Today we celebrate St. Francis, a saint who is described as being the most admired . . . and the least emulated.
We honor Francis by blessing animals; those creatures God has given us as co-inhabitants on this “fragile earth our island home.” Blessing animals recognizes Francis’ own special relationship with them and his love for all of God’s creation.
Recently, Francis has also taken on the mantel of being the saint of the environment. Human activity continues to degrade the earth through poor stewardship resulting in the inequitable distribution and consumption of resources and global warming. And yet, Francis stands as an icon to God’s call to us to be compassionate, faithful and equitable stewards of the gifts given to us. Ultimately, Francis is the saint of stewardship, not just by his love of animals and care for the environment, but stewardship for all that God has given us.
Stewardship is an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources: Not just natural resources but of all we receive in life, the tangible and intangible. The concept of stewardship can be applied not only to the environment and nature, but to economics, health, property, information, theology, love and our relationships.
When we think of Francis’ stewardship only in the context of the animals he loved, we limit the depth and breadth of his stewardship of all things. And in so doing, we risk trivializing Francis as cute and precious; the patron saint of puppies, birds and bunny rabbits. Francis is so much more than that.
Born into a wealthy family (Francis’ father was a silk merchant) Francis’ early life was one of indulgence: Fine clothes, sumptuous food and parties, travel. He became a devotee of troubadours.
All the family wealth was used toward leading a pampered, worldly life style.
In 1204, Francis – seeking adventure – went to war as a soldier for the city of Assisi. While at war, he experienced a vision that transformed him. After a pilgrimage to Rome, he had a mystical vision of Jesus Christ in the country chapel of San Damiano, just outside of Assisi, in which the Icon of Christ Crucified said to him, "Francis, Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins."
He took this to mean the ruined church in which he was presently praying. So he sold some cloth from his father's store to assist the priest there for this purpose.
He soon realized that he understood Christ’s call too literally. What Jesus really wanted was for Francis to help rebuild the house of the institutional Church, which had become corrupt and self-indulgent.
When his father, Pietro, discovered Francis used his family wealth to rebuild the ruined church building and assist the poor, he became indignant and enraged. He is reported to have even beaten Francis for this perceived waste of the family resources. Pietro’s behavior speaks volumes about his relationship to money. He’s seemingly fine when it’s squandered on self-indulgent living, but becomes enraged when it goes to the work of the church and helping the poor.
Francis ends up renouncing his father and his patrimony, publically laying aside even the garments he had received from him. He assumed the life of a penitent. The rest of his life was focused on founding the monastic Franciscan order and following Christ’s command to assist the least of those among us.
Francis and his father offer us a profound insight into the human condition and how we engage stewardship. The men are two pieces of a whole, or better put, one is the alter ego of the other.
Like Pietro, most of us believe that the resources we have belong to us. They are ours because we earned them and therefore we are entitled to them. We really do not like to give them away because we think to do so is to squander them. If we do give some away, we are often parsimonious about it, doing so begrudgingly. Living in this context of scarcity and not abundance, is to live in fear of losing what we have and becoming needy ourselves.
Yet, on our good days, we admire Francis and his model of self-sacrifice, stewardship of all things and his faithful commitment to God’s call. We toy with the idea that we sort of desire to be like him and to emulate his generosity in all things. Yet our inner Pietro often trumps our inner Francis. This would explain why Francis is so highly admired and yet infrequently emulated. We think his way of life and stewardship are a good thing, but we also convince ourselves that we cannot possibly engage in it ourselves.
Let me offer this take on the story of Francis.
Ultimately I don’t think God is calling us to the radical behavior and ascetical life of Francis. This is not an all-or-nothing story. The moral of it is much more nuanced. Instead, this story is an object lesson to help us become less like Pietro, gently nudging us to become more Francis-like. It is a story about losing our fear of scarcity and trusting in God’s abundance and care for us.
In a nutshell, Francis teaches us that we need to learn to divest ourselves from the hold our material goods have over us, and the fear that life is about scarcity and not abundance. The Francis story teaches us this so that we can be free to use our resources of time, talent and treasure for the glory of God. That glory can be manifest in myriad ways: from paying the mortgage, and putting food on the table, to supporting our favorite causes and generously giving to the health and well-being of the parish church, our spiritual home. More than anything, the Francis and Pietro story informs us that in God’s economy, we truly receive in giving.
Today we kick off our annual Stewardship campaign. Your pledges will determine to what degree we will be able to continue engaging Christ Church’s mission and ministry in 2016.
Frankly, the only reason we care about time, talent and money is because they are the resources we use to do our work as a Christian community of faith: which is to proclaim the good news of Jesus to the world. They are the fuel that powers the engine.
Today we celebrate Francis with our pets and the exotic animal parade. That is a joyful thing!
Today, let’s also celebrate the loosening of Pietro’s grip over us, as we embrace the liberating example of Francis. In so doing we become better stewards of all that has been given to us. And that too is a cause for great rejoicing!