Sermon for St Francis 4 October 2009

Here is the sermon preached yesterday for St Francis

That Gospel reading is our jumping off point this week because it was a jumping off point for St Francis himself. It was on hearing this gospel that his manner of life was changed. He heard it and believed it was a call directly to him and he acted on it.

I sometimes wonder whether saints are actually very nice people. People who get things done in the church often don’t seem to me to be the kind of person that I would want to spend much time with. Notwithstanding the fact that there is very much that is attractive about St Francis, I’m not so very sure that I would have enjoyed being his companion. Certainly, his capacity for taking the gospel literally might have tried my patience a little.

For I tend to love metaphor and wordplay. I enjoy puns and playing with words. Give me a gospel reading and I rejoice in being able to find many different ways of interpreting it, some of which contradict one another completely. (That probably makes me rather trying to be with for some people). But it means that I find Francis something of an enigma – for he seems to have been able to read the gospel and apply it to himself without fear of the consequences. If the gospel told him to go out into the world taking no gold or silver, no spare clothes and nothing to protect him, then off he would go.

If it were me, I would have written something beautiful on what it means to become spiritually poor in order to receive the riches of God.

Not so with Francis. Off came his rich clothes. Left behind were his home comforts. And all the securities that wealth can bring he left behind him.

There are some wonderful visual images of Francis that have lingered to our day. For he is still loved by people. And it is easier to picture people whom we love. Several classic poses linger in people’s minds when they think of him.

  • Stripping off his clothes in public in Assisi, for example – giving his rich father back all he had received from him and disowning the wealth of merchant life.
  • or just dressed in his new simple habit of brown simple cloth. A girdle at his waist, his feet bare or covered in simple sandals.
  • or preaching to the birds, Alive to the fact that everything around him was a-trembling with God’s presence.

Delving a little deeper, it is more difficult to sort out what is really connected with Francis and what is wishful thinking.

There is a tendency in church to romanticise the past with what we hope for, for ourselves.

We see this in Scotland over the Celtic tradition. On many weeks of the year we see people here in St Mary’s who are on their way on pilgrimage to Iona to a place where spirituality seems easier. Where holy things seem nearer. Where prayer seems purer.

We must beware of such sentimentality. No doubt pilgrimage to Iona or Assisi is valuable, but the true value in pilgrimage is found on the journey and is measured when we return, not when we are there.

There is a longing these days to look back at the influence of Francis, or the influence of the Celts or the Copts, or whoever. Ah, we say, in those days the church cared more about creation. The saints were nearer to the holiness of the earth.

Often, I think this is us projecting the future we would like to see for the church these days onto a romanticised past.

If we want a church which is more centred on creation and honouring the holiness of the fragile planet on which we live, we need to build that church, not pine for its loss.

If we want a church which teaches practical spirituality, we may learn something from Francis and all the saints, but we can’t presume that they had it all good and we have lost it. If we want lovely spirituality we have to find it in ourselves and not take it second-hand from the stories of long gone saints.

If we want to free our lives of materialism, then we need to get on and make do with less. It is easy to read of figures like St Francis giving things up. It makes us feel good, somehow to think of him having such purity of heart that he could wander the world in love with Lady Poverty.

But let us not keep his feast day without asking ourselves what we might be prepared to give up in order to get closer to God. That giving up of things is as central to the true experience of Francis as the picture of him preaching to the birds.

His life asks us questions. What will you leave behind in order to get close to God this week?

Take that question from his feast day as a gift. A holy gift. Something physical, maybe. The desire for something unattainable, perhaps. A grudge or a resentment or a bitterness that we are carrying.

We all have things we could let go of. Things we could live better without.

Francis teaches us the spirituality of letting go of things and the holiness of dropping the baggage that we carry on our burdensome way and fool ourselves into thinking we need.

Francis was a fool for Christ, a troubadour of God, a joker, a jester, a comedian and a flibbertigibbet. He was someone who took the gospel literally and who found in the absurdities of that literalism a place where he could reach out in love to embrace those who would scare the well off bourgeoisie and make them run for their lives. Francis was a holy man whose life inspires me and Francis was also a holy fanatic whose manner of life sometimes scares me.

But the life of Francis raises all kinds of questions that we can profitably take away from his feast day and reflect on over this week.

Not least, his life begs this question which many have asked before me.

Francis may have been a fool for Christ. But whose fool are you?


  1. I like the idea of getting on and building not pining (bad pun) for a past (rose-tinted) state.

    You’ve also called to mind something my school chaplain once said – one might be called to be a fool for Christ – but never an idiot.

    And I wonder if Francis might have been more memorable if he took a sponge with him?

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