HOMILY FOR THE FESTIVAL OF ST FRANCIS OF ASSISI, OCTOBER 4, 2015
We celebrate today St Francis of Assisi, who is remembered primarily for his affinity with nature and also for ceremonies of blessing animals, which are sometimes done on his festival day
He is the patron saint of Italy; he is known for his deep love of the Eucharist, and the Stations of the Cross, and for creating the Christmas crèche or Nativity Scene. He formed the Franciscan Order, and through his friend St Clare, the Order of Poor Clares, a women’s order also embracing poverty. There are as many as 150,000 people worldwide today who are professed as Franciscans, and many who are Franciscan in spirit.
A deacon, he had enormous admiration for priests, because of their role in presiding at the Eucharist. The Catholic Encyclopedia says: “So great, indeed, was Francis’s reverence for the priesthood, because of its relation to the Adorable Sacrament, that in his humility he never dared to aspire to that dignity.” So, true to form, he remained a deacon, perhaps the best known and most beloved deacon in history.
He died in 1226, about 800 years ago, and yet he still makes an impact, most recently in the fact that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, when he was elected Pope, chose the name Francis I, the first pope in history to use that name.
The new pope said that during the voting process, as it began to be obvious he was going to be elected, one of his fellow cardinals hugged him and said, “Don’t forget the poor.”
After the election Pope Francis I told the thousands of journalists that he took to heart the words of his friend and chose to be called after St. Francis of Assisi, “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation,” the same created world “with which we don’t have such a good relationship.”
“How I would like a church that is poor and that is for the poor,” he told the media representatives. Well, if our finances continue the way they are we too will be fulfilling St Francis’ mandate to be poor, but we would do well to imitate St Francis in a whole variety of ways.
Sick of token religious practice and the inequities of feudal society, St Francis of Assisi embraced Christ on the Cross and renounced his privileges and comforts and essentially spent the rest of his life living in chosen poverty. He became known as Il Poverello, the “little poor man.”
In today’s Epistle reading, St Paul says: “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world … a new creation is everything!”
Pope Francis, preaching on St Francis’ Day two years ago, quoted this passage saying:
“What does Saint Francis’s witness tell us today? What does he have to say to us, not merely with words – that is easy enough – but by his life?
- The first thing he tells us is this: that being a Christian means having a living relationship with the person of Jesus; it means putting on Christ, being conformed to him.
Where did Francis’s journey to Christ begin? It began with the gaze of the crucified Jesus. With letting Jesus look at us at the very moment that he gives his life for us and draws us to himself. Francis experienced this in a special way in the Church of San Damiano, as he prayed before the cross . . . On that cross, Jesus is depicted not as dead, but alive! Blood is flowing from his wounded hands, feet and side, but that blood speaks of life. Jesus’ eyes are not closed but open, wide open: he looks at us in a way that touches our hearts. The cross does not speak to us about defeat and failure; paradoxically, it speaks to us about a death which is life, a death which gives life, for it speaks to us of love, the love of God incarnate, a love which does not die, but triumphs over evil and death. When we let the crucified Jesus gaze upon us, we are re-created, we become “a new creation”. Everything else starts with this: the experience of transforming grace, the experience of being loved for no merits of our own, in spite of our being sinners. That is why Saint Francis could say with Saint Paul: ‘Far be it for me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’” (Gal 6:14).
Many people in our time seek God, but as Isaiah warns, a life of injustice and hypocrisy keeps people far from God and the life God gives, and thus according to Isaiah they are relegated to a shallow and token life. Instead, those who loose the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke – those who share their bread with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless poor – these shall call, and the Lord will answer; to such people God says “Here I am.” St Francis was that sort of person – very open to God.
St Francis is probably the world’s most famous poor person. With his radical openness and love of the poor and the marginalized, Francis epitomized the life of a deacon. People often tried to help him with clothing, etc., but he would invariably offer the coat or blanket to someone in poorer circumstances. In one famous moment, he encountered a leper, and instead of running away from the dreaded disease, he approached and even kissed the man. During one of the crusades, Francis supposedly made his way to the Middle East and gained an audience with the leader of the Muslim forces, appealing for peace. Francis had such integrity and authenticity, and was so obviously motivated by love alone, that the Sultan said that if all Christians were like Francis, there would be peace in the world.
As Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart.” Francis chose to be last and least and little, not to be heroic, but simply because it brought him closer to Christ, his one great love.
