St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Feast of St Francis

Ser­mon preached by Fr Jeff Park­er at St. Luke’s Enmore, 6th Octo­ber 2019

On this feast of St Fran­cis I am taken back in my ima­gin­a­tion to one of the most mem­or­able moments of my life, one that I had nev­er dreamed would hap­pen to me.  This was in 2009 when Michelle and I were on an over­seas trip we made to Italy and we found ourselves in Assisi.  And there I was at the tomb of St Fran­cis.  Only for a rel­at­ively short time – organ­ised bus tours don’t wait for Chris­ti­an devo­tion these days.  But it was a pro­foundly holy time spent in a holy place, some­thing I’ll nev­er for­get.  

Up to that time I’d had a con­nec­tion with St Fran­cis through the Fran­cis­can Com­munity at Stroud which I had vis­ited at vari­ous times over about 20 years for vari­ous reas­ons as a lay per­son and then as a cler­ic in the Dio­cese of New­castle.  So being there in silence in Fran­cis’ tomb was so awe­some I find it dif­fi­cult to describe.                               

We live in times today when the life and the min­istry of St Fran­cis are incred­ibly rel­ev­ant and instruct­ive for human­ity.

I hadn’t thought much about it before pre­par­ing for today, but I don’t believe that it’s a coin­cid­ence that the cur­rent Pope has taken the name of Fran­cis.  What were the main themes of Fran­cis’ life of faith?  Address­ing inequal­ity, love and care for the anim­als and peace­mak­ing and inter­faith under­stand­ing.  All huge mat­ters of con­cern to us today.

Let’s look at each of these briefly.  I’m that in this par­ish you have heard all these stor­ies before, but I’ll men­tion them any­way, as some of you might not.

In 1219 St. Fran­cis and Broth­er Illu­minato accom­pan­ied the armies of west­ern Europe to Dami­etta, Egypt, dur­ing the Fifth Cru­sade.  His desire was to speak peace­fully with Muslim people about Chris­tian­ity, even if it meant dying as a mar­tyr.  He tried to stop the Cru­saders from attack­ing the Muslims at the Battle of Dami­etta, but failed. After the defeat of the west­ern armies, he crossed the battle line with Broth­er Illu­minato, was arres­ted and beaten by Arab sol­diers, and even­tu­ally was taken to the sul­tan, Malek al-Kamil.

Al-Kamil was known as a kind, gen­er­ous, fair ruler.  His goal was to estab­lish a peace­ful coex­ist­ence with Chris­ti­ans.  After an ini­tial attempt by Fran­cis and the sul­tan to con­vert the oth­er, both quickly real­ized that the oth­er already knew and loved God. Fran­cis and Illu­minato remained with al-Kamil and his Sufi teach­er for as many as twenty days, dis­cuss­ing pray­er and the mys­tic­al life.

So, des­pite dif­fer­ences in reli­gion, Fran­cis demon­strated that people of pray­er can find com­mon ground in their exper­i­ences of God.  Con­trast this to the way that people of vari­ous faiths demon­ise each oth­er these days.  Not all, but it hap­pens far too often. Even some­times with­in our own denom­in­a­tion.

St Fran­cis saw the birds and anim­als as fel­low trav­el­lers in this world, cher­ished by God as much as him­self.  Today, as we’ve spoken about dur­ing the Sea­son of Cre­ation, we find ourselves in the midst of an extinc­tion crisis.  The destruc­tion of hab­it­at and issues like poach­ing and the exploit­at­ive use anim­als for medi­cines in some parts of the world would have troubled Fran­cis greatly.

There are legends of Fran­cis preach­ing to the birds and refer­ring to a large fish giv­en to him for food but still alive, as his broth­er. 

To the birds he spoke these words “‘My broth­er birds, you should greatly praise your Cre­at­or and love Him always. He clothed you with feath­ers and gave you wings for fly­ing. Among all His creatures He made you free and gave you the pur­ity of the air. You neither sow nor reap, He nev­er­the­less gov­erns you without your least care.’

