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.”

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