St. Francis of Assisi

This is a sermon for the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.

What kind of man preaches to the birds?  Was Francis a bit simple, or was he, perhaps, making a point about his frustration with human congregations?

I suspect something a bit more subtle was going on, but to understand what drove the man famous for his affinity with animals and nature, it might help to start with something he wrote.

Towards the end of his life, Francis wrote a “Letter to the Faithful,” an attempt, perhaps, to make sure that the people aligned with the movement he had started, had some of his words to hold on to, when he was gone.

And in that letter he told a story.  The story – I’ll paraphrase it for brevity – is about a very wealthy man, a man who has become wealthy through fraud and deception.  This man falls sick, and knows that death is near.  Friends and relatives come and advise the dying man, “Put your affairs in order.” His wife and children, friends and relatives, all pretend to mourn. Looking up from his deathbed, he sees them weeping, and decides to leave all his ill-gotten wealth to these family members.

There and then, they call a priest; he says to the sick man, “Do you want to be absolved from all your sins?”  And the dying man replies, “I do”. “Are you ready then to make restitution as best you can out of your property for all that you have done, all the fraud and deceit you practiced towards your fellow men?” the priest asks him. “No”, he replies. And the priest asks, “Why not?” “Because I have left everything in the hands of my relatives and friends”, is the answer.

So the fraudulent rich man dies without making things right for the people he mistreated, and without being reconciled to God.  And rather than being appreciative of what he left them, his family curse him for not making more for them!  So, Francis concludes the story with the rich man suffering torments in hell, his body being food for worms, and his ungrateful relatives remembering him with bitterness and not love.

It’s not really a cheery story, and it’s a far cry from cuddly animals.  But why did Francis tell it?

It helps us if we understand a little bit about the world he lived in.  Francis lived in a time of great social upheaval; the system that had dominated in previous centuries – of nobles exercising feudal power over peasants who were mostly engaged in agriculture – was giving way to the new power of merchant families who ruled city-states; expanding international trade through Italy’s big port cities made those merchants unbelievably wealthy, and completely disconnected from the poor people outside the gates of those cities.  (If we listen to rhetoric about coastal “elites” and impoverished, neglected rural folk in America today, the comparison in terms of mutual distrust and ideological disconnection is actually striking).

So the economic base was shifting, the old social norms were being brought into question, and more and more, the wealthy were getting wealthier by exploiting the poor.  The story of a young Francis stripping naked in the town square to protest his merchant father’s ill-gotten wealth is famous; but perhaps we don’t always recognise how much that was one example of enormous social division of the time.

Many rural towns already had groups of poor people living communally, sharing everything they had in order that everyone might eat; and because this was, after all, medieval Italy, those communal groups thought of themselves as being a bit like a monastery, and called themselves “penitents.”  But the main thing they were repenting was involvement in an economic system which had utterly failed them.

So when Francis started his order – and by the way, he was ordained a deacon but never a priest, so let that be a reminder not to underestimate deacons or the diaconate! – he naturally drew followers from these communities of penitents, and their movement can be seen as a powerful social protest against exploitative wealthy people feeding a lavish consumerist culture, which left the poorest and most vulnerable out in the cold.

Francis and his brothers – and later the women in their companion order, as well – lived in a way which turned those values on their heads.  Choosing poverty – for they lived by begging – was a way of saying that people and things have a value which can’t be priced on the commercial market.  Treating all of creation as sacred, down to the humblest animal, was a way of saying that God’s creation is good in and of itself; and that the worth of something isn’t measured by what someone will pay for it.

What price would you put on sunshine, anyway?  Or the feel of the breeze on your face?

Francis wrote and talked a lot about penance, but what he seems to have meant by it is mostly a disengagement from attachment to stuff.

This was a more complicated social critique than just wanting to turn back the clock and make Umbria great again.  By the time Francis gathered others around him, he had been observant enough to see that the old feudal system didn’t work all that well, either.  He’d been among the lepers who were outcast even from the rural towns, and been horrified at their callous exclusion from human community.

