Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“May I never boast of anything except the cross of Jesus Christ.” (Gal. 6)
If you ask me, St. Francis gets sold short. The ubiquitous statues of him in gardens, for instance, imply that he is little more than a lover of nature. He was that, but he was also more.
Or, the blessing of the animals that has become so popular this time of year hints that he is best remembered as a lover of animals. He was that, but he was also more.
He was, for instance, someone who conscientiously shed any encumbrance that stood between him and following Jesus—whether the obstacle was wealth, or status, or security.
Yet he was no hermit. He was also someone who devoted himself to the project of rebuilding the church, at a time when it was morally lax and spiritually vacuous.
And so he was someone who unashamedly challenged the powers that be, preaching a gospel of renewal even to the pope himself. In fact, it was when no one at the papal court would listen to him, that he went into the fields to give his famous sermon to the birds, as a rhetorical sign that if no one else would listen to him, perhaps at least they would.
Francis was also the founder of a monastic tradition that carries on to this day, some 800 years later, built on the foundation of worldly poverty and spiritual humility. We here in the Southwest are especially aware of this tradition, as it was Franciscan friars who first brought Christianity to this part of the world.
Yet in his own lifetime, and in the years shortly thereafter, Francis was best known for his intense personal identification with Jesus—an identification so intense and profound, that it is said that he came to bear the wounds of Christ, the stigmata, in his own flesh. And so today’s New Testament reading has an especially powerful resonance with this dimension of Francis’ life: he boasted of nothing, save the cross of Christ, and “carried the marks of Jesus branded on his own body,” as the reading says.
All this adds up to the fact that Francis embodied a great paradox: his whole life was a drive toward complete simplicity, yet the commitment and insight that drove him toward that simplicity were themselves multilayered and highly complex.
And I suspect that it is this paradox that is the real reason for Francis’ enduring popularity as a saint. We are instinctively drawn both to the focus and intensity of his life, yet also identify with the struggles he had in achieving it.
If you go to the webpage of the Secular Franciscans (that is, people who live a Franciscan way of life but are not part of a monastic community), you’ll notice that simplicity of life is at the heart of their rule. “Remove the meaningless,” the website banner reads, “to return to the meaningful.”
What strikes me on this particular Feast of St. Francis, is that in these pandemic times, one of the gifts that has been given to us is an opportunity and the encouragement to do exactly that: “Remove the meaningless, to return to the meaningful.” As you know, on Friday the United States passed 700,000 recorded deaths from Covid-19 on Friday; the world has now lost 4.8 million. Confronted with so much death and surrounded by so much tension and animosity, we are being driven back to reclaim what matters most to us, both individually and as a community.
Some people for instnace are changing, or leaving careers. Some people are reconnecting with family and friends. Some people are reordering their use of time. It’s as if the spirit of Francis is blowing through our lives, encouraging us to declutter, to change, to simplify.
In a little book called The Post-Quarantine Church, church consultant Thom Rainer writes that of nine key changes facing the church in these times, the most important is simplicity and clarity of purpose. If busyness characterized the pre-pandemic church, focus will characterize successful churches now. “There will be the temptation,” Rainer writes, “to return to the complex church of the past. … Just say no. … Healthy churches in this new era will be focused churches, congregations that do a few things well.”
How appropriate, therefore, that the first of our “Emmaus Gatherings” during this stewardship season is happening today, on the Feast of St. Francis. Designed as a time to take stock of what has happened, and to imagine the future, these conversations give us opportunity to do exactly what Rainer suggests: to become more focused and deliberate about what we do as a church.
The story surrounding today’s gospel texts is a good example of such deeply-grounded simplicity. Soon after his conversion to a life of poverty, Francis took two of his new companions with him into the Church of St. Nicholas in Assisi, seeking to know God’s will for them. First they prayed, and then three times they opened the gospel book at random to read whatever turned up, and the three verses that jumped out at them were these: Give to the poor; Take nothing for yourself; and Take up your cross.
What could be simpler than these three imperatives, and yet what could be more complex and difficult to follow? But that’s the beauty of the Christian life: it is grounded in the simplicity of faith in Jesus, yet amplified by all the deep resonance and fullness of life that each of us brings to it. Following Jesus is no one thing, it is many things—and yet, it is a focused and intentional thing. That’s why it’s best to describe it as a way of life that touches everything we say and do, rather than something we just believe. And that, it seems to me, is what we can most profitably take from Francis’ own example—faith as a way of life, centered in Christ.
The French poet Paul Valéry once asked, “What is there more mysterious than clarity?” In the spirit of Francis, we might today paraphrase that question as, “What is there more complex than simplicity?” Amen.