Friday, April 20, 2018

Preaching for the Birds (Matthew 10:7-10) by Grant Kay


On March 13, 2013, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was named Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Bergoglio was a surprising choice to a lot of people, due to his age, his nationality, his religious order, and more. But the thing that stood out about Cardinal Bergoglio was that his whole career had been spent in service and care for the poor. He was known for his dedication to living a simple, humble life with few possessions, and his willingness to live and work with the poor, sick, and needy. When it came time for Bergoglio to be introduced to the world as the new pope, it was revealed that he had chosen a name that no pope had ever taken: Pope Francis. The name choice was in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, who dedicated his life to following God by serving the poor, and who, in doing so, awoke an entire generation of devout Christians.

The man we call St. Francis was born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone in either 1181 or 1182 AD, in the town of Assisi, in northern Italy. His father was Italian and his mother was French, and hew as not very tall as a child, and so was given the nickname Francesco, which means “little Frenchman,” from which we get Francis today. Francis’ early life is actually quite similar to the life of Augustine that we learned about last week, though not entirely. Francis was somewhat spoiled and indulged as a child, and was quite self-centered as a result. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant, and Francis loved fine clothes, good food, and expensive parties. Though he was a Christian, he was one in name only. His life did not bear any marks of real faith at the time.

In 1202, at about 20 years old, Francis went off to war. While in the army, he was captured, and spent the next year in captivity and illness. During this time his spiritual conversion began. When he was finally able to return home, he began to avoid the parties and games of his carefree days. He spent a great deal of time praying in a run-down old chapel in San Damiano, just outside of Assisi. While he prayed at San Damiano, he experienced the same vision three times, in which the Christ on the cross of the chapel spoke to him and said, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My House which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” Francis assumed that this vision was about the chapel he was in, which was in great disrepair. So he sold some of his father’s golden cloth and used the money to rebuild the chapel.

When his father heard about this, he was furious. His son had stolen valuable merchandise and then spent it all! Francis’ father dragged him before the bishop and began legal proceedings against him. At that moment, Francis made the decision that he would change his life: He decided to renounce his whole life, give up his inheritance and family business, and leave. In order to owe nothing to his father, Francis even took off the clothes he was wearing at that moment, gave them to his father, and then walked out of the court naked and went straight into the woods.

From that time on, Francis lived the life of a poor wanderer. One day when he stopped in a church, he heard these words from Matthew 10 from our scripture reading. Francis took this message to heart and chose to live as simply as possible, in imitation of Jesus. He also began to see that Jesus chose to identify with the poor, and so he took a vow of poverty. He lived only by begging for food, and he also taught others as he travelled. He also begged for money to give to the poor, and spent much of his time helping those who lived in abject poverty. He had no possessions, and spent a great deal of time in nature.

Even later in life, when he had founded a monastic order and lived with others, it was said that Francis would spend up to half of each year in the natural world, away from people and cities, praying and communing with God. Francis loved God’s creation, and never ceased to worship God for the things he made. The famous hymn, “All Creatures of Our God and King” was written by St. Francis. That hymn represents Francis’ love of nature, and his desire that the whole earth, not just humanity, should give praise to God.

There is a famous story about St. Francis that he was trying to decide whether to retreat into nature, or go back into the cities to teach. In a fit of inspiration, he ran up to a flock of birds and began to preach to them about Jesus. The story has it that none of the birds flew away until he had finished preaching and made the sign of the cross over them! As wild as that story sounds, it reveals Francis’ deep connection to the natural world, and his love of God’s creation. The story says that when he came back to his friends after preaching to the birds, he accused himself of negligence because he had never preached to the birds before then!

Despite Francis’ love for nature, he could not remain entirely out of human society. By 1209, he had about a dozen friends and followers who had begun to imitate his lifestyle and travel with him. So Francis decided to found a monastic order, which meant that the Catholic Church would officially support his ministry and would allow others to follow his path. In order to found a monastic order, you had to have permission from the Pope. Otherwise, you could be declared a heretic for practicing something that was against the church. There was just one problem: Francis wasn’t just out there living like a hermit, caring for the poor, and preaching to animals, he was also challenging the structure of the Catholic Church.

