Seventeenth Weekend After Pentecost (A/RCL): St. Francis of Assisi
September 30-October 1, 2017
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
I told my mom’s aide that we’re blessing the animals at Holy Trinity this Sunday at 2. I explained we always do this on the 1st Sunday of October, because it’s close to Oct. 4, the heavenly birthday of St. Francis of Assisi. Elsie’s Roman Catholic and knows that I’m Lutheran. She said, “Oh, you’re borrowing our saint?” I “resembled” that remark! I pointed out that Francis lived 300 years before the Reformation, so there wasn’t any “us” and “them” yet. I also said he was a great friend of Jesus, and we thank God for his witness of faith active in love.
Elsie isn’t the only one surprised that Lutherans commemorate saints. Lutheran pastor and author Philip Pfatteicher wrote aHandbook to the Calendar in Lutheran Book of Worship. (He also wrote a sequel for the updated calendar in our red ELW [Evangelical Lutheran Worship]). In the intro he explains that interspersing the stories of “saints,” fellow mere mortals, with the life of Jesus over the course of the church year helps us see how Gospel faith takes wonderful shape in the unique lives of incredibly different people who have lived in every time and place and circumstance. Their stories remind us that our stories are also meant to be sacred story. He wrote, “So the Gospel is brought down to daily living, and daily living becomes the work of God.”1 Each of us has received a holy calling, a divine vocation, in Holy Baptism, to be little Christs in this world, wherever we live, work, study, play.
More than 1 person has said to me after I preach a sermon like this, “I’m no saint, Pastor Mary!” Well, I’m not either, if you mean perfect! The stereotype of a “saint” is a static statue standing on a pedestal, whose story seems pretty far removed from ours: virgins, martyrs, great theologians, people living in slums and laboring in love with the poorest of the poor. What part of our life resembles any of that??
But in the Augsburg Confession, bedrock explanation of our Lutheran faith, we read:
It is… taught among us that saints should be kept in remembrance so that our faith may be strengthened when we see what grace they received and how they were sustained by faith. Moreover, their good works are to be an example for us, each of us in his own calling. (Article XXI)
Let’s not forget that Paul wrote to the living “saints” in Rome and other places. He was reminding the flock that we are all “saints,” “holy” in the sense of being set apart for God’s purposes in Holy Baptism. Being a saint doesn’t mean you could look at my life under a microscope and find no fault. Being a saint means I – and you – have been consecrated, claimed for Christ, and called to live accordingly. Some of the people on our special calendar of commemorations didn’t have “churchy” jobs at all: they include not just physicians, nurses, social workers, but musicians, scientists, artists -- those who “by their service of society, by their creations, by their discoveries – sought to open humanity’s eyes to the beauty and manifold grace of God.”2
Sometimes folks go on pilgrimage to hear God’s call and see God’s face more clearly. Next year Pastor Mark & I hope to go on pilgrimage to Chartres, France. There is a labyrinth there that invited those who couldn’t literally go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land to make the journey in spirit. Can you guess what some of the most famous pilgrim destinations still are??
· Jerusalem (Jews, Christians, Muslims)
· Santiago de Compostela
I’ve been blessed to visit Assisi, the hometown of St. Francis. Some of you have, too. It’s not just charming: it’s mystically peace-full, beauty-full, with steep medieval stone-paved streets, overflowing window boxes, fork-tailed swallows wheeling overhead in the sky. I was last there in 1978; it was probably less crowded then J. Today there are 4-5 million pilgrims each year who visit Assisi. They’re not all Roman Catholic. They’re not all Christian. It has been said that “The layman Francis is perhaps the most popular saint of all time, revered by Christians and non-Christians alike.”3 Why would that be?? What do you know about Francis?
Here are some things you may not already know:
· He was baptized Giovanni (John); his name was changed to Francesco, partially because of his mother Pica’s love of all things French.
· His nickname was the Povarello, the Little Poor Man. We actually have a physical description of him. He was only 5 feet 3 inches tall. He had black hair and black eyes.
· He was a singer, a musician, a poet. He wrote the Canticle of the Sun, pretty much on his deathbed, which we sing as “All Creatures Worship God Most High.” He also wrote the Prayer of St. Francis (no surprise there ). It was Eisenhower’s favorite prayer, which he had memorized.
· He was a prisoner of war for a year. War, imprisonment, the illness that followed, helped pave the way for the conversion he experienced afterwards.
· Francis knelt in front of a crucifix one day in the little church of San Damiano, and heard the Lord say to him, “Francis, rebuild My church.” He took that literally (as he also took Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:7-13….4). In retrospect we believe the command was for Francis to reform the institutional church, and not just repair a church building.
· Francis never became a priest; he was a deacon.
· He was not an administrator! During his lifetime the number of Franciscans had grown to the thousands. They came to Assisi for a convention, and since Francis had made no arrangements for their lodging or food, the good people of Assisi had to scramble to accommodate them all (sort of like the people of Gander?).
· His soul mate was Clare, also from Assisi, a young woman of wealth who forsook it all to lead a life of prayer and who founded an order of nuns, the Poor Clares, who still follow Franciscan spirituality.
· In the midst of the Fifth Crusade, Francis and his friend, Brother Illuminato, made a daredevil trip to Egypt to visit and attempt to convert the Turkish Sultan al-Kamil.
· On the Feast of the Holy Cross, Sept. 14, a year before he died, Francis received the stigmata, Christ-like nail marks and spear wound. How that happened is a mystery; why is at least partially because Francis had prayed to share His Lord’s suffering. That it happened is verified by independent sources.
· Francis suffered terrible eye problems and became blind toward the end of his life. He died at the age of 44, laid naked on the ground at his request, in communion with his Lord and with Mother Earth….
· Most importantly, Francis didn’t just love God. He was in love with God! That love naturally overflowed to God’s children and all of God’s creation: creatures, flowers, earth, air, fire, water.
Humility, humor, joy, love, community, compassion, faith, friendship are all watchwords for Francis of Assisi. In today’s epistle from the letter to the Philippians Paul writes this to the saints, advice which Francis took to heart:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…. (Philippians 2:1-5)
Francis could be the patron saint not just of Italy but of prisoners of war, of the environment, of animal welfare leagues, of interfaith dialogue, of all who advocate for and serve the poor. Lots of good things to emulate. Yet the Lord doesn’t call us to be Francis. The Lord calls us to be ourselves. I love the motto: “Be yourself. Everybody else is already taken.” We live here. And now. This is our watch. God needs us to minister in our own home, neighborhood, school, workplace, circle of family and friends, using our particular gifts. Let’s take Francis’ advice to heart: “Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words.” In closing, let’s pray together the Prayer of St. Francis on p. 87 in the front of the red ELW. (It’s the second prayer on the page.)
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham
1Philip H. Pfatteicher, Festivals and Commemorations: Handbook to the Calendar in Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1980), p. 11.
2Ibid, p. 19.
3Gail Ramshaw, More Days for Praise: Festivals and Commemorations in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2016), p. 228.
4 Matthew 10:7-13: 7As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”* 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers,* cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food. 11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. 12As you enter the house, greet it. 13If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.