ST FRANCIS OF ASSISI

Phil 4:4-9
Matt 19:16-21

Tomorrow is the actual Feast of St Francis, but we are celebrating it today in honour of our own Fr Francis – who appropriately was ordained to the priesthood on this day forty years ago. Does this mean my task here is to compare the Saint who Kenneth Clark called “the greatest religious genius that Europe has ever produced” with our beloved minister and friend? This strikes me as a potentially dangerous undertaking! But maybe not. For if Saint Francis is a ‘religious genius,’ it is because his life encourages and embraces the lives of all who desire to walk the way of discipleship. We identify with the great Saint not because we think our lives are as exemplary as his, but because he shines a light along that path on which we too are walking, or at least trying to. That strikes me as true of all the Saints: we identify with them because they are like us – even as we struggle to be like them.

 

But before I go on to say more about St Francis, the monk who gave his life to poverty out of love for the Gospel, let us take a look at Matthew’s story of the rich young man. This just may be the text that has haunted my conscience more than any other. He is a person rich with good things – not just material goods but, we easily imagine, all the attendant goods position and prosperity bring: he is from a family important to the life of their community; he is educated, healthy, eager to take his place in the world. His father regards him with hope and pride. He is the apple of his mother’s eye, the one who will care for her and honour her in her old age. Undoubtedly, there is a girl too, a girl already chosen for him and who looks toward him as a blessing . . . And the young man is not ungrateful for all this. He is generous of spirit. A devout Jew, he wakes early to pray; he faces toward Sion at noon with a psalm on his lips; and when the sun goes down, he lifts up his heart in thankfulness for the day. But at the same time, there is a voice in his heart asking, “is this all? Is this enough?” Somehow, God is calling him further out. And so he seeks the rabbi: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

We know well Jesus’ response: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give your money to the poor.” Hearing this, the young man goes away sorrowing. But why, do you think, is he sorrowful? What can he not part with? The possessions themselves? Or rather something else? After all, to sell his possessions would mean to judge his father, to abandon his responsibility to look after his mother, to give up his place in his community, to lose the girl. Wouldn’t this seem to all the people he loves to be an act only of ingratitude and rejection? Already, he gives generously to the poor. Already, he tithes to support the ministries of the Synagogue. What good would it do for anyone, his becoming poor?

 

Kenneth Clark called St Francis a “religious genius” because he understood that “it was only because he possessed nothing that St Francis could feel sincerely a brotherhood with all created things, not only living creatures, but brother fire and sister wind.”[1] That is a beautiful insight. Clark sees that St Francis’ “Canticle of the Sun,” that joyful celebration of the community of all creation in God, was made possible by his marriage to poverty, to his becoming ‘one flesh’ therefore with even the very least of God’s creatures.

And that insight brings us to see something integral to the Gospel itself and to the nature of Christian love. Love is not “charity” – at least, not in the way we use that word today. Acts of ‘charity’ may be necessary, but they are a concession to our weakness. For charity accepts and even reinforces the differences that separate us, one creature of God from another. Food banks may be necessary, but the truth is that they sustain and abet the gap separating the ‘haves’ from the ‘have nots.’ But Love rejects all unessential separation. Love seeks communion everywhere. When Jesus tells the young man to sell his goods and give to the poor – he is not advising him to works of charity, but to a life of deepening community. Only poverty really exposes us to the truth: that all creatures are entirely dependent for their life and being on the abundant goodness of God.

 

But the rich young man goes away sorrowing. I go away sorrowing. Jesus just seems too hard! Is he really demanding of us lives of ascetic renunciation? How dreary! – causing distress not only to myself but to family and friends around me. But then we look to St Francis. St Francis wasn’t dreary – quite the opposite! When Francis somehow wrangled an interview with Pope Innocent III (known as the ‘toughest politician in Europe’), and when the Pope had the miraculous generosity to grant Francis permission to found a new religious order based on poverty, Francis and his companions were so excited they began to dance around in the Papal suite! Whooping and singing! They were far from dreary. Anyway, only someone whose heart is brimful of joy could spontaneously begin to preach to the birds, recognizing them to be essentially no different from him – they serving God in their way, and he in his. St Francis’ life indeed expressed the words with which we heard St Paul encourage the Church in Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice! . . . the Lord is near!”

When Francis’ wealthy father disowned him for giving his possessions away too liberally, Francis upped the ante by taking off all his clothes, saying “from now on I will possess absolutely nothing.” The bishop of Assisi gave him a cloak to cover himself, and Francis went off into the woods, singing a French song. What a beautiful picture. Francis lost the world, it is true, but he gained his soul. He lost his family, but found that all creatures were his brothers and sisters, the earth his Mother; God his true Father. And somehow, he learned by this what it means to be free.

Now what about our Francis – that is, Lynford, Fr Smith – whatever name you happen to call him by . . . ? Although as far as I know our Fr Francis has never taken a vow of poverty, we know him as one whose love for God, like St Francis, expresses itself in a heart of caring for all – and especially those in any kind of distress. Rejoicing in the Lord always – for our Fr Francis this means a life given to loving solicitude, kindness, attentiveness, a deep feeling of communion with his brothers and sisters in Christ. And in all these ways at least, the other, somewhat older Francis, has indeed been a guide and model in his faith. Moreover, it is not unknown for Fr Francis to dance for joy – especially Sundays in the vestry; often enough singing a French song too. It isn’t always very graceful, but it is always very joyful! Fr Francis, we are deeply grateful to God that He sent you to minister here, amongst us. And we thank Him for the richness of your friendship. May it continue from now well into eternity! In Jesus’ name,

AMEN

[1] Kenneth Clark, Civilisation (London: Penguin, 1969), p.68

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Fr. Travis O'Brian

The Rev. Canon Dr. Travis O'Brian holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the 'Higher Institute of Philosophy' at the University of Leuven, Belgium (yes, the very city where Stella Artois is brewed!), where he wrote his dissertation on the work of Søren Kierkegaard. Travis was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. He is married to Jasmin, and they have a family of four children: Tristan, Fiona, Kamilla, and Matthias.

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