Proper 22, Year C/St. Francis Day 10-6-13
©Holly Lyman Antolini
Lections: Lamentations 1:1-6; Ps. 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10
Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. AMEN.
You gotta LOVE the lectionary! Here I come back from four joyful, light-fraught months of rest and rejuvenation on sabbatical – truly a “sabbath rest” in England, Scotland, Maine, Vermont, California and Italy – and my first Sunday back, my first post-sabbatical sermon to y’all, what do I get for readings? In the first lesson, Lamentations, in the era when all of Jerusalem’s ruling class had been taken into captivity by the Babylonians, and the city and the first Temple laid waste! The author of Psalm 137, responding to the same devastation: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song upon an alien soil?” And then there’s Luke! ”We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” How am I supposed to preach my joy out of THOSE TEXTS, I ask you?!?
I opened this sermon with the Collect for St. Francis’ Feast Day, since we’re celebrating St. Francis Day by blessing animals in his name after the service, on the West steps. It begs God that “we may for love of God delight in God’s whole creation with perfectness of joy.” Now THAT’S more like it! But where’s “the perfectness of joy” in the desolate visions of Lamentations & Psalm 137? Or the words to Timothy in our second lesson, words about being “a prisoner of the Lord” and ” suffering for the gospel?” What’s joyful about being a suffering prisoner? Where’s the delight in the severity of Luke, requiring from us the obedience of a SLAVE?!? A “worthless” one, to boot? In our liberated, positive-reinforcement-oriented 21st century Cantabrigian culture, is worthless slavery an appropriate – even a viable – vision of the Christian life?
But then I go back and notice more about Francis’ Collect. Before we can delight in Creation with perfectness of joy, the prayer implies, we need grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world,grace to renounce whatever insulates us from awareness of God’s cherishing, merciful presence. And our delight in Creation, our joy, springs only from our awareness and responsive love of that all-loving God. Somewhere in that hinge between vanity and joy lies the key to this contrast of lament and delight.
Fresh in my mind is my visit to Francis’ own hometown, Assisi, in Umbria, in Italy, just a couple of weeks ago. (I guess I just missed overlapping with the new Roman Catholic Pope Francis, who was there yesterday, I find!) I wandered Assisi’s little narrow streets to the huge basilica built in Francis’ honor right after his death at age 44. It dominates the brow of the town’s steep hill, and is decorated over every inch of its Lower and Upper Churches with magnificent frescoes, including one of my favorites: the entire Life of Francis by the painter Giotto, an absolute profusion of medieval glory. I meandered down the hill through the ancient olive orchards to find the tiny chapel of San Damiano where, in the beginning of the 13th century, as a popular young gallant full of medieval romance and ambitious to be a soldier, but now smitten and prevented by illness, Francis first heard Christ speak from the church’s crucifix, saying “Francis! Seest thou not that my house is in ruins? Go and restore it for me!” [G.K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi] Those words caused Francis to abandon all his dreams of military glory, all the wealth and power of his merchant family and adopt a life of absolute poverty, joining in solidarity with the poorest of the poor in his society, and living simply, often out of doors. Finally, after San Damiano, I visited Porzi`uncola, at the bottom of the hill below Assisi: the first tiny structure built by Francis and his companions in which to pray and celebrate the Eucharist. The tiny church, with its stone walls and precious fresco of Francis’ vision of Christ and Mary his mother reigning in glory, is now completely enclosed in an immense Counter-Reformation structure of Santa Maria degli Angeli like the tiny seed at the center of an immense and elaborate fruit.
The morning that I visited this astonishing church-within-a-church, the tiny chapel was completely filled with Missionaries of Charity, nuns from Mother Teresa’s Calcutta order, who like Francis have vowed “wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor.” They were kneeling on the floor of the chapel for the celebration of the Eucharist, heads bent in their distinctive white-&-blue cotton head-coverings. Though their presence meant that we couldn’t enter the chapel to see the frescoes inside, the Missionaries of Charity reframed my entire visit to Assisi. The sight of all those bowed, white-clad heads in their simplicity bore in upon me the irony of all I was seeing. The irony of Porzi`uncola’s encasement in the ponderous majesty of its towering tribute shrine. The irony of the mighty Basilica on the hill above, controversial even in its original construction because its pomp and glory was felt by some of Francis’ followers to be contradictory of Francis’ own simplicity. The ironyof the whole of Assisi itself, its streets crammed with little shops offering every imaginable variety of tourist tchotchkes, a town where crowds of pilgrims throng, dining sumptuously and purchasing religious and other paraphernalia profligately. The irony that the only quiet to be found in the whole bustling town was the quiet far down at San Damiano, too steep a climb for many visitors, too far away in the orchards for tour busses to reach it, a place where the listener might just hear Christ address them from the crucifix even now, might hear him say as pointedly now as then, “Can’t you see how my house is in ruins? Please, please: restore my church!”
