St Francis, Galatians 6:14-18
“Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” This quote is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, the saint who we are celebrating today. It’s a great quote, but he didn’t actually say it. He said, “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is your preaching.” I think you would agree that his actual words are a little more nuanced than the quote we normally associate with him. The problem with his actual words is that it’s not a quote you can just drop in the middle of a sermon or an article and expect people to make sense of it. Frankly, I prefer the real one, partially because I preach. But I also think that people like to pull that misattributed quote out when they want to have an excuse not to talk about their faith. It’s a perfect quote for Episcopalians who fear evangelism.
The other problem with that quote, is that it doesn’t fit with St. Francis because he loved to preach. What made St. Francis unique in his preaching was that he didn’t preach in the church. In fact, he wasn’t a clergy person. He preached anywhere and everywhere. He would go to fancy parties and preach to the rich and entitled, which probably took him off the invite list pretty quickly. He would walk from village to village preaching in up to five different places a day. If he was in the country, he would get on top of a bale of straw. In the city, he would be on a box or on the steps of a building. He was described as “the strange but fiery preacher.” Apparently there were times when he would get so animated, it would look like he was dancing.
So how did that quote get attributed to him? “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” It’s about action and how your actions match your words. It’s about authenticity. No one ever doubted that Francis lived what he preached. He was known as a peacemaker, whether it be between the Christians and the Muslims, the rich and the poor or even between humans and animals. He sacrificed everything he had. He came from a wealthy family. He could have done anything. Instead, he gave away all he had, including his inheritance. He chose a life of poverty.
That is one of the reasons that this reading from Galatians is assigned for the Feast of St. Francis. In it Paul writes, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…” It’s a little confusing when you take it out of context, so let me explain it. One of the things Paul was frustrated about was that Jewish Christians were trying to tell new Christians who were not previously Jewish that they had to be circumcised, despite the fact that was not a requirement of the Christian faith. Some people wanted it to be a requirement, because it was a visible marker. It was physical proof. It was also a way that they could escape persecution as some Jews were persecuting Christians at the time.
Paul was an observant Jew and he was circumcised. He wasn’t against the practice in general. He was against doing it for the wrong reasons, doing it simply to win human approval. That is why he said that he would only boast in the cross of Christ. While Paul had plenty to boast about, he refused to boast in anything besides the God who created him and died for him.
St. Francis, much like Paul, didn’t feel that he had to prove himself. He acted the way that he felt called to act. He didn’t even seek the approval of his parents who ended up disowning him because of the life he chose. He only boasted in the God who loved him, and loved all the people and animals he cared for. Because he didn’t have to prove himself, because he didn’t have to earn the acceptance and love of others, he was able to achieve peace within himself.
That was why he was able to bring peace to so many people and situations, because he had found peace within himself. That peace was not rooted in his self-perfection or actualization. That peace was rooted in the cross, the sacrifice that Christ made, that unconditional love that he experienced and was able to share with others. Imagine how much better our lives could be if we didn’t have to constantly earn the love and acceptance of others, if we didn’t have to prove our worthiness to ourselves and the people around us. Imagine how free we would be. That is what it means to boast in the cross of Christ. I bet that is why he danced when he preached. He was free of the weight that bears down on so many of us.
We all know that Francis cared for animals. One of the things that I learned when I was working on this sermon was that he started the tradition of the living nativity. He set up an animal trough for a manger in a cave in Italy. There were live animals and people. He wanted people to experience the messy reality of the birth of Christ. He wanted scripture not just to be read, but experienced.
That is why I think having an animal blessing as part of our worship service is such a great way to commemorate St. Francis. Sometimes it’s messy. Sometimes the animals are a little disruptive and distracting. Things don’t always go according to plan and that is ok. It’s one of the few times when Episcopalians give themselves freedom to worship without formality. That’s why I try to embrace any disruptions in our worship service, because God is supposed to be disruptive. That is why St. Francis made such an impression on people. He lived into that disruption and ironically, that brought him peace and enabled him to bring peace to others.
I am not suggesting that we throw out the beauty and solemnity of our worship. I am suggesting we remember that it is not beauty or solemnity that we worship. We worship a God who was born in a barn to unmarried parents and turned our world upside down.