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

The Joy of the Gospel

The Joy of the Gos­pel

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, St. Fran­cis’ Day, Octo­ber 2, 2016

Read­ings: Mat­thew 11.25–30; Gala­tians 6. 14–18; Gen­es­is 1.26–31

Apart from Mary the moth­er of our Lord, Fran­cis is prob­ably the world’s best loved saint. In an age when we have become very con­scious of our envir­on­ment and the need to pre­serve it, Fran­cis seems a man for our times. In Novem­ber 1979, Pope John Paul ii declared Fran­cis the Pat­ron Saint of Eco­logy. Many of the stor­ies that sur­round the life of Fran­cis emphas­ise his love for anim­als and all of cre­ation. Yet, Fran­cis is also a para­dox­ic­al fig­ure, the Troubadour who loved women, yet vowed him­self to chastity; the man who loved the beauty and pleas­ures of the nat­ur­al world yet vowed him­self to the most aus­tere poverty; the lead­er who taught his fol­low­ers to love all people without dis­tinc­tion yet treated his own body harshly and died at the age of 45. But it is also true that more than any oth­er per­son in his­tory, Fran­cis com­mit­ted him­self to fol­low­ing the teach­ings of Jesus in a lit­er­al man­ner.

So this morn­ing let us briefly look at the life of Fran­cis and try to under­stand how he sought to live out the Gos­pel. Fran­cis was born in the year 1182, at Assissi, in Umbria. At the time of his birth, his fath­er, Pietro Bern­ardone, a wealthy cloth mer­chant was away on busi­ness in France. On arriv­ing home he was furi­ous to dis­cov­er that his wife had already had their new son bap­tised with the name Gio­vanni, after John the Baptist. Pietro wanted a son who would fol­low in his own foot­steps and reflect his infatu­ation with France so he renamed him, Francesco. As a young man, Fran­cis ful­filled his father’s hopes, he was good at busi­ness and enjoyed vis­its to France. He loved the poetry and songs of France and was attrac­ted to the troubadours who freely trav­elled around Europe. But he was also attrac­ted to the pro­fes­sion of arms and ima­gined him­self in the role of a knight. He saw an oppor­tun­ity when the neigh­bour­ing city of Per­u­gia declared war on Assissi. He took part in the battle between these two cit­ies which went badly for the Assissi’s and Fran­cis found him­self a pris­on­er, chained in a dun­geon. He spent a year in pris­on before he was ransomed and sent home. Rather than dis­cour­aging his desire for glory in battle, this exper­i­ence only seemed to enhance it and when The Pope called for knights to join the Fourth Cru­sade to the Holy Land, Fran­cis pre­pared to go with them. But God had oth­er plans. When he was only a day’s ride from Assissi on his way to join the cru­sade, Fran­cis had a vis­ion in which God told him that he was not to be a glor­i­ous war­ri­or but that he should return home. This was one of a num­ber of epis­odes which led to his con­ver­sion from a wealthy, rather spoilt youth to a man who would live for God and devote his life to shar­ing the joy of the Gos­pel with every­one he met.

Fran­cis’ con­ver­sion took place slowly. He began to spend more time in pray­er and developed a con­cern for people he would pre­vi­ously have no time for. His bio­graph­ers have often described three events which demon­strated his new way of think­ing: his encounter with the leper, when he kissed the man: his vis­it to the Church at San Dami­ano when he heard Christ on the cru­ci­fix speak­ing to him, say­ing “Fran­cis repair my church” and his pub­lic renun­ci­ation of all old way of life when he stood before the Bish­op accused of selling his father’s mer­chand­ise in order to pay for the church’s repair and stripped off all his clothes pro­claim­ing that he no longer had any fath­er except, ‘Our Fath­er who art in heav­en.’