Instead, for Francis, penance was about treating human beings as sacred, each and every one of us. It was about forming communities which treat each and every person with worth and dignity, and which treat the bonds of relationship between us and every other good thing which God created, as sacred.  For Francis, it’s in rightly honouring every good thing which comes to us from the hand of God, that we know grace; and come to overflow with grace in how we relate to everyone else.

This sacredness inherent in every person and creature, is Francis’ vision of human life as it was meant to be, and as it will be when God’s reign is fulfilled.  The community he formed around him was meant to be a sign pointing a corrupt and lost society towards that vision.

That’s the point of the story in Francis’ Letter to the Faithful.  All the luxuries in the world can’t save you, can’t keep you alive, and can’t help you have relationships worth having.  And I think it’s the point of preaching to the birds, too.  The birds who are our fellow-creatures help us praise God, and point us towards more authentic humanity than anything you can buy.  The letter and the honouring of nature are all parts of an alternative value system, and an alternative vision of human community; one in which people matter for who we are, and not what we have.

And that’s a timeless message which still very much resonates in our own day!


The text of the “Letter to the Faithful” can be read here:


Words matter

This is a sermon for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is James 3:1-12.

When I was a theological student, and working at the Cathedral, part of my job was to occasionally take school groups around, show them different parts of the building, answer any questions and so forth.  Usually they were a lot of fun.  And one day, I was taking around a group of grade three kids, and one of them asked me, “What do you have to do to become a priest?”  I gave some answer at about the level I thought an 8 year old could understand, but even so, she looked up at me with wide eyes and said, “Wow, to learn all that you’d have work really hard, like, all day and all night and not sleep!”

I had, in fact, been up most of the night before writing an overdue essay, so I wasn’t really inclined to correct her!

But looking back on it, one of the most difficult things – one which almost all of us failed in at some point – had nothing to do with study or essays or any of that.  It had to do with the annual college retreat, at which we were expected to observe forty-eight hours of silence.

Arrive Friday lunchtime, settle in, and then silence would begin; and wouldn’t end until lunchtime Sunday.  I think the oddest part was meal times; forty-odd people sitting together around tables, eating and… not talking.  It goes against our every social instinct.

The point, of course, in that setting was to allow each person the mental and emotional space to work through whatever God was doing with them in that retreat time, without being encroached on by others’ thoughts and needs.

We were terrible at it, though.  Some snuck off to have a chat at a nearby café.  Some had whispered conversations in private corners.  One memorable night I had to get out of bed and ask the group of students one floor down (who were getting rather louder the more they drank) to please shut up so I could sleep.

It was not always an edifying example of Christian maturity, anyway.

And our reading from James today reminded me of that.  “No one can tame the tongue,” he said, and certainly our college attempts even just to keep silent showed me how hard it is to discipline our restless speech.

But James’s point is, in a way, even more basic than that.  Words matter.

Words matter.

James wasn’t going to tell people that sticks and stones might break his bones, but names would never hurt him.  He described our words as being able to “set on fire the whole cycle of nature,” by which he meant that every sinful dynamic – every occasion of lovelessness or joylessness or violence –  could find itself sparked by words.  There’s power in our words, and the way we speak to one another can all too easily damage or intimidate or overwhelm.

The flip side of that, of course, is that our words have power, and so used intentionally, the way we speak to one another can heal or encourage or invite, as well.

Even our government recognises that, now; and as a result we’re seeing such an emphasis on respectful relationships in schools, not just for their own sake, but deliberately intended as a way of building a healthier society; with a particular eye on future domestic violence rates.  (I’ve had it said to me – in all seriousness – that churches also ought to focus on such things as respectful relationships, and I take the point.  Just beyond today’s reading, James goes on to say: “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”  But often we forget, and church culture is not always particularly gentle).

