A Tale of Two Francises

Due to the snowstorm around here, Sunday worship services at Village Church in Cummington were cancelled.  So this is the sermon I would have given this morning:

First Reading: Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is error, truth;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console;

To be understood as to understand;

To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Second Reading: Blessing for a Child Entering the World by John O’Donohue

Sermon: Getting At The Real: A Tale of Two Francises

Earlier this week the local paper published a syndicated cartoon tailored not only to the Christmas season, but the Christmas season this year.  In it are the three Maji, the three wise men, each bearing his gift, standing next to a manger stuffed with hay, cradling a rather soon-to-be famous infant.  On the other side of the manger is neither Mary nor Joseph or even an ox or ass, but is Pope Francis.  The Pope is holding a placard that says, “New Focus on the Poor.”  The caption of the cartoon, spoken by the king holding a box of myrrh, responds, “Look who knew what he really wanted…”

pope-nativity-scene-steve-sack-the-minneapolis-star-tribune

And this was before Time Magazine named Francis as their Person of the Year.

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This is an honor.  And it is a danger.

An honor, because Time Magazine’s choosing Francis honors the things he has so publically and unabashedly stood for in the nine short months since the cloud of smoke over the Vatican announced his election.  Since then – and I can’t name them all – he has not only washed the feet of prisoners on Maundy Thursday, of women prisoners, he washed the feet of Muslim women prisoners on this day that reflects Jesus’ own humility and the subversion of those who are low will be made high, and those who are high…well, they better be careful.  Since then, he has kissed the face of a disfigured man.  Since then he has said that maybe the Catholic Church has spent too much focus on pursuing a homophobic agenda (ya think?) rather than the heart of the faith.  Since then, he has said – wait for it – that even atheists can be good people and might make it into heaven.

Unfortunately, too often after some of Francis’ pronouncements there has been a flurry of anxious, stoic, and old-school underlings who go before the media to explain that Francis didn’t say what he just said, didn’t mean what he just meant.

And then there has been his rather unambiguous critique of modern capitalism:

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality.

His “Evangelii Gaudium” continues

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.

And the thing is, Francis isn’t saying anything new.  For many people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, and I think for Francis himself – or Pope Frank, as some of my friends endearingly call him – he is getting under the polish and sheen, under the ostentation and ornamentation, under the hoopla and bs if you will, to what is real.

Francis is trying to reintroduce Catholics – and the world – to Jesus.

It reminds me of another cartoon, perhaps from a few weeks ago.  There’s a merchant, hanging a sign outside his store.  The sign says, “Happy Holidays!”  A passerby, irate, says, “I’m sick of all this political correctness!  Can we just call it what it is???”  The next frame of the cartoon has the same merchant in the same location with a new sign, inquiring of his critic if the new one is any better.  The new sign says, “Happy Make-Your-Kids-Into-Greedy-Little-Materialistic-Consumption-Addicts Day!”

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Just trying to keep it real.

It has been my plan, months in the making, ever since I took my Early Christian History class with the Reverend Mary Luti last spring, to preach on this very day, the third Sunday of Advent, about the origin of the nativity, the crèche, as a Christmas tradition.  Inspired by Village Church’s own nativity scene and the story behind the original one, I have been biding my time, patiently, for this very day to arrive.

It was St. Francis to whom this tradition is credited.  And though the prayer that we typically call St. Francis’ Prayer, and which was read earlier, is actually not from St. Francis, and is in fact barely a century old (rather than the over 900 it would need to be if that Francis had penned it), this nativity tradition is accurately traced back to him.

Like we heard in this morning’s story for all ages, in Greccio, Italy, in 1223, a few days before Christmas, St. Francis approached a local nobleman by name of Giovanni, if he might prepare a place in a poor stable, one with a manger, one with the traditional presence of the ox and the ass, that he, Francis, might celebrate Christmas mass there.

For St. Francis, this was not just a symbolic action: let’s go to a place where the farm animals are kept and reenact the birth of Jesus – it will have great dramatic effect and inspire countless children’s pageants in the future.  Francis was sensitive to the fact that at the time of Jesus’ impending birth, both Mary and Joseph were, in effect, homeless and without the necessary resources for their circumstance.  For Francis, this was real.  This was how to get to beyond talking about Christ, or even worshipping Christ, but how to be with Jesus, how to be closer with God.

This mass was wildly popular, so many people aching to return to the simple, daring to move away from the corruption that was rampant in both religious and secular aspects of their lives.  Hay from the manger was distributed to aid both sick animals and ailing humans.  This first Christmas at the manger took place in 1223 and by the time Thomas of Celano wrote the first book about Saint Francis’ life in 1228, just five years later, a chapel had been built over the site.  And 890 years later, nativity scenes around the world, outdoors and in churches and in private homes, invite us to reflect on the birth and on the reality of Jesus.

