Preached on 4 October 2015 at St. Luke’s Memorial Episcopal Church, Tacoma, Wa
St. Francis Day
St. Francis is the most popular and admired of all the saints; and the least imitated. It’s not unusual to see a statue of him in a garden with a birdbath; probably because of the legends about him preaching to the birds. But there is so much more to St. Francis.
He lived in Italy around the turn of the 13th century, born in 1182 in Assisi, the son of a prosperous silk merchant. His youth was spent the way one might expect of a wealthy, privileged young man. He was popular and something of a party animal. He joined the local militia and sent to battle against the militia of rival towns. As a result, he spent some time as a prisoner of war so to speak. It gave him an opportunity to turn his thoughts to God. A number of events, adventures, and even an illness led him to embrace a very different kind of life.
At one point, his friends asked him what was wrong with him; was he thinking of marriage? “Yes, he responded! To Lady Poverty.” He chose to embrace a life devoted to radical solidarity with the poor. There are many stories about his turbulent relationship with his father. One time, having heard Jesus tell him to rebuild his church which is in ruins and thinking he meant literally the building he was sitting near, he took cloth from his father’s warehouse and sold it, using the proceeds for building materials. His father was enraged and took him to the bishop to get justice.
In the end, he renounced his inheritance and taking the clothes off his back, placing them at his father’s feet in the street, he walked away, naked. I wonder what his mother thought of it all.
He lived by begging, owning nothing, and devoted his life to serving the poor. With God as Creator of all and Father of all, he understood all of Creation to be his brothers and sisters. Saint Francis renounced his life of luxury as a way to empty himself in order to encounter God in those who were poor, lepers and the marginalized of his time.
In preaching the gospel to others, not only in words but through his life, he exuded such joy that before long, others began to follow him. He formed a Rule of Life for his followers that included absolute poverty, owning nothing and obedience to the authority of the church – he was not a reformer. Eventually, he went to the pope and his order of Friars Minor or Little Brothers, was formally established. Unlike many other monastic orders, they were not restricted to the monastery (in fact, they lived, initially in a deserted hut); they were out among the people preaching in the streets and serving the poor. The Order grew and spread throughout Italy.
Women, too, wanted to follow him and he established the Second Franciscan Order of the Poor Ladies which is now known as the Poor Clares who followed a life of poverty, penance and seclusion.
Still other followers were unable to leave their homes and vocations but desired to follow his teaching. And so, Francis established the Third Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance. They observed the principles of Franciscan life in their daily lives.
All three Orders are still active around the world today. I know many Episcopalians who are Third Order Franciscans – most notably Bishop Nedi.
St. Francis travelled widely spreading the gospel. He was also devoted to peace and travelled to Egypt, meeting with the Sultan during the Fifth Crusade in an attempt to achieve peace.
And so we see, there is so much more to St. Francis than a birdbath in the garden and cute stories about him talking to the animals. Of all the saints, it could be argued that he most closely walked in the footsteps of Jesus.
He gives us an example of true solidarity.
Serving the poor, caring for the outcast, the leper, the marginalized. He praised creation as a revelation of God’s love. His love of creation was rooted in his love of God. “Proclaim the Gospel at all times,” he taught, “if necessary, use words.”
What might we learn from his exemplary life?