GK Chesterson, in his book about St Francis, speaks of the inexplicable things people do when they are in love. And he says that we can only understand Francis if we think of him as a “troubadour” of the Middle Ages and accept the fact that he loved God with the passion that we normally associate with romantic love. “He was a Lover. He was a lover of God and he was really and truly a lover of [people]; possibly a much rarer mystical vocation. St. Francis did not love humanity but [people], so he did not love Christianity but Christ.”
I saw a young couple recently and the woman had a beautiful leather purse decorated by brass initials, so, trying to make polite conversation, I said “very nice – your initials?” “No,” she said, as though I were stupid. “Your boyfriend’s, then?” “No! (again, as though I were completely stupid) – MK stands for Michael Kors! Everyone knows that!” I wanted to ask (but didn’t): “So does that mean you’re in love with Michael Kors?”
We DO seem to be in love with corporations, because we constantly sport their logos as though we were proud representatives of these enormous companies, as though we were being rewarded in some way for doing their advertising for them.
We willingly advertise for corporations, but would we advertise for God? Would we proclaim our love of God the way that young woman proclaimed her identification with Michael Kors (whoever that is)?
In our world, we are keen to put our stamp (if not our initials) on things. We want to say “Look at me!,” or “I did that,” or “I deserve some recognition,” desperate for our 15 minutes of fame, but the Christian way, as exemplified by St Francis, is not to draw attention to ourselves, but to serve as anonymously as possible. In fact, you could argue that, if is not done in that spirit, if is not a truly Christian act, but simply a function of the ego. For St Francis, we seek not so much to be loved as to love, and it is in giving that we receive.
Francis offered the world a spirituality rooted in humility and expressed in a love that centered on God and made the life of Christ come to life in him. Francis’ humility shone through comments like this: “If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.”
Francis once said: “Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that have received–only what you have given.” In our self-centered, “me-first, me-only” culture, Francis is a helpful corrective. He reminds us, somewhat painfully, that Christians are called to be givers, not takers.
St Francis is one of the great reformers of the Church. Like the leaders of the Reformation, his aim was to simplify, to recover the spirit and presence and lordship of Jesus, to follow the way of Jesus with reckless faith, absolute trust, and unwavering obedience. He not only taught the way of love, he lived it – he embodied it. He became “eager to love” as Richard Rohr says. That is how Francis “advertised” for God.
I have always been a closet Franciscan – a Franciscan in spirit – because his life spoke to me in its simplicity and honesty – I loved how down to earth he was. After all, I’m just a guy from Saskatchewan, not some sophisticated elitist and have never felt comfortable among the rich and the powerful. St Francis revealed that Christianity is something that you do, a life that you live, not just something interesting and compelling to talk about.
It sounds beautiful, and certainly the new Pope bearing his name is very compelling, but the way of St Francis, like the way of Jesus is hard, and the road is narrow. The way of the world today demands that we have less empathy and compassion, more competition and self-interest. What we preach in church flies in the face of what people are hearing in their everyday life – on TV – at work – from friends. Advertisements offer a constant and convincing barrage of messages urging you to indulge yourself, and lose yourself in the false promises of materialism.
The image of St Francis disposing of his worldly possessions, and walking about the countryside in his tattered brown habit, begging for his bread and communing with the birds, sounds foolish, reckless, and irresponsible to modern ears. But let us be reminded that the New Testament calls us to be prepared to be “fools for Christ.”
“Your kingdom come” we pray to the Lord. Really? Careful what you pray for! What would that kingdom look like? Talk about counter-cultural! But Christians are encouraged to hope that the way of Jesus, because it is the way of life, will become present reality, not just future hope, that its influence will be felt and experienced, and once again become the motivation for a majority of people to live by, and it will be a much better world when that happens.
“We are all creatures of one family.” St Francis (along with his modern namesake Pope Francis I), calls us to a radical humility in relation to the world (to the entire created order, and especially to other people), a passionate love of Christ that expresses itself in compassion for people, reverence for nature, willingness to serve the Lord with gladness, and a great generosity of spirit. May we embrace that spirit, and become instruments of peace, and bearers of love, hope and joy.
The Venerable Grant Rodgers, Rector
Isaiah 58: 1—10 Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practised righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgements, they delight to draw near to God. ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke,to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
Galatians 6.14–18 May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.
Matthew 11.25–30 At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’