The Sunday Sermon: Celebrating St. Francis

October 2, 2022
Penelope Bridges

Today we celebrate St. Francis of Assisi, who has been called the most admired and least imitated of the saints. Francis was not a priest, but a modestly educated lay person who started a revolution against the grandeur and power of the Roman Catholic church. He dramatically rejected the luxurious lifestyle of his family and dedicated himself to poverty, vowing to follow Christ, who was gentle and humble of heart, in every way possible. He refused to establish a home or a steady source of income for himself and his brothers, saying that Christ had nowhere to lay his head; that Christ depended on the goodness of others; and that what was good enough for Jesus was good enough for him. Francis exemplified humility, resisting the formal structure of a religious order and the power that would have given him as its leader. When he was on the point of death he even asked to be taken from his bed and laid directly on the earth. In today’s jargon, you might say he practiced extreme Christianity.

Many legends have grown up around the life of Francis, one of which we will celebrate today after the 10:30 service, when we offer blessings of pets: he was said to be a friend to animals, preaching sermons to the birds and even taming a wolf that was threatening a village. It’s said that Francis renounced his middle-class heritage by stripping naked in the market place, in the presence of the bishop, and handing his expensive clothing back to his parents. And it was reported that his devotion to Jesus was so deep that he developed the stigmata of Christ, open wounds in his hands and feet that resembled the marks of the nails of crucifixion. Francis was not only a follower of Christ, but an imitator of him to the point of sharing in his physical suffering. This is the true meaning of compassion: to identify so deeply with someone that you suffer with them.

Earlier this week I spent some time on retreat with clergy colleagues. We were encouraged to pray for each other, to share deeply with one another, to let down our guard, so that we could better support one another in friendship and prayer. I experienced profound and surprising connections, as we practiced mutual compassion. I don’t know anyone who actually carries the marks of Christ on their bodies, as St. Paul claims to have done, but all of us, including clergy, carry scars and wounds in one form or another, from our life experiences of loss, betrayal, pride, and selfishness. Our retreat leader this week encouraged us to lean into our dependence on God, pointing out that it’s when we feel weakest and most wounded that we are most likely to turn to the wounded and risen Christ, drawing on his strength when we can’t depend on our own.

There are wounds that almost everyone seems to carry in today’s world. Loneliness is one of them. Jesus himself experienced loneliness when his disciples failed to grasp who he was, when his home town rejected him, and most acutely when he was on the Cross, crying out to the God who it seemed had abandoned him. The late scholar and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen wrote a book entitled The Wounded Healer, in which he examined the phenomenon of loneliness. He says, “The growing competition and rivalry which pervade our lives from birth have created in us an acute awareness of our isolation … All around us we see the many ways by which the people of the western world are trying to escape this loneliness.”

We can all name ways, both healthy and unhealthy, that people try to escape loneliness: our animal companions can be one source of comfort; romances, friendships, and shared activities can be others. On the unhealthy side, we may try to fill the gap of loneliness through addictions, whether to substances or behaviors.

But Nouwen goes on to write something unexpected: “The more I think about loneliness, the more I think that the wound of loneliness is like the Grand Canyon – a deep incision in the surface of our existence which has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding.” Nouwen’s point, I think, is that the suffering of loneliness drives us to seek healing outside of the world that isolates us, to lean into the love of God that we might otherwise take for granted. Our wound of loneliness can be transformed into an invitation to seek the companionship of our compassionate God. And the church, at its best, can be a community that supports and encourages us as we learn to deepen that divine companionship, even as the edge of our loneliness is blunted by our engagement in this diverse family of God’s children, by our intentional reaching out to one another and to the lonely people outside our doors. This is what St. Paul’s seeks to offer.

Francis of Assisi knew the value of community as he strove to follow Jesus. He gathered a group of friends around him, as Jesus did, and together they launched a grand experiment that elevated simplicity in a time of conspicuous wealth, that promoted egalitarianism in a brutally hierarchical world, and that has to some degree endured, in the Franciscan religious orders, for 800 plus years. So we give thanks today for Francis and for his utter devotion to our loving, compassionate Savior, who invites us to enter into relationship with him through the mystery of Holy Communion. Come to the table and offer him your wounds; you will find rest, for his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

Amen.

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