Francis is among the most beloved of saints, especially here in the American southwest. Franciscan Friars were among the first Christians to come to this land, and Archbishop Lamy’s imposing cathedral basilica in Santa Fe is named for Francis; statues of Francis adorn countless gardens (as does one here in church today), and congregations enthusiastically bless animals each year on the Feast of St. Francis (as we shall ourselves do this afternoon). Even the current pope has taken Francis’ name, hoping to signal a new era of humility and concern in the church for the poor, the earth, and the refugee.
So to invoke the name of St. Francis brings to mind many images, and none as strongly as his idyllic relationship to nature. Francis called the animals as well as the sun, moon and stars his brothers and sisters—even death itself he regarded as kin. In this naturalistic vein, we may also recall Francis’ famous sermon to the birds, when he celebrated their own giftedness as God’s creatures, reminding them to “praise your Creator and always love him; for he gave you feathers to cloth you, and wings so that you can fly.”
These images, however, are actually a rather sanitized version of the real Francis. The historical Francis of late 12th century Italy was more like an Old Testament prophet, living a life of peculiar eccentricity and isolation, while preaching a vehement message of repentance to a corrupt and complacent church and society. Indeed Francis’ preaching to the birds was not just an affectionate gesture toward these creatures, his brothers and sisters, but it was also a prophetic denunciation of the papal court of Rome where his calls for spiritual reform had found few sympathetic hearers—perhaps, he reasoned, if he left the city and went into the fields, at least the birds might listen!
But the dimension of Francis’ life that we most often miss in the rather idealized portrayals of him to which we have become accustomed, is his complete personal identification with the crucified Christ. Francis was absolutely insistent, like Paul in today’s epistle reading, that the only thing in which human beings can put their trust and confidence, is the cross of Jesus. “Even one demon,” he once wrote, “knows more than all of humanity put together. But in this we can glory: bearing daily the holy cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In fact, so close was Francis’ identification with Christ’s sufferings that he is said to have received the stigmata, the sign of Christ’s wounds, into his own flesh. Be that as it may, one thing is clear: the driving energy behind Francis’ itinerant mission was nothing other than an intense and unrelenting awareness of walking the way of the cross.
But here is the remarkable thing: one might think that by focusing on Jesus’ suffering, Francis would have succumbed to a rather gloomy and despairing worldview, as much of medieval spirituality did. Yet for Francis, Christ’s willingness to die on the cross to redeem humankind opened for him a new world of possibility and hope. Francis was able to imagine a world entirely restored and recreated in Christ, and so his life and preaching was dedicated to the proposition that while Jesus calls to us from the cross to confront the darkest and most hidden places of ourselves, he does so in order to bring to those dark recesses of our souls light, beauty, forgiveness, restoration, and renewal.
The great gift Francis gave to the church, if you like, was an ability to imagine what the Kingdom of God might look like in the world of 12th century Italy, and he set out to bring that vision to reality. In a world of crusades, plagues, and wars, Francis could imagine a world of gentleness and peace; a world of beauty and wonder; a world of harmony and equanimity that could be brought about by the practice of Christian virtues such as humility, generosity, charity, and patience.
And whether we realize it or not, this I think is the real source of our enduring affection for Francis. More than just being a companion with nature, he seems to have found a way to inhabit the Kingdom of God in a manner which we desire to live as well. Like him, we too want to have a sense of belonging gently and easily in the world; we too want to feel that sense of fraternal warmth with our fellow human beings that Francis had not only with his monastic brothers, but the whole of creation; we too want to have the sense of life abundant without having to be weighed down with abundant possessions. In short, at some deep level we want to live in the world in which Francis lived; to inhabit the same spiritual terrain as he did; to have the same confidence and hope with which he met the trials of his day.
Like Francis, I think that we at St. Michael’s have been blessed in some measure with the spiritual imagination to think of what the world might look like if it were lived as the Kingdom of God—not in Francis’ 12th century Rome, but our 21stcentury Albuquerque. We see a world in which there is a place for everyone at the table; a world in which the poor are fed and the homeless sheltered, yet also given the hope for opportunity and success; a world in which children are loved, clothed, inspired and educated; a world in which those who grieve are consoled, those who are ill are comforted, and those who are at work are encouraged; and a world in which those who seek to know God more deeply are not only welcomed, but joined in their spiritual pilgrimage. Open hands, open hearts, and open minds: that is the vision to which we recommitted and pledged ourselves at last Sunday’s celebration of new ministry.
Now this week you will be receiving (if you have not already) an invitation to consider how you will help make possible the realization of this vision for Building the Kingdom of God in this parish through your own financial generosity in the coming year. As you do so, it would be good to recall that like the life of Francis, our own Christian lives are nothing less than a rich fabric of life-long practices through which we nurture a vision of that world, that Kingdom, which we wish to inhabit, and which we are each helping to build. Generous giving—giving with enough abandon to feel true joy in the doing of it—is one of those practices that makes up Christian living. There are others (hospitality, stability, honesty, patience), but giving is one that especially opens us to God’s grace, because giving is God’s own primary relationship with us. Seen in this light, giving toward the work of the church is not paying a due or meeting an obligation, but rather a cultivation of that pattern of generosity in ourselves which we long for in the whole of God’s Kingdom.
Francis was deeply convinced that one person, every person, makes an decisive difference by how he or she lives. “Sanctify yourself,” he said, “and you will sanctify the world.” Perhaps on this occasion, as we ponder the commitments we will make, we might paraphrase that thought to read, “Give generously, and you will make the world generous.”
As Francis himself prayed: “All-powerful, most holy, most high, and supreme God: all good, supreme good, totally good, You who alone are good; may we give You all praise, all glory, all thanks, all honor: all blessing, and all good things. So be it. So be it. Amen.”
© Joseph Britton, 2015