But for James this goes beyond a practical matter of keeping a peaceful and prosperous society, and goes to the heart of who we are.  How can we say we worship God, and then with our words denigrate a human being made in the image of that God?  How can we do that, and then claim to have any integrity?

His point isn’t just an exhortation to being more moral in our speech, but his criticism cuts much deeper than that.  If you’re using words to hurt, to control, to intimidate, to dominate, or in any manner which falls short of truly loving and upholding the person in front of you… you don’t really know, or worship, God.

That’s his implication here.  If you really worship God – if you really attune your heart to God’s heart at every opportunity – you cannot look at a fellow human being, lovingly created by God to be the unique person that they are, and so precious to God that Christ’s incarnation and death were not too high a cost for their well-being; you cannot look at that fellow human being as less than precious and deserving the very best words you can muster for them.

Now, let me be honest here.  I’m not perfect at this.  I get grumpy; especially when I’m stressed.  I can be bitchy, especially when I’m feeling powerless in the face of someone else’s bad behaviour.  And I can be overly critical, particularly when I’m convinced that I’m right.  So I’m not saying these things this morning as if I’ve reached James’ measure of absolute maturity and am a perfect teacher.

But James is pointing us towards the remedy for these problems as well.  When we find harsh words, hurtful words, gossipy words, coming out of our own mouths… it’s time to pray.  It’s time to get back to seeking God’s heart, and seeing those around with God’s loving and nurturing attitude.  It’s time to clean out our hearts so that from them can flow refreshment and hope and inspiration for others.  If our habits of speech are showing us hearts which don’t yet love one another, that should be a prompt to get on our knees (metaphorically, at least).

It’s in prayer that we will find the gentleness born of wisdom which James is pointing us towards.  Earlier in his letter James instructed his hearers: “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.”  He’s not talking about esoteric knowledge or insight here, but the wisdom that treats everyone with gentleness, with care for God’s precious creation.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take days of silence on retreat to help us do that (and just as well!)  But we do need to take seriously how prayerful appreciation of one another is supposed to be at the bedrock of our relationships.  That’s how we break the sinful “cycle of nature” and instead create a cycle of mutual building up, a cycle of respectful relationships engaged in with integrity.

And that’s how we create a community of mature believers, who will be able to encourage and nurture others on their progress towards maturity; which is part of what we’re called to be, as the church.  And which is much more important than half the things I had to write essays on, too!

Wake, awake!

This is a sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Isaiah 50:4-9a.

Imagine, if you will, a school playground.  It doesn’t really matter where or when, because some things seem to be universal; so go ahead and imagine it with details that are familiar to you.

And imagine that among the bustle of children eating and laughing and playing at lunchtime there is someone…. well, different.  Someone who comes from somewhere else; whose looks and accent and lunchbox set her apart as distinctive.

And as she moves through her peers, they push her away with their words; label her a freak; dirty; disgusting; insult her intelligence and make lewd comments about imagined sexual deviancies.

And – this is the crucial bit – as she eventually finds somewhere to sit alone, away from their sight, she blinks back tears, holds her head high and remembers that her foremothers were queens, and dreams of a day when her culture and religion might hold sway over a society where no little girl would ever need cry alone.

All of us can relate to that playground scene in some way.  And it is, I think, very similar to how we might think about the author of today’s passage from Isaiah.  His school playground was one of the large cities of the Babylonian empire, where his people, the Israelites, were living in exile.  As they held to their own language, customs and religion they were generally (a few notable exceptions notwithstanding) excluded from power, opportunity and social respect.  They were conquered, exiled, downtrodden; and while they weren’t quite slaves, they certainly weren’t free to shape their own destinies as they wished.

But like our girl in the schoolyard remembering that she comes from a line of queens, they remembered that their current circumstances didn’t define who they were.  And they dreamed of a day to come when things would be very different; when the ideals of their culture would build a very different sort of society.  One in which no one would experience the oppression of forced exile and all that went with it.

