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Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: “Pace e Bene”

 

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Philippians 3:4b-14

 

“Pace e bene!” “Peace and goodness to you!” I greet you with the words that Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone—our beloved Saint Francis of Assisi—used to begin all his sermons. However, if I were truly following his example this morning, I’d be preaching in our Outdoor Chapel. And if you were more like his congregation, living in central Italy about 800 years ago, you’d be coming toward me from your home, your workplace, your field, called to my message simply by the strength of my voice and by your curiosity about my unusual preaching style.

 

Maybe you’re most familiar with the stories of St. Francis preaching to the birds. Or miraculously taming a wolf. Or addressing all the creatures he met on his travels around the countryside—even worms! —as Brothers and Sisters. To honor his profound love for all the natural world, we celebrate his Feast Day—yesterday, October 4—with a blessing of our beloved animals today.

 

But what did Francis preach: not to the birds, but to the humans on his way? Unless we listen closely to the heart of his message, it’s easy to sentimentalize the radical nature of Francis, just as we can sentimentalize Jesus.[1] Francesco―the man, not the saint―was not an easy person. Not a jolly Disney character surrounded by a cartoon harmony of woodland creatures.

 

He was a countercultural charismatic, a revolutionary mystic, preaching a challenging message in his time. A challenge to unlock our hold on possessions and reach out for God and each other. A challenge that still unsettles us today.

 

But Francis had an astonishing way of making that radical message appealing when he entered each town square or farmyard. It was a hard sell. His initial greeting of “peace and goodness” was often greeted with jeers or even a hailstorm of rocks.[2] Because violence reigned in his feudal society: from the wars launched by emperors and popes, to the conflicts between the feudal aristocrats fought by peasants, to the constant battles between rival cities, to death and disease in the slums. His was a fractured world of injustice and ill-treatment, with problems and divisions similar to ours.

 

Yet Francis had a gift for calling people together—and grabbing attention. He is said to be one of the most magnetic preachers of all time.

 

He leaped up on bales of straw or city steps—preaching in the common language, unlike the unintelligible parish priests. He acted out scenes from Arthurian romances; sang the pop songs of the day; used compelling stories, images, and props to get his message of Gospel simplicity across to crowds from all walks of life.

 

Above all, he used the force of his example. Many listeners would have known that before his commitment to follow Christ in his early twenties, Francesco had lived a life of privilege and violence as a rich playboy and soldier. They would have known him as part of Assisi’s rising merchant class, driven by consumption and greed. And now here he was before them: in rough, humble dress; having given up all his property and even daily food; all his status and security; a friend to the most wretched lepers and beggars; preaching about a better future for everyone through less greed and more peace.

 

In the words of his biographer Adrian House, “Francis emanated an almost radioactive energy which seemed to derive from his sense of continuous proximity to God. It was said that he didn’t love God but was in love with him. To live in his company was therefore formidable yet also exhilarating, for his conviction was infectious and communicated to many . . . a faith as luminescent as his.”[3]

 

This conviction drew generations of followers: to his Franciscan monastic order, to his secular order, to his many admirers today who establish him as the most beloved and well-known saint of the Christian faith.

 

And his faith was full of joy. In his words: “Joy springs from purity of heart and constant prayer. . . It is the lot of the devil to be sorrowful; ours is to be happy.”[4]

 

Through his infectious spirit, Francis radiated the truth that letting go was liberation—not loss. And this truth, a pure distillation of Christ’s own teaching, was based on his direct experience, not on theology.

 

For Francis was doing more than preaching. He was authentically and radically living the eight simple precepts of his order: commitment to self-restraint through Obedience, Poverty, Chastity, Humility, and Harmony; and commitment to unselfish activity through Prayer, Work, and Preaching. If we dismantle our selfishness, he told the crowds, we can heal our culture of greed and violence. We can reach the higher forms of love: love for God and love for our neighbor.[5]

 

These, of course, are the precepts we’ve heard in our readings this morning. From the Hebrew Bible, the fundamental commandment to have no other gods before the Lord—including the idols of our wealth and possessions. Not to steal them, not to covet them, not to worship them. And from Paul’s witness to the people of Philippi: “I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”

 

Francis, the self-proclaimed “holy fool,” took these teachings to their ultimate limit in his life of voluntary poverty. But we may ask, like the crowds who gathered around him and the official Church who had trouble containing him: Really? Is this absolutely necessary? Can I love you, Francis, without having to imitate your way of life?

 

Do I really have to be downwardly mobile to come closer to God? Or if I have very little, do I really have to share what I do have with those who have even less?

 

Francis would say with a sincere smile: Yes. Believe me, you’ll have more if you convert your goods into generosity. He’d say, Having too much is the equivalent of stealing from those who have too little. There’s a connection between greed and violence in your society. Clinging to possessions harms you. Puts a barrier between you and God. Separates you socially and psychologically from others. Distracts you from the beauty of the here and now.

 

Letting go frees you. Makes you more joyful. Take a look at the natural world.

 

Again and again, Francis the preacher pointed to the holistic unity in creation. According to him—and mystics of many other wisdom traditions—the birds and the animals were created not just to be the servants of our work or the objects of our love. They truly are our spiritual brothers and sisters, who can teach us through their humble walk on the earth. Through their lightness of being. Through their simplicity. Through their ability to love.

 

And on this day to honor Francis, we would best look to the creatures of this world not to bless them―but to learn from them. To learn how, following their example and the legacy of Francis, we can let go of and share the excess possessions we carry so that we can walk more lightly and peacefully on the earth. With less physical and spiritual baggage, connected with nature, neighbor, and God.

 

I close with this blessing for all of us from the Irish poet and priest John O’Donohue, “To Learn from Animal Being”:

 

Nearer to the earth’s heart,

Deeper within its silence:

Animals know this world

In a way we never will.

 

We who are ever

Distanced and distracted

By the parade of bright

Windows thought opens:

Their seamless presence

Is not fractured thus.

 

Stranded between time

Gone and time emerging,

We manage seldom

To be where we are:

Whereas they are always

Looking out from

The here and now.

 

May we learn to return

And rest in the beauty

Of animal being,

Learn to lean low,

Leave our locked minds,

And with freed senses

Feel the earth

Breathing with us.

 

May we enter

Into lightness of spirit,

And slip frequently into

The feel of the wild.

 

Let the clear silence

Of our animal being

Cleanse our hearts

Of corrosive words.

 

May we learn to walk

Upon the earth

With all their confidence

And clear-eyed stillness

So that our minds

Might be baptized

In the name of the wind

And the light and the rain.[6]

 

Pace e bene! Amen.

 

~ Rev. Clare C. Novak, Interfaith Associate for Parish Life

St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada

October 5, 2014

 

 

 



[1] Karen Armstrong in Adrian House, Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life (Mahwah, NJ: HiddenSpring, 2001), p. x.

[2] www.catholicpeacefellowship.org.

[3] House, ibid., pp. 81–82.

[4] Francis, The Mirror of Perfection 95 in ibid., p. 153.

[5] Ibid., p. 101–2.

[6] John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008), pp. 71–72.