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"St. Francis’ Lessons in Changing Lives" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - September 30, 2018

posted Oct 1, 2018, 9:25 AM by Plymouth Church UCC   [ updated Oct 1, 2018, 7:16 PM ]

I always try to ask family members before telling stories about them.  Lucky for me, Duchess will agree to anything if she gets a treat.

We love Duchess, our red lab.  But early on we realized Duchess didn’t care for water.  She’d freeze; legs locked, when we got close to water. She doesn’t even like a bath.  And if it’s raining outside, she’ll skip a walk rather than get wet. Serves us right for naming her after royalty; she’s a bit precious.

I’d long given up hope she’d learn to swim.  But one day a friend suggested we walk our dogs; and as his loved to swim, we wandered down to the lake.  My friend’s Portuguese Water Dog strained at the leash - like a kid driving up to the Dells. When we got down to the water, the other dog immediately went in.  And Duchess got her feet wet; progress. In fact, she so wanted to play with the other dog that she got in far enough to get her belly wet. And then, as the other dog fetched sticks, Duchess stood in the water, jumping up right on the edge of her comfort zone.

After that, I decided to try taking Duchess to the lake every day.  We’d walk to a coffee shop (she loved her puppuccinos) and then head off to the lake.  We hit a week of calm water. Duchess would stand, feet in the water, anxious to get a stick but determined to not go too far in.  With other dogs around, she’d play on the beach but only look with longing when they dove into the water.

Then one day, for some reason, she jumped in after the stick, retrieved it, and came back triumphant.  I immediately claimed credit in the family for teaching her to swim; but really all I did was walk and wait.  She loved the water from that first moment really in it.

Two days later, the calm water had given way to rougher waves; ones at least as tall as Duchess.  But once off her leash, she didn’t even pause for me to throw a stick. She was ready! I can’t imagine doing the equivalent - facing off against six-foot waves on my third day of swimming.  But she rode a wave in, shook herself off, and looked at me, as if to say, “What? I’ve always done this.”

Watching Duchess learn to swim made me think about all the ways we learn and work to create change in our lives.  Often, we forget the hard work, shaking if like so much water; when something becomes second nature it can be hard to remember how it felt when new and strange.  But it’s worth thinking through what happens when we learn; and in particular, when we learn in ways that change our lives.

We remember St. Francis once he became a Saint.  The holy man, who lived a simple life in harmony with nature, greeting Sister Moon and Brother Wolf.  The founder, who created a worldwide movement of people living in community. The artist, who created the first nativity and numerous hymns.  But what of Francis before; before he started, as one person said, “padding about in flower-filled fields basking in the love of God.”  I’m interested in Francis before all this; in what happened along the way to make Francis into the saint he became.  How did his life change? And, following Francis, how can our lives change too?

Francis would never have described his teenage self as a “saint.”  No, teenage Francis got drunk, partied around Assisi, and pranked the respectabilities of town elders.  And young Francis signed up for war against a neighboring town. But that war ended badly for Assisi and for Francis; the enemy captured him and held him for a year in prison until his father could ransom him.  Francis came back a changed man; but not yet changed into a saint. And it’s this period between his dissolute teen years and his sanctified life later that so interests me.

For Francis didn’t change overnight; no lightning strike conversion, no moment of being kicked off his horse.  Instead, over a period of years, a number of experiences and friendships changed Francis from indulgence to devotion.  It began when Francis met a leper.

Francis lived in a culture that deeply feared lepers.  Lepers lived apart from other people, relegated to “leper colonies.”  And lepers rang bells to warn people of their approach; streets would empty, doors and windows close.  Ostracism seemed like wisdom.

People didn’t have an understanding of infections and germs; instead they viewed lepers as accursed, spiritually damaged; they worried more about contagious shame than infectious disease.  

John Updike once gave voice to the feeling this ostracism created in his short story, “From the Journal of a Leper.”  The leper wrote one day, "The name of the disease, spiritually speaking, is Humiliation." And that captures the way the isolation and social rejection ate away at people’s sense of humanity.  

Today we don’t have leper colonies in America; and yet we know about ostracism, about treating people as the dangerous, suspicious “other.”  We know what it means to give people a diagnosis of humiliation; to call our sisters and brothers “animals” and to treat them worse than animals.  

Well one day Francis heard the bell which announced the approach of a leper.  A still small voice in Francis - his conscience, the Holy Spirit - caused him not to run but instead to turn towards the leper.  No one recorded who he saw when we looked past the leprosy. Did he see a brother-in-arms from the war? Did he see a friend-from-childhood?  Did he recognize the sister of a family friend? Or, was the person unknown to him even as he saw fully and completely another human?

