This coming Friday night is the church gathering to discuss our “One Book, One Church” selection: Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale by Ian Morgan Cron. How many of you have read it? How many of you are planning to come? There is still time – it is a good and pretty easy read.
To my mind, St. Francis of Assisi is only behind Jesus and Paul in the formation of Christian history. This funny looking little man with big ears, who lived from 1182 until 1226, changed everything. He died at the age of 44.
A son of a wealthy merchant who lived in the sweetest little hillside town of Assisi in Umbria, gave up a lucrative future, abandoned his dream of becoming a Crusader knight, to live a life of extreme poverty, tending the sick, kissing lepers, giving everything away, to follow Jesus. He wanted to live a radical Jesus-life; he wanted to live the essential gospel “not revealed to the wise but to infants,” as St. Matthew writes.
Francis is known for preaching to birds. You see St. Francis’ statue in gardens. He persuaded a wolf to stop raiding the village.
Francis was in a chapel one day and the Jesus painted on the crucifix spoke to him and said “rebuild my church.” Francis thought the Lord was telling him to rebuild that particular chapel which was in need of significant repair (you can see it today) but, in fact, Francis’ call was to rebuild the Catholic church of the day that was rife with corruption and injustice.
Francis was the first recorded recipient of the “stigmata” – the wounds of Christ on his hands and feet and side.
But Francis was no mere contemplative who removed himself from the world. During one of the crusades, he traveled to Alexandria to talk to the Sultan of Egypt about peace. Today Francis is the saint of interfaith dialogue. Francis believed in the connection of all life; yes the circle of life. Francis is the saint of the environment. He was fearless. He lived his love for Jesus Christ in action! Truly, he is part of the “great cloud of witnesses” that cheers you and me on. I love thinking of that great cloud: St. Francis, my grandmother, my brother Peter and countless others.
Francis is known for the hymn we will sing at the close of the service; “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” His canticle to “Brother Sun and Sister Moon,” is sublime. He said many things that are worth remembering. I didn’t realize that it was Francis who wrote the “Serenity Prayer” that is so important to Alcoholics Anonymous. “Lord, grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
He said: “The deeds you do may be the only sermon some persons will hear today” and I One thing that he said that has become a touchstone to me is this: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
Last Saturday, at the outdoor service, a young man asked for prayer. He said, “I, and so many of my friends, are seeking after what we are to do with our lives. I ask the Lord to show us the way.” I know this is particularly pertinent prayer for young women and men, who are wondering who they are and where they should be turning. It seems so overwhelming.
I don’t want to belittle the angst. But I wonder if St. Francis’ words aren’t the answer: The future may be cloudy, but the next step is in front of you.
If you are a student – do your work. No excuses. It leads to other possibilities!
If you have a job – do it as best you can. Being friendly and earnest will lead you places.
If you are a spouse and/or parent – make time for your spouse and/or children.
Take a risk, or the routine – quit complaining and DO the essential. You can’t skip steps.
Those days when you don’t feel like getting out of bed: get up anyway and get dressed – make this your spiritual exercise. And then options open.
My brother, Andy – the one serving Egypt, speaking fluent Arabic – he was always smart, but he squandered a great scholarship to Kenyon, quit school. But then he got a job and that opened possibilities – he went to New College, the University of South Florida, studied history, studied the Civil Rights Movement, worked on an organic farm in Maryland, decided to go to the Peace Corp, came to Cleveland to work for Interact Cleveland (a faith-based direct service organization), and then to the Kennedy School at Harvard (my dumb little brother?) and now he is the main contact with the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo. Who knew? But at one point he made a choice to get his degree and that made all the difference. He decided to do the essential and possibilities opened and now – impossible!
And the young man, who struggled in high school – drugs and alcohol, what was going to become of him? He did the essential – he got sober. He is now a firefighter, a father, a citizen, a Christian.
Today in this nation we are beset with so many things coming at us: The horrific “joy”-killing of Christopher Lane in Oklahoma. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington – and there are times when it seems we are going backwards in our quest to be a post-racial nation.
Sometimes I don’t know what to say, or what to do – I just keep going around in the same circles, wearing a rut in the ground, when really, I want to say something powerful and prophetic.
But Francis calls to me today, perhaps calls to you today: “Quit trying to say something prophetic and start doing the essential.”
And what is the essential? There was a moment in Dick’s Sporting Good when the teller made a racist remark…and I said nothing.
Do the essential – be open, curious, keep pushing yourself past your comfort zone, don’t settle. New possibilities will arise, and who knows, the day just might come when the impossible happens and the dream becomes the everyday.
The problem, though, with saints like Francis, or Mother Teresa is that they are so spectacularly blessed. I am not St. Francis, I will never be Mother Teresa, I like my luxuries too much! Some of you won’t even camp out unless it is at a Hilton!
But that is OK. Many of you know the story of Zusya the rabbi who had a dream that he died and was called before the angels of heaven to account for himself. He was distraught because he hadn’t been like Moses and brought forth his people from slavery. He was anguished because he hadn’t been like Joshua and led his people into the promised land.
And the angel said to Zusya: “The question is not why you were not more like Moses, or Joshua. The question is why weren’t you more like Zusya?”
I will never preach like Peter or pray like Paul. I can’t be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But I can and do preach and pray like John.
You are not St. Francis or Mother Teresa – and no one is asking you to be either of those people. God wants you to be you – with all your quirks, and all your gifts – doing the essential, moving to the possible, and being open to the impossible. God is asking you to listen to the “still, small voice of calm,” and to follow. God is asking you to open your eyes to the beauty all around, and to salute “Brother Sun and Sister Moon” and say “hello” to the birds.
God is asking you to be less cynical and more trusting; less tight and more generous; less judgmental and more affirming. God is asking you to be you and not feel bad about that, and not compare yourself to others. God wants you to claim your power as a beloved child. Don’t worry about what you don’t know and can’t do – follow what you do know and can do.
Acknowledge holiness. You can do that – as well as feed the poor, and clothe the naked, and just be – pray to Jesus to help you. Just do it.
“Run your race with perseverance, keeping your eyes on the pioneer and perfecter of your faith, Jesus Christ.” Take on that yoke. It will be a start and that is all God asks for.
St. Francis lived a “revolutionary life” just by moving from the essential to the possible and beyond. I invite you to the same journey.
But as my friend David Ensign was fond of saying about the gospel: “Just that simple, just that hard.”
You have to take a step.