As I looked back through old sermons this week, I was astonished to discover I have never done a St. Francis sermon here before—not even in the year when St. Francis Day fell on a Sunday! It made me so glad that I had decided to do so this year, as part of our remembrance of Francis Bean, who died in August, because Francis is so much more than the caricature seen in contemporary culture.
I never gave Francis much thought until my first year of seminary, when a friend of mine asked me, scornfully, “What, are you trying to be the next St. Francis?” It was a beautiful autumn day. We were a few hundred feet from the craziness of Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, cement and noise and metal everywhere. But we had found a quiet corner with a tree and a bench, a place where we could sit and talk quietly and peacefully. As I finished my sandwich, I had some crusts and crumbs left over. I tossed them out for the birds and said, “Come here, little birdies, come eat the rest of my sandwich.” And of course, they came. Free food is enticing to creatures of all sizes. A little sparrow perched on the seat next to me and took a bit of bread out of my hand. It was this communing with the birds that prompted my friend’s mockery.
That’s what we usually think of, when Francis comes up. His connection with animals and all of creation. The animal blessing, one of my very favorite “extra” observances, is always scheduled around St. Francis’ Day, October 4, because of his love for all things created. He is also credited with putting together the first nativity scene, which has always been my favorite Christmas decoration. He has been embraced by those who are concerned about the environment, because of his love for all of God’s creation. Those who see themselves in the phrase “Blessed are the peacemakers” claim Francis for themselves, because he was a career soldier, a prisoner of war, who eventually laid down his arms and chose pacifism in the face of violence. Those who devote themselves to the care of the poor, the sick, the homeless see him as their model, because he chose poverty over the life of wealth and ease into which he was born, and reached out to lepers, touching them and making a place for those who had no place in society. Even those who would normally distance themselves from all things Christian make a space for Francis—in their gardens, if not in their hearts.
But we lose something very significant when we relegate Francis to the area reserved for animal lovers and tree huggers. As Christians, we need to politely but firmly reclaim Francis as one of our own, and show the full picture of who this man of God was, and what he stood for. Francis was all about proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ to the whole world.
As I went through my notes on the topic of St. Francis, I came across the following, entitled Captive to a Thousand Causes:
St. Francis, regrettably, has become the captive of a thousand causes, among them the spirituality of escape. The popular domesticated reading of St. Francis, enshrined in backyard statuary and best-selling guides to the spiritual life, reflects the very schizoid spirituality that many North Americans take for granted. Francis is read by Christians and other seekers as the champion of an escapist nature mysticism: someone who can teach us by example how to move beyond the crowded ways of postmodern, computerized existence in order to experience transforming encounters with the beauties and the wonders of the natural world, encounters akin to those that seem to be articulated by Francis’s enormously popular “The Canticle of the Creatures.” Conversely, among devout Christians, Francis is sometimes read as the champion of spiritual interiority: as one who turns away from this world to seek solace within, exemplified, above all, by the mountaintop story of his spiritual and physical experience of being touched by the cross of Jesus, the stigmata.
These popular readings of Francis have had, as a matter of course, the effect of reinforcing today’s schizoid spirituality of escape and consumerism and have, in turn, provided spiritual support to those very forces that are working to destroy the earth and to abandon the poor, both loved so profoundly by Francis himself. To learn from Francis, therefore, we must divest ourselves of our own assumptions about him, such as they may be, and encounter him in his historical otherness.
From “The Spirituality of Nature and the Poor: Revisiting the Historic Vision of St. Francis” by H. Paul Santmire, Ph.D., in Tending the Holy: Spiritual Direction Across Traditions, edited by Norvene Vest. Copyright © 2003
(I will confess I laughed out loud when I saw who had written this. I finally realized why I recognized the name Paul Santmire when I met him at Trinity a few years back, and could now see a particular face and hear a particular voice as I read it. But I really appreciate what he says here.)
We need to take Francis out of the garden and look at the whole man. Too often we get so focused on the Saint part that we forget the very human Francis part.
Francis was not an easy human being to be around. He was a harsh ascetic, and expected his followers to live a life of extreme discipline, to willingly give up everything, even their lives, for the sake of the Gospel. He gave up all the privilege of being the son of a rich merchant of Perugia, all the power and glory his military career could have provided him, to follow Christ. There is a legend that when he announced to his family that he was giving up everything to become a monk, they were not pleased. His father, in an attempt to dissuade him, reminded him that he owed his family everything—even the clothes on his back. So Francis stripped down to bare skin and walked away. He was sometimes viewed as a little “off,” a little crazy. We forget that he lived most of his life in cities, not the raw nature of countryside. Some sources say he had a bit of a temper, so sure of the rightness of his cause that he could be quite difficult when crossed. He was complicated—more complicated than those lovely statues of him with birds can convey.
And there is such gift in that. When we look honestly at the whole imperfect person, and see how much good God was still able to accomplish in and through him, it opens up to us the possibility that God might do the same with us.
For Francis, it was all about the gospel, the Good News. God saves us, even from ourselves, and God is restoring all of creation to its original goodness. And the promise of that restoration was the source of the joy that permeates all that Francis did. Joy that is not simple happiness, but a deeper sense that all will be well, because God is God and salvation is already accomplished through Jesus Christ. Francis could live a life of peace and simplicity and joy, because he trusted that the Gospel was and is good news. He knew his job was not to bring about salvation and freedom, but to live a life that showed that it was already available, by following the way of Christ. A way of peace and open-heartedness. A life of gratitude for the simplest blessings—a beautiful sunny morning, a bird eating a crumb out of our hand, the presence of God in every moment of our lives.
Like Francis, our call is to preach the gospel, in word and deed, to let our lives be the witness to our faith. Francis left us with a model of LIVING OUT the gospel, loving one another and all creation, giving up all that hinders us from serving God fully. I’m not sure Francis ever actually said the thing that is so often attributed to him, and I sometimes think it’s a bit of a copout for those of us uncomfortable with the whole concept of evangelism. But for this one day, I’ll set aside my reservations, and use it to remind us of our common call in Christ. Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words. Amen.