Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, October 6, 2013: Feast Day of St. Francis (transferred)

Texts: Genesis 2:18-25  +  Psalm 148  +  Revelation 5:11-14  +  Matthew 6:25-29

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.

"Saint Francis," by Nikos Kazantzakis

“Saint Francis,” by Nikos Kazantzakis

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.

The cast of Glee

The cast of Glee

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!

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, October 9, 2011: Fifth Sunday in the Season of Creation–Francis and All Animals

Texts: Job 38:1-11,16-18  +  Psalm 104:13-23  +  1 Timothy 6:6-10,17-19  +  Luke 12:13-21

Please pray with me.

LORD, make us instruments of your peace. / Where there is hatred, let us sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

That is, as many of you know, the Prayer of St. Francis, whom we commemorate today as we celebrate the final Sunday in the Season of Creation. Francis, who is remember as a friend to animals and a lover of all Creation, was also a champion of the cause of peace. You may remember that Francis served Assisi as a solider before he was a preacher. Like many soldiers, Francis returned a changed man. He lived on the streets and kept company with the poor and the destitute. He preached harmony with all of God’s creation and practiced poverty as a path to holiness.

It’s hard not to think we need more Francises in the world today. Today soldiers are still returning home from war changed, still finding their place on the street, still living among the poor and the destitute as they struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, a broken healthcare system and shrinking veterans’ care. Many have assumed lives of poverty not as an intentional discipline, but as the only path forward.

We worship this morning at the pivot point between the season behind us, the Season of Creation, and the season ahead of us, a season in which we’ll be talking about Stewardship of our resources as a congregation along with an intentional emphasis faith and politics as we begin a six week series next Sunday titled, “God’s Politics.” At this pivot point we could ask for no better company than Francis, who gave us the lyrics to our opening hymn this morning,

All creatures, worship God most high! / Sound every voice in earth and sky: / Alleluia! Alleluia! / Sing, brother sun…sister moon…brother wind…sister water…brother fire…mother earth

A hymn of love for all of God’s creation that breaks in the middle to offer these words of comfort among so many other words of praise,

All who for love of God forgive, all who in pain or sorrow grieve: Alleluia! Alleluia! / Christ bears your burdens and your fears; still make your song amid the tears: Alleluia! Alleluia!

Francis, so often remember for his gentle heart and his pacific nature reminds us that he knows firsthand the heartbreak of war and the fatigue that comes to those who work for peace.

Laymah GboweeAs Lutherans, we are celebrating along with the rest of the world, the achievements of one of our own sisters who, this past week, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to bring peace to her homeland. Born in 1972, Leymah Gbowee led a non-violent women’s movement that resulted in the ousting of former president Charles Taylor and brought an end to the 14-year civil war in Liberia. Gbowee is a member of the Lutheran Church in Liberia and, on a scholarship from the International Leadership Development Program of the ELCA, came to the United States five years ago to study peace building at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Although the Liberian civil war began in 1989, the women’s peace movement didn’t begin until 2003. Gbowee, a mother of six, says she grew tired of watching children die from hunger and “waking up every morning and not knowing whether a tomorrow was possible.” She found common cause with women across Liberia and started a movement to end the war. “You always see your savior in someone else other than yourself,” she said. “So for us women, having never been socialized to believe that we have powers to interfere in the politics of our country, we were waiting for the bold men. (But) every time the bold men rose up, they rose up with guns and other things.”

Like the Civil Rights era peace activists in the United States, Gbowee and the women of Liberia used prayer, picketing and silence to advance their cause. She reached across the lines of difference that have kept Liberia, and the rest of the world, divided – working with women from Christian, Muslim and indigenous African faith traditions. In her activism, Leymah Gbowee has shown all of us Lutherans, and the whole world, what it means when we say, “God’s Work, Our Hands.”

Now is the time for bold action like Leymah’s. Across the country this weekend, peace activists have taken to the streets calling for an end to the U.S. war in Afghanistan, a war that is costing this country $3 billion dollars a day, and forcing us to cut back on education, healthcare and other necessary supports for the young, the elderly and the poor. As our nation’s most vulnerable citizens struggle to keep their heads and their homes above water, the richest of the rich refuse to take steps to alleviate the human suffering caused by a reckless market left unchecked for over a decade. So, on Wall Street and across the nation, we see other people of faith and conscience putting their bodies on the line to try and wake our country up from its slumber of apathy and hopelessness. With their chants and songs they are calling to us, “you are not the victims of history, you are the hope of future generations. Wake up! Act now!”

This is where the hinge of Creation and Stewardship meets. To love God’s world, and to care for all that lives, and moves, and has its being thereupon, means to speak and to act in the public square. It means bringing our faith, which has much to say about war and wealth, out of the confines of our private homes and into the streets, into the workplace, into the pulpit, and into the voting booth.

I’m not talking about the church getting involved in endorsing candidates or supporting political parties, but I am talking about the church practicing and providing a real alternative to the politics of our day that are always trying to divide us, one against the other. As Christians, whether we are talking about genetics or criminal justice or human sexuality, we can model for our neighbors what it looks like to disagree without becoming divided. On those causes where we find agreement we can, like Leymah Gbowee, turn faith into public action for peace. On those causes where we cannot find agreement, we can listen well and deeply to each other, pray for those whom we cannot support, and love one another unconditionally. This, too, is what it means to be people who proclaim, “God’s Work, Our Hands.”

Friends, this is huge work, this is a colossal undertaking. It is more than we could ever hope to accomplish alone – which is why we belong to a church larger than our own parish, why we support the wider church with benevolences that in turn become scholarships for women like Leymah Gbowee, who with our help has changed the world! It is why we work beyond the confines of our denomination, beyond the dividing lines of our religions. The work we are called to is global. It is cosmic. It is the whole creation groaning in labor as the new creation is being born. For a task like this we require the help of even the sun and moon, the stars and sky, the wind and the fire, the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, all the creatures that walk upon the earth and each other. We need each other, every last one, if we are ever going to have peace.

As we thank God for the Season of Creation behind us we turn our attention to the task ahead. Stewardship is the first task after creation. How will we spend our money, our time, our love and our lives? This question demands an answer, and we will not shy away from it.

With deep gratitude that we are on this journey together, we say

Amen.

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