Earlier I said Time Magazine’s choice of Pope Francis as Person of the Year was both and honor and a danger.  Really, danger?

Yes: danger.  The danger of cooptation.  The danger of white-washing.  The danger of seeing only that which we seek, which serves our lives as they are, rather than emboldens us to hear the revolutionary message: feed the hungry, set the prisoners free, execute justice for the oppressed.

This is a very real danger that we encounter on a daily basis in our society.  We remember the Dr. King who spoke about racial divides, which was hard enough, but now we have a holiday named after him.  We try to honor that part of his legacy, but we forget that he criticized our government’s involvement in the Viet Nam war or growing economic inequalities – that gets conveniently set aside much of the time.  We praise Helen Keller for her perseverance in the face of the physical challenges of blindness and deafness, yet it is rare to hear her lauded for her socialist activism that encouraged workers to strike for fair treatment (again, not unlike Dr. King was doing when he was shot in Memphis).

Right now, at this very moment in time, our nation struggles with this very thing as we remember Nelson Mandela.  Was he the world’s best at forgiveness, one that we want to emulate?  Or was he a part of the precedent-setting process of Truth and Reconciliation, yes, related to simple forgiveness, but much more exacting in its requirements of us?  Was he the peacemaker who saw issues from all sides?  Or was he a terrorist, who was on the official U.S. list of terrorists as recently as five years ago?  This is a leader who believed that South Africa could declare its own friends, shaking hands with Qaddafi and Fidel Castro, rather than follow the West’s dictum that to be our friend, you must have the same enemies.  For a nation that has the highest incarceration rate in the whole world, it is hard to avoid the hypocrisy of praising a man who became famous enduring his own long imprisonment.

Too often, when we name public figures as our heroes, as we do so, we disarm them, taking away revolutionary power that might make us uncomfortable, might make our lives inconvenient, might require us to reflect and change our way of life.

The Reverend Peter Boullatta recently wrote of an heroic figure and the danger of how we remember him, how we white-wash his message, how we have materialized the holiday that marks his birth.  We reminds us of the real Jesus:

Dangerous because the memory of Jesus draws us to the abandoned places of empire—the prison cell and torture chamber, the battle field and the homeless shelter, the toxic waste dump and the inner city school, the family farm and the sweatshop factories—drawing us out of our comfort zones and across lines of class, race, nation and culture to do the work of creating the realm of God.

Saint Francis’ gesture was beyond the symbolic or liturgical: it was deeply theological, and though Francis was no boat-rocker (he was the Pope’s yes-man through and through), I would say it was political …and dangerous.   It was taking the heart of worship away from the grandiose and the ornamentation and going back to the basics, back to the roots, back to the truth he understood as Jesus’ saving message.  He was, in modern parlance, was making it real.   Not unlike his namesake, who holds the papacy now.

According to medieval Franciscan priest, Thomas of Celano, Francis so loved the Christmas season, and the Christmas feast, that “he wanted the poor and hungry to be filled by the rich and oxen and asses to be spoiled with extra hay.” Francis wished for the emperor to decree that all who can, should throw grain into the roads, that the larks and other birds might take joy and nourishment in such abundance.  It is in this spirit that you have these small packets of wheatberries – that you might make the time feed the birds, declaring the joy and the good news in Saint Francis’ name.

ImageAs we move into our Advent communion, let us keep the heart of Saint Francis with us as we co-create a communion that feeds the hungry of both body and heart, that inspires those fully fed to feed those still hungering, both for food, and for justice.  If you brought a non-perishable food item today to worship, when it is time to gather in a circle for communion, please bring it forward and place it on this table.  If you did not bring something (we were late in getting the word out), please take from this table over here to add to our communion bounty.

Benediction (adapted from Rev. Mary Luti)

Pour into our hearts this unceasing prayer:

That prophets of justice will be heard and heeded; servants of the poor will be rewarded and vindicated; healers and comforters will be blessed and blessed again.

May you feel the blessing that you are.  May you know the blessing you can be.  May you go out, blessing all you encounter, blessing this world.

Bibliography

Boullatta, Peter. “Bearers of Dangerous Memory,” http://peterboullata.com/2013/12/10/bearers-of-dangerous-memory/

Cole, Joanna.  A Gift From Saint Francis: The First Creche, William Morrow & Co, 1989

Cunningham, Lawrence S.  Francis of Assissi: Performing the Gospel Life, Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.

Gibbs, Nancy. “Pope Francis, The Choice,” http://poy.time.com/2013/12/11/pope-francis-the-choice

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