In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to welcome the reign of God like a child. No one did that better than St. Francis, so I want to say a word about his life and what we can learn from him so that we too can welcome God’s reign like children.
St. Francis was born in the year 1182 and was a wild young man running around Assisi in northern Italy. He joined the crusades, became a soldier, went off to kill the heathen in battle, but ended up in prison for over a year, and became very sick, and went home to recover where he underwent a conversion and decided to give his life to Jesus. He decided to spend his days around town praying all day in the churches, and everyone thought he was crazy.
One day, while praying at the church of San Damiano, the crucifix spoke to him and said, “Francis, go rebuild my church which as you can see is falling down.” He thought God wanted him to rebuild the collapsing church building, so he started re-plastering the walls and putting in new stones, but over time, he realized God wanted him to rebuild the entire church.
One day, he met a leper and was totally appalled because the disease is so grotesque, until he realized that this leper standing before him was Jesus, that Christ is present in the poorest, sickest people, in anyone we ostracize or marginalize. So Francis gave him his possessions, kissed him and spent the rest of his life serving lepers and the poor. (Recently, scientists studied Francis’ bones and DNA, and concluded that he died of leprosy and starvation.)
In the process of all this, Francis decided that he had to become as poor as possible, to share the poverty of Christ. So he got rid of everything, became homeless, wandered around town, walking barefoot, begging for food, sleeping in the fields and caves, and blessing everyone. And everyone thought he was crazy. Over time, however, a few friends realized he was a saint, and they began to follow him, and within ten years, two thousand people joined him, and he formed his religious order, the “Friars Minor,” whom today we call “Franciscans.”
The key to Francis is that he took the Gospel personally and literally. He announced that from now on he and his followers were going to be people of perfect love and practice perfect nonviolence and peace, so he wrote his famous prayer, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” He renounced the crusades, the churches so-called “Holy Wars,” and not only that, he reversed them, and embarked on crusades of nonviolence and peace, with love toward everyone, including enemies, and he wanted to be a martyr for love and peace.
In one of his most dramatic episodes, he walked unarmed through the middle of a war, the crusades, all the way to northern Africa and met with the Sultan, the leading Muslim of the time, who was so impressed by Francis’ kindness and gentleness, that instead of killing him, he said that if all Christians were like Francis, he would become a Christian.
“ If you own possessions,” Francis said, “you have to build a fence to protect them, and get weapons to defend them and fight to keep them. So,” he said, “we own nothing, and we are at peace with everyone.”
So I think we do Francis a disservice by thinking of him just for preaching to the birds or building the first nativity scene or loving animals. The reason Francis preached to the birds is because after a while no one wanted to listen to him talk about the Gospel. They didn’t want to hear him tell them to put away their swords, love their enemies, give away all their money and live with the poor. Eventually even his first followers turned against him.
He told them that they could own nothing, that they were to beg for their food, serve the poor, and walk around unarmed through the towns bringing God’s peace to people. But they wanted to build houses, so they rejected Francis. And Francis became very depressed, and finally went off to a mountaintop to live in caves for the last few years of his life, where he prayed all day long in solitude, with only Brother Leo nearby. He thought he was a total failure. He felt completely rejected.
Francis prayed two of the most challenging prayers I have ever heard: that he would feel the same love that Jesus felt, that he would love everyone unconditionally no matter what, just like Jesus, and second, that he would feel the same suffering and pain and grief and sorrow that Jesus felt on the cross. It’s a powerful prayer, and it was answered when Christ appeared to him, and gave him the stigmata. Francis died two years later back in Assisi on October 3, 1226.
So if we are going to learn from Francis about accepting God’s reign as Jesus says in the Gospel, we have to ask ourselves: “Where do we stand on the question of poverty and simplicity, the question of unconditional love and nonviolence? Do we put Francis–and Jesus–on a pedestal and dismiss them saying, “We can’t do that,” and so let ourselves off the hook? Or dare we take them seriously, and take great risks like Francis for the sake of God’s reign? Really the question is, What are our values? Whom do we look up to?
If we claim to look up to Francis, (and of course, ultimately Jesus), then like Francis, we have to side with the poor and marginalized, and become poor and marginalized, and love everyone perfectly. But not only that, we have to renounce the just war theory and the church’s claims to power, domination, exclusion and control. We have to refuse to support our government by fighting and sending our kids to fight to some modern day crusade against Muslims. If you want to honor Francis, you cannot support the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq, or nuclear weapons production at Los Alamos, or our government’s neglect of the poor and unemployed and those with no healthcare, or its corrupt support of greedy corporations and oil companies. Instead, like Francis, we are going to take the Gospel personally, turn from the world and live in God’s reign, and find out the meaning of his prayer, that “it is in giving that we receive; in pardoning that we are pardoned, and in dying that we are born to eternal life.”