A quick word to begin. You may have heard about the pizza place in Brooklyn, NY, that is making a special offer right now. When you get a delivery, for an extra dollar, the delivery person will say to you, “Everything is going to be all right. You are doing the best you can.” There, you got it for free. Sorry, no pizza at this time.
To the one, holy and living God, be honor and praise. Amen.
Perhaps you noticed, as the Boston Red Sox and the Celtics concluded their games this past week, that it was a very strange season. Shortened, yes, played in a bubble or a restricted part of the country, yes, but the strangest thing was that all those games were played without any fans present. The players said they missed the energy in the room, as it were, and the home field advantage was lost without the hooting and hollering of the local, loyal fans. On the other hand, the players said it was a lot easier to focus on playing the game when guys weren’t wandering around yelling, “Beer here” and cheerleaders weren’t bounding around waving things. The players could actually focus on the game and what they had come out to do.
This past Tuesday evening a number of us watched the televised debate involving President Trump, Candidate Joe Biden and moderator Chris Wallace. I’ll confess that sometimes I have a hard time following a conversation if a lot of people are talking at once, so Tuesday I found it difficult to catch a lot of what was being said. If we had hoped for hear about policies or plans, nuanced insights or crafted arguments, we were disappointed. I think the lack of focus had a lot to do with that disappointment.
One person in our Christian history whose feast day we celebrate today, St. Francis, began his life in a rather unfocused way. The son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Francis was born in 1181 in the city of Assisi in Umbria in Italy. He was said to be a rather care-free young man, advantaged, his future assured, with plenty of friends and lots of opportunities for fun and youthful adventure. As a young man he went off on a stint with the army, was captured and became ill. While he was convalescing Francis had a chance to really think about his future. He was already showing an interest in the sick and the poor. Francis was no longer interested in being a soldier, and he didn’t want to go into the family business. He was adjusting his focus.
Some time later, Francis was praying in the dilapidated church of San Damiano when he heard a voice saying, “Repair my house, which you see is falling down.” This got his attention. Francis, being Francis, took this literally, so he pinched a bolt of his father’s expensive fabric, sold it and bought materials which he used to begin fixing up St. Damian’s Church. Let us say, his father was not amused and this, and a number of other incidents led to their eventual renunciation of each other.
Francis began his new life in imitation of Christ. Like a heat-seeking missile, Francis bore down on the person of Jesus, on his sufferings, on his service to the poor and on his engagement with all of created life. Francis’ focus shifted to Jesus and from then on, it never wavered. If we are tempted to think of St. Francis as a hippie or drop out, we need to know he was much more complicated than that. Far from being the patron saint of bird baths and little bunnies, Francis could be pretty austere. He wore one tunic for years, went barefoot most of the year, owned almost nothing, slept on the floor, begged for his bed and board. He was a mystic more than a theologian and what is said of him is that in the midst of all of this poverty and austerity, he was filled with joy. He could focus on his mission.
Francis’ humble, radical lifestyle began to attract a band of men who formed a community around him. They embraced poverty and obedience to a simple rule, went about preaching and tried to live in a way that expressed their love of God, their commitment to the poor, their care for the earth and the unity of all creation. They lived and believed the words of Psalm 19, when it says, “The Heavens declare the Glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.” There was rapture for them in that declaration.
Within a couple of years of Francis departure from his father’s home his simple order of Friar’s Minor, the Franciscans, an order Francis never meant to found, were recognized by the Vatican. Over time the order got so big that Francis lost control of it and no wonder, really, since Francis was not focused on being an administrator, or a leader in that way. He didn’t care about lists or buildings of finances. He was utterly dedicated to preaching about Jesus and his sufferings. Francis was a on a conversion-quest for the world, but to follow him in his zeal for Christ was hard to do. Give up home and family, live on the beneficence of others, own only what you could carry, go day to day on the word and love of Christ. Be joyful in all that you do and receive. Yes, Francis was an original, but not the only original in the history of our faith.
If we stand back and look closely, we can see some parallels in the lives of Francis and St. Paul. Paul, too, heard a voice that changed the course of his life and forced him to alter his focus. Here in his letter to the Philippians, Paul states it plainly: he had it all – all the training, all the credentials, all the heritage, all the power of Empire, and he gave them up to follow Jesus. Paul endured hardship, gathered believers and companions, faced challenges to his authority and insights and was utterly focused on Christ and his church.
We who are here today, 2000 and 1000 years later, are beneficiaries of Paul’s and Francis’ work. Francis did not die a martyr as Paul did, but he did travel and spread the word, leaving a profound and powerful legacy. Like the sports figures of modern times, Paul and Francis both had their ardent fans and their determined hecklers, but they kept their eyes on the goal, the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Now in these COVID times when everything is changing so rapidly and at the same time, it seems nothing is changing at all, I wonder what we are attracted to, and focused upon. It is it the news, or the stock market, the political theater being acted out before us, or maintaining our health, keeping our job, the education of our children, caring for a loved one, walking the dog? What are we willing to turn our lives toward? While I bet few of us have heard the voice of Christ calling directly go us, asking a question or giving a command, I bet even more of us have sensed the pull of Christ into a deeper relationship with him. A deeper connection with God, or a call to step away from some things and toward others, the love of God and the building up of God’s kingdom here on earth.
We have had these last 6 months, and will have more months to come evidently, to think about what is important to us, what is driving and leading us. Something, someone is asking us, “What are you waiting for? There is no time like the present because who knows what tomorrow will bring?”
We are meant, as Jesus said, to the chief priests and the Pharisees, to be people that produce the fruits of the kingdom. Striving in our own vineyards, sometimes alone, sometimes with others, I think fundamentally we are doing the best we can. We may still ask ourselves, what can we, what can I focus on, to bring Christ’s love to those around me? Amen.