You won’t believe what I have in my hand.
This pectoral cross was given to me by my mother’s aunt, who received it from her uncle. Her uncle was a Roman Catholic priest, and he got it in Rome in the 1950’s.
It’s nothing fancy. It’s not even that old. But this cross contains a tiny piece of ash.
Ash from the body of St. Francis of Assisi.
It is as certifiably authentic as any ancient relic could be. Pretty cool.
I share it with you this morning, because today we have chosen to remember Francis.
Though these are not the readings for St. Francis’ feast day, it so happens that today’s readings from Scripture fit very well with the story of Francis.
In Ezekiel the prophet criticizes the Israelites for living loose and unholy lives. He reminds them that they cannot blame their parents, their ancestors or EVEN their enemies for the way they are living. He says, “Look – just because your parents had to eat Sour Grapes doesn’t make it o.k. for you to sin now.” He says, “Look – You are responsible for You. And God will only ever hold You accountable for the choices You make in this life. Choose God, and Live.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus continues this message. He tells the story of the two brothers. The first one says, “Yes,” to his father, but lives a life of “No.” And the second one who says, “No,” but then changes his heart and obeys the Spirit of God.
Jesus asks us, “What do YOU think?”
Jesus asks us, “What are YOU going to do?” But in our Baptism as Christians, the Lord is calling us all to DO something with our lives – something holy, something godly, something to serve Him.
Are we doing it? Or are we merely paying lip-service to the Lordship of Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit?
Now take the story of Francis of Assisi.
He was born in 1181, the son of an Italian merchant and his French wife. The family was extremely wealthy – and apparently did most of their business with the French. They w real Francophiles you might say.
He was baptized John. He was baptized John, but because his parents were so enamored of the French – the called him Francesco – or “Frenchman.”
Francis’ father raised him to go into the family business, and to carry the family name to new heights of glory and honor.
And for many years the young Francis followed suit – living the wild, carefree, and spoiled life his parents wanted him to have. He engaged in business, and as all disciples of chivalry sought to do — he waged war in an effort to gain a title of nobility for himself.
Like most Medieval Europeans, he fought against other supposedly Christian people in a constant bid for more earthly power and glory. After one such battle, he was captured by his fellow Christians and kept as a prisoner of war for over a year.
His father eventually paid the rivals a hefty ransom, and bought his freedom.
Upon his release, the crazy young man suited up for war again. This time, deciding that he needed to go all out, he went on a crusade. There would certainly be more glory in killing Muslims then other Europeans.
He purchased armor of silver and gold, and strode out of town on a giant war horse.
But something happened.
One story says that as he was riding out of town in his fancy armor he saw a leper, and his heart was strangely moved. He lept down and begged for the leper’s blessing.
He returned home, turning back from the Crusade, and his family called him a coward.
Within a very short period of intense reflection and spiritual awakening, Francis renounced his inheritance, won the support of his bishop, and began to minister to the poor, the friendless and the sick in the name of Christ.
He lived outdoors much of the time, wearing a rough tunic, tied around the waist with string. He ate little and he preached of the Kingdom of God.
Within a few years he attracted a group of disciples who looked to him as their prophetic voice and brother leader, and Francis even won the support the Pope in Rome.
At a time when the highest ideal of a man of property was to become a glorious knight and a romantic warrior – Francis was quite the rebel. Because even though his parents never called him by his Christian name, Francis ended up becoming more like the John of Baptism than anyone in his day.
In a time of crusades, mighty popes, wealthy bishops, and terrible corruption in the church, Francis became a prophetic figure who succeeded in reminding the wider church that the work of the Lord is not found in glory, warfare or riches; that the Gospel is about being humble servants – not mounted knights.
One of my favorite stories is of Francis and the Sultan of Egypt.
In 1219, a group of “Holy Crusaders” – who were led by a Portuguese Cardinal – spent two years terrorizing the countryside in the Holy Land, reportedly spending their money on booze, women, and failed campaigns.
After reports came to Italy of their debauchery and failure, Francis felt called to visit the crusaders, to warn them that they were NOT doing God’s will.
Francis actually told the crusaders that they would fail if they pressed on in battle against Sultan Kamil because Francis had a vision that God did not smile upon their truly arrogant and unholy behavior.
The crusaders laughed at his warning – and were slaughtered.
Shortly afterward, Francis went to the Sultan’s fortress wearing nothing but his robe and his sandals. He went inside, and he stayed for two weeks. Apparently his quiet and humble style impressed the Sultan, and they spoke of the things of God the whole time.
When they were finished Francis was granted safe passage home.
Francis did not win the Holy Land back. He did not conquer the Muslims. But he did manage to do one thing.
He represented the face of Jesus Christ to that Sultan – and the Muslim Prince respected what he saw. He respected what he saw, he welcomed what he heard, and he protected the man he met. The good man who in peace brought the Good News to him – where he lived, as he lived, so he might live.
So what do YOU think?
Who did the will of God?
The Crusaders who supposedly did what their father in Rome asked them to do? Or the humble prophet, who turned his war horse around, and gave his money to the poor?
What do YOU think we are called to do as Christians?
You may be familiar with these words – they were written by St. Francis – and in my mind they ring loud with the sound of Jesus:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
…where there is injury, pardon;
…where there is doubt, faith;
…where there is despair, hope;
…where there is darkness, light;
…where there is sadness, joy…