St. Francis heard the words that Randy just read. And after he heard them – as we just heard in Peg’s story. Does anyone remember what he did? He took off his clothes!
One of the greatest gifts St. Francis offers us is that in listening to scripture, God can speak a particular message. When he heard the words: “Cure the sick; raise the dead; cleanse those with a skin disease; cast out demons…Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff…” (pause) As soon as the service was over, Francis got rid of his shoes, cloak, pilgrim staff, and empty wallet.
Now, I’m not saying that we should do what he did; that we should rid ourselves of our shoes, clothing, and more when this service is over. Keep your clothes on! (We’re not that kind of church.)
But, what I am saying is that one of the lessons St. Francis offers us is that scripture is an instrument that God uses to communicate with our hearts. He challenges us to listen to the words of scripture not merely with our minds – or worse, inattentively (because maybe we’re thinking about the next thing we need to do – but to listen in such a way that we open ourselves to actual communication with God.
Francis took to heart that God uses scripture to speak to us within the particularities of our lives. That is exactly how God can continue to use scripture to speak to each and every one of us. This wasn’t just for St. Francis. He was not unique in God’s desire to communicate with him. That’s God’s desire for all of us. (And not only Christian scripture – but all holy texts are a way that we can hear the voice of the Divine to us.)
How many of you have seen “Brother Sun, Sister Moon?” It’s a beautiful movie by Franco Zeffirelli – highly romantic! How could you not fall in love with him after seeing that movie? In college, seeing that movie, as I watched it was as if Francis became a good friend, a flesh and blood spiritual guide. He’s always felt closer to me than even Jesus. There’s something so palpable, so real, so human about Francis.
His witness challenges me like no one else. His is not a lukewarm or complacent Christianity, or a Christianity that has sold out to any political agenda. He did not sell out to his family’s business. His faith was dynamic, transformative faith; His faith points the way in which we can have a living dynamic encounter with God.
There are four areas that I’d like to touch on about how Francis can be a model for our lives; a Christianity rooted in the heart; radically open to hearing God in scripture, in poverty, in Creation, and in the midst of our greatest personal fears, repulsions and judgments.
First, as I spoke about earlier, I’d like you to consider the next time you hear words of scripture, allow it to be an invitation to really listen to what God wants to say to you. Historical, literary, and other academic approaches can be helpful to get the context of a passage. The power of scripture can speak to our hearts. Francis’ Christianity is a witness to how scripture can speak to our hearts.
Since walking the hills of Umbria 800 years ago, St. Francis of Assisi has captured the hearts not only of Catholics, but Christians from all denominations; not only of Christians, but people of other religious traditions; and not only religious people, but people who do not consider themselves particularly religious. There’s something about St. Francis that is universally appealing.
Second, for Francis, voluntary poverty allowed him to experience the fullness of life in God. The son of a wealthy merchant, he lacked for no material thing. But, having endured the horrors of war and returning home seriously wounded, what he did lack was peace of mind. He had a lot of time to reflect on his life. By observing his own very wealthy family, he knew that riches doesn’t necessarily bring happiness. He saw that their riches and his privileges created suffering for the laborers in their factories; that his riches were built on the backs of poor peasants.
By relinquishing his wealth, Francis opened himself to a life dependent on God’s grace. It also helped him become more generous. He loosened his grip on his belongings. If he walked through the streets and saw someone in need of a cloak, he would give his. (He must have gone through a lot of cloaks!) That was his spirit of generosity. Seeing someone in need in the moment, not turning away, asking “What can I do to help?”
We may not be called to a life of voluntary poverty. Especially if you have children, it’s not something you want to do. It’s not going to work in 2023. We all need a certain amount of money to survive. You may be familiar with a study that essentially concluded that there is a sweet spot for finances – more than a certain amount doesn’t help; less than this amount and life is really difficult.
