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Pure Joy. A Sermon for the Feast of St. Francis Oct 4, 2016 The Rev. Pete Gdula, Deacon

October 5, 2016 Leave a comment

There’s a saying I read once that puts what we think we know about Francis in perspective. If our only recollection of him is a bird bath statue and a once a year pet blessing, we really don’t know the first thing about him. Yes, he loved animals, but he also loved every single thing in this universe of ours, because he knew that God created everything.

Francis was consumed by a love for the Gospels, and took every word to heart. If you could say there was one goal that Francis wanted to achieve, it would be to emulate everything that Jesus did. One of the most dramatic things was how he not only accepted pain and ridicule, he welcomed it. His view was, anything he could endure on this earth could not possibly come close to going through the agony of what Jesus did leading up to His death by crucifixion.   From that first historic moment where he heard the words of Christ spoken to him through that crucifix at San Damiano “Francis, rebuild my church”, his love for God and Jesus became a passion.

He acknowledged how at first he took these words to mean the actual reconstruction of that old, dilapidated chapel in the meadow. He even went around town begging for stones and rocks from people’s property to use to rebuild the walls. But as each stone was put into place those words of “rebuild my church” transformed him into a being who then realized it wasn’t the building Jesus was talking about, but the church in the world and God’s people who belonged to it. So armed with this love to be like Jesus, the gospel words etched in his mind, and a new perspective on the human condition, he set out on a mission to reclaim the message that was meant to be heard by everyone who heard these gospels.

During his conversations with people, there were many who showed an interest in what he had set out to do, but honestly couldn’t handle the rigors of a monastic lifestyle. To these, Francis graciously allowed them to go back into the world, yet encouraged them to live their lives and continue their ways with families and occupation, taking the things they learned with them. This was the foundation of the Third Order; people like you and me, who feel called to a deeper relationship with Christ and Creation, but don’t have the call to live out a life in a monastic tradition. Just as the rule for his band of brothers was simple and rather ordinary, the third order was also given a rule of life to live by.

Part of our rule is comprised of areas we are to pray and focus on. There are three of what we call “Aims” of the order, as in we “aim” to achieve these in our daily lives. The first is “To make the Lord known and loved everywhere”. While this sounds like basic evangelism, what it really entails is to allow our lives to be lived as a model of what the gospels tell us. It’s believed that it’s the mission of the church to make the gospel known to all, and the church’s people show it in the way they live their lives.

The second aim is “To spread the spirit of love and harmony”. In this we accept the fact that creation was intended for everyone. It’s our basis for becoming involved in social justice movements, breaking down barriers between people to show the goodness that we inherently own, all from God and displayed through the words and actions of Jesus in the gospels. We are pledged to fight against the ignorance, pride, and prejudice that breed injustice and partiality of any kind.

The third aim is probably the hardest; “To live simply”. Just as the first Christians acted on the words of Jesus by giving up all the had to live in community with their sisters and brothers, so each person had what they needed, we too, seek to remove materialism as a driving force or goal in how we go through life, and replace the need for “things” with a love that goes back to the second aim, breaking down the barriers that monetary wealth forms between classes of people.

Over all of these things, Francis insisted that they lead to ‘perfect joy’. His thoughts were that nothing in the world could be more joyous than living a life as how Christ and the gospels directed us. Now to give an example of Francis’s quest for perfect joy I’d like to read to you one of the many legends handed down to us:

One day in winter, as St Francis was going with Brother Leo from Perugia to St Mary of the Angels, and was suffering greatly from the cold, he called to Brother Leo, who was walking on before him, and said to him: “Brother Leo, if it were to please God that the Friars Minor should give, in all lands, a great example of holiness and edification, write down, and note carefully, that this would not be perfect joy.”

A little further on, St Francis called to him a second time: “O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor were to make the lame to walk, if they should make straight the crooked, chase away demons, give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, and, what is even a far greater work, if they should raise the dead after four days, write that this would not be perfect joy.”

