St Francis of Assisi
St Francis of Assisi Nehemiah 2:1-8; Psalm 137; Philippians 3: 8b-11; Luke 9: 57-62
In the name of God, Source of all being, Eternal Word and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Saint Francis of Assisi is well-known for his many miracles involving animals and birds and his compassion for healing critically ill and injured people. He is the patron saint of ecology, including animals, their lives and welfare. But there is much more to Francis. His evangelical zeal, consecration to poverty, charity and personal charisma drew thousands of followers. Francis’s devotion to the incarnate Jesus and the blessed Virgin Mary and his desire to follow Jesus’ example with his own life, reflected and reinforced developments in medieval spirituality.
Among the chapels in the suburbs of Assisi there was one that Francis particularly loved, that of San Damiano. It was reached by a few minutes' walk over a stony path, almost trackless, under olive trees amid the fragrance of lavender and rosemary. Served by a poor priest who had scarcely the wherewithal for necessary food. The Sanctuary was falling into ruin with nothing in the interior but a simple altar and a Byzantine crucifix, still so numerous throughout Italy even today. One day Francis was praying there, and he was aware of something marvellous taking place in and around him. This vision was the first time Francis had been brought into direct, personal, intimate contact with Jesus Christ. He now had a purpose in life and courage to stand up to his father, who quite naturally thought his son had taken leave of his senses and did not understand him.
Eventually in the year 1208 Francis, after begging in neighbouring towns managed to complete the restoration of the little church of San Damiano and to continue a life of humble service to Christ. Francis's story in some ways echoes the story of Nehemiah and Saint Paul.
Nehemiah worked in Susa, as a personal assistant for the king of the vast Medo-Persian empire. Nehemiah spent a lot of time praying. He prayed at any time of the day and night, and he knew that God is always in charge, is always present and hears and answers every prayer. He could confidently pray throughout the day because he had established an intimate relationship with God during times of extended prayer. The king Artaxerxes noticed Nehemiah's sad appearance one day and this frightened Nehemiah because it was forbidden to show sorrow in the king's presence and if the king was displeased the consequences were often severe. He was not afraid to admit his fear and he also refused to allow fear to prevent him from doing what God had called him to do. He was distressed at the state of the people in Jerusalem. The temple had been rebuilt, but the prophet Ezra reported that the lives of the people were in shambles and that the rebuilding projects were progressing slowly. After Nehemiah prayed, he asked the king if he could go to help his people complete the task of rebuilding their city's walls. The king agreed to let him go, so he left as soon as possible traveling along much the same route Ezra had taken in his earlier return to Jerusalem. The king asked Nehemiah how long he would be gone. The bible does not record Nehemiah's immediate answer, but he ended up staying in Jerusalem 12 years (5:14, 13:6)
With a favourable answer from the King, Nehemiah waisted no time in asking for additional help. Sometimes when we have needs, we may hesitate to ask the right people for help because we are afraid to approach them. Not Nehemiah! He went directly to the person who could help him the most. He was not reluctant to ask those who were able to help. And they happened to be more interested and approachable than he thought. God's answers to prayer were as a result of his asking others. Nehemiah had position, power and many good organizational skills, and he acknowledged that God's gracious hand was upon him. He knew that without God's strength his efforts would be in vain.
When he arrived in Jerusalem, he was greeted with opposition. Opposition to the rebuilding of Jerusalem had been going on for 90 years by those who settled in the area when the Jews were taken captive to Babylon. In every generation there are those who hate God's people and try to block God's purposes. Saint Francis found this to be so, and this is often the case and even today there will be some who criticize efforts to renew the faith of the people in this place, to keep church properties in good repair and try to block God's purposes.
Psalm 137 reminds us of a person in exile weeping over the bitterness of captivity, and we can easily understand the sorrow that both Nehemiah and Francis felt over the state of the community of faith in their relevant ages.
Saint Francis and Saint Paul both considered all that they had accomplished in life to be a loss when compared with the greatness of knowing and following Christ. This is a profound statement about values. A person's relationship with Christ is more important than anything else. Our relationship with God is more important than anything else. To know Christ needs to be our ultimate goal. So, can we consider our values?
Do we place anything above our relationship with Jesus Christ? If our priorities are wrong, it is not too late to re-order them. This does not mean, as St Luke reminds us, that we should forsake our obligations to family, but we need to be sure of our real motives if we do not follow Christ with singleness of heart.
Jesus wants from us, total dedication, not half-hearted commitment. We can't pick and choose among Jesus' ideas and follow him selectively. Righteousness comes from God. We receive right standing with him by trusting in Christ and our shortcomings are exchanged for the gift of his complete righteousness. We receive the same power that raised Christ from the dead and this power will help us live morally renewed and regenerated lives. With all the saints, can we count the cost and be willing to abandon everything else that has given us security?. With our focus on Jesus, nothing should distract us from the good and true life he calls us to live. Amen.
The Reverend Canon Camellia Flanagan tssf