St. Francis was an intriguing figure. The Church celebrates his feast day on October 4. This afternoon at 4 we will celebrate his life and witness with the blessing of the animals on the lawn, and we can catch glimpses of him in today’s service in the hymns and in the prelude (if you noticed, it is a brilliant piece called “The Squirrel.”) He is popularly known as the patron saint of nature and animals, but it would be more appropriate to understand him as a patron saint of fierce compassion, a perspective on life that refused to yield to division and fear. The vision God gave him was one in which all things belonged. It was a very threatening vision in his time, and it is still just as threatening today.
He lived from 1182 to 1226 in a world that was very divided: wealthy and poor, landowners and servants, greedy rulers seeking more to rule and others trying to eke out a living. Competing countries and city-states fighting against each other. Francis himself was captured and imprisoned for one year in his younger years after fighting in Perugia in one of the many campaigns that swept through the Italian peninsula.
His family were wealthy merchants, and his father was intent that he follow in his footsteps and develop what he had already started. There was only one possible path. The name we know him by, Francis, was not even his original name. He was named Pietro di Giovanni di Bernardone, but his father renamed him Francesco as an infant because he was so proud of his commercial dealings with the French. His son literally embodied everything that his father valued and wanted to stand for.
So of course, Francis’ father fought back when he began giving away so much to the poor. And, when he resisted the pressures from his family to act “normally,” to behave as he should as a wealthy cloth merchant, it did not go well. Francis refused to fall in line. He would give things away to beggars, and he would go spend time with the lepers who were secluded in their own area. If there was one thing inappropriate for someone of Francis’ social stature, it was to go spend time with the lepers!
There was something in him—another call—that refused to be ignored.
Francis received a vision from an icon of the Crucified Christ to “rebuild my church.” Francis took this to mean, on one level, the Church of San Damiano where he happened to be, so he sold a great deal of cloth from his father’s store to give to the priest to support the renovation of this chapel.
Francis’ father Pietro, of course, would accept none of this. He rejected his son’s strange behavior and turned to threats and then beatings to make him fall into line—to act as expected. To conform. To behave. To be controlled. He could not understand why his son refused to just live like he was supposed to live.
The climactic confrontation came when Francis’ father took him before the Bishop of Assisi in a public trial, to force him to comply with the family’s expectations. There, in a space driven by fear, anxiety, and anger, Francis’ own father brought suit against him in front of the town.
But, Francis’ vocation could not be ignored. There, in front of everyone, Francis stripped off all his father’s clothes, standing buck naked before everyone, and renounced his father and his inheritance to live the life he understood God was calling him to live. Imagine that…
From there, he went out to live among the poor and is now one of the most venerated saints in the entire Christian world—because he stood against the threats of fear and anxiety and held fast to the vision of fierce compassion that God had given him.
So, St. Francis is much more than just a quaint statue or figure with a bird sitting on his hand. He is a human being that stood and sought to embody the all-embracing love of Christ that is, honestly, one of the most threatening things in the world.
I think it’s interesting to put St. Francis’ story alongside the reading from Habakkuk today. Here is this prophet who dares to speak a vision during a time when the Babylonians were rising in power in the 7th century BCE. It was a time of increasing threat, as we see in the reading from today.
Habakkuk is aware of the situation:
I cry for help. Cry out violence. See wrong doing and trouble. Destruction and violence. Contention. Justice never prevailing. Wicked surround the righteous. Judgment perverted.
It’s not a good time, and Habakkuk keeps his eyes open to name out loud the reality of the situation, as painful and dire as it is.
Yet, look at what he says:
I will stand at my watchpost. I will keep watch to see what he will say to me.
In the face of fear, anxiety, and anger, Habakkuk stands.
He has the prophetic imagination to envision something different than the painful norm, than the way things just seem to be. Habakkuk refuses to yield to the pressure to accept things as they are.
There is an interesting movement that occurs in the prophetic tradition—one that we’re called to embody in our own lives.
It begins with looking and paying attention to what is going on. Being aware of the reality of things… Cutting through the assumptions. Being curious about the narrative we are given..
In this space of awareness we are invited to imagine…what vision from God might be possible? What might be the Good News in this space of anger and anxiety?
When we are able to wonder that, as Habakkuk shows,
Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision.
Embody the hope you have realized is possible.
I love how Habakkuk describes it, “Make it plain on tablets so that a runner can read it.”
What a wonderful image! Write it real big and realize that peoples’ lives are so pressured. If you’re expecting a radical turn where everyone just stops and suddenly acts a different way, you’ll be disappointed. Folks are still going to run around, but if you write it plain on tablets so that a runner can read it, they can catch a glimpse of what might be possible.
And when they catch a glimpse, who knows what might come next…
For there is still a vision for the appointed time, says the Lord.
It probably won’t come all at once, as Habakkuk describes. If it seems to tarry, wait for it.
Be patient and hopeful. Persistently curious…
And stand. Stand against anger, anxiety, and fear. Like Francis. Like Habakkuk. Recognize that, when you stand against these forces of life, life will not be easy for you.
But that’s the life of Jesus, isn’t it? It’s not going to be easy…never has been, never was supposed to be, except in those times when the Church began believing that Jesus wanted them to rule and be comfortable. In those times when we went off track and lost our prophetic imagination.
I invite you to take out your prayer book and turn to page 833. In a spirit of renewal and curiosity, let us join together in the Prayer of St. Francis,
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. 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.
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Luke 17:5-10
Proper 22, Year C
October 2, 2016