Sermon Creationtide 5 - 3rd October 2021
If you are here in church this morning, you will have some understanding of the true meaning of chaos and after the glue dots at 5@5 I must be a sucker for punishment! As this is the nearest Sunday to the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, and our service is attended by an unusual assortment of furry friends - lets meet some of them.
Meet the Pets in person and on screen
We celebrate the Feast of St. Francis by honouring his love of animals as we invite our family pets to join us for worship and to receive a special blessing on this day. The purity of the woofs, meows and screeches combined with the singing of hymns all making a most joyful noise unto the Lord seems to me a fitting way to conclude the season of creation worshipping with God’s creation.
I like Francis for a lot of reasons. Francis lived in the late 12th and early 13th centuries and formed a monastic order that, to this day, draws Franciscan women and men into the service of humanity in some of the most desolate and forgotten places. This week I celebrated the 20th anniversary of ordination to the diaconate and despite priesting one always remains a deacon. The word deacon finds its roots in the Greek "diakonia" meaning servant. Francis exemplified servant hood, diakonia, in its very best sense by living in extreme poverty and dedicating his life to loving service of the poor who were marginalized and cast off by society. Deacons today can only hope through prayer that they will be given the strength and grace to follow in the path of Blessed Francis. Especially pertinent for all animal lovers is the popular quote that cats don’t have owners they have servants!
Similar to St. Paul, Francis lived a life apart from Christ only to ultimately take on the full yoke of Christ. The complete conversion of life entered into by Francis, confirmed that, in the words we heard from Paul's letter to the Galatians, "a new creation is everything!" I find tremendous hope in the stories of their conversions. Knowing what became of them gives me hope that I, a sinner, may find a way to fully accept Jesus' call and be filled with the strength required to become a new creation myself.
It was a personal encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ that gave us the miracle that was Saint Francis of Assisi. That personal relationship with Christ turned a hedonist into an ascetic, a sinner into a saint. We must believe, that is exactly what an encounter with, and relationship with Christ is destined to do for every one of us. It is that transformation of the person of Francis into the image of Jesus Christ that we commemorate today.
Francis' conversion of life -- becoming a "new creation" took many years. God worked in Francis by giving him a depth of compassion and love for the poor. That love for the poor later translated into Francis embracing extreme poverty and seeing such poverty as the spiritual food that would give him rest for his soul and make the yoke of Christ an easy yoke.
In his book about Francis, G.K. Chesterton wrote of the encounter with Christ and tells us that in that moment, for this mystic Francis, there is nothing but God. He observes,
If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence… He would be thankful to God for not dropping the whole cosmos like a vast crystal to be shattered into falling stars. Perhaps St. Peter saw the world so, when he was crucified head downwards…In a…cynical sense…men have said “Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.” It was in a wholly happy and enthusiastic sense that St. Francis said, “Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.” It was by this deliberate idea of starting from zero…that he did come to enjoy even earthly things as few people have enjoyed them.’
Moreover, as our Epistle tells us today, Francis never forgot that the Lord who spoke to him in the first moments of religious fervour, spoke to him from the cross in the ruined Church of St. Damian. Christ crucified is what Francis preached and lived. Christ giving Himself totally for the salvation of you and me. And so, Francis got a rare gift, and one that I suspect none of us would want from Our Lord.
‘While he was praying on the mountain of Verna, during a forty-day fast in preparation for Michaelmas (September 29), Francis is said to have had a vision on or about September 14, 1224, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, as a result of which he received the stigmata. Brother Leo, who had been with Francis at the time, left a clear and simple account of the event, the first definite account of the phenomenon of stigmata. “Suddenly he saw a vision of a seraph, a six-winged angel on a cross. This angel gave him the gift of the five wounds of Christ.”’
It was a fatal gift, as were the wounds of His Saviour. Despite attempts to restore his health in several cities, he was returned to the chapel in Assisi, where he died that same October 3rd singing a psalm.
To be honest, the thought of such a radical transformation scares me. I know I could never take up that lifestyle and all of its responsibilities by my own free will. I don't think many of us will leave here today and begin imitating everything Francis became. But what are we to do with the Gospel and Francis' example of following those instructions?When we look at Francis, we see an image of Jesus. It reminds us that people need to look at us and see the image of Jesus, and it prods us with the knowledge that we might be inadequate images and that we need transforming more and more into the likeness of Christ by having a living relationship with him.
An encounter with Christ changes everything. It is the greatest relationship anyone could hope for, a relationship that Jesus wants to have with everyone and for that reason our Gospel encourages us to give up worrying or dependency on stuff and find liberation in relying on the Lord. Francis paraphrases this in his sermon to the birds,
My little sisters, the birds, much bounden are ye unto God, your Creator, and always in every place ought ye to praise Him, for that He hath given you liberty to fly about everywhere, and hath also given you double and triple rainment; moreover He preserved your seed in the ark of Noah, that your race might not perish out of the world; still more are ye beholden to Him for the element of the air which He hath appointed for you; beyond all this, ye sow not, neither do you reap; and God feedeth you, and giveth you the streams and fountains for your drink; the mountains and valleys for your refuge and the high trees whereon to make your nests; and because ye know not how to spin or sow, God clotheth you, you and your children; wherefore your Creator loveth you much, seeing that He hath bestowed on you so many benefits; and therefore, my little sisters, beware of the sin of ingratitude, and study always to give praises unto God.
(Saint Francis of Assisi - 1220)
As on our own mural Jesus says, ‘come to me’ - a very personal invitation -- and then also ‘I will give you rest’ -- once again, intensely personal. I think we can believe that this is a personal invitation to each of us. An invitation to become new creations, changed people, with a transformed lifestyle through intimate relationship with Jesus. The same relationship that St. Francis accepted and where he found rest for his soul. And might I dare to suggest the same pure relationship that our pets enjoy with their Creator.
The question before each of us today is "do we accept the invitation as Francis did, or do we send our regrets?".
Our Lord waits for our response.