Feast of St. Francis
Sunday, October 8, 2017
Rev. Rebecca Goldberg, Associate Priest
Francis, Troubador of the Gospel
Francis, the poor man from Assisi, has captured the imaginations of modern people like no other saint. Whether we are Catholic or Protestant, Jew or Muslim, Buddhist, New Age practitioner, humanist or agnostic, we find he is universally admired, emulated, and looked to as an example. In popular culture, he is often considered the patron saint of nature, and the friend of animals. Scores of films have been made about him, and countless books have been written about his life and times. Environmentalists, rebels, and peace activists claim him as their own. Francis statues adorn gardens and backyards and churches. Cities are named after him. Yet Francis is so much more than a gentle patron saint of peace and nature and creation. For St. Francis did nothing less than challenge, purify, and transform the church of his time. Francis brought new life to a church that was becoming complacent and entrenched in the violence, darkness, and corruption of the time. Francis lived out the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the spirit of radical hospitality, reconciliation, and joy that lifted up multitudes of people, and helped them to know purpose and joy in their faith again. And he continues to inspire people today.
Francis was born in 1181, in medieval Assisi. The son of a prosperous silk merchant, he lived a life of ease and comfort as a young man, helping his father in his business by day and attending parties and social gatherings with his friends at night. He and his friends were often seen making merry and singing in the streets of Assisi, after indulging in food and drink and general mischief. Like most of the other young men of his time, he was enamored of the chivalrous tales of knights in armor wooing and winning fair maidens. There was romance in the life of the soldier, who went off to war and accomplished mighty feats in battle. So it no surprise that the youthful Francis enlisted in the army to seek to achieve glory through acts of valor.
God had another call for him however. Shortly after he enlisted, he became ill, and began to rethink the direction of his life. He began to question his former manner of living, and became disillusioned with the battlefield, the promises of glory, and the achievement of worldly power. Sad and confused, he made his way home to Assisi. There God drew him into the life of conversion through an encounter with a leper that forever changed him, and an experience at the church of San Damiano where Jesus implored him to “rebuild” his church. With the same fervor he entered into the life of merrymaking in the streets of Assisi with his friends, he now wholeheartedly served Jesus Christ and Lady Poverty. He gave all of his possessions back to his father and gave up his share of the family business. In a dramatic scene, he strips himself of all his clothing before his father and stands naked before the bishop and the people of the town, claiming his dependence on God alone. From that time forward, he became detached from the desire to gain worldly power or influence, and dedicated himself to following the Lord Jesus Christ in simplicity, humility and poverty, serving all people as brothers and sisters. He gathered together a band of like-minded people who went about the countryside preaching the love of God, the goodness of creation, and the need to live a life of radical simplicity and dependence on God alone. The men became the Friars Minor, and the women, under the leadership of Clare, also formed a religious community. By the time of Francis’s death in 1226, the order had grown and had developed a formal rule and recognition by the Pope. As the rule of the order became formalized and the community began to grow, Francis feared that the order would become too comfortable, too secure, and would lose sight of the virtues of poverty of spirit and simplicity. Before his death, he exhorted his followers not to forget the aims of the order—to proclaim the Gospel of Christ, to spread the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood in the family of God, and to live simply. When he was dying, he asked to be laid down naked on the earth, a reminder of his mortality and return to the earth from which he came.
So what does Francis have to say to us today, so many centuries later, in a world so very different from medieval Assisi? Yet when we think about it, is our world really so different from that of Assisi in the late 12th century? I believe that both then and now, Francis shows us how as followers of Christ we are step out as bearers of peace and reconciliation between those who are at enmity. Both then, and now, Francis models a radical hospitality where all are welcomed as the family of God, lepers, the poor, the prosperous, the ill, sinners, saints, creatures of God, and the earth itself, which sustains us on our earthly journey. And both then and now, he calls us to embrace the way of the cross as the way of peace, joy, and transformation.
First, we are called to stand in the vulnerable place of being reconcilers in a sometimes hostile world. As part of his ministry of peacemaking, Francis journeyed at the height of the Crusades to meet the Islamic leader Sultan Malik-Al Kamil. He went on a mission of peace, to listen, to share the Gospel, and learn of the Sultan’s faith. At great danger to himself he journeyed across the battle lines to get there, and the two men met for a respectful, peaceful dialogue. Francis did not seek to overpower or convert him by force, only to share the faith that was in him and listen to the Sultan’s story. It is said that the two men left the meeting with great respect for each other. We, too, are called to be reconcilers and peacemakers, to stand in the courageous place of coming before our enemies bringing only hearts seeking to understand and heal, to listen, learn, and to be open to seeing the Holy in those we once feared. This is scary, and risky, and we can only do this by relying on Jesus, who goes behind us, before us, and within us.
Second, Francis calls us to live out the radical hospitality and welcome of God that are at the heart of the Gospel. He who had been so squeamish and fastidious by nature was enabled, by God’s grace, to embrace and kiss a leper, with no thought of the risk to his own health. He was moved with compassion and only saw the brother in Christ who was before him. From then on, Francis saw all people, and indeed, all of God’s creatures, as his sisters and brothers. Everyone was to be welcomed and embraced in the spirit of Jesus, our Lord and brother. He called all in his community to welcome the stranger, to embrace the leper, the poor, the outcast, for in doing so, we are welcoming the Lord Jesus himself. We, too, as the Body of Christ in the world, are called to offer his gracious welcome to all those who come to us, unconditionally, just as he loved us unconditionally and gave himself for us.
Finally, Francis so deeply identified with the Cross of Christ and took the grace and love he found there so deeply into his heart that he received the gift of the stigmata on his hands, feet and side. But even more miraculous than the physical, bodily marks was the joyful wounding he received in his devotion to Jesus and contemplation of the great love he showed for us in his passion and death. How could he not adore and worship a God who held nothing back, who loved us so much that he would even suffer death to draw us to himself? For Francis, walking in the way of the Cross meant sharing the compassion of the suffering Christ with all of his brothers and sisters. How, then can we take the gift of the Cross into our hearts and souls, and let its power teach us to love more deeply?
While I was reflecting on Francis this week, images of some of the more disturbing events of the past months, such as the bigotry and hate of Charlottesville and the wanton violence and death in Las Vegas last week, kept coming before my mind. Friends, our world is desperately in need of the message of St. Francis. We are living in divisive times, where people are being driven apart, rather than seeking to listen to each other and find common ground. Our culture glorifies violence as a solution to problems, and there is a disturbing lack of empathy in our relations with one another. It also seems as if we are losing our sense of belonging to a community, as more and more of us are living increasingly isolated, individualistic lives. We need each other; we need to seek to build loving, life-giving communities. We fail to do so at our peril, as we see from the events of the past weeks. And though it is important to work for legislation that seeks to stop violence, lasting change comes from transformed hearts.
Yet friends, don’t forget that nothing can ever separate us from the love of Christ. Despite the darkness, know that love, joy, peace, and truth will prevail. Never forget the hope that is in you. Take heart from the acts of courage and selfless love we saw from total strangers in the streets of Charlottesville and Las Vegas, from people who risked their own lives out of compassion and courage. Take heart from the example of Francis of Assisi, who taught us that perfect joy comes from being peacemakers and welcoming all people, and all God’s creatures, as bearers of the Holy One. Take heart from Jesus, whose cross conquered the power of evil and sin and death forever. Happy Francistide, everyone! May we, like Francis, be joyful troubadours of the Gospel. Amen.