Saturday, September 29, 2012

Following in the Way of a Beloved Saint

A sermon preached at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, Florida on the celebration of the Feast of St. Francis, Sept. 30, 2012.

Both here and in all your churches throughout the world. We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, for by your holy cross you have redeemed the world. AMEN. (Franciscan Prayer Upon Entering A Church)

An Improbable Life

        Today we celebrate the feast day of one of the most beloved saints in the Christian tradition. Francis of Assisi is the second most popular saint in Christendom after the Virgin Mary. Statues of Francis adorn the churchyards of many parishes including this one. And many homes, like my own, feature one or more versions of St. Francis in their gardens. 

        There are a number of reasons that Francis is so beloved. He led a highly improbable life that began in wealth and ended in poverty, a life of partying and hell-raising which earned him the title “the prince of fools” in his youth but which was spent serving the destitute and attending the dying lepers in his adulthood.

        By the end of his life, Francis had drawn to him three orders of Franciscans. The First Order was composed of men like himself who called themselves friars, living together in community and serving the world around them. A Second Order composed of women formed around the leadership of St. Claire. These women lived lives of contemplative prayer and devotion within enclosed communities called convents. Both First and Second Order Franciscans agreed to lives which left behind all worldly possessions, all personal relationships and the right to make one’s own decisions about virtually every aspect of life – poverty, chastity and obedience.

        But such a rule proved difficult for many Christians who found Francis’ way of following Jesus appealing but simply could not leave behind families to go live in community. And so Francis formed a Third Order of Franciscans, people who remained in their own homes and communities but agreed to follow a rule of life which bore the Franciscan marks of simplicity of lifestyle, holiness of relationships and devotion to the Third Order.

Twenty years ago in the city named for Saint Francis, San Francisco, I was professed as a member of the Anglican Third Order of the Society of St. Francis. And so it is a joy to be able to tell you this day about this saint whose way of following Jesus changed my life forever.

God’s Goodness Everywhere He Looked

        Today’s psalm points to one of the major ways that Franciscan thought has impacted the Christian tradition. It is a litany of praise that includes everything from wild animals, creeping things and flying birds to mountains and hills, the depths of the sea and even the “stormy wind fulfilling his command.” Unlike the medieval church which saw the world as a place of evil and sin lurking in the shadows, everywhere Francis looked he saw the beauty - and thus the goodness - of G-d in all of creation.

        It is not surprising that Francis has long been seen as the patron saint of the woodland animals and of animal lovers generally. Francis was known to preach to the birds and to tame ferocious wolves. As we gather this day to bless the animals whose lives are a blessing to our own lives, living evidence of the generosity of a gracious G-d, we participate in a very Franciscan act. Look around you at the beauty of all these animals! Listen to the beautiful hymn to creation they are singing this morning. What a glorious hymn!

I also invite you to take one second to think back over your lifespan to all the animals who have shared your life and consider the enormous debt we owe to them for all they have given to us. And now think of how much G-d loves the creation to bless us with such beauty, such love and such devotion. The sheer generosity of G-d is humbling indeed.   

        It would be easy to end a sermon on such an idyllic note. But there is more to Francis of Assisi than that. While it is tempting to cement Francis into place in our bird baths and our gardens, this is a saint who calls us to lives of careful consideration of our own relationship to the creation and its Creator.

        Francis was clear that the belief that most human beings have held throughout history - that the human animal is the most important animal in the creation - is ultimately little more than the deadly sin of pride at work.  In the philosophy department where I work at UCF, we give it a fancy name: anthropocentrism, human beings who see themselves at the center of the universe.

Ironically, what we are able to recognize today is that Francis was onto something 900 years ago when he sought to remind us that while we are an important part of G-d’s creation, we are, in the end, only one part. The practice of anthropocentrism has had an enormously harsh impact on G-d’s good creation. The human animal has been responsible for the extinction of many of its fellow animals. Indeed, today the carelessness and self-focus of the human animal threatens to make the good creation itself uninhabitable as the effects of climate change increasingly begin to make themselves known.

Francis of Assisi asks us this day to consider our relationship to this good earth, our island home. Ask yourself: Do I show my gratitude to the animals in my life for their companionship and devotion?  Does my life honor G-d by preserving the good creation? Do my choices respect the goodness of all created life or do they fall into the trap of anthropocentrism?

The Distressing Disguise of Poverty

        A second aspect of the Franciscan way is reflected in today’s Hebrew Scripture lesson. The prophet Jeremiah says the following:

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages…. [To take up] the cause of the poor and needy…Is not this to know me?”

        The turning point of Francis’ life occurred when he encountered a leper one day outside the walls of Assisi.  Francis struggled with his own revulsion as he looked at the leper, his skin rotting away, his fingers barely able to hold the beggar’s bowl which was all that stood between him and starvation.

Francis got down from his horse. Summoning up every bit of courage he had, Francis embraced the leper, kissing the dying skin of his face and wiping his sores with his own garment. For Francis, it was a break through. He would later write that in the moment, Francis was able to see the image of G-d hiding behind the distressing disguise of poverty, disease and social rejection. And thereafter, Francis began a life of serving the poor and the lepers, a ministry he saw as nothing more than what G-d expected of any follower of Jesus. This he did at no small expense to himself. The chances are that his eventual blindness as well as the famed stigmata which appeared on his hands and feet may well have been the result of his contact with the lepers he served.

Francis’ life and example present those of us who would follow Jesus with a number of questions. Ask yourself: On whose faces do I have the most difficulty seeing and honoring the image of G-d? When I see homeless people, do I connect with their humanity or do I pass immediately into judgment, blaming them for their own misery? And, with an election approaching, will my vote be cast in a manner that insures that workers are paid a fair wage and that the concerns of the poor and the needy are met?

        Finally, our Gospel reading analogizes the following of Jesus to taking on a yoke, the wooden block that allowed oxen to be steered in order to plow the fields. Jesus tells us his yoke is easy, its burden light. The way of Jesus was not about getting one’s beliefs right, a very modern way of seeing religion. Rather, it was about how one lived, a way of being the people of G-d.

Use Words (Only) When Necessary

        Francis sought to live out the Gospel quite literally. When a talking crucifix at an abandoned chapel in San Damiano told him he should “rebuild my church,” Francis went out and began collecting stones. For Francis, believing was not enough. A faith that centered only on beliefs and ritual, focused on the life hereafter while ignoring the here and now, missed the point. Francis was prone to say “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words (only) when necessary.” For Francis, a faith worth living was always incarnational, it was a lived faith, a faith evidenced in practice.

        In keeping with that vision of incarnational faith, I would remind us that our church is in Francis’ debt for two of its most cherished services. Francis was concerned that the poor - who were inevitably illiterate – would be excluded from the good news of Jesus. And so his friars created the living nativity scene at Christmas and the Stations of the Cross during Lent. As a result, the Gospels literally came alive. And we are all the better for it.

        Francis leaves us with an important question: If our lives are the only gospels other people will ever read, what would they say? Would our lives evidence the good news of G-d’s love for all of creation? Would our gratitude for G-d’s generosity, our ability to see the image of G-d on all human faces and our respect for G-d’s good creation prompt others to ask, “What is it you know that I don’t?”

Let us pray:
Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace gladly to renounce the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfect joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. AMEN.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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