The Missionaries of Charity may even have reframed my entire experience of sabbatical, an experience that was shot through continuously with “delight in God’s Creation with perfectness of joy,” as I journeyed about, walking, singing Handel, praying, visiting with friends, [yes, eating!] and drawing – attempting to draw, at any rate – the wonders I saw around me. Those bowed heads reminded me – as I was often reminded, on the island of Iona, in and out of Anglican churches in England, here in New England’s small-town churches, in the historic basilicas of Florence and Venice – of the dilemma we and our Church are in, in bondage to our own comfort, our own insulation from the pain and anguish of God’s “least, last, lost & littlest ones,” our own anxiety about securing a “truth” to purvey to young people, an anxiety only increasing as congregations visibly age and young people find that “truth” unpersuasive.
“O Lord, increase our faith!” cry the disciples to Jesus in the Gospel of Luke today. Isn’t that OUR cry in this post-Christendom, 21st century time, a time when little about the values and standards of our society seems to invite faith and much seems to invite the abandonment thereof? Jesus gives the lie to such measurements of faith: only a mustard seed of faith is really needed, the tiniest bias of “yes” over “no” to God. But still we get tangled up in confusion, just as the pious people of Assisi, from the 13th century until now, get tangled up in the commercial and institutional opportunities of Francis’ popularity, in the exaltation and adulation of Francis who might well have owned that he, himself, had only the merest mustard seed of faith. Even before Francis had died, his order had begun to move away from his life of “holy poverty,” acquiring lands, wealth, influence, moving “indoors” if you will, away from the birds and the wolves and homeless poor with whom Francis broke bread and shared their predicament. In so doing, they moved away from his decision to rely solely upon God, solely upon the trust that God was in charge of the messy world of inequality and war and violence and destruction then as now, his dependence upon God’s really loving the world and continuing to work in the world, all the world, all Creation, not just the “nice” parts of it, that being a “worthless slave” of all that beauteous work of God is not a diminishment of us as God’s beloved creatures, but a simple acknowledgment that only God is God, the one acknowledgment that can lead us into whole-hearted sharing in that all-encompassing love.
But though Jesus uses the laborious image of the slave in her apron, setting dinner on the table, to reinforce our obedience to God in our creaturely weakness, I can tell you from my time on sabbatical that even a mustard seed like mine of faith that God is truly in charge can permit rest as well as labor, enjoyment as well as action. Perhaps you could say, I stripped off the insulation of my work – whatever ego support, whatever “vanity of the world” cushions me in my official role as your rector – and discovered, in the simplicity of rest, God present and loving.
The Missionaries of Charity in the Porzi`uncola reminded me that we cannot restore our church from inside the safe and sumptuous walls of our basilicas. We cannot restore it burdened with ourtchotchkes, religious or otherwise. As Francis was flung out from the security of his family and society – literally flung out of his own clothing, if the legend is right that he publicly stripped off the fancy clothes his father had provided, in order to begin his Godly life with no possessions whatsoever – flung out defenseless into the harsh world to pursue a faithfulness to Christ that did not depend upon his comfort, so I wonder what insulating “vanities of this world” we are meant to strip off so that we can “restore our church” by allowing ourselves to experience the all-encompassing, all-powerful, all-demanding love of God, and then discover we can share with Francis – with Jesus! – in offering it to all God’s beloved creatures?
To Francis, there was no “alien soil” such as the Psalmist laments, because all soil was God’s soil, and Francis was at home there. There was no captivity, for God’s freedom meant all were free, so Francis could brook captivity in love’s pursuit without fear. “Suffering and hard servitude” were only Francis’ opportunities to share in the suffering and servitude of the humbler members of his society. The counsel to Timothy might have been Francis’ own missionary vow: “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.” Francis invites us to restore our church by venturing onto alien soil, daring captivity, embracing suffering, relying upon the power of God,because that is what brings us closer to sharing in Eucharist, in God’s self-offering love.
Francis, from all we know of him, truly delighted in that love. He loved his life, loved the world around him, loved all beings from the birds and beasts of the Italian countryside to the Sultan of Egypt, with whom he attempted to negotiate a peace to end the Crusades. He loved them with joy because he believed God loved them with joy, every one of them. And joy was Francis’ default setting. Even in the intense poverty and often discomfort of his daily circumstances, nothing distanced him from the most intimate fellowship – the deepest Eucharist – with all his fellow creatures. So let us end with his words of joy, his mustard seed from which all faith springs.
Let us pray:
Most High, omnipotent, good Lord, to thee be ceaseless praise outpoured, and blessing without measure. Let creatures all give thanks to thee and serve in great humility. AMEN.