And someone in that exiled community, or perhaps a small group of visionaries together, wrote and edited together this part of the book of Isaiah, and particularly, the texts that have come to be called the “servant songs.”  The servant songs are a cycle of poems about an idealised version of God’s servant, which gathers up the memories, longings and hopes of that community and builds them into a portrait of a champion; someone who was everything good and right and holy; everything that community longed to experience and aspired to be.

It’s the daydream of the bullied kid in the schoolyard; given shape and content by hundreds of years of legend and history and prayer.

And that’s what we heard part of today, in our Isaiah reading.

So let’s take note of a few of the details of this poem.  Notice, to start with, the repeated reference to being woken and having an open ear.  While we could take that literally – as if the ideal servant of God wakes in the morning with inspiration bursting in his brain (why are ideal people always portrayed as morning people?!  But I digress) – we can take the imagery of being wakened in a more metaphorical way as well.

Someone who’s awake is aware of what’s going on; not lulled into complacency.  They see beyond the surface of an apparently thriving society and can recognise injustice, oppression, and corruption.  They see the alienation of the world from its Creator, and from the purposes for which it was created.

The ideal servant of God, as presented to us here, suffers in part because he knows the truth and feels compelled to try to reach others with what he knows.  He looks around him at a society which is not awake – does not recognise its own shadow side – and feels the burden of trying to make people aware.  Not just for the sake of awareness, but for the sake of restoring a right relationship between people and their Creator; and out of that right relationship, building a better, healthier, more just society.

Well, we know how well that usually goes.  Comfortable, complacent societies tend to punish people who disturb the status quo.

And this is why the poem goes on to describe the servant having his back struck and his beard pulled out; this standing in the gap between an unaware, but drowning, society; and a God who can put things right if only people will turn to him, is costly.  The servant bears the emotional outbursts and the immaturity of an unreconciled humanity.  But the servant also sees the potential for things to be different, and it’s that vision and hope which gives him the resilience to persevere.  Those who torment him still have the opportunity to turn from their self-centredness and enter a relationship with a holy God, and the community of other people in relationship with that holy God.

It is, as visions of hope go, remarkably sophisticated.  The servant isn’t a champion who tramples every enemy into oblivion, but one who holds out a hand in steadfast offer of reconciliation.

Later, of course, the earliest Christians read these passages and reflected that Christ had fulfilled them to a unique degree, more than any merely human person could.  In Christ, that hope and that reconciliation are always, steadfastly on offer.

More than that, though, in the Church – this community which is supposed to embody Christ to the world – that hope and that reconciliation are supposed to be always, steadfastly, on offer.  The servant songs hold up a picture, one vision of what the Church is supposed to be, and invite and challenge us to live up to it.

In some ways that makes more sense for us now, psychologically, than perhaps it has for centuries.  The Church is being marginalised in our society in a way that we haven’t been since before the fall of Rome.  For too long we’ve had more in common with the bullies in the school yard than the people they pick on, but now we are remembering what it’s like not to have the world revolve around us.  And other writings from other faith communities in our own history which have been in the same place, can offer us some clues to making sense of life on the margins, and some resources for thriving and living faithfully in that new situation.

We do need to allow ourselves to be woken, though.  Woken into relationship with God; woken into deep awareness of our own context, woken to hope and inspired by what could be.

Just a little bit further in Isaiah the prophet cries out:

“Wake, awake,
put on your strength, O Zion!
Put on your beautiful garments,
O Jerusalem, the holy city;…
Shake yourself from the dust, rise up!…
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’”

It’s imagery of hope, and it calls out to us today as well: Wake up!  Put on your strength, claim your beauty, get out of the dust and hold your head high.  Tell the good news in ways that shakes others from their sleep, that builds peace and reconciles enemies, that submits every impulse to oppression to God’s justice.  It’s time for daydreams and ideals to be forged into action.

Our God reigns.  We know that; now how will we live it?