Sermon for Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 21 October 2012
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
I spent this week in Assisi, the home of St Francis and St Clare, on a clergy pilgrimage led by the Bishop of Edmonton. It was so interesting that I am going to spare you the rather worthy sermon I had prepared for tonight on mercy and sacrifice. Here instead is my postcard to you from Assisi.
And it does say, wish you were here. I hadn’t been to Assisi for forty years, but it was all familiar to me. In every way, the clouds lifted. What a relief to get to Assisi and to find there, not multi-culture, but mono-culture, the medieval catholic church (St Francis died in 1226), a worldwide church which is your heritage, and which the Oxford Movement and the founders of this church re-discovered. For as long as I can remember I have heard from London pulpits about the blessings of multiculturalism, but there has to be somewhere you can call home. The mono-culture of the Western Catholic Church is a society which is truly inclusive and welcoming. The life of Christ, which is at its heart, is the life of all life, as inclusive as Creation; as the Franciscans discovered, the entire Creation is holy, and you are a member of this holy society through your baptism, and no human power or tyrannical opinion can take your membership from you. Indeed the Christ mystery on earth, and this is a rather Franciscan thought, is incomplete without your participation. We are part of the whole, the Catholic and Apostolic Church.
I’d got the early days of the Franciscans completely wrong. I’d thought of them as a sort of medieval Taize experience, young enthusiasts, out with the old, in with the new, inspiration and ecology, plenty of discomfort and rather scratchy clothes. It wasn’t like that at all. Jesus spoke to Francis from the crucifix and told him to “rebuild my church”, and we, of course, interpret that as renewing and revitalising, but Francis took it literally: repair this building, the Church of San Damiano, and that’s what he and his followers did, they restored churches, which were in a shocking state because the clergy had given up. So the Franciscans started as a lay movement, with equal opportunities, and St Clare heading the women’s section, and their motivation was not reformation of the church, but the restoration of orthodoxy, everything as it should be, and at the heart of that was the sacramental life, a concern for the restoration of the Eucharist at the heart of each church. So, for example, Francis would send a group of his followers to a ruined church with a silver pyx, that’s the little container for the Host, to shame the priest into using it, showing him what needed to be done. What this shows, I think, is a desire for God to be close, not far away in some heaven described by clever people, but right here, in the heart of the building, representing the human heart in the body, which is the centre of our struggles in this life. The Franciscans were literally the new brooms, who cleaned up the building. Perhaps we can look at our life here in a different way. Those who clean this church, those who polish the silver, trim the candles, repair the linen, serve the altar, tidy the books, and all the rest of it, these volunteers are our Franciscans, because this work is much more than housekeeping, keeping things clean; we are tending the flame of the sacramental life in this place and in our lives, necessary daily work. Maybe we can all be a bit more Franciscan in our daily lives. His first biographer described St Francis as a living prayer. When we pray In that way, not wordy trying-to-be-religious praying, but just discovering an intimacy with God in everything we do, following a sacramental vision, even when doing our necessary chores, there is really no reason to stop praying. We are where we are supposed to be. We pray to discover what we already have, God with us. The world is our cloister, that’s the Franciscan way.
One of the good things about sermons is that nobody remembers them, so you will have forgotten something I said a couple of weeks ago. I can’t remember the context either, but I said something like, Christianity is about values, not feelings. Sounds clever, means nothing, and St Francis has put me right, so my revised version is that Christianity is about feelings, not values. Feelings, what we are aware of in our minds and bodies, put us in touch with our desires, some wonderful, some unwanted, some dangerous. This is what the interior life is all about, awareness of the desires deep within us, and discovering in our lifelong restlessness a deep-seated desire for Another, for a compassionate God beside us. And the Franciscan insight is that this desire is all we need, whatever happens. “Desire above all things,” wrote St Francis, “to have the Spirit of the Lord and his holy manner of working.” Desires come from the heart, where God lives with us. Values are worked out in the head, where we put ourselves first.
Above Assisi, in the forested hills, are some hermitages. Up there, at a place called La Verna in 1224, we are told, Francis received the stigmata, that is to say he received, as a sign of divine favour, the Wounds of Christ on his body. What are we to make of that? We can make of it what his Franciscan brothers and sisters made of it then, and make of it now. His body, mind and soul were at one. They saw Francis as another Christ. He overcame the split between life and death, in his lifetime. The compassion which he showed to all Creation, at fever pitch, with a scorching and a suffering love, had burnt away the dross, and revealed the image of Christ (in which we are all created) and allowed this image to shine through, hence stigmata. That was his poverty. And if I’d had a postcard up in those hills, and a stamp and a postbox, all I wanted to tell you is that we are called like Francis of Assisi, to live a cruciform life – “the world is crucified to me and I to the world” (Galatians 5.14) – and God will help us do just that. Our stigmata occurs when body, mind and soul are at one, so that the body, our daily physical lives, matches the suffering love of Christ we know in our hearts. Francis knew that back then, his brothers and sisters knew it was possible with God, and here is how St Clare of Assisi encourages each one of us now:
What you hold, may you always hold,
What you do, may you always do and never abandon
But with swift pace, light step,
So that even your steps stir up no dust,
May you go forward
Securely, joyfully, and swiftly,
On the path of prudent happiness,
Not believing anything,
Not agreeing with anything
Which would dissuade you from this resolution
Or that would place a stumbling block for you on the way,
So that you may offer your vows to the Most High
In the pursuit of that perfection
To which the Spirit of the Lord has called you.