St. Francis shows us how to rebuild God’s house, stone by stone.
Matthew 10:7-10 Preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give. Do not carry any gold or silver or copper in your belts. Take no bag for the road, or second tunic, or sandals, or staff; for the worker is worthy of his provisions.
Today we celebrate a very special saint in the history of the church, and one whose story of restoration and revival is very pertinent to the life of our local church here in Aquinnah. St. Francis of Assissi.
He was born in about 1181. When he was young, he dreamed of being a war hero. But after being taken prisoner of war, he became disillusioned. As the years went on he became detached from worldly life. His family was rich, but he had no interest in his old way of spending money and living large.
He started spending time alone in nature to contemplate God. One day, he ventured into a small chapel called San Damiano, just outside Assissi. But this chapel was a bit worn and malnourished – not quite like the abandoned Mayhew Chapel in Christiantown, for instance, but in fact, something like our own. Still living, still active, but in need of restoration and revival.
And as he was praying, he had a vision of Jesus Christ. And the Lord told him, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”
Well, Francis assumed this meant, “Restore this little chapel”! Francis “borrowed” some money from his father’s store and gave it to the priest at the chapel, who didn’t accept the gift. Francis was shocked and upset. But not nearly as upset as his father was over his son’s act of theft.
His father went searching for Francis, who had to hide in a cave near San Damiano for a whole month. When they finally found him, they seized him. Eventually he was brought before the city consul. His father didn’t just want the stolen money returned, but he wanted to take away his son’s inheritance as well.
Instead, Francis renounced not just his inheritance, but his father. He said, from now on, “I have no father but my Father in heaven.” In the middle of the city square, he stripped naked, and said “These are the clothes of my former father, I renounce them – I will wear only the clothes my Father in heaven gives me.”
And so his life as a religious renunciate began. He wandered the countryside, living off alms. He would beg for stones and bring them to San Damiano, and slowly but surely he rebuilt the chapel with his own hands. And not just San Damiano, but other chapels in the area as well.
Well, Francis did great work, but right around then is when he started to realize that restoring chapels isn’t exactly what Jesus meant when he said, “Go and repair my house.”
One February morning in 1208, he was worshipping in the Mass at St. Mary of the Angels chapel. The scripture reading for that day was from Matthew, the “Commissioning of the Twelve.” Francis listened as Jesus commissioned his apostles to travel the countryside preaching the Kingdom of God, warning them to take no wallet or even sandals. Francis heard it as if it was God speaking to him directly.
From that day on, Francis switched from repairing chapels to repairing God’s church. He went from working with physical stones to working with spiritual stones – that is, people. He roamed the countryside with no money, barefoot, preaching the Kingdom of God to all who would listen. And this was very unusual, since back then, preaching happened in chapels, not on the streets where Francis did his preaching; and you needed special permission to preach, but Francis had none.
Within a year he had founded the Friars Minor, which means, little brothers. They were a group of men who lived by a simple but strict rule of chastity, poverty, prayer, and preaching.
And soon, it wasn’t just men – Francis befriended a devout young woman named Clare, and together they founded the Poor Clares, the female answer to the Friars Minor. With both of these orders, they were quite resourceful. They formed alliances with local churches who would sometimes put them up, or let them build little residential huts on their grounds, as Francis had at St. Mary of the Angels. The Poor Clares stayed with Benedictine nuns, and they all lived off the almsgiving of the community.
By no means were the Friars Minor and the Poor Clares popular. But the support that they had amongst different parts of the community was as unifying as it was irritating for those in society who resented these poor beggars running around preaching in the name of Jesus. As Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace, but a sword” — one of the great ironies of the Christian life is that the work of reconciliation can be polarizing. And yet we press on, as did Francis, Clare, and their religious friends.
Now, Francis’ way of life was meant not just to obey Christ, but to imitate him. This example inspired the people of Assissi and beyond to a new faith – indeed, his story proves that even someone imitating Christ can have the same effect on people that Christ did. Providing a Godly example to people truly inspires faith in God Himself.
But there were many men and women who, though they fell in love with God because of Francis’ example, they couldn’t leave behind their spouses, their families, their businesses – they couldn’t live a life of such strict imitation of Christ, in other words. And these folks, Francis gathered together under the name the “Third Order” — householders who were joined with the Friars Minor and the Poor Clares in their mission, but not their strict rule!
There are many churches that live by a common rule. Ours does, albeit a loose one. What was unique about Francis’ community was that it was actually a community of communities – each following its own rule, yet all working together to the same end.
Francis’ orders also did not live anywhere. They had no fixed place of worship, nor even a permanent residence, after Christ’s example: “Birds have nests, and foxes have holes, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Francis’ definitive and Holy Spirit-ordered pivot from restoring physical chapels to reviving the spiritual church shows us God’s priorities: God’s focus is people, not places. It’s about love, not land.
While Francis de-emphasized land in this way, he emphasized it in others. St. Francis’ unique relationship with nature is a big part of his legacy, and why many people, not just Christians, know his name. This is a man who lived in caves, wandered the rural countryside, and in many ways, may have lived more like John the Baptist than Jesus Christ — he lived in the wilderness. He was roughing it!
All of this time in the wilderness brought Francis into intimate contact with nature, and through nature, Nature’s God. In a time when most preachers warned Christians about the world, flesh, and nature, as enemies of the Spirit, Francis saw everything as the gift and glory of God. “…for since the creation of the world his invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead.” (Romans 1).
Francis was so intimate with the natural world that he would converse with the animals. He would speak with them, sing with them, and even preach the gospel to them. He wasn’t just a nutjob who talked to plants and animals – they listened to him, as a loyal dog listens to a beloved master. He was able to quiet down noisy birds during Mass, and send hungry wolves on their way.
Francis shows us that a God-centered life re-centers nature. God didn’t make Adam from the dust and put him in a city – but a garden. And while we know the story of humanity begins with a garden and is consummated in a heavenly city, Francis’ life and the example of his three orders is an example of how God can cultivate a way of living that is equally a garden and a city – one in which people are in harmony not just with one another, but with His green earth and all of His creatures; all of God’s natural kingdom, the plants, the animals, and even the stars, sun, and moon are brothers and sisters who are reconciled and brought into peaceful communion together in the body, and by the blood, of Christ.
Francis’ story helps us understand our own as individuals of faith, and our story as a local church. When Francis first answered the call to repair God’s house, he first found success by doing it himself, stone by stone, day by day. But he found greater success when he devoted himself to the spiritual repair of God’s spiritual house – that is, answering the Great Commission, preaching the Kingdom of God, gathering the people together, doing the works of mercy and ministering reconciliation in the Body of Christ. Each new friend he made was a spiritual stone, stone by stone, day by day, rebuilding God’s true house.
May it be the same for us. Amen.