Sunday, October 06, 2013

Renouncing the Vanities: The Way of St. Francis

Sermon, Feast of St. Francis of Assisi
St. Richards Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL
Sunday, October 7. 2013

Psalm 148:7-14
Matthew 11:25-30

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

 Let us begin this morning with a prayer from the Franciscan tradition called

The Absorbeat

May the power of your love, Lord Christ,
fiery and sweet as honey,
so absorb our hearts
as to withdraw them from all that is under heaven.
Grant that we may be ready
to die for love of your love,
who were so good as to die for love of our love. Amen

            I would like thank you for your kind invitation to preach this morning. And I need to point out that there is no small amount of pressure on the preacher who is delivering a sermon on the feast day of a saint whose most famous statement was, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words only when necessary!”  

            This is a joyful day on the church’s calendar. The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi is the event those of us who are owned by non-human animal companions look forward to each year. In the name of this saint, we come to our parish with our beloved furry, feathered, finned and scaled family members to have them blessed. In so doing, we recognize in a very intentional way the blessing that they are in our own lives every single day. All around us, creatures of G-d are making a joyful noise, singing a wondrous hymn to the Creator of all living beings.

The Prince of Fools’ Conversion

            Little wonder that Francis is often seen as the second most beloved saint in the Christian tradition right behind the Virgin Mary. So perhaps it would be helpful to know a little about this very human saint in whose name we gather this day.

            Francis was born the son of a prosperous cloth merchant in Assisi. As a well-to-do youth with no small sense of entitlement, Francis earned a reputation in Assisi as a hell raiser and rabble rouser. He was adored for his ability to sing and tell funny stories and was dubbed “The Prince of Fools” by his comrades.

            Like every noble family of late medieval Italy, Francis sought to win glory through service in the military. But he was captured by the nearby city-state Perugia, cast into prison awaiting his family’s ransom money. Francis emerged a broken man, without a sense of purpose or value. This was a man ripe for an encounter with the holy.

            Increasingly Francis became convinced that a life of unearned privilege lived in the face of abject poverty and suffering was indefensible. Leaving his father’s cloth factory behind, he began to spend long periods in the nearby woods and hillsides where he found immense beauty in the flora and fauna of central Italy. Ironically, while virtually every pet owner feels a kinship to St. Francis, we have no record of Francis every actually owning any pets. But he was enchanted by the beasts of the wild and was prone to preach to the birds. And he inevitably spoke of the image of G-d all living beings evidenced.

            What made Francis a saint, however, was not his love of the non-human animals. Rather, it was his love of very human animals living lives of misery - the many poor people at the bottom of medieval society’s social pyramid. If there was a single turning point in Francis’ life, it was his encounter with a leper outside the gates of Assisi one day. Lepers suffered not only the physical pain of deteriorating bodies, they also suffered from being outcast from family and friends, required to live lives of begging and desperation at the edge of the cities.

            The apocryphal story of Francis’ conversion resembles that of St. Paul. Francis encounters the leper, gets down from his horse, embraces the leper, cleans his sores and feeds him.  Thus would begin a long life of service to the poor and the sick that marks the Franciscan charism. Indeed, there is fairly strong evidence that the famed stigmata Francis bore was the result of his own contraction of leprosy.

            For Francis, the questions that would arise from that encounter would always be these: Where is the image of G-d on this human face hiding under the distressing disguise of poverty, sickness and social rejection? More importantly, what prevents me from seeing it?

Can We Renounce Them Gladly?

            In our collect today, we ask G-d to assist us in gladly renouncing the vanities of this world so that we might delight in the good creation – all of it.  This, the collect tells us, is what it means to follow the Way of Francis. But what are these vanities we must renounce and is it possible for us to renounce them gladly?

            Our psalm today gives us a starting place in answering those questions. The Psalmist implores us to “Praise the Lord from the earth!” and commences a litany of the goodness of creation – fire and hail, snow and fog, tempestuous winds – yes, even Tropical Storm Karen is a part of the good creation. It continues with mountains, trees, wild and domesticated beasts, and finally ends with the human animals - all peoples of all ages and every social rank.  The good creation is the means by which G-d is exalted. It reflects the divine splendor which extends over the whole earth and all the way into the heavens.  And it is the place where all of the children of G-d may delight.

            But the Way of Francis demands more than merely installing a tasteful statue of the good saint in our backyard birdbath. Following the Way of Francis is easier said than done, particularly when the vanities of this world are so appealing.

            One wonders how Francis would respond to the news from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change last week. If the scientists are right, and they say they are now 95% certain, it would seem that the good creation is in fairly serious trouble. We might note that our own prayer book recognizes this concern in its reference to “This fragile earth, our island home.”  What happens when we ignore the fragility of the good creation? To what other island home could we possibly escape?

