The life of Francesco di Bernardone, the man history remembers as St. Francis of Assisi, is a life of stories. Stories surround the memory of this man who, legends say, calmed a marauding wolf, humbled the rich, and addressed all of creation — from the sun in the sky to the earth beneath his feet — as if each was a brother and sister in his family.
Francis is remembered as a man simultaneously filled with joy and haunted by pain — the pain of the world, which took on shape in his own body as he renounced his wealth in order to rebuild the church and care for the needs of the poor around him.
One of my favorite stories from the life of Francis recounts the day he confronted his father and renounced his wealth. His father, Pietro, was a wealthy textile merchant who’d hoped Francis would follow in his footsteps and inherit the family business. Instead, Francis used his father’s wealth to rebuild a crumbling church and to feed the poor. Filled with the Spirit of God, Francis entered the city of Assisi to preach the good news of God’s infinite love, by turns dancing and weeping as he preached. Incensed by his son’s unauthorized expenses, and embarrassed by the ridicule of his friends and neighbors, Pietro drug his son before the bishop of Assisi to demand a verdict on his behavior.
In his fictionalized account of the life of Francis, Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis sets the scene like this:
“Lord Bishop,” old Bernardone answered in a hoarse, exasperated voice, “this son of mine is no longer in his right mind. He has insane dreams, hears voices in the air, takes gold from my coffers and squanders it. He’s ruining me! Until recently he spent it in having a good time, and I said to myself that he was young and would get over it. But now I’ve finally lost all hope. He goes around with ragamuffins, sleeps in caves, weeps and laughs without rhyme or reason, and lately has been seized with a mania to rebuild ruined churches. But tonight this disease simply went too far. He came to Assisi and began to sing and dance in the middle of the square while everyone laughed … He is a disgrace to my blood. I no longer want him!”
“And so…?” asked the bishop, seeing Bernadone hesitate.
“And so,” said old Bernadone, holding his arm over his son’s head, “and so, before God and man I disown him, disinherit him. He is no longer my son.”
There was muffled whispering among the notables and people, but the bishop restored silence with a wave of his hand. He turned to Francis, who had been listening with bowed head.
“What do you have to say in your defense, Francis, son of Christ?”
Francis raised his head.
“Nothing,” he answered. “Only this —”
And, before any of us could prevent him, with a sudden movement he threw off the velvet clothes he was wearing, rolled them up into a bundle, and calmly, without uttering a word, stooped and placed them at [his father’s] feet.
Then, naked as the day his mother brought him into the world, he went and stood before the bishop’s throne.
“Bishop,” he said, “even these clothes belonged to him. I am returning them. He no longer has a son; I no longer have a father. Our accounts are settled.”
We all stood with gaping mouths; many eyes had filled with tears. Bernadone bent down, seized the bundle, and placed it beneath his arm.
The bishop descended from his throne. His eyes were wet. Removing his cloak, he wrapped it around Francis, covering his nakedness.
“Why did you do it, my child?” he asked in a melancholy reproachful voice. “Weren’t you ashamed before these people?”
“No, Bishop, only before God,” Francis replied humbly. “I am only ashamed before God. Forgive me, Bishop.”
The bishop of Assisi protects Francis from his disowned father’s violent wrath, provides him with a simple gardener’s robe to cover his nakedness, and escorts him to the courtyard of the church. Kazantzakis continues,
Bending over, he said to him in a hushed voice, “Careful, Francis. You’re overdoing it.”
“That’s how one finds God, Bishop,” Francis answered.
The bishop shook his head. “Even virtue needs moderation; otherwise it can become arrogance.”
“Man stands within the bounds of moderation; God stands outside them. I am heading for God, Bishop,” said Francis, and he proceeded hastily toward the street door. He had no time to lose.
