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.