During the Summer of 2013, God’s people in Crafton Heights will be spending time talking with and listening to some of the members of the Christian Family whose stories and lives remind us about what it means to live faithfully. As described below, I’m calling this series “Faces at the Reunion” because I believe that as our family claims its heritage and gets to know each other, we’ll be stronger for it. The message for July 14 focuses on the ways that Francis of Assisi helps us to understand the ways that Jesus calls us to consider, and ask, some serious questions. The scriptures included Psalm 24 and Romans 8:18-25.
Think, for a moment, about all the amazingly great ideas in the history of the world that have simply backfired. For instance, in 1958 the Chinese government decided that since the Eurasian Tree Sparrow population of the country ate more than 10 pounds of grain per year per bird– enough to feed 60,000 people, it would be smart to get rid of the birds. Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, the sparrow became virtually extinct…and then the problems started…because while sparrows do eat grain, they also eat insects. LOTS of insects. Because there were no birds to eat the bugs, the bugs ate the plants…and thus began the Great Chinese Famine in which an estimated 30 million people died.
And the effects of a backfired great idea can last for centuries…like when the church decided, sometime around the fourth century, that while all of us are called to live faithful lives, some people do such an amazingly great job at it that they ought to be recognized…and we started to call people “saints” – people who are such great role models for us that we should notice their lives. But what happened was that we started paying attention to only the good part of those people’s lives…and when we compared ourselves to them, we think, “Wow, I’m a really lousy Christian compared to the virgin Mary or Augustine… I guess I’m no saint.” And then we let ourselves off the hook, because, after all, only saints can be super holy and really faithful, and so the result is that we wind up compartmentalizing or “taming” some gifted Christ-followers and diminishing our ability to be faithful.
Perhaps no one person, at least to Protestants, is a better example of this than Francis of Assisi. Have you heard of him? A 13th century Christian leader who has become associated with a love of nature and animals? Do you know that prayer, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…”? Yeah, he didn’t write it. So far as we know, that was written in a French magazine in 1912. So the one thing that most Americans associate with St. Francis is not accurate…but I am here to tell you that this brother of ours has something to teach the church in the 21st century.
Francis was born to a wealthy family in Assisi, in central Italy, near the end of the 12th century. Before we say anything about Francis, let me remind you of the state of the world at that time. The so-called “dark ages” were ending, and the Renaissance was just around the corner. Humans were leaving feudalism and barbarianism behind and experimenting with democracy and new freedoms for many. The church at this point was old. One writer has put it this way:
The Church was already a good deal more than a thousand years old… And she looked old then; almost as old as she does now; possibly older than she does now…The Church had topped her thousand years and turned the corner for the second thousand; she had come through the Dark Ages in which nothing could be done except desperate fighting against the barbarians and the stubborn repitition [sic] of the creed… The Church looked old then as now; and there were some who thought her dying as now…The freshness and freedom of the first Christians seemed then as much as now a lost and almost prehistoric age of gold…
Into this world, Francis was born, and he lived what has been described as “a high-spirited life typical of a wealthy young man”. He trained as a soldier to fight in Assisi’s army, and was captured and held hostage for more than a year. His father paid a ransom and he returned, although in ill health. After recuperating, at least somewhat, he prepared to set out for battle once more – but the night before he was to depart he had a vision calling him to a life of simplicity and poverty – and in that vision, he was told to rebuild the church.
At first, he assumed that meant to rebuild the church in his hometown, which was suffering from neglect and in sore need of repair. Francis sold all of his possessions to buy building materials, and when that was not enough, he sold some of his father’s, too. His father, none too pleased, had him arrested and hauled into court. The judge was trying to make it easy on Francis, and said, essentially, “Look, apologize and give the money back and there’s no harm…” But Francis was resolute, and turned his back on his family and his wealth – he stripped his clothes off and left them on the courtroom floor, vowing to never again owe anything to any man. He began to beg for building supplies, and then came to see that perhaps he was being called to rebuild the church as a whole, rather than the church building.
To this end, he attracted some followers and he founded three orders of Christian service. The first of these, “The Little Brothers”, or “The Order of the Friars Minor”, consisted of men who slept on the ground and ate what they could find as they preached the gospel of peace and reconciliation. “The Order of St. Clare” was begun for women who experienced a similar call, and later on, the third order allowed for a world-wide following of Francis’ lifestyle.