What Francis’ example might lead us to ask, Is there something we need to surrender to more fully receive God’s grace? Do we hold our possessions loosely enough that we are willing to give generously, to give up what we have, to those in need? Do we, like Jesus in today’s scripture and Francis, allow our hearts to be moved with compassion by the needs of others? Francis didn’t let go of his belongings imply to feel non-attachment, but to be able to generously share others. The question is how tightly do we hold onto our belongings? Are we willing to give them up for when we see someone who could use something we have? Are we willing to trust God enough that if we give up something we have that we will be provided for? This is a significant spiritual practice and one you might try on.
Third, How do we see nature the way Francis did? Jessica Keating writes, “The saint of Assisi saw everything in creation—every bird, every flower, every plant, every blade of grass, every animal, every worm—as a marvelous, particular object of wonder, a vestige of the Creator, a brother or a sister that has been loved into existence by God.” This sense of kinship, of family connection to the creation; the creation as part of us and part of the family of God.
One story tells of Francis taking his simple lunch beside a brook. He sat beneath a shady tree, propped himself against a rock, and watched the water go babbling toward the sea. Between mouthfuls of food, he would exclaim: “What a treasure we have here, what a treasure!”
It is this consciousness that we need so much right now. Francis leads us into wonder and a sense of our deep interconnectedness and ability to communicate with the creation. We can hear the voice of God and communicate with God through the creation. At a time of a true ecological crisis that we humans have created, St. Francis challenges us to see and respond from our hearts to the divinity inherent in nature.
Fourth, Francis reveals the God who is present in the midst of our greatest personal fears, revulsions and judgments. One day, while crossing the Umbrian plain on horseback, Francis unexpectedly drew near a poor leper. The sudden appearance of someone he had been taught to fear, someone with sores all over his body, filled Francis with disgust. (He was making a judgment.) He instinctively retreated, but then paused, got a hold of himself, turned around, dismounted, embraced the man with leprosy, and gave him all the money he had.
According to St. Bonaventure, an associate of Francis’, Francis was ashamed of how repulsed he was by the deformity of lepers. He knew he was making judgments, but didn’t give into them. Instead, to humble himself, St. Francis made a point of embracing and serving people with leprosy.
In one instance, a leper approached Francis and begged to kiss the friar’s feet. Bonaventure says that Francis returned the gesture with a kiss and, instantly, the leper was healed.
The Holy Man of Assisi shows us that some of the most fertile ground for our spiritual growth is to face our fears, embrace the people we judge or draw back from, serve and generously share with those we consider “other.” Francis gives us a template for our spiritual growth.
Francis, who only lived to 44 years of age, shows us that it is possible to “put on Christ,” to transcend our judgments, and to hear the creation speak. (Spiritual practices that just happen to be the topics of my last three sermons.) St. Francis shows what is possible for us when we keep our hearts focused on Christ. He embodies a Christian path that is within our reach.
There is so much more that could be said about this remarkable man, his whole-hearted devotion to God, and what we can learn from him. He is the subject of volumes of poetry, stories, reflections, theological treatises and of countless paintings, statues, music, movies and more. He’s so lovable and challenging, so very challenging. Perhaps, what might be most powerful, is to hear Francis’ own words -some challenging guidance he gives his first companions from a text called “The Earlier Rule”:
“With our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind, with our whole strength and fortitude, with our whole understanding, with all our powers, with every effort, every affection, every feeling, every desire and wish let us all love the Lord God…Who has given and gives to each one of us our whole body, our whole soul and our whole life…Who did and does everything good for us…Therefore, let us desire nothing else, let us want nothing else, let nothing else please us and cause us delight except our Creator, Redeemer and Savior…Who is the fullness of good, all good, every good, the true and supreme good…Wherever we are, in every place, at every hour, at every time of the day, every day and continually let us…hold in our heart and love, honor, adore, serve, praise and bless, glorify and exalt, magnify and give thanks to the Most High and Supreme Eternal God Trinity and Unity.” Amen.