Following St. Francis to Follow Christ

St. Francis Tames the Wolf, All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church, Washington, DC
St. Francis Tames the Wolf, All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church, Washington, DC

A sermon for St. Francis Day, October 4, 2015.  The lectionary readings are Jeremiah 22:13-16, Psalm 148:7-14, Galatians 6:14-18, and Matthew 11:25-30.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Themes of beauty, penitence, faith, and fear all run through today’s scripture readings. They are the readings are appointed for the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi.

Just as these themes might run through our lives, they certainly ran through the life of Francis, as faith overtook the fear again and again. As a young man, St. Francis was afraid of what others might think, and especially afraid of losing his social standing and reputation. He was taught to fear the poor and especially to fear the lepers. But through a deep conversion into the heart of Christ, faith took hold in Francis—faith so strong as to overcome those fears. Faith would lead Francis to encourage the vocation of a young woman named Clare, who insisted on living a life in solidarity with the poor (not at all the acceptable thing in her day or ours). Faith led Francis to confront the rulers of his day—both secular and religious, and faith even took him into the face of the Sultan of Egypt, perceived to be the ultimate thirteenth-century bad guy. And then, on October 3, 1226, deep faith helped Francis look into the face of death and see it not as fearful, but as beautiful. Faith helped him sing

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death
from whom no one living can escape…
Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm. (“Canticle of the Creatures,” FA: ED I, 114).

Our dying to sin and being raised in newness of life through baptism can be understood as a first death. In Christ, the second death—the death of our body— has no power over us. We live on. We live eternally.

Francis was a penitent, which means of course that he often said he was sorry. But Francis was aware not only of his own sins, he was also acutely aware of the sin all around him, what we might call today “corporate sin,” or “institutional sin.” He could see where he and others feel short of the mark, and so, he named it, and invited others to do the same. Francis would sometimes do outrageous things to mirror the sin he saw. He risked looking like a clown in order to point people toward beauty.

Many of you know that I have spent a few years looking at our stained glass windows showing the life of Francis, and many of you have looked at them with me. We’ve studied them and prayed with them and tried to find our own place in them. When I was working to develop the windows into a coloring book and curriculum for the children, I realized something was missing. I wanted us not only to admire the windows, but to follow Francis almost by stepping through them and moving into the world. Erwin was good enough to draw that vision, so the back page of the coloring book includes a drawing that shows Francis and a wolf about to step out of one of our windows, moving forward, taking us into new adventures of faith. The caption under the picture says, “Now it’s our turn to join Francis in following Jesus.”

That’s why we bother with saints, at all, because each one in his or her own way, can show us something about following Jesus. The saint doesn’t replace Jesus. Instead, the saint, like the Blessed Virgin Mary herself, points to Christ: He is the Way. He is the Truth. He is the Life.

Francis points the power of Christ. Ultimately, Christ has the power of life over death. But also in each day, in each minute, Christ offers the power of light over darkness, good over ill, truth over falsehood, forgiveness from sin.

Almost every Sunday in our Rite I services, whenever a prayer of confession is used, we hear words of absolution and forgiveness. Following these are what are referred to in the Prayer Book tradition as the “Comfortable Words.” We hear them in today’s Gospel and whenever we hear or read them, they do offer comfort—not in an easy chair-with-a-bowl-of-popcorn-in-sweats-on-a-rainy-day kind of comfort. But TRUE comfort deep-down, a chance to start again, a do-over, a mini-conversion. They are words of comfort. They are words of assurance, refreshment, and promise.

Come unto me all ye who travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.
Come to me all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens.
Come to me all you who are weary and burdened (NIV) . . .
all ye that labor and are heavy laden (New King James) . . .
all who are tired from carrying heavy loads (Good News) . . .

I also like Eugene Peterson’s translation in the version of the Bible he calls The Message. Peterson’s version has Jesus say,

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. (The Message, Mt. 11:28-30).

Freely and lightly. Those are indeed comfortable words and words of refreshment.

St. Francis is sometimes best known for taming the wolf or preaching to birds. But, as we’ve learned as we have discussed Laudato Si, the Pope’s encyclical on the environment, Francis regards all of creation as family, as sisters and brothers, worthy of respect and relationship. On this St. Francis Sunday, may the Spirit show us where we need to repent, where we need to be exposed to God, and where we need to be healed. And then, with honest, penitent, and joyful hearts, may we hear and know the forgiveness of God, so that even in this life, we might begin to be made holy, forgiving, and free.

In the name of God, Source of all being, Eternal Word, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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