even if it is also a defining moment in Francis’ 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.

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.

It is another episode in Francis’ life worth pondering: 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.

What lessons does a man who lived nine hundred years ago have to teach us as twenty-first Christians? Most of you know already of St. Francis’ love for the earth and all creatures, great and small. He makes us want to be better stewards of God’s good gifts, I think. One of the great ironies of my time at St. Francis is that I am allergic to both cats and dogs and it was part of my job each year on this weekend to bless people’s pets. I made my way through it but I came to realize that in one sense we had it wrong: I could offer a blessing but the true spirit of Francis is in recognizing that those cats and dogs are already a blessing in the homes they inhabit; very much a part of the family in most cases.

But beyond that, it seems to me that we honor Francis when we start to become crusaders in the true sense: not as people who wield power over others but who bear the cross as a sign of hope and of our own weakness and vulnerability. 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. 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. 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.

If this congregation is anything like the one I served, I suspect that it is pretty unlikely that everyone here agrees on everything and holds hands at every vestry meeting and sings kumbaya. 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. But that’s never the last word. As instruments of Christ’s peace, as people who seek more to understand than to be understood, we also see Christ keeping his promise to be present wherever two or three gather together as well.

What this means, I think, is that w are called not just to pray the Prayer of St. Francis but to live it—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.  It is easy to get sucked into all of that. But our work is clear: as bearers of the cross we are called to be Crusaders for love and pardon and union and faith and hope and light and joy.

I like to imagine that at the heavenly banquet, Francis and his father have bridged the chasm that divided them in this world. And that it matters less in God’s presence who is right and who is wrong than that we are all broken, and more than that that we are all loved, more deeply than we can possibly imagine. In God’s presence, I imagine that the fatted calf is killed once more and the table is set as father and son embrace, and all is forgiven. In the meantime, we try to live the prayer of St. Francis, finding our way into God’s presence whenever we choose to embrace our vocation as “instruments of God’s peace.”