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,
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 writes “An 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.