When I was reading the scripture for today from Philippians and how Paul writes that he counts all his accomplishments and credentials as nothing next to the beauty of knowing Christ, I was reminded of the story of Saint Francis of Assissi.
Saint Francis was the son of wealthy parents. In fact, his father named him Francis in honor of the country of France where he had gained great wealth as a cloth merchant.
Francis was intelligent and eventually became a merchant like his father. However, he liked to have a good time more than he liked to work. He like to be with his friends, party and dance. His biggest dreams when he was young were to become even richer and to be admired by all. When wartime came, Francis went to war with dreams of military glory.
However, he was captured and spent a year in prison and when he returned home, he was sick for a very long time. After that, Francis was changed. It troubled him that he was no longer happy with all the things that used to make him happy – the dancing, the partying, his things – nothing was bringing him joy.
So he began to listen closely for God’s direction and prayed often. He spent a great deal of time alone asking for God’s guidance.
Eventually he received direction from God – first, to rebuild an old church that was falling apart. As he was doing this work, his parents thought he had lost his mind and tried to get him to come back to the family business but he said, “I’ve realized that from now on only our father in Heaven is my father.” He gave back to his parents everything they had ever given him and left to wander in the woods, singing, praying, and preaching now and then. He took to heart Jesus’ message to the apostles to “take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals.” He just existed with only what he had on his back, preached, prayed, fixed up old churches, and sang praises to God.
Eventually, others saw light in Francis and in the simple work he was doing. Others began to follow him. They learned from Francis and then he sent them out to preach and pray and teach more people about Jesus.
Francis saw poverty as a holy thing. When his followers met someone poorer than they, they would rip off their habit to give to the person. They wouldn’t accept money from anyone. They treated coins as if they were pebbles in the road. Francis said, “If we had any possessions we should need weapons and laws to defend them.” Possessing something was the death of love for Francis. Also, Francis reasoned, what could you do to a man who owns nothing? You can’t starve someone who is fasting, you can’t steal from someone who is penniless, you can’t ruin someone who doesn’t care about status. They were truly free.
In time, there were so many following Francis that he decided to go write down a few simple lines that described their way of life and went to the Pope to get his approval for their way of life based on poverty as it is found in the gospels.
The pope gave his blessing to Francis and his followers and they continued their work – helping others, and especially preaching. He left behind no opportunity to preach – in fact, one of the most infamous stories about him is that he preached a sermon to a group of birds once. He believed all of God’s creatures benefited from the good news of Jesus Christ. There are other stories of him being able to communicate with animals in extraordinary ways and this is one of the reasons the Catholic church recognizes him as the patron saint of animals.
Throughout his life he chose to live in poverty. He saw it as perfect joy, salvation, and virtue to endure suffering with patience and calm. At the end of his life he experienced great suffering – and it was in the midst of that he wrote the Canticle of the Sun – which we read part of as our opening litany today.
He died on October 3rd of 1226 at 45 years of age.
Like Paul, Francis found his joy in Christ Jesus. He found his identity in Jesus. He found his meaning, life, purpose, his peace in Jesus. The prayer of Saint Francis that is on the front of our bulletin today wasn’t written by him, but it was written to share the spirit of the peace he found only through Jesus Christ.
Where do we find our peace?
It’s a good question – maybe especially these days when it seems there is so little peace. When we hear news reports yet again of mass shootings. Yet again. Again and again. The shootings at Columbine High School happened the same spring I graduated from seminary – I was ordained a few months later. I remember how horrified we all were, what a strange and unheard-of thing it was. I had no idea that in the years to come we would hear again and again and again of people dying in mass shootings – in high schools, in elementary schools, at concerts, at nightclubs, at malls, at workplaces, at churches…you name it – wherever people gather, violence has found a way in.
And it seems like as soon as another incident happens, people start fighting with each other about why it has happened. Oh, we all have our opinions: Too many guns. Not enough God. God is punishing us for our sins. And whatever your opinion is, you get to have that opinion, but no opinion can take away the pain that countless families are feeling today.
The feelings that swirl around us and in us at times like this are overwhelming. Anger, utter disbelief, the sinking feeling of inevitability that we have heard this story so many times and we are sure now we will hear it again soon. More lives lost. Worry, worry, worry – for our children, for our friends, for ourselves.
It isn’t easy to preach on weeks like this. Because we need to hear a word of hope and sometimes hope seems so slim. Sometimes God seems all too silent. Sometimes I don’t want to look for the silver lining, tell stories about the heroes, the rescuers, all the good that happened even in the midst of the tragedy – I just want to mourn the unspeakable loss. This was a hurricane of brokenness and we can’t begin to understand it. But you can’t end a sermon there.
So what can we do?
Well, gathering together here is a good start. At times when God seems silent, coming together for worship can feel like we are just going through the motions – and yet we trust that somehow, when God’s faithful people gather, healing happens. Here we are reminded of God’s word and God’s direction for our lives. Here we think of people like Saint Paul and Saint Francis – people who found meaning and purpose in serving Jesus Christ. We think of ways to follow in their footsteps and let go of things that are shallow and meaningless – excess of possessions, worries about status and popularity, anything that can cause harm to others or ourselves.
What can we do?
We can pray. Please don’t think that is a small thing. We do it for the world, but we do it for ourselves, too. We need to pray because that is one of the surest ways to give God’s peace a chance at penetrating our hearts.
What can we do?
Well, lamenting, crying is important. Be angry about events like this but don’t stop there – let those emotions fuel your behavior. What will you do now to be the change the world needs to see? Write letters to your congress people? Practice more random acts of kindness? How can each of us do our small part to promote peace?
By last Tuesday, I was pretty much angry at the whole world. Not only had Las Vegas happened, but Tom Petty had died. And I still had to come up with some kind of hopeful message by the end of the week.
Fortunately, God gave that message of hope to me. Because on Tuesday afternoon I went in to meet Travis and Heather’s brand new baby, Archer. As I held him, I remembered that in spite of all the bad that can and does happen, in spite of how desperately weary I get of it, in spite of everything else, hope still breaks in. God’s goodness…and peace…and promise…is still all around, even in the darkest times.
So what can we do? I recommend holding babies, too.
Sisters and brothers, take the time you need to mourn and lament – and then remember God is with you and find ways to contribute to the good, stand up to the darkness, don’t back down. As Tom Petty would say,
“No, I’ll stand my ground, won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground and I won’t back down.”
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.