Sermon for High Mass – Dedication Festival Sunday Sunday 7 October 2018
DEDICATION FESTIVAL, 2018 EVENSONG
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Jeremiah 7. 1-11; Luke 19. 1-10
Earlier this year a group of our parishioners visited Assisi on pilgrimage. I wonder if they recognized William Butterfield’s sources of inspiration for the design of this church in the basilica of St. Francis built over the saint’s tomb in Assisi?
Thursday was St. Francis’s Day, so as we give thanks for this house of prayer today, I want to take as my theme this evening, some aspects of his life and legacy.
Many have thought the magnificent basilica, with its frescoes by Cimabue and Giotto and others, sits uncomfortably with Francis’s radical commitment to evangelical poverty. Surely this wandering mendicant would have no time for such things and would echo the prophet Jeremiah’s warnings in tonight’s first reading to those who put their faith in the Temple in Jerusalem. In fact the reality is more complex and subtle than that.
During his spiritual journey, his conversion, from the life of a prosperous merchant’s son, an upwardly mobile young-man-about-town, a would-be-cavalier in the endemic wars between Italian city states, to his embrace of Lady Poverty in the footsteps of Christ, Francis would often spend time in churches, seeking guidance and solace in prayer. A favourite place was the lonely and half-derelict church of San Damiano beneath the ramparts of Assisi.
Towards the end of 1205, on his knees before a large painted crucifix in San Damiano, he heard a voice saying to him: “Francis, do you not see that my house is falling into ruin? Go, therefore, and repair the house out of love for me.”
This tale improved with the telling. The earliest account does not say that the figure on the crucifix spoke to him; simply that he heard an inner voice. But whatever the case, he had been so overwhelmed by the image of Christ on the cross that he found a new and life-changing relationship with God. He became aware of such a powerful divine presence that the once-distant God became for him immediately present.
Taking what he had heard literally, Francis set to work restoring the church. To raise funds he sold cloth which has father had given to him. The priest, suspecting that this unconventional approach to fund-raising would not meet with paternal approval, refused the money.
Francis’s came to recognize that his encounter with the consoling presence of the Saviour who had suffered and died for him at San Damiano was a presence that could be known in other churches as well. Later he would write: “And the Lord granted me such faith in churches, that thus I would pray simply and say: ‘We adore you, Lord Jesus Christ, in all your churches throughout the whole world, and we bless you, because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.’”
His prayer drew on the acclamation of Christ crucified in the Liturgy of Good Friday. Christ’s work of redemption had become real for him in a new way, in the humble chapel at San Damiano, and, he came to believe, in every church, the power of the cross was available to save the world.
Tumble-down San Damiano can be seen as a symbol of the state of the Church of the time. A great gulf was fixed between the powerful and wealthy higher clergy and well-endowed monasteries on the one hand and the poor and ill-educated parish clergy and their flocks on the other. The monasteries, once the powerhouses of evangelization, had seen their missionary zeal decline as their wealth had increased. They were not well-placed to respond to the rise of a new urban middle class, of which Francis was a son. Such people had access to education; formerly a clerical monopoly. Among many there was a yearning for a deeper relationship with God, a genuine spiritual quest for holiness. Some formed themselves into groups to pursue this shared desire. The inability or unwillingness of bishops and parish clergy to satisfy this meant than some slipped into hostility to the institutional Church, or even into heresy.
When Pope Innocent III approved the rule which Francis had drawn up for his little group, he added an instruction to preach, as Jesus had sent out his disciples to do. He knew very well the scale and urgency of the challenge facing the Church. One of the unexpected fruits of this was the role of Franciscan and other friars in urban settings and the new universities. They were flexible and mobile enough to respond to new challenges; to try new things. Their teaching was authenticated by their lifestyle and they remained loyal to the Church they loved.
When this church was built, Britain was going through a period of rapid and radical transformation. London’s population was expanding fast, with people drawn in from rural areas. The Church, along with other institutions, struggled to cope. Our forebears here grasped that something more than the familiar patterns of church life in village or market town, with their settled populations and predictable pace of life, was needed. The Church was falling down in the sense of failing to meet the needs of rapidly growing urban populations and the intellectual challenges which challenged the claims of faith. Rising numbers of people saw the Church as an obstacle to progress. Its hierarchy enjoyed high incomes and leisurely lifestyles; the lower clergy often languished in poverty.