When Francis chose to take a vow of poverty, and people started to follow him, it began to raise questions about the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. You see, many bishops, cardinals, and popes over the centuries had amassed incredible wealth through their church offices. It probably comes as no surprise to any of us today that powerful people were abusing their power to obtain incredible wealth. The bishops and cardinals of Italy were perfectly content to oversee the church and live comfortable lives of wealth, until along came this voice in the wilderness of Assisi, living in poverty and caring for the poor.

You can see why it might have been a bit daunting for Francis to go to Rome and seek approval for his monastic order. For the pope to approve of Francis and his followers would be to acknowledge that the riches of the Catholic Church were un-Christ-like. Yet Francis believed that his life and his group of followers were ordained by God and living in a way that was pleasing to Him. The pope at the time was Pope Innocent III, who had inherited great wealth from his predecessors. Innocent was somewhat uneasy with the idea of a wealthy church, but he was not about to change the status quo.

When Francis came to him for permission to start his monastic order, he came in his beggar’s clothes. When Pope Innocent saw Francis, he said that he looked and smelled like a pig, and he should go wallow among the pigs Francis, instead of taking the insult and leaving, went to a pig sty, rolled around, and returned to the Pope saying, “Father, I have done as you ordered; now, will you do as I request?” Pope Innocent was impressed with this display of humility and obedience, and allowed Francis to officially form his monastic order.

With official approval, the Franciscan order quickly grew. A woman named Clare founded a sister organization that soon became known as the Second Order of Franciscans, but was also known as the Poor Clares. After that, there were many who wanted to live in imitation of Jesus and follow the Franciscan Rule, but felt it necessary to remain in their jobs, families, and so on. These people were also formed into communities and became the Third Order of Franciscans. Thus, the Franciscan movement began to spread in all facets of Christianity: men and women were joining the movement, whether it was the first, second, or third order.

Francis also tried to spread the message of the gospel around the world. He made a trip to Egypt in an attempt to convert the Muslim Sultan to Christianity. This shows the boldness of Francis, in that he travelled deep into territory controlled by Muslims, at a time when Muslims and Christians were constantly at war, just to try and win people for Jesus. Supposedly, Francis was able to gain an audience with the Egyptian Sultan, but wasn’t able to convince him to convert. However, the sultan was so impressed by Francis that he granted him safe passage back to Italy.

Francis spent many years leading his monastic brothers and sister, teaching them and trying to keep them humble. Thanks to the rapid growth of the movement, there was always the temptation to give up humility or poverty in exchange for the glory and wealth of the world, just as the bishops and cardinals had done before them. So Francis worked hard to make sure that his followers would not give in to these temptations. He spent the final years of his life continuing to live in poverty, teaching about the life of Jesus to all who would listen, and growing his Franciscan order to become the largest monastic order of the time.

For a church that had become increasingly wealthy and hierarchical, Francis was nothing short of revolutionary. Francis called people out of their comfortable lives and into service, poverty, and humility. He challenged the dominant power of his day, not through revolution or fighting but through the example of his life. Francis’ vision from his youth, of Jesus telling him to “repair my house” had become about so much more than a small chapel. He had begun to repair the whole Church from its ruin of excessive wealth and comfort.

The life of St. Francis has many lessons for us. First, follow the calling of God in your life. If Francis had not obeyed the small call of rebuilding that chapel in San Damiano, who knows if he ever would have embarked on the path of his life. Francis shows us that God cares not only about humans, but about the world that he created: the animals, plants, birds, and the rest. Finally, Francis shows us the power of following the example of Jesus in our life. Francis’ commitment to living like Christ was revolutionary enough to change the whole church.

I would like to close with a prayer written by St. Francis that has remained a powerful and popular prayer down to this day. Let us pray,

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I 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.

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