The Feast of St. Francis
A Sermon by the Rev. Elizabeth Costello
Associate Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
Delivered in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
On Sunday, October, 2017
Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi. Typically celebrated on October 4, we transferred his feast to today, and celebrate this much beloved saint all day! This morning, our services include special prayers, readings, and hymns that tell us something about this man of God. Today at 5:00 p.m., we will hold the cherished Blessing of the Animals service, on the labyrinth, which also tells us something about Saint Francis.
Saint Francis is perhaps one of the most beloved and popular figures in Christianity. Next to Mary and Jesus, well, there is Francis. Poor Joseph, he always gets left out! Saint Francis is popular in other religions too, such as Islam. Many know him as the saint who preached to birds, tamed a wolf, or received the stigmata. His appearance as a birdbath in home gardens probably did the most for his popularity. But the St. Francis beyond the birdbath was not so domesticated, but a radical.
Francis was a radical in the true sense of the word. The word radical, in Latin, is radix, which means root, basic, or fundamental. In all of Francis’ efforts, he called the church back to her roots, back to the basics, back to her source: to Jesus. Francis’ call to bring the church back to her roots was born out of his own experience in being bring brought back to the source of his faith, to Jesus.
Born in Assisi, as a son of a wealthy merchant, biographers of his early life say that Francis “squandered his time,” and “outshone all his friends in trivialities.” Despite all his successes, expanding the family business, making financial gains, he felt restless. Like Saint Augustine, his heart was restless, until it found rest in God.
Francis finally found his rest in God after experiencing a vision in prayer. Recovering from an illness, Francis frequently went to an old dilapidated church in San Damiano to pray. On a day like any other, he had a vision while meditating on the crucifix. From the crucifix, he heard Jesus say three times: “Francis, go repair my house, which, as you can see, is falling completely to ruin.”
It was at that moment when Francis knew that he had to quit his day job, and spend his life rebuilding the church. Brick by brick, Francis helped to rebuild the church from within, by bringing her back to her roots – back to the source of her identity: to Jesus.
Francis thought that the way to get the church back to her roots was by rereading the life and teachings of Jesus, found in the gospels. Francis encouraged his followers and those who followed his rule of life to do the same. In fact, if you read his rule of life, you’ll notice that it is a string of Jesus’ teachings from the gospel.
Francis can even be accused of being a bit of a fundamentalist. He literally applied the teachings of Jesus to his life. When Jesus said to sell all that you have and give it to the poor, Francis did. As a son of a wealthy merchant, Francis had a lot of belongings to give away. He even went so far as to renounce all his father’s wealth and family titles.
When Jesus preached the beatitudes, saying, “blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Francis became poor, practicing voluntary poverty and rigorous ascetical practices, such as fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, so that he might receive the kingdom of heaven here on earth.
When Jesus said to pray for your enemies, Francis did just that, using his very body. During the crusades, a time when certain Christians tried to secure a path from Europe to Jerusalem through violence, Francis sought to secure a path through non-violence. Francis befriended the Sultan, whom he tried to convert. Francis thought that if the Sultan converted to Christianity from Islam, the violence would end. After repeated attempts to convert him, he finally realized that the Sultan was not going to convert, so they became friends. They even came to admire aspects about one another’s faith.
Francis tried to rebuild the local church too. We have Francis to thank for the Stations of the Cross and the Nativity scene. Both efforts were done so that people could encounter the story of Jesus without making an onerous and expensive trip to holy sites. All they had to do was to go to their local church, and like Francis, experience the source of their faith, Jesus.
Whenever we bring my two-year old daughter Evelyn to church, she almost immediately says, “Jesus!” When it is time to receive the Eucharist, Evelyn will receive the host, and almost always turn to my husband or me, and say, “more Jesus?!”
She always wants more Eucharist, more Jesus. Now whether it is the Eucharist doing its work, or the taste of the wafer; my daughter expects that when she comes to church, she will be met and be feed by Jesus, and will be left wanting more. As our gospel says, “something hidden” is being revealed to her infant-like faith.
And I think the same can be said for Saint Francis of Assisi. After having a transformational experience in church where Francis met Jesus; he was left wanting more. As he simplified his life and had a simple faith, something hidden was being revealed to him. His life and ministry was so that he and all the church could experience more Jesus.
And while we may look at his life and ministry and wonder how he managed it all, I think for Francis, it was through giving up so much, that he was able to make room for more God.
Like our gospel suggests, Francis found his rest in Jesus, who begs us to “come to me all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” In following the call in his life, God made his yoke easy and his burden light.
Francis often told his followers, and tells us today, “let us begin again.” Let us begin again with the roots of our faith. Let us go back to the source, which is Jesus. Let us, like my daughter, and Francis, in our infant-like faith, be found by Jesus, and be left wanting more. Amen.