Sermon: The Festival of Saint Francis of Assisi (C) – 6th October 2013

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings: Genesis 2:4b-9a, 19-22 Psalm 148 1 Peter 2:1-5 Matthew 6:25-33

“All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and let us sing Alleluya, Alleluya! Thou burning sun with golden beam, Thou silvers moon with softer gleam: O praise him, O praise him, Alleluya, Alleluya, Alleluya!”

“Make me a channel of your peace. Where there is hatred let me bring your love; where there is injury your pardon, Lord; and where there is doubt true faith in you.”

“Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”

“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.”

“While you are preaching peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart.”

These are words ascribed to Saint Francis of Assisi, whose life and contribution we remember today. The first few lines are from the first and second hymn this morning. Francis is especially remembered for his commitment to the Gospel and God’s providence, to peace and to driving a proper understanding of the beauty and value of God’s creation. This morning’s readings dwell upon some of the concepts that may have influenced his theology.

The accounts of creation found in Genesis are placed at the beginning of the Bible even before the accounts of Israel coming into being. Such a placing in the Bible shows the universal activity of God. God’s creative activity not only brought the world into being but also engaged in the lives of individuals and peoples long before Israel came into being. God was at work creating before Israel understood what this activity was all about.

God’s actions in the world are of more importance than what humans understand that God has done. Israel eventually catches up with what God has long been about. How humanity understands God’s action in the world comes after God has acted.

Human beings in all times and places have experienced, even if they have not known it, God’s creative acts before and alongside God’s saving acts. We receive our lives and all our natural gifts from God apart from our knowledge of God. God’s salvation takes place within the world and within individual lives, which have been brought into being and sustained by God’s care.

The placing of Genesis at the beginning of the Bible demonstrates that God’s purpose in redemption does not finally centre on Israel. God as Creator has a purpose that spans the world. God’s salvation shown by and offered through Jesus is universal.

The reading from Matthew concerns how then we creatures of the Creator are to live. The instruction “do not be anxious” is not only directed to rich people; those inclined to the self-satisfaction and arrogance because of their wealth. Poor people can idolise what they do not have and become anxious. Jesus contrasts the life of a believer with that of the non-believers. His challenge to trust in God’s providence does not exclude working and having property. The words are directed to people who were involved with sowing, reaping, storing in barns, toiling and spinning, but who are called to see that their life is not based upon such things. Such people are called to see that their life is not based upon these things. Such persons are not called upon to become birds or lilies, but to consider God’s providence for all creation, including birds, lilies and human beings.

Francis was born in 1182, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. He died on 4 October 1226. His early years were frivolous, but an experience of sickness and another of military service were instrumental in leading him to reflect on the purpose of life. One day, in the church of San Damiano, outside of Assisi, he seemed to hear Christ saying to him, “Francis, repair my falling house”. He took the words literally, and sold a bale of silk from his father’s warehouse to pay for repairs to the church of San Damiano. His father was outraged and there was a public confrontation at which his father disinherited and disowned him, and he in turn renounced his father’s wealth. One account says that he not only handed his father his purse, but also took off his expensive clothes, laid them at his father’s feet, and walked away naked. He declared himself “wedded to Lady Poverty”, renounced all material possessions and devoted himself to serving the poor.

In his day the most dreaded of all diseases was something known as leprosy. It is probably not the same as either the modern or the Biblical disease of that name. Lepers were kept at a distance and regarded with fear and disgust. Francis cared for them, fed them, bathed their sores and kissed them. Since he could not pay for repairs to the Church of San Damiano, he undertook to repair it by his own labours. He moved in with the priest and begged stones lying useless in fields, shaping them for use in repairing the church. He got his meals, not by asking for money so that he might live at the expense of others, but by scrounging crusts and discarded vegetable from trash-bins and by working as a day labourer, insisting on being paid in bread, milk, eggs, or vegetables rather than in money. Soon a few companions joined him.

Dante in his Paradiso has Saint Aquinas say of him:

“Let me tell you of a youth whose aristocratic father disowned Him because of his love for a beautiful lady. She had been married before, to Christ, and was so faithful a spouse to Him that, while Mary only stood at the foot of the Cross, she leaped up to be with Him on the Cross. These two of whom I speak are Francis and the Lady Poverty. As they walked along together, the sight of their mutual love drew men’s hearts after them. Bernard saw them and ran after them, kicking off his shoes to run faster to so great a peace. Giles and Sylvester saw them, kicked off their shoes and ran to join them …”

After three years, in 1210, the Pope authorized the forming of the Order of Friars Minor, commonly called the Franciscans. “Friar” means “brother” as in “fraternity”, and “minor” means “lesser” or “younger”. These titles could be taken to mean that to be that a Franciscan, upon meeting another Christian, is to believe “I am your brother in Christ, and your younger brother at that, bound to defer to you and to give you precedence over myself”.

Francis and his companions took literally the words of Christ when he sent his disciples out to preach recorded in Matthew chapter 10:

“Preach as you go, saying, “The kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” … You have received the Gospel without payment, give it to others as freely. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, no spare garment nor sandals, nor staff.

They would have no money, and no property, individually or collectively. Their task was to preach, “using words if necessary”, but declaring by word and action the love of God in Christ. It has been suggested that he it was who set up the first Christmas manger scene, to bring home to human hearts and imaginations as well as to their intellects the Good News of God made human for our salvation.

In 1219, Francis went to the Holy Land to preach to the Muslims. He was given a pass through the enemy lines, and spoke to the Sultan, Melek-al-Kamil. Francis proclaimed the Gospel to the Sultan, who replied that he had his own beliefs, and that Muslims were as firmly convinced of the truth of Islam as Francis was of the truth of Christianity. Francis proposed that a fire be built, and that he and a Muslim volunteer would walk side by side into the fire to show whose faith was stronger. The Sultan said he was not sure that a Muslim volunteer could be found. Francis then offered to walk into the fire alone. The Sultan who was deeply impressed but remained unconverted. Francis proposed an armistice between the two warring sides, and drew up terms for one; the Sultan agreed, but, to Francis’s deep disappointment, the Christian leaders would not. Francis returned to Italy, but a permanent result was that the Franciscans were given custody of the Christian shrines then in Muslim hands and animosity between Christians and Muslims remains strong today.

From the first known letter from Francis to all Christians:

“O how happy and blessed are those who love the Lord and do as The Lord himself said in the gospel: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your whole soul, and your neighbour as yourself. Therefore, let us love God and adore him with pure heart and mind. This is his particular desire when he says: True worshipers adore the Father in spirit and truth. For all who adore him must do so in the spirit of truth. Let us also direct to him our praises and prayers, saying: “Our Father, who are in heaven”, since we must always pray and never grow slack.

Furthermore, let us produce worthy fruits of penance. Let us also love our neighbours as ourselves. Let us have charity and humility. Let us give alms because these cleanse our souls from the stains of sin. Men lose all the material things they leave behind in this world, but they carry with them the reward of their charity and the alms they give. For these they will receive from the Lord the reward and recompense they deserve. We must not be wise and prudent according to the flesh. Rather we must be simple, humble and pure. We should never desire to be over others. Instead, we ought to be servants who are submissive to every human being for God’s sake. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on all who live in this way and persevere in it to the end. He will permanently dwell in them. They will be the Father’s children who do his work. They are the spouses, brothers and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Remember the words from Matthew’s Gospel this morning;

“But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”1




1 This sermon produced using The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volumes I and VII, Abingdon Press Nashville, and material fromwww.