Francis moved towards the leper, embracing and kissing the leper.  And I imagine, in that moment, healing a bit of the humiliation of the person treated as “other.”  This didn’t just happen once but became a recurring theme in Francis’ life: he continually sought out, cared for, and lived with lepers.

Francis’ conversion didn’t begin with some great spiritual insight; but rather, with a very human one.  Not a big “God” moment. Rather, change in Francis’ life began when he started seeing people around him as fellow humans.  He disregarded the messages of his society about honor and shame, insider and outcast. Who ostracized by our society could we embrace as a sister and brother?  And how could our work to overcome our prejudices and stereotypes be the beginning of a new life?

Sometime later, Francis went outside of Assisi to pray at a small chapel, San Damiano.  The chapel celebrated the faith of an early Christian saint killed during the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian.  Damian and his brother practiced medicine and became famous for refusing payment for their services: people called Damiano “the silverless” because he didn’t accept money.

As Francis prayed at the chapel, he felt he heard God say to him, “Francis, go repair my house, which as you can see, is falling completely to ruin.”  Francis took this message from God literally: he sold some goods from his father’s store to raise enough money to start repairing the church. Some say he went about doing the work himself.  Later Francis would look back on this moment to see the message from God as a metaphor: beyond repairing a physical chapel, he went about repairing the character of a corrupt institution.

People often tell that story about Francis; but I want to zero in on what it means in terms of Francis’ purpose.  Francis felt God leading him to action; but he missed the point at first; it took a lifetime for him to realize how God was leading his heart.  So instead of a eureka moment when Francis understood his purpose, Francis received a puzzle which he wondered about over his lifetime: how can my life repair the church.

Too often I hear people of faith declare quickly God’s plan, labeling every bit of luck as if God intended it.  This summer I went to the French Pastry School in Chicago for a chocolate bootcamp. I ended up working with a woman I didn’t know; a baker from Texas whose husband leads a non-denominational church.  At first, I felt apprehensive - how’s a Christian baker going to react to a gay preacher - but we formed a quick friendship. I’d only cringe when she would say, “God willed that we’d work together!”

On our last night, we went out to a restaurant recommended by our chef instructor; we planned to order a number of things, sharing plates to get the most flavors.  We couldn’t decide between the slow-roasted pork shoulder with clams, charred bread, and pimento-anchovy butter and a whole roasted fish served with summer squash, zaatar oil, and sunflower.   I know: #firstworldproblems. With input from the waitress, we settled on the fish. But then the pork shoulder arrived. The Christian baker was not pleased; she had really wanted the fish; she had not ordered pork.  And so, to her frustration, I said, “But it seems God wanted us to have the pork!”

This did not satisfy her; so she complained.  The waitress realized she’d written fish on our ticket but told the kitchen pork.  And so, the restaurant gave us the pork for free. Turns out God wanted us to have both!

I really don’t think God’s plans can be so easily understood.  No, I prefer Francis’ example, in which a well-intentioned effort to follow God misses the point; where it takes a lifetime to figure out God’s message for our lives.  Change in our lives comes when we live with wonder about God’s intentions.

Francis’ work on the church angered his father.  And, as a dad, I get it. Francis took stuff from his father’s store, sold it on the side, and pocketed the money for his own pet project.  Not really the picture of sainthood. When his father came to San Damiano to confront Francis, his son hid from him.

But later, Francis went back to Assisi to face his father.  His father dragged him before the bishop, demanding that the bishop force his son to return the stolen money.  In response, Francis completely stripped: returning the stolen money and even the clothes on his back that he’d received from his father.  To all he announced, “From now on I will no longer say, My father Peter Bernadone, but Our Father, who art in heaven.”

This hard moment marked a dramatic change in Francis’ life.  He committed himself to life as a hermit, as a religious beggar, starting the journey that would end with his sainthood.  It feels true to me how Francis waffled at this point, first hiding from his father and then showing the courage of his convictions.  

And I can see how this moment pulled together the earlier experiences in his life.  Francis took on a life akin to that of a leper, living as a social outcast, in solidarity with the most vulnerable in his society.  And his choices reflected the values of Saint Damiano; like the patron saint of the chapel he repaired, Francis turned away from a life denominated in money.  

Before he became St. Francis, the man Francis experienced three important turning points as his life change.  Change began when he opened his heart to people treated as outcasts in his society. Change continued as Francis wondered what God wanted him to do with his life.  And change deepened when Francis showed the courage of his convictions.

I never thought my dog Duchess would swim.  Some who drank and partied with Francis never thought he’d be a saint.   But amazing change can happen in our lives. How might we change if we opened our hearts more, wondered about God’s purpose for our lives, and showed more courage?  

Alleluia and Amen.