Sermons That Work

At That Time, Jesus Said…, St. Francis of Assisi – 1996

October 04, 1996

At that time Jesus said, “Father, Lord of heaven and earth! I thank you because you have revealed to the unlearned what you have hidden from the wise and learned.”

Saint Francis is one of the most “popular” of all the saints. He may be seen in gardens around the world. He is enshrined on bird baths and bird feeders. The prayer that we associate with him, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” is arguably one of the most popular prayers circulated. He is the patron saint of animal lovers, peace-makers, and ecologists. He is associated with cardinal works of mercy to the poor and marginalized.

But these are not the aspects of Saint Francis that I want to speak about today. So often, I think, I have a tendency to view the saints as persons who were superheroes; who were capable of gritting their teeth and doing the Right Thing in the face of total adversity. As such, I find them to be totally unlike me. My problem seems to be not so much that I can’t do the Right Thing, but that more often than not, I’m not certain what the Right Thing is!

In this Global Village we live in today, we are assaulted by conflicting values and oppositional demands. The necessity of doing the Right Thing is constantly upon us, even in the simple demands of day to day living: regular or low-fat, recycle or not recycle, welfare or no welfare. Although this might seem simply to require a certain fluidity on my part– a refraining from deciding, as it were–in actuality I must eventually make a decision. And when I do, how can I know I’m Right?

So the aspect of Saint Francis that speaks to me most strongly today is this: he was a man who Didn’t Get It Right! Throughout the course of his life he steadfastly refused to join the ranks of the wise and learned–of those, who were certain of the Right Thing. He remained a fool for God, and as such, was always open to rethinking the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. I’d like to tell some stories that illustrate my point.

When Francis was a very young man–that is, before he really had any inkling of the vocation God had in store for him–he thought he might like very much to be a knight. In fact, we have in the records a dream that Francis had about this time: He is in a large room full of knights’ armor and the trappings of chivalry. And Jesus is there with him. Jesus says to Francis, “Francis, I want you to be my knight.”

There is evidence that this somewhat idealistic endeavor was fueled by the popular literature of the day in which knights in shining armor vanquished dragons, rescued fair maidens, and generally did the Right Thing for the sake of good. He conveyed this hope to his father, who was a prosperous cloth merchant in Assisi, and I imagine that his father found this to be a very pleasing scheme. At the time Assisi was engaged in one of its many wars with the neighboring city of Perugia, and for a middle-class merchant to have his son fighting for the city outfitted as if he were a lord, would have had some appeal to Francis’ father. So he brought him the armor, swords, lances, gowns and horse that would be required.

But Francis was already who he was and when the day came to ride off to Perugia, he noticed that among the company there was an impoverished nobleman who had no armor, horse, etc. So Francis give his entire outfit away, and marched off to Perugia unarmed.

Needless to say, the encounter proved disastrous for Francis, and he was captured and imprisoned. When he was finally ransomed, he was ill with a high fever. If Jesus had wanted him to be a knight, Francis reasoned, something was clearly going wrong. Perhaps, like a fool, he had gotten the message wrong. He continued to search. What could it mean to be Jesus’ knightly champion?

Later in his life, after he had renounced his family, and gone off to live the life of a hermit, he had one of the more remarkable experiences in what was to be a most remarkable life. While praying one day before the crucifix in the ruined church of San Damiano, the figure of Jesus came to life and spoke to him saying, “Francis, rebuild my church, which, as you see, is falling down.” Francis looked around him and saw that, indeed, the church of San Damiano was falling down. He immediately began putting stone on stone, rebuilding the church. The people of Assisi thought he was a fool. Slowly, again, he began to understand that he’d gotten it wrong. It wasn’t until much later in his life that he understood that Jesus had meant for Francis to rebuild his Church, with a capital “C”.

And when he understood that, perhaps he also began to understand what it might be to be Jesus’ knightly champion.

Francis was also famous for his bodily austerities. He would throw ashes into his beans so that he couldn’t enjoy them too much. He called his Body “Brother Ass” and was known to roll naked in thorns and snow to discipline his body. As he lay dying (while still a young man), he may have had an understanding that, again, he’d been foolish and hadn’t Got it Right. He asked “Brother Ass” to forgive him, and perhaps realized that he’d squandered one of God’s gifts by not being kinder to himself.

So what are we to make of this famous saint? He has been called “the Other Jesus” by some. He is revered and loved universally, by Christians and non- Christians alike. And yet, he didn’t seem to Get it Right.

Perhaps this is what Jesus is talking about when he suggests that the foolish and unlearned may know something that the wise and learned don’t know. Perhaps certainty and Being Right are not what Jesus wants from our lives.

Maybe Saint Francis shows us something completely different, something that looks more like perseverance in the face of uncertainty. Maybe the lesson I can learn from Saint Francis is the lesson that faithfulness is more valuable than Being Right; that humility and unknowing are a more appropriate response to God than certainty and knowledge. Perhaps abandoning the pride of self may be the way to begin to understand God. Or, in the words of Saint Francis’ famous prayer, that it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

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Christopher Sikkema