St. Francis: Notes for Three Sermons, Fall 2015

Prepared for Lutherans Restoring Creation Commentary (lutheransrestoringcreation.org)

Lectionary Series B 2014-2015
September 27, October 4, October 11

A series honoring St. Francis of Assisi

Note: Sunday, October 4, 2015 is the Festival of St. Francis. This series affords the preacher an opportunity to address the texts of the three successive Sundays with St. Francis in mind.

Themes: Sept. 27, “St. Francis: Prophet of God,” Oct. 4, “St. Francis: Child of God,” Oct. 11, “St. Francis: Man of Wealth.”

Resources:

Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html. The text of the 2015 papal encyclical.

— Eloi LeClerc, The Canticle of Creatures – Symbols of Union: An Analysis of St. Francis of Assisi, tr. Matthew J. O’Connell (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1970). A study of Francis, focusing on his famous Canticle.

— H. Paul Santmire, “The Life and Significance of Francis of Assisi,” in The Travail of Nature: the Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), 106-120. A short review of the ecological meaning of St. Francis, in the context of classical Christian thought.

— Augustine Thompson, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012). Perhaps the best scholarly study of Francis’ life.

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  1. Francis: Prophet of God

Pentecost 18 (September 27, 2015)

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

Psalm 19:7-14

James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

St. Francis is everyone’s hero. Most Americans know of him in the form of statues in gardens. There you see, often, Francis represented as preaching to the birds. Such images, however, only tell us part of the truth. Recently, Pope Francis, by his very name, by many of his actions, and by his encyclical Laudato Si’, has made the saint from Assisi even more a center of attention. The historical Francis, however, is an elusive figure, as the historical Jesus, in many ways, is an elusive figure. Much of what we know about Francis comes to us from differing sources: a very few writings of his own and biographical testimonials by his followers, some who were close to him, others who collected his teachings and stories about him, from a variety of sources, some of which are clearly legendary. But we know enough about the historical Francis to understand why he sometimes has been thought of as “a second Jesus.” He was an extraordinary follower of the man from Galilee.

The Hebrew title for the Book of Numbers, “In the Wilderness,” reveals the major themes of this book. It is about the people of Israel journeying from Egypt toward the promised land, and some of their trials and tribulations. There is a generational theme, too, recounting how the first, rebellious, generation gives way to a new, and more promising generation. The book ends with that second generation about to enter the promised land. The final form of the book probably was shaped by the experience of exile in Babylon (586 BCE) and not too long after the people returned to Judah (539 BCE).

St. Francis (1181-1226) frequently claimed such wilderness themes as his own. He was not first and foremost a lover of nature, as he is sometimes portrayed. He was first and foremost, self-consciously a follower of Jesus. Francis exemplified, throughout his ministry, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer in our own time thought of as “The Cost of Discipleship.” Like Jesus, Francis gave up all his worldly goods so that he, Francis, could become a disciple of Jesus. Frequently, also like Jesus, Francis sought out wilderness areas. Indeed, so much did he identify with Jesus that Francis, toward the end of his life, in the wilderness of Mt. Laverna, experienced “the stigmata,” the marks of the crucified Christ, on hands, side, and feet.

But St. Francis was by no means just a wilderness ascetic. He was also a public preacher. Call him a prophet of God. He took his message of repentance and hope for the forgotten ones, like the lepers, to the centers of the cities of his time. In the era of the Crusades, moreover, when the political and religious establishment (above all, St. Bernard) where marshalling resources and rallying people to fight “the infidels,” Francis made a journey of his own to visit with the Sultan, in the name of peace. The purpose of his ministry was to be a prophet for peace, not for war.

In this respect, Francis was like Eldad and Medad who were “prophesying outside the camp.” He called upon all Christians of his time, indeed, to become prophets for peace, for the sake of the little ones of the earth, who had been excluded from the common good. The words of Moses about Eldad and Medad could easily have been Francis’ own: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them” (Numbers 11:29).

And Francis was controversial, as a matter of course. It began, early in his ministry, when he ventured outside the walls of his own home town, Assisi, to be with the lepers, who had been forced to live there, in isolation, vulnerable to the elements, and without easy access to food, water, and shelter that the people in the towns enjoyed.

As a prophetic figure in this sense, Francis was as a matter of course perceived as a threat to the established order, especially when people from all walks of life began to follow his example. He was joined by many followers and cheered by crowds in the cities, expectantly listening to him. But, of course, the established society of his day, like all established societies, did not want things to change. They did not want any Eldad or Medad prophesying among the common people, outside the walls of established power.

The story is told of a young Christian who went on a mission trip to work with some impoverished farmers in Nicaragua. There her life was transformed. She came back from her trip and began to tell members of the congregation which had sent her there to join with her in behalf of “the liberation of the oppressed.” Even her own Pastor seemed to shy away from her. But she persisted and eventually was marginalized in her own congregation. If only she had a Moses around, who could have celebrated her prophetic work, “outside the camp”!

