Francis was born in Assisi, Italy in 1182. His father was a prosperous silk merchant and Francis grew up the privileged child of a wealthy family. We often think that saints have a conversion experience like St. Paul’s on the road to Damascus. One moment they’re living their life and the next they have a vision of Jesus Christ and are never the same again. That was not the case for Francis. He wasn’t a spoiled young man partying with his friends one day and a humble servant of Christ the next. Like many of us, Francis had a gradual awakening to Jesus’ call to come and follow.
One day the teenaged Francis was selling cloth in the marketplace of Assisi for his father when a beggar asked him for alms. As soon as Francis concluded his business he rushed after the beggar and gave him all the money he had. His friends made fun of him and his father raged at him, but Francis was not dissuaded.
In 1204 at the age of 22, Francis was struck by a serious illness which presented him with the stark reality of his own mortality. The following year Francis began shunning the pleasures and company of his former friends. Over time and by degrees he began nursing lepers who were housed near Assisi.
In 1204 Francis made a pilgrimage to Rome in which he joined the poor who were begging in front of St. Peter’s. Shortly after his return Francis was praying in the chapel of San Damiano, in the countryside near Assisi. Jesus Christ appeared to him in a vision and said, “Francis, Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” Francis interpreted that as Jesus’ command to repair the chapel of San Damiano in which he was standing.
To fund the repairs Francis sold cloth from his father’s store. Outraged, his father threatened, beat, and brought legal proceedings against Francis. In the town square in front of the Bishop of Assisi, Francis renounced his father and all that his father had ever or would ever give to him. Ridding himself of everything procured from his father’s wealth, Francis stripped naked and left his clothes in a pile right there in public.
Francis lived as a beggar in and around Assisi for a number of years after that. In 1209 he heard a sermon on the text of the 10th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus says, “[G]o…to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near’…Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff.”
Interpreting Jesus’ words literally, Francis preached repentance while barefoot and clad in a rough garment. Within a year Francis had 11 followers. Francis composed a simple rule of life for his community. The rule was “to follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps.” In 1210, Francis and his 11 followers traveled to Rome where the Pope founded the Franciscan Order.
In 1220, Francis set up a Christmas manger scene using live animals. This was the first time this had ever been done. Francis wanted worshipers to see what it might have been like the night that Jesus was born. A straw-filled manager, set between a live ox and donkey, served as the altar for the Christmas mass.
Francis died on October 3, 1226 at the age of 44 while singing Psalm 142. Only two years after his death, the Pope declared him a saint of the church.
Francis chose never to be ordained as a priest. He called his community “lesser brothers” (translated from the Latin as “minor friars”). This community preached on the streets and embraced poverty. They held no possessions. Their hallmark was their joy. They were always cheerful and, if they weren’t preaching, they were singing.
Through his life and witness Francis proved the truth of Jesus’ words that we heard in today’s Gospel reading: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Of all the saints, Francis is one of the most popular and least emulated. He embraced the poverty of Jesus. Owning nothing, Francis’ heart overflowed with joy.
I’m struck by three characteristics when I hear this brief history of Francis’ life. First, Francis focused on the fundamentals. Essential for Francis was listening to and imitating Jesus. Because he viewed Jesus as an itinerant who owned nothing, Francis wanted to own nothing. Jesus was his model for how to live and how to behave toward other people. Second, he delighted in God’s creation. Francis wrote a prayer praising Brother Sun, Sister Moon and the stars, Brothers Wind and Air, Sister Water, and Brother Fire. Francis viewed the natural world – planets, wind, water, fire -- as a part of the human family, as our siblings. Finally, Francis was filled with an infectious joy. He didn’t renounce ownership of worldly goods and then lead a bitter, pinched existence. Francis and his followers loved God and loved life.
St. Francis knew that being a faithful follower of Jesus Christ requires owning nothing. What has surprised me about losing full use of the building, and therefore the ability to gather in person each Sunday for worship, is how little it has mattered. What I mean is: We are still the church. We assemble each week via Zoom and we worship God. We read Scripture, pray, sing, and remember Christ’s body and blood. We care for one another. We feed the hungry every Saturday through the Peace Meal. We engage in racial justice efforts to change our nation into a country that treats all of its people equitably. Just as Jesus did, we are building the kingdom of heaven here on earth using kindness, compassion, and generosity. And they are free to own and free to receive.
Francis cared about and for this beautiful planet of ours. Global warming is exacerbating natural disasters like the fires on the West Coast. What are we going to do about that? Do we see ourselves as good stewards of God’s creation? Then creation care should be a high priority for us. One way we honor that is through today’s blessing of the animals, giving thanks for all the species and forms of life that populate this Earth.
Life is both miracle and tragedy, celebration and sorrow. Francis knew this as well as we do. But through all the sadness and hardships of his life, Francis felt the ever-present love of God through Jesus Christ. And that eternal, overwhelming love gave him joy. The image I hold of Francis is of his mouth open as he lustily sings to God, thankful to be human and alive.
And so we thank you, God, for the life and ministry of Francis of Assisi. Help us to be a community that reflects his example. Focus us on the fundamentals: “to follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps.” Attune us to the needs of your creation and give us the will to be good stewards of this earth and all that lives upon it. Fill us with a sense of the love that you have for each of us so that we may pour it out on all we meet, spreading the joy of being alive in Christ. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
The Reverend Sally S. Weaver is co-priest in charge at St. John's.
Various members of the St. John's congregation contribute to this blog. For editorial suggestions, contact Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at firstname.lastname@example.org