The Feast of St. Francis September 30, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.”
We need some good news this week. What a mine-field of triggers it has been for so many of our sisters and brothers. So much pain, so much anger. So much callous disregard on display. And so much courage, so much humility, so much gentle Christ-like strength. Lord have mercy upon you and all of us.
When Dorothy Day was alive, rumors of her eventual canonization into the communion of saints arose from time to time, to which she apparently responded, “There are not getting rid of me that easily.”
I fear that in some ways St. Francis of Assisi has been gotten rid of that easily. Bob Ross-like paintings of him with birds and dogs. Cement statues in the garden. Pretty thoroughly domesticated. Even here, we here will celebrate the venerable saint with our children and a blessing of our kitties at the end of Mass.
And that is okay. His all-consuming love of the whole creation is a much more age appropriate way to introduce Francis than talking about how he inaugurated his ministry by stripping to his hair shirt (and only his hair shirt) wandering off into the snowy Umbrian forest. And joy, frolicking even is a Franciscan virtue, so it is not disingenuous, it doesn’t cheapen his blessed memory, just so long as we don’t stop there. Because his joy and frolicking often was best expressed in the face of the punishing asceticism he inspired and called for.
In the spirit of a quote attributed to St. Francis, “Preach the gospel, use words if necessary,” this will a bit briefer than usual. (Gotta to leave time for the kitties). I spent some time with G.K. Chesterton’s biography of Francis. It is full of devotional fervor and grace, but it was not written as a hagiography; it does not put him on a pedestal, though the praise through-out is befitting a saint. He also did not write it as a history, a recollection of facts and anecdotes, though the real life and times of Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, dubbed “Francesco” by his cloth merchant father, is clearly and professionally rendered. No. Chesterton tells the story of Francis in the form of Francis’ life, that is as a love story. His biography is a romance. Because that is the story of Francis; a wild story of extravagant love. Not love for an abstract God or abstract love for a holy idea, but open-hearted, open armed love the flesh and blood human being named Jesus, and everything else. Chesterton writes, “He was a troubadour, he was a lover, he was a lover of God, and was really and truly a lover of men, possibly a much rarer mystical vocation.” He didn’t love nature, he loved the nature of everything he encountered. He didn’t love forests or trees, he loved that tree, and that one. He didn’t love humanity, he loved humans. He didn’t love Christianity, he loved Jesus Christ.
Love is the very beating heart of Christianity. Our very image of God, the Trinity, is f a swirling cloud of love; the love of a Father for a Son, a Son for a Mother, the Spirit intertwining, begetting, becoming, loving. And not, as I said before, an abstract love, Christian love is not abstract love, it is rooted, its source and end, the subject and object of Christian love all flows from real, visceral love of God, of a human being, of God and Human made one in Jesus of Nazareth, a real person, in a real place, in real time. Jesus was born, had a mother, broke her heart. He knew His God as Abba, the Aramaic diminutive form of father: daddy or papa. He had friends, many friends upon whom He depended for life and whom depended on Him for love. Francis knew this in every cell of his body, he loved God in Christ, loved Him as a parent loves a child, a child their parents, as a friend loves a friend, as lovers love each other, as we love our land, our dog, kale, the hummingbirds in the tithonia. In this, Francis found his sainthood, for he loved his brothers, his friends, the lepers he fed, the wolf who ate the villager’s sheep, the birds to whom he preached, he loved them with exactly the same devotion, exactly the same fervor and expectation as he loved God. Because in Francis, there was not holy/profane barrier, no sacred v. secular separation, no flesh as opposed to spirit; it was all of God, and he loved it, The Gospel of our Lord is love… the sainthood of Francis emerged as that love utterly infused his being, pushing every other concern on earth or in heaven aside.
Fr. Sam Portaro was the Episcopal chaplain at the University of Chicago. He wrote, “In Francis, as in Jesus, the gospel was made flesh and dwelt among us, an incarnation impossible to ignore, so tangible and physical it compels a response.” In Francis, that response was the complete and open love for that incarnate God and all that flows from that Creative, Incarnate God, for everything. Potaro continues, “In a world increasingly material, it is the most powerful way – perhaps the only way – to communicate truth.” That is what St. Francis gave to us, truth communicated in, by, for and of love.
Love is true. It cannot not be denied. It cannot be compelled. It is the purest, most valuable gift we have to give; it is the purest, most valuable gift we have ever been given, and it is as inexhaustibly and infinitely abundant as it is priceless and precious. A pearl of the greatest price freely given to all, one being at a time.
Because you don’t live a life of ascetic rigor for an idea. You don’t sacrifice yourself for a concept, or a doctrine. Marines in a fighting hole or sailors on a burning ship are not fighting for “democracy,” they fight for the man or woman beside them, or the ones they are thinking about back home, protecting them. Whether that is right or wrong is a different matter entirely, what I am talking about is what stirs the human heart, and that is love of those you share your life with; that is what brings the God in you to the surface, what brings your Christ nature to the fore, which steers you on the way of and to Jesus. Emotive love.
This is a place that we in general struggle, Episcopalians that is. We don’t talk much about a personal relationship with Jesus like our evangelical brothers and sisters often do. In the Examination of Candidates in the Baptismal rite, you were asked “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your savior?” That is about the closest it comes in the BCP, a call to that one-on-one really real relationship with Jesus. You see, that is what Francis had; as real, as personal, as living and alive and intimate a loving relationship with Jesus as is possible for one person to have with another, living or dead, real or imagined. St. Francis experienced that kind of love and through the community that he and St. Clare founded, through the rigorous disciplines he developed, he shined that real, personal love on the whole world, and called us to it, to the love of Jesus.
I really wrestle with that corner of my faith, my relationship with the Living God in Jesus Christ. My return to the Christian faith was certainly delayed because I couldn’t determine if such as personal relationship was a prerequisite to call one’s self Christian. I have since learned that it is not, and I have also learned, more recently, that while it is not required, it is desirable. Maybe even desperately so. I get glimpses of it sometimes, what love for that Man could be, maybe, I’ve been trying to. It is fleeting for me, and not very comfortable. I think too much sometimes; I like loose ends tied up. Personal relationships are emotional, effectual, unpredictable, unscripted. They are messy. They inspire praise music! Heavens to betsy! And that exact kind of personal, loving relationship of a one human being with Jesus Christ is what carried little Francesco from martial and mercantile excess straight into the loving embrace of God, and that relationship was so close, so palpable, so real that might have helped to carry Europe out of the feudal mess that was the dark ages. (Well, some would say it did, that St. Francis was a morning star of the Renaissance).
So don’t worry, we’re not going to break out the guitars and put our hands is the air, and I am not going to start preaching personal relationship as the one and only path to the Savior. But when you hear someone say something about it, try not to dismiss it out of hand. You might even open just a tiny flap of your heart to the idea of it. Because in the dark night of your soul, in the inky black moments of your life, in the wake of a week like we all just made it through, a solid Christology is maybe not what will give you comfort, is maybe not what will save you from the abyss. Love for another could do that, real, living, passionate love for Jesus can. That is the good news of St. Francis. That is the good news of Jesus Christ, too. AMEN.