On anoth­er occa­sion he addressed a flock of noisy swal­lows say­ing “‘My sis­ter swal­lows, now it is time for me also to speak, since you have already said enough. Hear the word of God and stay quiet until the word of the Lord is com­pleted.’ As legend has it, as if cap­able of reas­on, the swal­lows imme­di­ately fell silent, and did not leave from the place until the whole ser­mon was over. All who saw this were filled with amazement and gave glory to God.”

So, to speak of the cre­ation, the envir­on­ment and our fel­low creatures as we have done over this last month in the way we have is not a new lefty trendy thing but entirely with­in the Chris­ti­an tra­di­tion which Fran­cis enjoyed and taught and lived.

Lastly for today, I point to Fran­cis con­cern for the poor and mar­gin­al­ised.   As I men­tioned, the Cath­ol­ic Church is now headed by Pope Fran­cis.  At his first audi­ence on 16 March 2013, Pope Fran­cis told journ­al­ists that he had chosen the name in hon­our of Saint Fran­cis of Assisi, and had done so because he was espe­cially con­cerned for the well-being of the poor.

Fran­cis’ story is one of a per­son who took on rad­ic­al poverty in the name of Christ.

Dan Run­yon writesAn armor-clad knight with a lance, oil-tempered sword and plumed hel­met rode his war char­ger out of Assisi to battle against his neigh­bour­ing Itali­an town of Per­u­gia.  When this brave youth, Francesco Bern­ardone, saw the wretched sight of a leper in the road, he spurred his horse to flee. B ut as he gal­loped by, Fran­cis thought he recog­nized Christ in the con­tor­ted face of the out­cast.  Abruptly he stopped, dis­moun­ted, kissed the leper, gave alms, seated the man on the char­ger and led the way to the leper’s des­tin­a­tion.

Before this exper­i­ence, Fran­cis so loathed the sight of lepers that he would look at their houses only from a dis­tance of two miles while hold­ing his nose.  But Fran­cis later said of this exper­i­ence, “… What had pre­vi­ously naus­eated me became a source of spir­itu­al and phys­ic­al con­sol­a­tion .… After that I did not wait long before leav­ing the world.”

For Fran­cis, leav­ing the world meant caring for lepers and pray­ing in deser­ted chapels. Pietro Bern­ardone, the wealthy fath­er of Fran­cis, was exas­per­ated by this reli­gious fan­at­icism and even­tu­ally dis­owned his son.  In turn, Fran­cis renounced all right to his inher­it­ance.   (https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/francis-of-assisi-on-poverty-and-dung/)

The 21st cen­tury west­ern world basic­ally turns its head away from the poverty of those who suf­fer today.  Wheth­er its in drought affected Africa or places dev­ast­ated by nat­ur­al dis­aster or civil war.  We turn our eyes away because we can’t bear to see what we might see.  But after this spe­cial moment I have recoun­ted, Fran­cis turned his face towards the poor leper and kissed him and helped him.  Even more rad­ic­ally than the good Samar­it­an.

Fran­cis was very demand­ing of the Fri­ars that lived with him in com­munity.  He expec­ted and required them to live with the same pas­sion to fol­low the life and com­mand­ments of Christ as he did. 

What would he think of today’s Chris­ti­ans, of today’s Church?  Prob­ably not much to be truth­ful.   We are not vis­ible in any way in terms of peace­mak­ing.  In fact, the church is deaf­en­ingly silent when our Gov­ern­ments are rat­tling their swords and mak­ing sounds of war. 

We are becom­ing more involved in envir­on­ment­al issues, and caring for the world’s endangered creatures but that’s a slow pro­cess as well.  And man­aging money is always a very tricky things for us – rais­ing it and spend­ing it wisely and for the right reas­ons.   

St Fran­cis is such an inspir­ing Saint, one who chal­lenges us on so many levels, indi­vidu­al and as a com­munity.  May there always be an echo of St Fran­cis around this place.  And may we nev­er lose sight of who Fran­cis was, his pas­sion and strength of char­ac­ter, his devo­tion to Christ and his love for his fel­low human beings.