I remember years ago offering an adult forum on the saints. It’s a topic that people who come to the Episcopal Church from other traditions tend to be curious about: Do you have saints? Do you have different saints from the Roman church? How does one get to be a saint in the Episcopal Church? (Stick around: maybe we’ll cover some of this in an upcoming offering.) In any case, when I offered my little class on the subject, I began the conversation asking everyone to go around the room, introduce themselves, and share something about their favorite saint. One person said her favorite saint was Mary. Another said Polycarp. (You’ll want to look him up later.) Everyone else in the room said Francis.
St. Francis is like that. St. Francis is easy to love. What’s not to like about a guy who is always pictured with birds on his shoulders and lambs and bunnies at his feet?
With Francis, though, perhaps more than many other saints, we are in danger of over-simplifying or nicening-up who he was, and we run the risk of missing something important in the process. Francis was a complex figure and, like most of the saints, a bit of a troublemaker. Francis is sort of like a quirky relative whose eccentric behavior may, at times, keep us from taking her seriously. Or we see her as merely a two-dimensional character.
Like so many of the Saints-with-a-capital-S, Francis, who lived from about 1180 to 1225, was born into a privileged family and opted for a course radically different from the one planned for him. When he chose a life of poverty, his father disowned him and wrote him off.
I recently came across a 2013 article in the New Yorker that describes Francis as “scrawny and plain-looking,” wearing “a filthy tunic…and no shoes. While preaching, he often would dance, weep, make animal sounds, strip to his underwear, or play the zither. His black eyes sparkled….Women locked themselves in their houses.”
As Francis became better known and loved, these same qualities endeared people to him. “When he arrived in town, church bells rang. People stole the water in which he had washed his feet; it was said to cure sick cows.”
Shortly before he died, Francis wrote that his conversion came about while working with lepers who lived outside his home town of Assisi. “When I lived in sin,” he wrote, “seeing lepers was a very bitter experience for me. God himself guided me into their midst and among them I performed acts of charity. What appeared bitter to me became sweetness of the soul and body.”
Francis was a complex human being and our readings this morning speak to that complexity. As I read through the selections from Jeremiah, the Psalm, Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and Matthew’s gospel, I felt as though Francis was preaching each one of the distinct messages we’ve heard this morning.
The selection from Jeremiah calls for renunciation of the world in terms of our attention to building up material comforts at the expense of resources that might otherwise be devoted to righteousness and justice. This got my attention and made me wonder whether Jeremiah, and Francis, might be nudging me to lighten up on the energy and attention it takes to create a nice place to live (for example). Perhaps we’re supposed to focus instead on being at home anywhere, as Francis was.
The psalm speaks to Francis’ love of all creation, God present in the sun, the moon, and all living creatures. This may seem like a normal aspect of Christian spirituality to most of us, but in Francis’ time it was part of his eccentricity. It is from this love of all creation that we extrapolate Francis’ love of animals.
If, when we think about Francis, we think only of his love of animals, especially those animals we happen to also love, we miss something. Think instead for a moment about the new creation Paul preaches about in his letter to the Galatians. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! Paul’s intent was not to discredit the circumcision faction or the uncircumcision factor, but to urge his audience and, by extension, the rest of us, back to the fundamentals of being a follower of Jesus. Some of you may have witnessed an impassioned Facebook debate on my page the other day about the use of incense in worship. I think Francis might have said: Incense? No incense? It doesn’t matter. Love God, love the poor, love the earth, and love with a love so radical that everyone thinks you’re out of your mind.
I said earlier that Francis was a bit of a troublemaker. He didn’t make trouble for the institutions of the church or civil society, he made trouble for people like us. People like me, I should say, speaking only for myself. Francis forces me to look at my own material attachments, from my mid-morning latte ritual to where I live. If I pay attention to all of Francis, not just the animal-loving Francis, he forces me to ask myself hard questions. No wonder many of us would rather stick to Francis and the animals.
We want Francis to be the easy-to-love saint, but he’s actually a challenging saint. I’ve titled this sermon: “A Franciscan Challenge.” Francis challenges us to see God everywhere. He challenges us to voluntary poverty. He challenges us to let go of everything expect the gospel of Christ. He challenges us to be a new creation. If you read a whole lot of Francis stories you’ll know he also challenges us to flexibility and cheerfulness. He challenges us to be fools for the sake of Christ.
Make no mistake: there is only one St. Francis. Which is good news for me. As we are embark together on the journey of getting to know each other, I’ll tell you right off that I don’t measure up to Francis and to the challenges he represents. And this bothers me. I want to be more selfless and more Christlike than I am. We don’t need to sleep on rocks or stop washing our clothes. I do believe we need to be uncomfortable in light of Francis, and to be troubled, and moved, by the challenges he offers.
As we turn, in a few moments, to our prayers, to confession, and to gather at this table, I invite you to think about the Franciscan challenge. What challenge does Francis offer you? How will you respond?