If only, too, the members of her own congregation and her Pastor had understood the Gospel story from Mark 9, where we hear John saying to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” (Mark 9:38) But Jesus replied, “Do not stop him…” The young woman’s pastor could have said to his congregation, “Do not stop her…” And he might have cited the example of Francis who ministered to the lepers outside the walls and visited the Sultan in the name of peace.

Francis did all this in the name of Jesus. He took up his cross in the name of Jesus. He visited the lepers in the name of Jesus. He preached to the multitudes in the name of Jesus. His own body, indeed, was marked by the wounds of Jesus. For Francis, Jesus was the Lord of life and death. Francis’ celebrated love of nature can only be understood in light of that, the deepest love of his life, for Jesus. In this sense, the man who preached to the birds was first and foremost, a prophet of God.

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St. Francis: Child of God

Pentecost 19 (October 4)

Genesis 2:18-24

Psalm 8

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Mark 10:2-16

Francis in many ways was childlike. He spoke with the birds. Like many children, he loved to sing. As he lay dying, he kept singing his Canticle of Creatures. He also invented the Christmas pageant! Toward the end of his life, on Christmas Eve, he brought animals to a makeshift altar near a mountain, where he sponsored an outdoors Eucharist, at which he sang the Gospel. He has been called “God’s Troubadour” (before his conversion to the life of poverty, as a rich young man he had learned to cherish and to sing the songs of courtly love). Above all, he loved animals, even worms, even wolves. Perhaps more than any other saint that we know, Francis embodied the words of Jesus: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Mark 10:14)

If Francis was a prophet of God, albeit outside of the camp (see discussion of the texts for Pentecost 18), he was all the more so a child of God. This is a theme, however, that is not always unambiguously attested in the Scriptures. On the contrary, it would appear that another image is more prominent in the Bible – lordship. God is King and Jesus is Lord. The man is “the head” of the woman. Humans are given lordship over nature. Where does the child fit in all this?

The texts for this Sunday apparently accent lordship in many ways. According to Genesis 2, the man names all the animals, as if he is the boss. The woman, made from the man’s rib, is brought to the man, as if he’s the one who’s really in charge. In Psalm 8, we are told that humans are but a little lower than angels and given “mastery” over the works of God’s hands, indeed that all things have been put under the human being’s feet, sheep and oxen, even the wild beasts. The Letter to the Hebrews cites this Psalm and says that all things are subjected to Jesus. Is there a suggestion here not only that Jesus is Lord, but that he “lords it over” all things?

The Gospel of Mark seems to present us with the teaching of Genesis about marriage all over again, although it does suggest a certain equality between the man and the woman, insofar as the state of being divorced is concerned. Still, where is the innocence and the joy and the singing of the child in all this? Marriage here seems to be more rules and regulations, than self-giving love and joy.

Nevertheless, the Gospel reading may hold the answer, not explicitly, but more in terms of its juxtaposition of texts. Mark seems to string together various teachings of Jesus. On the one hand, here is his teaching about divorce. On the other hand, here is his teaching about childlike faith. There is no logical or even narrative connection between the two accounts. They are just – strung together. Jesus taught this and Jesus taught that. If so, then this question: which theme is to be interpreted in terms of the other? Which is more important for the Gospel’s sake, lordship or child-like-ness?

The answer may seem foreclosed here, because the text about the children seems to stand alone. Apart from the Gospels, one reputable scholar has noted, “I cannot find that early Christian literature exhibits the slightest sympathy towards the young.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, centuries of Christian interpreters have opted to make lordship the primary image for interpreting the Scriptures, not child-like-ness. But what if Jesus meant what he said when he placed a child before them and said that to such as these belongs the Kingdom of God? Children, not lords are the point of it all. Could this thought possibly open our eyes to a different reading of our texts?

Interestingly, Genesis 2 tells us that “the man gave names” to all the animals. In the past, this has typically been interpreted as the man lording it over the animals. On the contrary, a more careful reading of this text shows that “giving a name” is an act of love, an act of bonding, even friendship. Think of Francis here. In the Hebrew Bible, when God calls you by name, it means that God loves you. So perhaps in this case, Adam naming the animals. Also, why was Adam put in the Garden in the first place? To “till it and keep it”? To exercise mastery over the garden? That is the received translation of Genesis 2:15. The Hebrew actually says, however, that the man was put in the Garden to “serve and protect it.” And the word “serve” here is from the same family as the word for “Servant of God” in II Isaiah. Doesn’t that sound like Francis relating to the animals by serving them?

When it comes to the text from Hebrews, which is essentially a lordship text, we are faced with a fundamental interpretive decision. Is this the primary text for interpreting the mission of Jesus or are we to look to another, Philippians 2:5-11, which envisions Jesus Christ primarily as the Servant of God and then “Lord” only as the “Servant of all” as the primary text?

All of which is an invitation to read the Scriptures with the eyes of Francis, that astounding child of God.

