Sermon – October 2, 2016 (St. Francis of Assisi)

Feast of St. Francis

October 2, 2015

Rev. John Hayes

Arguably the world’s most notorious and unlikely ex-seminarian Joseph Stalin once offhandedly remarked “give me ten men like Francis of Assisi and I could change the world!”

Francis of Assisi is one of the great saints of the western church, a religious genius who managed a reform of the medieval church without schism, the founder of one of a great religious order that enormously shaped the course of western philosophy, theology and science and whose missionary efforts, whatever their ambiguous legacy, can be felt in every continent of the world.

Not bad for a short guy without a high school education, a rube from a small town in the hill country of Italy.

God uses the ordinary to accomplish great things in humanity.

Saints are important because they show concretely what a life transfigured by Christ really looks like. Saints are icons of the divine humanity each in their own unique and often crazy idiom. Francis not only lived the gospel but became gospel. He took Paul’s words to heart and truly died to himself so that he lived no longer, but rather Christ lived in him.

Our standard image of Francis gets it all wrong. Stalin’s appraisal hardly squares with the tame, kitsch sissy that adorns many a birdbath. Dorothy Day remarked that the church makes saints tame and thus easy to dismiss. Their untamed witness challenges and disturbs us; they show us that Jesus is serious about transformation. Truth be told, most days we prefer the predictable security of “cheap grace”.

Francis was born just before the turn of the 13th century, not unlike our own a time of great social unrest and momentous rapid change: cities are emerging all over Europe as centers of commerce, industry and learning and poor people were displaced from the settled timeless round of life in the countryside. The middle commercial classes were asserting their new prerogatives in the hierarchy of privilege and status. National consciousness was heightened, foreign trade opening up, vernacular languages emerging, and the old medieval Christendom with pope and king and monastery hand-in-glove had become stale and redundant.

Francis was the only child of one of these rising nouveau-riche merchant families. When war came he twice he went off to war with the other young men. If you have seen the movie Braveheart, you have the ghastly picture of abattoir that was medieval war. We don’t think of Francis of the birdbath as a two-time war vet and prisoner of war. And like many a young man, he didn’t come home the same. The vain, pleasure-loving party boy was gone. Francis was lost. Nothing about life made sense. He drove his father crazy when he started giving away the goods from the family store to poor people. He started wandering around the hills alone like a crazy person. One afternoon he met a leprous man on the road. Everything in him was repulsed; he wanted to run but could not. Francis could not but see the man’s humanity as his own; he saw Christ in him. He pushed through his fear and revulsion and embraced and kissed this outcast man. Francis was never the same.

Francis wandered into a dilapidated church and heard the crucifix tell him “Francis rebuild my church which has fallen into ruin”. Like most men, he was more than a little concrete and got to work gathering stones and cement and rebuilding the little San Damiano chapel. Of course God had bigger plans for Francis and his church much in need of reform. Francis heard the gospel read at Mass “if you would be perfect, sell what you have and give to the poor and come follow me”. (Baltimore trivia: that very gospel book is at the Walters Museum) Unlike the rich young man in the gospel who “went away sad for he had many possessions” Francis gave it all away, literally at first, and then began the long internal dispossession of authentic conversion.

His mother was distraught; his father enraged. It all came to a head in front of the Assisi cathedral where Francis took off every stitch of clothing and gave all back to his father: “From now on God alone is my father”. He chose dispossession. He gave up all the illusory security of position, power and wealth. Francis lost all fear of suffering, all need for power and prestige, all need for his small self to be important in the world’s eyes. The great paradox is that this was not self-hating masochism but liberation. This was not neurotic fanaticism, but surrendering the false self for the real self. Francis found the paradoxical truth that we don’t know who we really are until we find ourselves in God.

Francis died into life rather than living life in fear of death. Francis died into the one and only life there is: the life of self-emptying love, the love of Jesus manifest in the cross, “through which the world is crucified to me and I to the world”. Francis was not about self-centered neurotic perfectionism. The world was his monastery; the center was everywhere. Surrendering to love, embracing the cross, identifying with the poor and suffering, was the only way to real joy, to the “peace that surpasses understanding.”

This of course is the truth hidden in plain sight that Jesus speaks of in today’s gospel, the plain truth unseen by the wise and invisible to those of worldly intelligence, but readily seen by little children and those willing to become like little children: open, vulnerable, shorn of pretense and false security, open to love.

I doubt that the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh had Francis in mind when he wrote this poem, but if he did, he was right on target.

Poem: Patrick Kavanagh: The Self-Slaved

Me I will throw away.
Me sufficient for the day
The sticky self that clings
Adhesions on the wings
To love and adventure,
To go on the grand tour
A man must be free
From self-necessity

See over there
A created splendour
Made by one individual
From things residual
With all the various
Qualities hilarious
Of what
Hitherto was not:

A November mood
As by one man understood;
Familiar, an old custom
Leaves falling, a white frosting
Bringing a sanguine dream
A new beginning with an old theme

Throw away thy sloth
Self, carry off my wrath
With its self-righteous
Satirising blotches.
No self, no self-exposure
The weakness of the proser
But undefeatable
By means of the beatable

I will have love, have love
From anything made of
And a life with a shapely form
With gaiety and charm
And capable of receiving
With grace the grace of living
And wild moments too
Self when freed from you.
Prometheus calls me: Son,
We’ll both go off together
In this delightful weather.

May we all find that truth that Francis found and encounter in our own crazy way the transforming love of Christ.
May it be so.