There is a story about St. Francis from his early years that perhaps explains why people still remember him almost eight-hundred years after his death. Francis came from wealth. His father was a cloth merchant in Assisi, and Francis was a known partier in his youth. He served in the military as a young man and went off to war with Perugia, where he was captured and served for a year as a prisoner of war, after which he was never the same.
Upon his release and return to Assisi, like many who have been through war, Francis began acting oddly. He would walk alone throughout the hillside, singing to himself and praying. He would sleep in caves. People thought he’d gone mad.
During this time, Francis had an epiphany in which he heard God’s voice speaking to him, and saying, “rebuild my church.” Francis took the command at face value, never thinking that God might be speaking in a spiritual sense or on a grand scale. Instead, Francis supposed that God desired that the run down San Damiano church on the hills outside the city gates be fixed up. So, Francis sold some of the expensive bolts of cloth from his father’s store, without his father’s permission, in order to raise capital so that he could begin the reconstruction.
The priests at San Damiano worried what the father might think. I suppose they were concerned that they might lose his support or make a powerful enemy if they didn’t come forward quickly. The father was furious, not only that Francis had sold his assets, but that he had degenerated into such a base lifestyle. So he arranged to have Francis meet him in the town square.
On a cold winter day Francis arrived in the town square prepared to meet with his father. His father was prepared as well and, in full view of the townspeople, he began to rebuke Francis for his irresponsibility and wastefulness in throwing good money after a bad building. After this had gone on for some time, Francis interrupted his public humiliation and said simply, “you are no longer my father. God is my father. I give you back my name, all of my earthly belongings, even the clothes off my back.” And with that, Francis stripped down to the buff and walked off, barefoot, into the snowy hills.
These are the sorts of erratic, pointed actions Francis for which Francis is remembered. In my Hebrew scripture class we learned to call these sorts of behaviors “sign-acts.” Sign-acts are forms of primarily non-verbal communication intended to have a powerful impact on those who see it, actions that become signs of something larger. In this case, although Francis and his father exchanged words, the sign-act was when Francis responded to his father’s attempts to humiliate him by stripping naked in public. The greater meaning of this action might be translated as, “you want me to feel powerless and shamed for taking part of your wealth for the sake of Christ’s church – but I am willing to be renounce my power and my shame for the love of God – and you can’t take that away from me!”
Because his personality was so charismatic, and because he practiced what he preached – voluntarily taking on a life of poverty, Francis quickly became popular throughout the region, and women and men came great distances to meet him, to listen to him, and eventually to join him in building a community that survives to this day as the Franciscan order of monks and the sisters of St. Clare, his partner in ministry.
On another occasion, Francis was invited to a banquet being hosted by a wealthy nobleman and his family. The invitation to Francis was the kind of invite the wealthy often give to prophets in their day. It was intended to bring honor to the host, because he was magnanimous enough to invite the odd, outlandish, mendicant son of the local elite to dinner. I think host probably also knew that Francis was popular among the poor, and hoped to gain favor with them by inviting their hero to his table.
As the guests were seated the serving staff emerged from the kitchen carrying large platters of roasted meats and vegetables. Huge wheels of cheese were placed within easy reach of every guest, and servants made sure the wine was flowing freely. Seeing that the meal was being served, Francis got up from his seat and removed a humble loaf of bread from his satchel. Making his way around the table, Francis tore off a small piece of bread for everyone present and setting it on their plate.
Another sign act, this one perhaps best translated as, “I see that you are very wealthy (and I know that is exactly what you want me to see), but I dine at the Lord’s table where there is always enough for everyone, and everyone is always welcome, and that is enough for me, thank you very much.”
Aren’t these great stories? The stories about Francis go on and on. There are a whole set of stories about how Francis spoke to the birds, or calmed the temper of a wolf who’d been terrorizing the countryside. We bless animals on the day of commemoration for Francis because he is remembered for his deep love of creation. He called the sun his brother and the moon his sister. He knew down to the marrow of his bones that we were made for relationship with one another.
This is the kind of faith that transforms lives and these are the kind of lives that transform the world. No one really remembers the name of the wealthy textile merchant from Assisi, but they remember his son, Francis – not for how much he had, but for how much he gave away.
This is the kind of faith that is our inheritance by virtue of our baptism. Faith like the kind Timothy received from his grandmother, Lois, and his mother, Eunice, and his teacher, Paul, who writes,
for this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.
It can be difficult to believe that God will do something extraordinary with ordinary people like us. We hear God whispering to us in the quiet of our souls, “rebuild my church, restore my creation,” and we cannot fathom that God means anything quite so cosmic as the transformation of the whole world. But maybe, we think, maybe we could just start with rebuilding this crumbling old building on the edge of Logan Square. Maybe we could continue to feed those hungry neighbors who come through our doors in this place, and grow in our ministry to those who wait for us on the south side of Humboldt Park, or the intersection of Halsted and Belmont.
It seems crazy in an economy like this, with record unemployment and shrinking savings to think about giving more – but it has always been at times just like these that the people of God have dug deep and stepped forward to preserve the lives of those on the brink of despair. Like loaves and fishes multiplied on the hillside, or Francis leaving a piece of bread beside plates stu
ffed with too much while others suffered too little, God calls to us this morning through the voices of saints of old with words we would never have expected to hear. “Come here at once,” says the Lord, “and take your place at the table.” And we reply, “increase our faith.”