So, this church was built as a place where people could find guidance and solace in the presence of God, as Francis had done in San Damiano. It was also a place where they could hear the gospel preached, and not just at 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning. It was to be a place where people could hear God’s call to discipleship, as Francis had, and where they could be taught how to answer that call in their daily lives; it was where they could be strengthened in their response by the grace of the sacraments.
Once again, we live in a time of change and challenge for the Church. There is a sense that the Church is falling into ruin; not this building – because we have devoted much time and effort, skill and money to its restoration and ongoing care – but the Church as an institution battered by scandal and bewildered by social and intellectual change. How are we to rebuild Christ’s church which is falling down?
Let me suggest some brief clues from the life St. Francis.
As our preacher this morning, Professor William Whyte, told us, this place was built to be more than an auditorium – a box in which to listen to sermons.It is a house of prayer and has been for over a century and a half. If it is to continue to be it must be prayed in. That means we must pray in it – not just on Sundays and the occasional feast – but day-by-day. And if we cannot be here in the flesh, then we can be in the Spirit. Prayer is not a zero-sum game: praying in church does not mean that you cannot pray anywhere else. In my experience, for what it’s worth, the more I pray in church, the more I pray in the street, on the tube or on a bus. Who knows what might come out of that prayer?
Francis felt a sense of dislocation from the society in which he had grown up and he found a home in the church and with his brethren. Countless people who have come to our city, who work or study around us, feel such a sense of dislocation and unease. It can lead to loneliness, even despair – or a desperate attempt to fill the emptiness with consumption or entertainment. The church can and should be a place where people find both a home and a sense of purpose, a direction for their lives in following in the footsteps of Christ in community with others.
So here they need to find a community of people who seek to live that relationship with the Jesus of the Gospels which Francis found. One of his abiding legacies is devotion to the humanity of Jesus – seen in the gospels and especially in the incarnation and the passion. He invented the Christmas Crib – not with inanimate figures of Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men, gathered around the infant Jesus, but a tableau of living people from the local community. So, we who belong to this church are to be drawn into that living tableau in our relationship with Jesus, one which will also take us to the foot of the cross; a nativity play which becomes a passion play. Francis’ devotion to his crucified Lord would culminate in his receiving the stigmata – the wounds of the cross in his body. A renewed church will be a cross-shaped one. It will bear the marks of the cross. We cannot dictate in advance what that cross will be.
The life of Francis was marked by poverty and suffering, but it was also notable for its joy; his delight in creation for example. A community which takes seriously the humanity of Jesus will be one of joy and celebration; not of a dour puritanism. It will be one in which our humanity will be enabled to flourish in fellowship with others. But for such companionship, such friendship to enrich our humanity, it must be positive and encouraging rather than a negative collusion in complaint and criticism like those who complained of Jesus acceptance of Zacchaeus.
At the heart of Francis’s conversion and call was his encounter with the poor and marginalized; represented by the leper he embraced. One unlooked-for challenge we have been facing here over the last few years has been the presence of homeless people seeking shelter. There is nothing romantic about this. There are times when it can be tiresome or worse – the odour of sanctity in this church these days is very definitely not as one clerical wag described it, eau de cologne. We get through a lot of air freshener as well as incense. These are people in whom Jesus invites himself into our home, as he did with Zacchaeus. If the evidence of our visitor’s book and other comments is anything to go by, then this unlooked-for ministry, which was no part of any Mission Action Planning, is seen by others as a mark of the authenticity of our faith and witness.
Talk of poverty leads us to think about money, Francis and his followers, were known as “Mendicants” – that is “beggars.” They would rely for their sustenance not on endowments but on the day-to-day generosity of those among whom they lived and ministered.
Like them, this church is dependent on the generosity of people to continue its work. Thanks to the foresight and generosity of our recent forebears, we do have endowments. Without them, we could not sustain our work. But if we are to continue with it, let alone expand it to meet the challenges of our time, then we must go on begging, as we have been doing in our Parish Giving campaign. It’s easy enough to slip into a mood of resentment about this, but not only does the Lord love a cheerful giver but we find that generosity in giving makes us cheerful. It helps us to experience and share something of the joy which Zacchaeus and Francis knew; a joy that is infectious and by which people can catch the faith.