            What might a serious undertaking to follow the Way of Francis mean for the vehicles we buy, how we drive them and who rides in those vehicles with us? What might the Way of Francis say to us about the diet we eat, the foods imported from around the world that we take for granted, regardless of the impact on the good earth their production might entail? What might the Way of Francis say to us about our addiction to fast food, the hamburger whose beef is the most labor and materials intensive food human beings consume?

            Perhaps more importantly, what might the Way of Francis say to us about our addictive use of technologies that has become more dangerous than driving while intoxicated and that has spawned a decline in civility, a decimation of interpersonal skills and a deterioration in communication capabilities for people of all ages? I find no small amount of irony in the fact that as the state of our natural world deteriorates around us, we are less and less aware of it because we spend more and more time in virtual worlds idolatrously worshipping the work of our own hands.

Seeing the Little Ones

            The Way of Francis is also spelled out in our Gospel today. Jesus thanks G-d for revealing to the anawim, Hebrew for the little ones, the wisdom of the kingdom of heaven even as the Scribes and Pharisees, those seen as wise and intelligent, simply miss the picture altogether. No doubt, a G-d who reveals wisdom to the lowest members of Judean society while ignoring those believed to be worthy of receiving it would have been quite a shock to virtually everyone who heard Jesus say this.  Indeed, imagine how we would hear it today – “I thank the God who created heaven and earth who has hidden wisdom from the Wall Street brokers, the federal court judges, this university professor and revealed it to the hard hat construction worker, the HIV-infected prostitute and the sanitation worker. It is they who evidence gentle and humble hearts.”
            The Way of Francis demands that we see the image of G-d in the face of every living being, especially those in which that image is not immediately apparent. And when it is not readily visible, the Way of Francis requires that we ask ourselves what it is in ourselves that prevents us from seeing that image. For the follower of Jesus and Francis, becoming aware of one’s spiritual blindness is a life-long process. And it begins much closer than you might think.

            Last week in Pittsburgh, 83 year old Margaret Mary Vojtko, a languages professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh for more than a quarter of a century, was laid to rest. Margaret Mary was never tenured and worked as an adjunct instructor. Her job provided no health care and barely paid a living wage. As her health declined, her classes were cut by the university and at her death she was making less than $10,000 a year. When her cancer returned, Margaret Mary was scrambling to pay for treatment, was unable to pay to keep the electricity running in her crumbling home making it uninhabitable in winter. Her greatest concern at the time of her death was that she’d be turned over to the Orphans Court.

            There are a lot of Margaret Marys in higher education. I know because I work with them daily myself. Many of them virtually live in their cars, travelling from campus to campus to teach their one or two classes. We who are full-time employed condescendingly call them freeway flyers. But the dirty little secret of higher education is that universities like my own, which now advertises itself as the University of Comfort and Fun, find the money for Club Med dorms and multimillion dollar fitness centers in part by paying graduate educated adjunct faculty less than a living wage. To paraphrase the question I regularly pose to my undergraduates:

Comfort for whom? Fun at whose expense?

            For this to work, all of us who are the beneficiaries of this system – including myself - must engage in a systematic and sustained unseeing of that reality. We must refuse to acknowledge what is right in front of us. We must pretend we do not see and reassure ourselves that even if we did, there’s nothing we could ever do. We readily quote Jesus in saying “The poor you will always have with you” even as we readily omit the remainder of the passage in Mark: ”and you can help them anytime you want.” To unsee the other is to willfully enter into spiritual blindness. And yet, both Jesus and Francis say to us this morning, if you wish to follow me, you must see the working poor in front of you, acknowledge their humanity and begin the hard process of asking ourselves why we treat them as we do. 

            “Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens…”

Following Francis or Fetishizing Him

            So, I ask us to consider this morning, who are the little ones in our own lives, the ones our culture tells us lack value and have no right to be recognized? What prevents us from seeing the image of G-d which is always there, lurking behind disguises of poverty, disease, social disapprobation? What do we have invested in the unseeing of those whose lives we all refuse to acknowledge? And what might we have to give up to see them long enough to recognize and honor the image of G-d which has always been there?

            Little wonder that in the collect this morning we pray that G-d will grant us sufficient grace to renounce the vanities of the world to follow the Way of Francis. We will certainly need G-d’s grace if we are to meet the demands of that calling. The question that remains for us this morning is whether we will choose to undertake the following of Francis or simply fetishize Francis with a tasteful statue in our birdbath and little more.

            I wish to close with a prayer actually written by a Benedictine, Sister Ruth Fox, OSB for a 1985 retreat but which well expresses the spirit of the Franciscan way. It is usually called the Franciscan Four Fold Blessing and I would ask you respond to each blessing with AMEN.

            May God bless you with a restless discomfort over easy answers, half- truths and superficial relationships so that you may live and love deep within your heart. AMEN.

            May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of all living beings so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom and peace. AMEN.

            May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, hunger or the loss of all they cherish so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy. AMEN.

            And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world so that you are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done. AMEN. 

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, M.Div. 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.
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