Francis was known for his commitment to creation and the environment. There are scores of stories that point to his preaching to the animals and his connection with nature. In fact, Francis is credited with being the first person to ever set up a nativity scene in which the animals welcomed the birth of the Christ child.
As he aged, Francis became increasingly concerned with the rising conflict in the Middle East. In 1219, he went to Egypt where the Christians from Europe were attacking the Muslims from North Africa. He begged the Christian commander to stop the assault, and he was refused. Unarmed, he walked into the Muslim camp and found the Sultan, al-Kamil. He said to the man, “I am sent by the Most High God, to show you and your people the way of salvation by announcing to you the truths of the Gospel.” He said that he would stay with the Sultan and teach him about Christ. While the Muslim was reputed to have said, “If all Christians were like this, I would most certainly become one!”, in the end, he wavered. At this point, Francis issued a challenge: light a big fire in the midst of the city, and Francis and one of the Muslim imams would walk into the blaze – Francis was convinced that he would survive unharmed and thus prove the truth of Christ’s claims. The Sultan turned down this offer, but offered Francis money, which he refused. Eventually the Sultan asked Francis to leave because he was afraid that his men would be attracted to the Gospel that this funny little Italian was preaching.
Francis returned to Italy and worked to lay the foundations for his religious orders. As his health diminished, he handed leadership of the movement to others and sought increasing times of solitude and silence. He died in 1226, leaving a legacy of thousands of followers.
As we look at the life of Francis in our own context, it seems to me that there are several challenges that he might bring to the church and the culture of the 21st century.
The first of these, and perhaps least-surprising given his legacy, is the affirmation brought to us in Romans 8 that the creation matters. As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of stories about Francis and the animals. One of the most famous involves the town of Gubbio, which was being terrorized by a vicious wolf that was so ravenous that it ate not only farm animals, but people, too. The townspeople took up arms and went into the forest to kill all the wolves. Francis begged them to stop, and went into the woods to find the beast. He is said to have made the sign of the cross and command the wolf to lay down, and he said, “Brother Wolf, I want you to make peace with the townspeople – you must each stop harming the other.” The wolf somehow indicated to Francis that he needed to eat, and so he killed. Francis led the wolf into town, and made the townspeople promise to feed the wolf as they did their own dogs. Supposedly, the wolf “shook” with Francis and lived among the people, going door to door, for two years until it died of old age.
If you see a statue of St. Francis, I can bet he’ll be holding a bird. And it’ll be in a garden. We connect Francis with nature. I wonder what this Christ-follower would say about our culture’s relationship with the environment? What would you say are the theological implications of genetically modified seeds that are changing the way that the planet eats? What would you say are the theological implications of the factory farms on which most of our meat is produced? You may have noticed in the news that our nation’s largest producer of pork, Smithfield Foods, is being bought by the Chinese, and that’s setting off a political firestorm. What would Francis say about the condition of those pigs, and the people who raise them? Does God’s care for the creation extend to hogs who are confined to crates in which they cannot move, force-fed antibiotics, and create a sea of sewage that is toxic to anything in its path?
I’m not interested in arguing about any specific issue here – but I do want to note that the church of the 21st century needs voices like Francis who will help us think critically about what it means for us to exist with creation, and to steward creation in such a way so that when we are called to account before the Creator we will have a leg to stand on.
The other area in which I find a significant challenge from the life of Francis is echoed in the reading we heard from Psalm 24, about the earth and all its people belonging to the Lord. I mentioned Francis’ travel to Egypt in response to the carnage that we call the Crusades. You may know that, at the end of the day, “our team” lost, and the Muslims retained control over the Holy Land and much of the Middle East. You may not know, however, that the leaders of Islam reached out to the Franciscan orders and invited them to come and be present in the Holy Land – the only western Christians permitted to remain – because they remembered, and were grateful for, the way that Francis himself treated Muslims with respect and love.
Now, this is crazy talk…and I promise, I’m not intentionally trying to get anyone angry this morning, but let me ask a foolish question. What do you think would have happened if on the morning of September 12, 2001, we announced that we were going to send one million teachers, nurses, civil engineers, and missionaries to Afghanistan? What if our campaign of “shock and awe” in Iraq was focused, not so much on the superiority of our weaponry as the depth of our love?
I know, I know, I’m a nut job or a whacko or un-American or something terrible for asking the question. It’s a crazy question, isn’t it?
