Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Feast of St. Francis

This morning, on the Feast of St. Francis, I am at All Saints Church in Worcester.

I’m sure that many of you have seen the familiar statue of St. Francis in a garden, perhaps even in your own gardens: he’s keeping a serene eye on things; and often some birds are there with him or some animal is sitting at his feet. He looks so peaceful.

For fifteen years I served the only parish in this diocese that takes its name from Francis. When I arrived I didn’t know much about him, but over the course of those many years and reading several biographies of him and a pilgrimage to Assisi, I feel like I know him a little bit, which I think is the reason that I was invited to be with you today. In fact as the people of St. Francis would tell you, I took to calling him “Frank.”  So I want to share with you a bit today about my old pal…

Francis died eight hundred and nineteen years ago today. The saints of the church are not remembered when they were born but rather when they enter eternal life. He was born in 1182, and baptized in the cathedral font of Assisi, an Umbrian town half-way between Rome and Florence that sits up on a hill. 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.”

He was given the nickname “Francesco” by his father, Pietro, 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. In the latter part of the twelfth century, Assisi was moving from a feudal society to a mercantile society and Pietro was, like the Jeffersons all those centuries later, “movin’ on up.” Francis may have even traveled with Pietro on business trips in his teenage years. If he did and he got to Paris, then he would have seen a new cathedral being built that was to be named for the mother of our Lord, a little place called Notre Dame.

By all accounts, Francesco was a spoiled rich kid. It can happen when parents are upwardly mobile and they want to indulge their children in the “opportunities” they didn’t have. His father clearly expected his son to follow in the family business. Something happened, though, 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, like all of us he was also shaped by his life experiences, and these military values clearly played a role in shaping the person he was becoming. Generosity and courtesy permeate the Rule of Francis; they are obviously gospel values, but they were reinforced by his training as a knight.

So Francis has 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,” but I prefer to think of such experiences as “awakenings”—because they remind us that it’s about what God was already doing in his life. He had already been “claimed and sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever” at that cathedral font all those years earlier. It wasn’t God’s fault that he was asleep to that reality for so many years! In any event, he finally begins to “wake up” to this reality and when he does he takes the vision literally at first, as he begins to rebuild the church in San Damiano, which had fallen into disrepair. Eventually however he comes to see this process of repairing and rebuilding the Church as something much bigger.

Francesco starts to become really generous. The problem is that the money is giving away isn’t money he earned, but money that came from his father. The moment of ultimate conflict between father and son comes when Pietro makes a call to his personal friend, the bishop, to ask him to talk some sense into the boy who was beginning to take his faith too seriously.

In the upper church in Assisi there is a fresco that captures the horrible falling out Francesco and his father had in the public square of Assisi. Perhaps some of you have known the turmoil and sense of shame and betrayal that both parent and child must have felt that day as Francesco went, shall we say, “al fresco.” He takes off all of his clothes and hands them to his father, saying, “I don’t want any of your stuff anymore. I’m done with you.” The bishop is trying to cover Francis up. There is such humanity and pathos in that scene, long before Francis became a statue in our gardens. (He does not look so serene.) Even if he is now 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 this 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. It’s a very old story.

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 long lost son, Francesco’s father seems in the fresco to be almost recoiling, pulling away from the son he can no longer understand. 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 to say 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. And not just for father and son (not to mention for the bishop) but for all of us who are eavesdropping on a family matter being played out in the town square.

If you ever get to Assisi stand by that fresco for a while. It’s a sad and heart-wrenching moment. And yet it is so clearly a defining moment in Francis’ spiritual journey. It seems the two never reconcile. Yet Francis spends the rest of his life trying to live the prayer he may or may not have actually written, to be a servant of God’s peace, an agent of reconciliation by seeking more to understand than to be understood.

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 he is—late thirties at the time. 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 encounter 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. He listens and treats the stranger with dignity and respect. Neither one converts to the other’s religion but both are in some deeper way changed for good. 

The word crusader literally means “the one who bears the cross.” In the twelfth century and to this very day, however, that word often 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 in the right sense of that word; 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 when love triumphs over evil.

What lessons does a man who lived nine hundred years ago have to teach us as twenty-first Christians here in Worcester? Most of you know already of St. Francis’ love for the earth and all creatures, great and small. It’s become a practice to bless animals this weekend and also to focus on our more cosmic relatives: brother sun and sister moon, and this fragile earth, our island home. We pray that somehow Francis might awaken in us this awareness that our planet is in trouble and we need to listen not to the rhetoric of politicians owned by the special interests but to real scientists with hard evidence.

We are called to hear our own names called by the living God to share in the work of rebuilding the Church. Not just Greg and Jose but all of us. Not just the people of All Saints but the folks across town at St. Mark’s and St. Matthew’s and St. Luke’s, where they are welcoming a new priest-in-charge this morning; and at St. Michael’s where they will celebrate a new ministry this afternoon with a priest-in-charge raised up by this parish. God is doing something new in this city, even now; can you perceive it?

I think we are called to become crusaders in the true sense of that word: 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 need to find ways to do that as witnesses to the gospel in a nation obsessed with guns – not to go out hunting deer but with assault weapons meant for the battlefield, claiming the lives of our young people from Newtown to Roseburg. Lord, make us instruments of thy peace…

Like Francis, we do well to remember that sometimes the hardest work of reconciliation is in reaching across the kitchen table to heal the rifts between father and son, or mother and daughter, or brother and sister. And if this congregation is anything like the one I served for fifteen years, then 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 requires us to reach across those tables, because the truth is that wherever two or three gather together in Christ’s name, there is sure to be conflict. Finding the right pace in a season of change is never easy, and inevitably things will go too fast for some and too slow for others. 

As bearers of the cross in a world where this is so much hatred and injury and discord and doubt and despair and darkness and sadness,  may we sow love and pardon and union and faith and hope and light and joy. Some of our encounters will lead to reconciliation, thanks be to God—or at least to deeper understanding, like Francis’ encounter in the Holy Land. Others will leave us deeply wounded, like that awful scene between father and son in the piazza. But through it all, our calling remains, a prayer we dare to pray not only with our lips but with our lives:  Lord, make us servants of thy peace.

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