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"St. Francis Day" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - October 8, 2017

posted Oct 9, 2017, 11:36 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

On Monday morning before he left for school, David asked if I’d heard about Las Vegas.  His phone gives him breaking news updates.  He was the first of us to know what happened; the gruesome count of 58 killed and five hundred wounded from a shooter perched on the 32nd floor of a hotel.  

I started reading about Las Vegas as soon as my guys headed out the door.  I wanted to understand what happened, of course; but also, why?  Why did this happen?

Much of what I read felt familiar.  I’d read similar stories after similar shootings, more times then I care to remember: the slowly emerging details, the gripping firsthand accounts, the calls for gun control and the warnings from gun enthusiasts to not politicize it all.  And after each of these, political leaders send out their “thoughts and prayers” and held very public moments of silence.  But I’m tired of this scripted response.  Not another moment of silence.  Maybe what I need is a moment of screaming: to let loose the anguish of 58 souls lost and hundreds hurt, to make sure God hears the people’s cry, a communal shout of “why?”

I’ve come to see - as I said after the mass shooting at an Orlando gay bar - that these awful events come from a toxic masculinity.  Walter Kim, a journalist for Harper’s Magazine, pointed to this when he wrote, “I fear the #LasVegasShooter acted on that most chilling and empty of all-American motives.  To set a record.  To be number one.”  

We might attribute an ideological motivation to a mass shooting: radical religion, racism, some bizarre animus, or confused paranoia.  But almost all mass shooters are male.  And instead of dividing mass shooters into Jihadists, racists, etc, I think we can see all of them as embodying a toxic understanding of what it means to be a man.

I’ve come to see how we express our gender as a kind of performance art.  We make choices, adapt roles and costumes, follow scripts.  Which is perhaps why the word “person” and “personality” come from the Latin word for mask.  Gender is but a mask we show to the world; a script we chose to follow.

I realized this early on as a gay man.  At one point I tried to follow the straight-script.  I did all the things I thought straight men did.  Back then, fearing I was gay, I tried to find all sorts of ways to act straight.  I was in college, so I thought the most straight thing I could do was join a fraternity, to be a frat boy.  Turns out living in a house of forty men doesn’t make it easy to be closeted.

When I came out, I realized I needed a new way of being.  I’m ridiculously uncoordinated, but when I came out I felt I needed to learn to snap.  Another script.  

The ways I tried to live out an early 90’s script for being gay seem funny to me now.  But sometimes our gender scripts, our gender performance, turns toxic and destructive.

Last year, a boy brought a loaded gun to Whitefish Bay High School.  He wanted to sell it to one of his friends.  I’ve known this teen since he was in elementary school, knew his family and some of his story as an African-American adopted into a white family.  He got caught with the gun because he and his friend posted a video of themselves playing with it in the school bathroom, mugging for the camera in a gangster-style parody of manhood.  Looking tough, but behind their performance lay insecurities: what it felt like to be a person of color in an overwhelming white school with no African-American teachers, with all the questions of identity adoption can raise.  So he mimicked a kind of masculinity performed in our culture, the badass with the gun; and yet I still saw the boy who loved gymnastics.

Writ large in a tragedy like Las Vegas or in countless, hidden ways, our scripts of what it means to be a man or to be woman can turn toxic and destructive.

St Francis, whose life we celebrate this day, can speak to the ways we can learn a new script, learn new ways to live out our genders.  We normally focus on stories of St. Francis and the animals.  Brother Wolf.  Sister Moon.  Preaching to the birds.  And while those stories can be spiritually uplifting, this week I’m struck by earlier stories in the life of St. Francis in which he found a new way to be a man.

Francis was born to Pietro and Pica.  The father, Pietro, made his living selling fabrics; a cloth merchant.  Business took him far from Assisi; he missed the birth and baptism of his son.  Pica, the mother, gave her baby the name Giovanni, or Jonathan, a name which meant “gift of God.”  But when Pietro returned from his travels, he decided to change his son’s name to Francis, which literally meant “Frenchman” or “Frenchie.”  This change in names captures the way his life would be a struggle about identity.

As a teenager, Francis became famous for both his charm and his recklessness.  Later people would say of his young adult years, in rhyming verse, “He was raised shamefully amid all sorts of folly, and as he grew up he surpassed those who raised him in even worse folly.”  Much of that folly involved leading other teens into trouble with the town authorities.   

Francis’ father wanted him to join the family business as a cloth merchant; but Francis aspired to be a soldier.  This was the age of chivalrous knights; but also a time of tremendous cruelty, from crusades against foreign lands to shameless and constant violence between neighbors.  The town of Assisi came under the authority of the Holy Roman Empire; a fortress loomed over the town.  But the rising middle class merchants like Francis’ father banded together, stormed the fortress, and murdered the aristocrats.  The nobles that survived fled to nearby Perugia.  

Several years later, the exiled nobles recruited forces to retake Assisi.  Francis joined the soldiers defending Assisi, resplendent in new, shiny, expensive armor.  The soldiers left singing:

Nothing cheers my soul like the cry of ‘Charge!’

And the cry ‘Help!’ echoing loudly --

Nothing is so welcome as to see the lowly and the proud

Lying in a ditch together…

The forces of Assisi captured a Perugian stronghold; victory seemed in hand.  But the Perugian forces made a massive counter strike - shock and awe moment - that overwhelmed Francis and the soldiers with him.  Bodies littered the vineyards; the Perugian soldiers killed the few survivors.  Except for Francis and a few other wealthy men; the expensive armor saved him.