Why? Who determines that to be so crazy? Why is that crazier than attacking them militarily? Right now, an MQ-9 Reaper drone costs $12,548,710.60. In the last five years, we’ve had at least 60 drones crash in Afghanistan and Iraq and a hundred worldwide. For comparison’s sake, the cost of a single drone will provide 110 people a four-year scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh. What would happen if we said, “instead of bombing the daylights out of your country, we will give every one of your children a quality education?”
We will never know, of course, because we can’t even ask that kind of question in our world. I’m a fool to have brought it up.
But Francis walked from Italy to Egypt in the middle of the Crusades because he apparently thought that we might more closely follow Jesus in seeking to make more Christians, rather than destroying all Muslims. Not every crazy idea is Christ-like, just because it’s crazy. But I’m here to say that the church of Jesus Christ will need more people in the 21st century who are willing to ask disturbing questions and to walk behind those questions in service to God.
G. K. Chesterton, a British writer and philosopher from the last century, called Francis the “mirror of Christ.”
Saint Francis is the mirror of Christ rather as the moon is the mirror of the sun. The moon is much smaller than the sun, but it is also much nearer to us; and being less vivid it is more visible. Exactly in the same sense Saint Francis is nearer to us, and being a mere man like ourselves is in that sense more imaginable. Being necessarily less of a mystery, he does not, for us, so much open his mouth in mysteries…
Francis of Assisi has given many people amazing insight into the life of faith. He retraced the footsteps of Jesus by seeking to honor the earth and all those whom God made. Some people who could not see Jesus at all came to love him because of something that they saw in Francis. The question for the church today is, “Can I follow him, who followed Christ? Can I follow him in such a way that people might see Christ in me? Can I live gently in this world that God has made? Can I love even those people whom I find to be offensive, or who have harmed me?”
Those are crazy questions. Maybe it won’t surprise you to know that one of Francis’ nicknames is Le Jongleur de Dieu – which might translate as “God’s jester” or “the fool of God”. He called his followers the Jongleurs de Dieu because he claimed for them both innocence and jollity – whilst holding them to telling the truth. The church needs more fools like that in the 21st century. I would encourage you to give it a try – to come up with some absolutely crazy questions in the week to come…and to ask them of Christ…and to see where they lead you. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Each week during this series, I’ll be providing a one-page handout at the church to help illumine the person considered. Below is the material that was available on July 14.
Faces at the Reunion: Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)
During the summer of 2013, we will be looking at the Christian Faith through the eyes of some of the servants of God who have preceded us in this walk. These men and women left behind a witness that has formed us, whether we know it or not, and in our worship we will have a “family reunion” this summer as we engage in their stories and gain from their experience.
Francis (from Italy) was the first Christian to set up a nativity scene! He was a model to the church in terms of taking the words of Christ seriously and seeking to live them in his daily life. He is widely referred to as both “the mirror of Christ” and “God’s fool”. He strongly believed in the importance of laypersons reading and studying the Bible in their own language, and he usually wrote in the local language himself.
The Canticle of the Sun by Francis of Assisi
Most High, all-powerful, all-good Lord, all praise is Yours, all glory, honor and blessings. To you alone, Most High, do they belong; no mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your Name.
We praise You, Lord, for all Your creatures, especially for Brother Sun, who is the day through whom You give us light. And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor, of You Most High, he bears your likeness.
We praise You, Lord, for Sister Moon and the stars, in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair.
We praise You, Lord, for Brothers Wind and Air, fair and stormy, all weather’s moods, by which You cherish all that You have made.
We praise You, Lord, for Sister Water, so useful, humble, precious and pure.
We praise You, Lord, for Brother Fire, through whom You light the night. He is beautiful, playful, robust, and strong.
We praise You, Lord, for Sister Earth, who sustains us with her fruits, colored flowers, and herbs.
We praise You, Lord, for those who pardon, for love of You bear sickness and trial. Blessed are those who endure in peace, by You Most High, they will be crowned.
We praise You, Lord, for Sister Death, from whom no-one living can escape. Woe to those who die in their sins! Blessed are those that She finds doing Your Will. No second death can do them harm.
We praise and bless You, Lord, and give You thanks, and serve You in all humility.
Other quotes from Francis:
“Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.”
“He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”
For a detailed booklet on St. Francis written by famous curmudgeon G. K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936), visit http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/stf01010.htm It is a long read, but fascinating. Other resources on the life of this “older brother” in the faith can be found here: http://www.paracletepress.com/books-spirituality-franciscan.html