Shortly after, he cried out again: “O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor knew all languages; if they were versed in all science; if they could explain all Scripture; if they had the gift of prophecy, and could reveal, not only all future things, but likewise the secrets of all consciences and all souls, write that this would not be perfect joy.”

After proceeding a few steps farther, he cried out again with a loud voice: “O Brother Leo, thou little lamb of God! if the Friars Minor could speak with the tongues of angels; if they could explain the course of the stars; if they knew the virtues of all plants; if all the treasures of the earth were revealed to them; if they were acquainted with the various qualities of all birds, of all fish, of all animals, of men, of trees, of stones, of roots, and of waters – write that this would not be perfect joy.”

Shortly after, he cried out again: “O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor had the gift of preaching so as to convert all infidels to the faith of Christ, write that this would not be perfect joy.”

Now when this manner of discourse had lasted for the space of two miles, Brother Leo wondered much within himself; and, questioning the saint, he said: “Father, I pray, teach me where is perfect joy?” St Francis answered: “If, when we shall arrive at St Mary of the Angels, all drenched with rain and trembling with cold, all covered with mud and exhausted from hunger; if, when we knock at the convent-gate, the porter should come angrily and ask us who we are; if, after we have told him, ‘We are two of the brethren’, he should answer angrily, ‘What you say is not the truth; you are but two impostors going about to deceive the world, and take away the alms of the poor; begone I say’; if then he refuse to open to us, and leave us outside, exposed to the snow and rain, suffering from cold and hunger till nightfall – then, if we accept such injustice, such cruelty and such contempt with patience, without being ruffled and without murmuring, believing with humility and charity that the porter really knows us, and that it is God who makes him to speak thus against us, write down, O Brother Leo, that this is perfect joy.

And if we knock again, and the porter come out in anger to drive us away with oaths and blows, as if we were vile impostors, saying, ‘Begone, miserable robbers! to the hospital, for here you shall neither eat nor sleep!’ – and if we accept all this with patience, with joy, and with charity, O Brother Leo, write that this indeed is perfect joy. And if, urged by cold and hunger, we knock again, calling to the porter and entreating him with many tears to open to us and give us shelter, for the love of God, and if he come out more angry than before, exclaiming, ‘These are but importunate rascals, I will deal with them as they deserve’; and taking a knotted stick, he seize us by the hood, throwing us on the ground, rolling us in the snow, and shall beat and wound us with the knots in the stick – if we bear all these injuries with patience and joy, thinking of the sufferings of our Blessed Lord, which we would share out of love for him, write, O Brother Leo, that here, finally, is perfect joy.

And now, brother, listen to the conclusion. Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ grants to his friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself, and accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt; for in all other gifts of God we cannot glory, seeing they proceed not from ourselves but from God, according to the words of the Apostle, What have you that you have not received from God? and if you have received it, why do you glory as if you have not received it?’ But in the cross of tribulation and affliction we may glory, because, as the Apostle says again, ‘I will not glory but in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Amen.”

This doesn’t seem like pure joy to anyone. It rather seems like a love for being beaten and humiliated. But there is where he makes his point. Just as he took every word of Jesus to heart, he acted on every word. He left nothing out as we do today, saying “I don’t think that suites me so I won’t do that part”. For just as he heard how good God is, he also heard the words of the beatitudes “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.” That is what set Francis apart, that he took all of the words to heart and acted on them, not just a few chosen words by his own selection.

Perfect joy to Francis was anything that made us like Christ, or came as close as possible to bring us to a sense of unity in the spirit of the words. We are all sinners. But as long as we are headed in the direction of what the people before us chose, we are well on our way to perfect joy; the ultimate perfect joy of being in the presence of Christ when our time in this life is over. May we all share in the peace, love, and joy that Father Francis wanted us to live in. Amen.

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