Fran­cis was not a schol­ar but he loved the Gos­pels and the rule he later gave to his fol­low­ers was “to fol­low the teach­ings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his foot­steps.” He was also very fond of the Psalms and his Canticle of the Sun is inspired by the words of Psalm 148, which we have sung today. Our Old Test­a­ment read­ing this morn­ing was part of the cre­ation account from Gen­es­is 1. This is a found­a­tion­al pas­sage for a prop­er under­stand­ing of God the cre­at­or and God’s rela­tion­ship with his cre­ation. The prose is sol­emn and litur­gic­al intro­du­cing theo­lo­gic­al themes which will res­on­ate through­out the rest of the Scrip­tures. Sadly it has often be mis­read as a lit­er­al descrip­tion of God’s acts of cre­ation to be placed in oppos­i­tion to later sci­entif­ic accounts. The author of Gen­es­is 1 makes it clear that God has a will and pur­pose for his cre­ation: the cre­at­or loves and respects his cre­ation and calls it to faith­ful response and glad obed­i­ence to his will. But the writer also makes clear that the cre­ation has free­dom to respond to the cre­at­or in vari­ous ways. Fran­cis under­stood that the prop­er response to God’s cre­ation, includ­ing plants, anim­als and people was praise. He preached to people (and occa­sion­ally to anim­als and birds) the uni­ver­sal abil­ity of all creatures to praise God and our duty to pro­tect and enjoy nature as both the stew­ards of cre­ation and as creatures ourselves.

In the ‘Little Flowers’ a col­lec­tion of folk­lore and legends that sprang up after Fran­cis’ death there are sev­er­al fam­ous incid­ents that illus­trate his love of anim­als and the envir­on­ment. One that I like tells the story of the Wolf of Gub­bio. The people of Gub­bio lived in fear of a great wolf, ter­ri­fy­ing and fero­cious which had devoured both anim­als and people. Fran­cis had com­pas­sion on the towns­folk and went in search of the wolf.  On find­ing it Fran­cis made the sign of the cross and com­manded the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. “Broth­er wolf”, he said, “You have done much harm in these parts and you have done great evil ….But I would like to make peace between you and the people.” Fran­cis brought the wolf into the town and made a pact between the wolf and the people of the town that in return for food, the wolf would no longer prey on them or their flocks.

Dur­ing World Envir­on­ment Day 1982, Pope john Paul ii said that Fran­cis’ love and care for cre­ation was a chal­lenge for con­tem­por­ary Chris­ti­ans and a remind­er “not to behave like dis­sid­ent pred­at­ors where nature is con­cerned, but to assume respons­ib­il­ity for it, tak­ing all care so that everything stays healthy and integ­rated so as to offer a wel­com­ing and friendly envir­on­ment to those who suc­ceed us.”

It was nev­er Fran­cis’ inten­tion to found a reli­gious order but after he turned his back on his old way of life and became an itin­er­ant preach­er, sleep­ing in the open and find­ing food wherever he could, gradu­ally oth­ers joined him. With­in a year he had elev­en fol­low­ers. Fran­cis chose nev­er to be ordained as a priest and the little com­munity lived as ‘less­er broth­ers’. They lived in a deser­ted house near Assissi but spent most of their time on the road vis­it­ing neigh­bour­ing towns and vil­lages. When Fran­cis preached it was said that ‘his voice was like a burn­ing fire.’ Fran­cis’ rule for his com­pan­ions was based on three pas­sages from the Gos­pels: Jesus’ com­mand to the rich young ruler to sell all his goods and give to the poor; Jesus’ instruc­tion to his dis­ciples when going out to preach and heal the sick, to take noth­ing for their jour­ney, and finally Jesus’ demand to his fol­low­ers to take up their cross and fol­low him. He determ­ined to do what no one thought pos­sible any more, namely to live by the Gos­pel. He took Jesus’ teach­ing so lit­er­ally that on one occa­sion when a thief stole one of the brother’s hoods, he deman­ded that the broth­er run after him and offer the thief, his robe as well. Fran­cis declared that Poverty was his lady. His life was simple but also joy­ful because it was motiv­ated by love of God.

Fran­cis helped to reform the church of his day although he did not see him­self as a reformer. He called people back to God and to the teach­ing of the Church. But by his preach­ing and man­ner of life he reminded the wealthy, power­ful and some­times cor­rupt church of his day that the heart of the gos­pel was the call to fol­low Christ and to love him above all else. That mes­sage remains very rel­ev­ant for the church today.

Philip Brad­ford