All the texts assigned for this Feast Day of St. Francis find their home somewhere in this story. Francis enters the town of Assisi filled with the vision of the heavenly chorus in the reading from Revelation, his sermon an extension of the ecstatic praise of the angels, and elders and all God’s creatures singing “to the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever.” (Rev. 5:13)
Then, as his father disowns him and he is stripped of his family name and inheritance, Francis stands defiantly naked before church and society, refusing to be shamed for his joy in the gospel. Beneath his wealth, beneath even his family associations, Francis knew that the deepest, truest fact of his existence was that he was one of God’s own beloved creations. In his testimony we hear echoes of Genesis, “and the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” (Gen. 2:25)
Francis was immodest in his witness, immoderate in his living. He stood in the line of the prophets of Israel whom we studied this past summer, willing to use his own life to make dramatic sign acts that testified to an extraordinary confidence in the providence of God. Even as the bishop of Assisi, his recent protector, covers his nakedness, guides him safely to the gates, and urges caution, Francis throws caution to the wind with words that sound like Jesus’ own from Matthew’s gospel, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matt. 6:25)
Last week I began a 12-week class with the junior high and high school youth in our congregation. We’re meeting the hour before worship on Sunday mornings to study the bible, skimming the entire book from beginning to end by focusing on its major themes. So, last week we began with creation, noticing that when God looked at what God had created, God declared that it was good.
One of the exercises we were invited to try out over the course of this past week was to either put sticky notes on our bathroom mirror, or to write with washable markers, characteristics we believe are true about God. So, if you were doing this exercise with us, your bathroom mirror might have framed the reflection of your face with words like, “creative,” “powerful,” “forgiving,” “loving,” “steadfast” and so on.
I loved this suggestion, because — at least the way I remember those years — junior high and high school can be so tough on our self-esteem. We are so painfully conscious of all the ways we stick out. We want nothing more than to fit in. We can barely imagine making the kind of scene St. Francis did, the equivalent of marching into the cafeteria and making a huge, embarrassing spectacle of himself that ended with him standing naked in front of everyone he knew and disowned by his family.
Then I think about the TV show Glee, and how it’s not just young people who watch that show, but so many of us, Gleeks one and all. There’s something powerful about that show, the way that it invites us all, teens and adults, to dream about a different kind of reality. A world where all life’s daily humiliations are overcome with a song and a dance and a community of friends who will not let you go. A world where a Jewish Korean girl is elected prom queen; where the head cheerleader trades in her pom poms for the love of a nerdy, wheelchair bound boy; and a combined chorus of rival schools set aside their competitions to serenade two young men as they commit to a life of marriage to one another. It is a ludicrous comedy about the way we wish the world actually worked.
I wonder if the legends that follow St. Francis aren’t a bit like that. In a time before television and Netflix, when we still gathered around campfires and came to church, we still hungered for stories of people who’d figured out how to learn from the life of Jesus and to make his story their own.
So we get Francis, who sang and danced his way through life, surrounded by the brothers minor and the poor clares, the brothers and sisters Francis and his friend and co-worker Clare gathered around them. We get scenes and stories from their lives, like episodes of a necessary dream, that keep hope alive that there is a place on this earth for all who feel too poor, too sick, too different, too far gone to ever belong to anything real, anything important.
But best of all, we get the church. Like the walls of San Damiano, the church that St. Francis restored and where St. Clare built her community of sisters, we have a building in need of restoration, but already filled with the songs and dances and arts of a hundred saints. Saints like you, who God sees through the eyes of love and calls good every day.
You see, the world’s necessary dream is not confined to an hour-long episode once a week, and it is not confined to the stories of brothers and sisters who lived and died eight hundred years ago. The dream this world needs, God’s dream for the world, is enacted each time we gather here. It is the songs that surround the stories we tell week after week that counter the tales of terror that drench our morning news. It is the warm sharing of peace with our neighbors in a world marked by too much hostility and suspicion. It is the food shared at a table where all are fed in a neighborhood where food prices keep rising. It is the daily witness and ministry of life that each of you is carrying out in your homes, on the streets, in classrooms and boardrooms. It is the life of the baptized, God’s glee club, singing God’s song dressed in nothing but the waters that gave them new life.
Your life, the life of St. Luke’s, the life of the church, the life of Christ, is a life full of stories. Stories of a people and a creation that God looks at with love and calls good, very good. Let love make you immodest in your witness, immoderate in your enthusiasm. Come, let us sing to the Lord!