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  1. St. Francis: Man of Wealth

Pentecost 20 (October 11)

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

Psalm 90:12-17

Hebrews 4:12-16

Mark 10:17-31

Francis grew up the son of a rich cloth merchant. It was assumed that he would “sow some wild oats” as a youth, and then settle down into a plush career in his father’s business. Instead, Francis plunged into what we moderns sometimes call “an identity crisis.” He became profoundly troubled by his own riches and his own raucous lifestyle. Francis became a penitent and took to living in the woods or in an abandoned church. Things came to a head, when the local Bishop, Guido, who had befriended Francis, called Francis and Francis’ father, Pietro, to Guido’s church, to effect a reconciliation. At that meeting, as the historian Auguste Thompson tells us, “Francis withdrew into an adjoining room, removed the fine clothing typical of his family’s station, and stripped down to the penitent’s hair shirt he was wearing underneath. He came out and put his old garments at his father’s feet.” He then renounced his father, in the name of “Our Father, who art in heaven,” and began what was to become a lifelong ministry as a penitent, preacher, and servant of God’s little ones.

By most standards, Francis made himself poor. By his own standards, however, Francis considered himself to be a rich man. But of what do true riches consist? This was a tough question in Francis’ day. It is even more difficult for many Christians today, particularly those who have benefited so much by living in affluent circles in the U.S. Today’s texts help us to wrestle with this question. Of what do true riches consist?

The prophet Amos brings a harsh judgment against those who benefit unjustly from the kind of riches that Francis left behind: “Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground…, you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy at the gate.” It is tempting to think here of the top one-percent in the U.S. today and what appears to be their unjust share of the world’s wealth. But from a global perspective, most Americans today are among the world’s affluent. Is there any hope for us, then? Amos seems to think so. This is what he calls us to do: “Seek good not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you….”

And who is this God? The God of grace, of course. So the Psalmist prays: “May the graciousness of the LORD our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands….” And the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews calls us to approach God’s “throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

The problem here, however, seems to be – Jesus. Surely, Jesus does affirm the unconditional grace of God, attested to by the Psalmist and by Hebrews. But Jesus apparently wants more, as we see in our Markan text. A man runs up to him (the man is eager; is he feeling guilty?) and asks what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus checks him out. It turns out that the man has been numbered among “the good people,” those who keep God’s commandments and follow God’s ways, presumably like most worshippers in any American church on any given Sunday. Actually, the man seems to be perplexed that anyone would ask him about his own life, how he follows the ways of God.

Jesus understood the man. He loved the man, we’re told. And this was a great love, on Jesus’ part. The Greek word for love here, is agape, pointing to the self-giving love of God himself (the same word is used in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world….”). Out of this boundless love, Jesus says to the man: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man, we are told, “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” One can wonder what preachers in affluent American congregations will make of this text, if they will deal with it at all.

Soon after this, Jesus says to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” Like those American preachers, we may imagine, the disciples were perplexed. But Jesus tightens his point even further. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Like many (most?) affluent American Christians who hear these words, and like many preachers, too, we may imagine, the disciples seem to throw up their hands. “Then who can be saved?,” they ask. Jesus responds with what must be regarded as one of the most frustratingly opaque, but ultimately hopeful promises he ever made: “…for God, all things are possible.”

All this grace around us given for us who are affluent and given with the promise that God will find a way for us to be wealthy toward God and not needful of the money we think is ours! What are we affluent Christians really to do? Francis wrestled with these questions and he took them literally. He gave away all his wealth and abandoned the social status that went with that wealth. Some affluent Christians today will surely think about doing the same. Some have. But what about the rest of us? What are we to do?

A couple of commonplaces of worldly wisdom come to mind. This is the first: don’t just sit there feeling guilty, do something. Second, a more congenial piece of advice: a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. What might that something, that single step, be? Here both Jesus and Francis can offer some counsel. Both of them focused their ministry on the little ones, those forgotten by the dominant wealthy society. Francis, more particularly, fleshed out Jesus’ concern for the little ones, by explicitly including the creatures of nature in his ministry. Francis self-consciously and publicly loved the creatures of nature, with the kind of agape love that he had learned from his Lord, Jesus.

One caveat: a close reading of both the lives of Jesus and Francis shows that, for them, the little ones who are suffering are so burdened, at least in some significant measure, because of the power of unjust human institutions, the kind railed against by the prophet Amos. For Amos, it was the banking system (as it were) that caught his attention. For us, it could be the banking system. It could also be global corporate powers, such as those that promote climate change. Think global energy production and the unending quest for profits, on the one hand, and rising ocean waters that threaten to engulf millions of poor people living on low-lying lands in Bangladesh, on the other.

But never mind the overwhelming challenge of such issues, for now. Just do something. Take that first – or next – step. Christian participants in the great climate change protest march of tens of thousands in New York City in the fall of 2014, even affluent ones who, like everyone else, had nothing to offer but their bodies and their songs, report experiencing a palpable joy, for them a joy born of the grace of God experienced at that moment. Perhaps that was the same joy that Francis experienced, only all the more so, because he was such a wealthy man. What steps does this situation mandate us to take?

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