A Sermon from Sherborne
Francis, a saint for today: A sermon for the Parish Eucharist on the Feast of St Francis of Assisi
Ever since I was a child and I received at Sunday school a picture of St Francis standing with birds on his arms and animals around his feet, he has been a saint who has held great appeal. Later in life when we had a Franciscan mission to our church, I began to see there was much more to the Franciscan way then just stories about Francis and wolves important though that story is. And even later again we at St James, became very involved with a Franciscan brother from Hilfield as he went through ordination training. St James was where he learnt about parish life, taking our services first as a deacon and then as a priest. He left us a legacy of Franciscan theology still very much alive today at St James, a theology of welcome and hospitality.
I suppose most typically Francis is still seen as the patron saint of wildlife. In recent years all things ‘green’ have also been added to his title. This would be acceptable to Francis, although he would probably ask us to remember the less appealing creatures: worms and bugs as well as swallows, rats and toads as well as cuddly lambs. But he would also want to ensure that the one who made all of creation was also remembered; God the creator of all things was central to his life and work.
Francis saw animals and birds as sharing in God’s gifts and he called them his brothers and sisters. He had strong views about how animals should be treated which were really out of kilter with the way of the 13th century. His love for his fellow man was even stronger than his love for the animal world and his burning desire was to bring them to an understanding of how they might have a real relationship with God their creator.
I suppose the one story we all know about Francis is the story of his vision of God in the tumbled down church of San Damiano, in which the Icon of Christ Crucified said to him, “Francis, Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” He took this to mean the physically ruined church in which he was praying and set about repairing the building. Later this was reinterpreted to mean that Francis should rebuild the church of God in terms of the way people worshipped and expressed their faith and we can see from the legacy of Francis that this was certainly something he worked to do. By 1209 he had gathered a small band of “brothers” (12 men who wished to share in his life and ministry). He wrote a Rule with poverty at its heart, and set off to Rome to gain the church’s approval for his work. This became the First Order of Franciscans, and Francis was elected its leader.
Francis wandered all over Italy and at one point crossed the Mediterranean and visited a Crusader expedition in Egypt. He crossed enemy lines, met with the sultan who was a Muslim. The sultan was unconvinced by the message Francis preached but was so impressed by Francis that he afforded him safe passage back. The time of Francis was an era, like many, in which corruption infected ecclesiastical circles and indifference permeated the laity. But as one contemporary noted, as a result of the preaching of the Franciscan brothers and sisters, “persons of both sexes, rich and worldly, have renounced possessions and, for the love of Christ, turned their backs on the world.” In short, Francis had begun a religious revival that spread over Europe; the call placed upon his life had begun to be answered.
So what is the legacy of St Francis for us today? The first is to make compassion the foundation for all that we do, for all our interactions with our fellow human beings. Francis never turned any one away and always sought to help those in need, whether it was a leper, or a village worried by a wolf. Compassion is such an important part of our Christian life; its definition is that we should have concern for the sufferings and misfortunes of others. As Christian people that should be one of the absolutes of our everyday life. Francis said that ‘the deeds you do may be the only sermon some people will hear today!’
And the second is for us to treat the Earth, our common home, with wisdom and that same compassion and to extend this compassion to all of the earth’s inhabitants, not just to the human species. This is so important to us now in the 21st century if we are to have the opportunity to reverse the damage we have caused to our planet in the last 150 years. We have to learn to live simpler lives, to use less plastic, to cutdown our waste. and to reduce our carbon footprint.
And finally, we have his legacy in the modern-day Franciscan movement men and women still attracted to the religious life. We are blessed to have Hilfield Friary on our doorstep and all the facilities and opportunities that this affords us. We have that constant presence of groups of men and women working in our church as tertiaries; third order Franciscans who keep the light of Francis alive in our communities. Franciscans are that presence in the church which nudges us when we get too full of our own importance and we forget that we are called to be servants of all.
Even though Francis does not appear in our lectionary as a feast day, to celebrate today is a fitting way to end our season of Creationtide which began at the beginning of September. Over the last few weeks all Christian churches around the world, have had an opportunity to learn, to give thanks and to reflect on the needs of this precious planet. A planet we share with our brothers and sisters, and with the natural world that we might in the words of St Francis, ’start by doing what is necessary; then do what is possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.’ Amen