The captive Francis was thrown into a prison.  Francis’ prison cell was an underground vault, cold in the winter, stiflingly hot in the summer, almost always dark; many didn’t survive.  After a year, his parents successfully negotiated a ransom.  Francis came back as a shadow of his former self: emaciated, so weak with fever that he shook, no doubt today we’d call it PTSD.  

But still he wanted to be a knight, to play out the script of masculinity, a role of “Macho Bravo Guano.”  

Once more, Francis tried on the scripted role of masculinity in his culture.  An illness caused him to miss out on Pope Innocent III’s draft of men for the 4th Crusade.  So instead, he volunteered as a mercenary in the army of Walter the III.  The nobleman wanted to recapture his kingdom in southern Italy and Sicily from the Germans.  

On the way to muster with Walter’s forces, Francis came across a knight.  The knight made a dejected sight: impoverished, wounded, and now walking slowly home.  Meanwhile, Francis looked stunning in his fresh and new uniform, once again wearing his shiny and expensive armor.  Like Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas Future, Francis saw in the dejected knight what he would become, where his pursuit of nihilistic violence would lead him.  Converted, he gave the impoverished knight all his fine clothes and fancy armaments.  

Meeting his future self in the form of the poor knight changed the direction of his life.  Soon he turned back from war and headed home.  Like an actor who forgot his lines, Francis struggled with what to say and do back in Assisi.  He threw away the old script, his culture’s expectations of male bravado, but it took time for him to improvise new lines.  Who would Francis be?

His life after meeting the knight took on a new character and direction.  He kept giving away his belongings, leading to an irreparable break with his father.  (You don’t have to be a Freudian to see the irony in a cloth-merchant father whose son keeps giving away his clothes.)  He began a new life marked by a vow of poverty, a life of devotion, and a desire for community.  

All of which represented a stark change in his way of being a man.  Before, as a provocateur and a wannabe soldier, he treated everyone in his life as his audience and backup cast, spectators to his own heroic show and bit players in his own drama of triumph.  But, starting with the knight whose own story challenged him, Francis began to look beyond himself to see the vulnerability of other people in all their beauty and grandeur and uniqueness.  As another saint would say, he found himself “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

Francis lived in a way very different than the other men around him.  Several times he tried to meet Muslims and to sail to Africa; he finally succeeded during the 5th Crusade.  The Muslims forced the Christians out of Jerusalem shortly after Francis’ birth; the crusades in his day tried to reconquer the area.  During the 5th Crusade, Christian forces attacked Egypt.  

When Francis came to the crusader camp, he met the kind of men he could have become.  Recently the crusaders had captured eight Muslim spies, whom the Christians tortured by cutting off their noses, arms, ears until the captives looked like “bloody scarecrows.”  The Christians were winning the battle, but Francis saw they had lost the moral war.  He preached to the soldiers “that to pursue the battle any further would be disastrous for those calling themselves Christians.”  

The soldiers and their bishop general didn’t listen.  Having defeated a garrison, they charged over the desert into a trap.  Saracen forces encircled them, killing five thousand crusaders.  This pattern of success and defeat would reoccur many times until finally the Muslim forces trapped the Christians on their ships in a muddy portion of the Nile River.  

During this time, Francis visited the Sultan Malik al-Kamil, a nephew of the more famous Saladin.  While the other crusaders couldn’t see the humanity of their opponents, Francis engaged the Sultan and his court in respectful dialogue.  Neither Francis nor the Sultan converted the other, but they left with a sense of profound respect for each other.  Francis took home a horn presented to him by the Sultan, which he used to call his fellow monks to prayer.  And the Sultan gave permission for Francis and his monks to travel freely throughout his lands.   

I treasure that image of Francis and Malik meeting together; each devoted to their God, each respectful of the other’s humanity.  It represents the apotheosis of Francis’ quest to be his own man.  For in meeting with the Sultan, Francis defied all the expectations of what it meant to be a man in his culture.  His culture expected him to either fight with a sword or to be so obnoxious in his efforts to convert Muslims that he would be martyred.  But Francis wrote a new script for himself, a new performance; one in which he saw the humanity of other people and his own connection to them, a new way of being in which he lived as one “tied in a single garment of destiny.”  

Too often we get trapped in the scripts our culture writes for what it means to be a man or a woman; performances of masculinity that turn toxic or of femininity that turn demeaning.  Francis started off trapped in a toxic masculinity too.  But he threw away his script, stopped living the life of men expected in his culture, becoming a new kind of person, one who saw deeply the humanity of others.  May the life and example of St. Francis inspire us to live as boldly as he did, finding new ways to express God’s love in our gendered lives.  Alleluia and Amen.


  • Cataldo, Lisa M., “Religious Experience and the Transformation of Narcissism: Kohutian Theory and the Life of St. Francis,” Journal of Religious Health (2007).

  • Gonzales, Justo L., “St. Francis Was Right After All,” The Living Pulpit

  • Johnson, Galen K., “St. Francis and the Sultan: An Historical and Critical Reassessment,” Mission Studies (2001).

  • Spoto, Donald, Reluctant Saint: The Life of St. Francis of Assisi