October 4, 2009
The Feast of St. Francis
The Rev. Tasha Brubaker Garrison
During my last year of college I took a course in nationalism. It was a fascinating course. On one of the first days we were asked to list the ways we identified ourselves. We each came up with our words and then we shared them. Often what pops into our minds first are the identities that hold the most weight for us. And while I don’t remember my list exactly or in the order I wrote them down completely accurately, I do have a decent recollection. My list went something like this: woman, white/Euro-American, Christian, Californian, student, only child and perhaps one or two more. Others list were similar or markedly different. Some included identities I didn’t claim though others would certainly see me from those angles. Today that list would probably look different, with Christian or Christian disciple probably being first given the pattern my life has followed and the way God has worked on my heart.
I wonder what the list would have looked like for St. Francis before he became St. Francis. Francesco Bernadone was a brash, spoiled youth. His life was that of privilege and wealth though not great education. The son of a successful cloth merchant he was surely the life of the party. He got into brawls, went off on a crusade or two seeking fame and adventure, and eventually spent a rather long time in jail in Perugia, I am not sure for what act of hooliganism. I imagine his list looked like this: man, rich Umbrian, adventurer, upper class, and perhaps a few more with Christian somewhere at the bottom. Like much of the world since Christianity became the official religion of Rome and other kingdoms, many if not most people were born into it and followed it as a matter of course—one among many identities. It was not an intentional, life-altering conversion as it was for the first generations. But that conversion still does happen. Francis came out of jail a transformed man intent on following the Gospel literally. If he had to list his identities I think it would have boiled down to one: disciple of Christ.
As legend goes his father was none to pleased with his son’s behavior and wanted him to settle down and take on responsibilities to the family and the business. The dénouement came in church when Francis quite literally stripped himself naked, tossing beautiful clothes and cloaks on the floor, and left to take up the life of an itinerant servant of the Gospel married to Lady Poverty. People did not know what to make of him. Surely many whispered behind raised hands and the eyebrows of upper crust Assisi reached new heights. What was that ridiculous child doing! Much the same was said about Jesus. Even his family was at a loss. And yet while confounded and repelled by his extreme change in lifestyle, people were also drawn to it and intrigued by it for there was a honesty, a courage, a purity of motive that shown through and reminded them of deeper truths and hopes. He was seen around Assisi barefoot, in simple, rough clothes, begging for food and preaching purity of heart and peace to all. He loved all creatures with an infinite love that reflected God’s love. He lived in companionship with animals as diverse as wolves and birds. He worked with his hands, swept and cleaned churches, cared for the sick and lepers, and sent food to brigands with greetings of affection. He spent much time alone in prayer. He owned nothing beyond the clothes on his back and as others joined his order things could be given or lent to them but they could have no money and no property.
In his literal following of the Gospel he clearly grasped one of the central points of Jesus’ teaching. More than any other topic Jesus speaks of the dilemma of money and wealth, even modest financial security, and serving God. He is clear that one cannot serve both. The pursuit of things, of money, pulls us into a way of life that places self at the center. It is that life that then tempts us even more strongly than we already are into jealously, rivalry, selfishness, power and control over others. Conversely, serving God does not mean that we are to have nothing at all for anyone and simply lie down and die. Rather, it is to use what we have modestly and first and foremost for the well-being of others. In caring for one another we ultimately will have enough for ourselves, but only if our hearts have God, love of God and service to all things created by God, at our heart and as our prime motivation.
There is an old saying for preachers. It goes like this: the Gospel is meant to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. It’s helpful as far as it goes. It can easily slide into giving guilt trips to those who are comfortable in worldly terms without recognizing that affliction comes in many guises, and it can treat the afflicted with pity and as perpetual victims without realizing that the marginalized in this world are often in need of empowerment and spiritual challenge as well. Francis embodies this tension for us. He afflicts, niggles, disturbs us and at the same time comforts and inspires us. No other saint is as popular as he. Outside of Mary who else more frequently adorns our gardens? We may be more at ease with him in a corner with the flowers where his radical message doesn’t confront us too often, but he is there all the same.
This tension of attraction and repulsion was present from the start of his ministry. In time a few joined with him. His witness grabbed the souls of enough men and women to turn them into a recognized movement within the Church. Yet many were bewildered. As he wrote in the Franciscan Rule of 1223: “The brothers shall have nothing of their own, neither house, nor land, nor anything, but as pilgrims and strangers in this world serving the Lord in poverty and humility, let them confidently go asking for alms. Nor let them be ashamed of this, for the Lord made himself poor for us in this world. Let this be your portion, which leads into the land of the living. Cling wholly to this, my most beloved brothers, and you shall wish to have in this world nothing else than the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” What he asked was difficult and utterly counter-cultural. I doubt I could give up all I own to follow him if he walked by today. I would fight desperately to keep my dog and my oboe, assuming Blaine wanted to go with me. In effect, I would become homeless in a world that sees the homeless as generally a nuisance to be dealt with and something we would rather not see. Talk about scary. But I sense that his vision would also draw me.
Now, I doubt that anyone is going to have a moment of stripping naked in worship today and starting a new life just like that of Francis. Though nothing is impossible with God. But perhaps by remembering and recalling the intense incarnation of the Gospel in Francis we can find the way into the next step on our journey into a life centered in and having at its center God. For myself it invites me to engage with more concentrated prayer the thought of joining an order, something that has long played at the edges of my heart even as I work to give more away, live with less and less, and try my very best to serve others. For you, it will be whatever it is that is poking at your edges.
As Sam Portaro writes: “ Traveling without encumbrance, these roving monks have been a constant reminder through the ages that we are not hostages to creation, but the blessed recipients of its bounty, and stewards of its riches. Francis and those who follow in his way preach to us by living as though the gospel were a reality; they live as though the kingdom of God were present, the victory of Christ over this world as real as the closing Dow Jones average and the morning commute. They are an icon of vocation for every Christian, searching us and compelling us to see what we might be, and to live it.