DiscipleChurch Family and Friends:
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is darkness, let me sow light.”
This portion of the Prayer of Saint Francis is the subject of all the sermons in our church for this coming Palm Sunday.
As many of you know, this prayer was actually written in 1912, not in the 13th century by Francis himself. The Prayer was written and published in Francis’ memory and influenced by his life of peace. The actual author, probably a French Franciscan named Bouquerel, was witnessing a world marching mindlessly and inevitably, heedless of the slaughter that was coming, into the most terrible war in human history to that date. With many, Bouquerel was searching madly, and praying desperately, for a way to stop the war’s coming. So he naturally thought of Francis, his spirituality and his truth — his Light. And when he thought of Francis, he of course thought of Jesus, whom Francis surely followed as faithfully as any disciple who has ever lived.
This particular line from the Prayer — “Where there is darkness, let me sow light” — puts us in mind of a famous statement by Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, in August of 1914, as the British were hours away from declaring war and starting the killing. As Grey looked out the window of the British Foreign Office, he saw workers extinguishing the gas lamps on the streets to preserve war supplies. He is reputed to have said to a friend: “The lights are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” Such a sad, tragic statement. The leaders of the so-called Great Powers were finally on the brink of the slaughter, regretful they had not turned back before to follow the way of peace. But the War came, and the total number of military and civilian casualties was 37 million–over 16 million killed and 20 million wounded.
I write above: “So he naturally thought of Francis…” What is it about this man Francis that makes us turn to him in times of tragedy, that has captivated the imagination of so many?
Francis lived for less than 44 years. His “ministry,” though he was not ordained, lasted less than 20. He was reported to have been very small even for his time, dark haired and dark-eyed, fluent in French and the vernacular Italian of his time, but knowing only a little Latin and so unable to read for himself the available Bibles of his time. He is said to have sung every waking moment, with a warm and inviting singing voice. He had an infectious smile and ready laugh, particularly when he was the hungriest or the most exposed to hard weather. He never gave an order to anyone, not even those who left their lives of business and farming to follow and imitate him. He taught that everyone should find their own path, based upon personal encounter with the Presence of Jesus. Yet so many followed his path. We have very, very little of what he himself wrote, perhaps pieces of three documents. We have no verbatim accounts of his thousands of sermons, almost all of which were preached in the open in the fields and towns of northern Italy. He lived and died in deeper homelessness and poverty than most of us have ever witnessed or imagined. He owned only a single torn, patched robe and a rope belt. He owned no staff or purse or sandals. He was barefoot, even in winter. He owned not even a hut. He lived faithfully and literally the teaching of Jesus recorded in Matthew 10: “Go…to the lost sheep…As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near…Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff.” His only goal was to proclaim everywhere, by his words but mostly by his life, God’s love for all of creation, our brother and sisterhood with everyone and everything in that creation, and the need to repent by depending only upon on God’s providence and provision. He saw good in everyone and everything and every situation. He prepared food for highwaymen, so they would have no reason to steal from travelers. To everyone he met, he is reported by many sources to have always said, “May God’s peace be with you.” He died prematurely from his terrible neglect of what he called his “Brother Body.” But his charisma, his joy, his vision and experience of the Presence of God in everyone and everything, his gratitude, his love — his Light, which was the Light of Jesus–attracted so many to him and that Light that within a decade of Francis’ death, 30,000 plus Franciscan friars were living the same homeless, ascetic lifestyle, preaching by their words and lives the good news throughout Europe. Now, more than 400,000 Franciscan brothers and sisters are spread throughout the world.
You want to appreciate Francis’ continuing appeal? If you go to the U.S. Library of Congress, and enter into their card or computer catalogue, you will find there more entries for writings about little Francis than about any other person. More than about Lincoln or Washington. Strangely, more than about Jesus. And if you walk down the hall of our own church between the side door to our sanctuary and the church office, you will see in a corner a statue of Francis, not life size because Francis was much smaller than that.
What is it about this man Francis that still captivates the imagination of so many? What is it about the Light that he bore into the darkness of his time that still shines in our individual and collective souls?
I mean, it is seems so paradoxical that he still has such a hold on so many. Who among us wants to live without any possessions save the robe on our back and the belt around our waist? Without any material security? Without any status? Without any routine? Depending on nothing but God’s active Presence and providence. Forgiving without limit. Seeking nothing all day every day but to help. And helping not myself, but others, strangers, even those who would do me wrong. And trusting God alone with the outcome of this life. Not me!
But then consider this. Who among us would like to live without any fear? Always aware of the presence of God in everything and everyone and every situation. Always and singly eager to love and to adore God in the Presence in everything? But how to do that? See the previous paragraph. See the life of Francis.
I wonder if Francis is still so captivating, paradoxically so in this time and place, because he is reported by so many sources to have lived out completely what is in all of our souls–a yearning and need deeper in us than even our fears and our ambition and our desire for security and independence. A yearning and need to be nothing but eager to love and to adore God in the Presence of everything and everyone.
Is Francis, and the idea of Francis, so captivating because, as Paul wrote, “It was no longer [Francis] who lived, but Christ who lived in him”? Is he so captivating because he lived the Christ that is in all of us, the Christ yearning to be incarnated in our daily lives? Is he so captivating because he was wise and courageous and empowered enough to actually live out what we also know in our souls to be the Light?
Is Francis in you? Is the Christ in you? Do you sell yourself waaaay too short if you doubt this? Do you let the church set your sight waaaaaaaaaaaaaay too low if you doubt this? Do I?
“Nothing but eager to love and to adore God in the Presence of everything and everyone?” Hmmm.
P.S. See you Sunday?