Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
Therefore, I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.
As we celebrate the feast of St Francis today it is good to hear St Paul’s comments about regarding as nothing all that he had before encountering Jesus. All the religiosity and standing in the community Paul recognises as loss compared to knowing Jesus as Lord. And as we recall from last week, Paul wrote of the incomprehensible humility of Jesus embracing humanity. Paul declares,
Jesus did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself. Philippians 2:6-7
Throughout his lifetime St Francis also strips himself bare from all the things he cherished.
Francis had become quite disillusioned as a young man. His dreams of being a great knight were in tatters when he was captured in a battle against the soldiers from Perugia. He waited for over a year before his ransom was paid and he was able to return home. It took along time for Francis to recover physically but emotionally he had lost any reason for life. One day as he wandered aimlessly he came upon a man with leprosy. Francis hated lepers and would normally steer well away from them. But this time he got of his horse to not just give to the man a handout but to embrace him and kiss him. Somehow Francis saw something of God in this man. From that point on Francis began to work with the lepers endeavouring to bring some kind of hope and dignity to their lives. This for Francis was stripping away his fears. But more than that it was the beginning of a journey into humble service.
During this time Francis began to seek out quiet places in small churches to seek answers to understand better his purpose in life. On one of these occasions he entered the little church of St Damiano. There he knelt in front of the old cross. He heard what he believed to be god speaking saying, Francis build my church. Francis looked around and found the church crumbling and in need of repair. So, he set about rebuilding the little church. In his zeal to rebuild the Church Francis sold a bold of fine material form his father’s shop and his horse. His father was furious and called upon the Bishop of Assisi to speak some sense to Francis. Francis’s father was a wealthy merchant. In deed it had been because of his apparent wealth in the way he dressed for battle and his shiny armour that saved Francis from being put to death. He was clearly worth a good ransom. Francis had no intention of working in his Father’s mercantile business favouring the call to minister to the lepers and rebuild the church. So in front of the bishop he stripped off his fine clothes and went off naked to become a beg for material to repair the Church. In stripping off in front of the Bishop, Francis was stripping away his own attachment to the wealth of his father.
In his contemplative prayer life Francis began to see the animals as brothers and sisters. Bit by bit Francis saw something of God in all of creation. He had a sense that everything was praising God. It was a deeper vision of things, they were not merely bright and beautiful. The words of the psalmist resonated with the very core of his being.
1 The heavens declare the glory of God:
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork;
2 One day tells it to another:
and night to night communicates knowledge.
3 There is no speech or language:
nor are their voices heard;
4 Yet their sound has gone out through all the world:
and their words to the ends of the earth.
Francis began to write his own psalms to express this sense of the Spirit of God dwelling within creation. He was stripping away the sense of superiority we humans tend to have.
So, in his relatively short life Francis joined St Paul more and more in seeing the things the world holds dear as worthless, as loss. In stead the things that count, that bring joy are such things as the services of others and seeking to be in communion with God and all creation. The greatest joy would be in communicating to others the Good News of God. A God who strips bear all glory to become human for the love of humanity and for all of creation.
Now let us go back to the story of the cross in the little church of San Damiano, and at the same time to the parable of the wicked tenants. When Francis had finished repairing the Church he was once again kneeling before the cross. Again, he heard our Lord speaking, Francis build my church. He protested. That is what I have been doing. But Francis began to realise that his calling was twofold, to reform the Church and to grow the Church. The Church had lost sight of its calling and had become wealthy, powerful and delighted in prestige. The Church was happy to send soldiers to destroy the Muslims empire that had taken Jerusalem but had little plan to send missionaries to proclaim the Gospel. Francis set out to “build the Church” this time through preaching and teaching.
Now Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants needs to be coupled to the story of Francis. The Parable was told to the Chief Priests and the elders of Israel. In many ways the Church in the time of Francis could be compared to the Temple leaders in the time of Jesus. Perhaps it is always tempting for religious institutions to lose sight of their core role. Wealth and prestige and power are always seductive.
What would St Francis and Jesus say to the Church in the 21st century in Australia? Perhaps we too would be called to “build the Church”. I feel a bit like Francis repairing the little church of St Damiano. We have replaced the roof, painted the church and the hall inside and out, upgraded the bathrooms in the hall and now seek to replace the parish office. I still think all of these things needed to happen. And perhaps that was the first part of being obedient to God. But if we don’t want to see ourselves as wicked tenants, we need to look again at our core role.
A little book I started to read while on retreat said to check the health of a church you only need to ask three questions. Do we love one another and our neighbour as ourselves? (The second great commandment.) Do we delight in proclaiming the Gospel? (The great commission) And, are we equipping one another for the building up of the Church? As I thought about the first question, I thought on the whole there is genuine love. Although as I have said over the past few weeks, we still need to learn more about forgiveness and deep respect based on humility. As to the other two questions we still have a lot of work it seems to me. I say we because I feel I too need to learn what it means to proclaim the Gospel in the 21st century and what it needs to be done to equip the saints for the building up of the Church.
Francis took time to grow in humility enough to really listen to God. As he grew in humility his capacity for obedience grew and his capacity to “build the Church”. Let’s also commit to kneeling before the cross, learning to listen, and obediently serving. Let’s work on the strength we have in loving one another and our neighbour and seek to build each other up till we are ready for the work of proclaiming the Gospel. Then let’s faithfully build the Church.