Lord Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace

Published: Tuesday, 24 July 2018

StFrancisStClareInspiration from Francis and Clare of Assisi

This sermon was presented by Geoff Pound on 22 July 2018 at the Ashburton Baptist Church. It concludes with questions for personal reflection and group study.

Scripture Reading: Philippians 2: 1-11

In preparing to walk ‘The Way of St Francis’ from Florence to Rome, we read books on Francis like ‘Saint Francis of Assisi: Passion, Poverty and the Man Who Transformed the Church’ by Bret Thoman and his more recent book entitled ‘St Clare of Assisi: Light from the Cloister’. These books equipped us to plot our journey and know the significant places in their stories.

Last Sunday I mentioned the gift of having surprising serendipitous encounters when on holiday. On the day we walked the 27 kms from Perugia to Assisi we arrived for our 5 days stay all hot and sweaty.

As we were walking up through this hill town looking for our hostel I saw author Bret Thoman and his wife, Katia. I said, “Hello Bret, Geoff and Lyn Pound from Melbourne.” He said, “How did you know me?” I said, “We’ve read your books. We’ve seen your videos. You sent us helpful information on walks to do in Assisi.”

Assisi on that day was teeming with tourists. With a population of only 3,000 people, why is Assisi one of the most popular sites in the whole of Italy with between 4-5 million visitors a year? Why is it that the current Pope adopted the name of Francis? What is it about the lives of Francis and Clare, that makes their lives inspirational and their message so timely?

There wasn’t a lot in his early life to give a clue that Francis would pray: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” When he was born in the family home in Assisi[1] his father, Pietro Bernadone, who was a seller of material and trader in textiles, was away in France. His mother Pica had him christened at the cathedral [San Rufino].[2] She named him Giovanni or John after John the Baptist. When Pietro, returned he said “No, I don’t want my son named after that rugged prophet,” so his Dad had his way and called him ‘Francesco’—‘Francis’ or more literally ‘Frenchy’, after his favourite country, France.

As a young man, Francis was a playboy, a big spender, a party animal reputed to carouse, revel and sing boisterously late into the night.[3]

He had childhood dreams of becoming somebody and the best way to become great was to be a successful knight in shining armour. In one battle against Perugia [November 1202), twenty-one year old Francis rode out on his horse with his comrades. They were absolutely routed. Scores were massacred but some like Francis were imprisoned as bargaining chips. He was kept in a dark, damp prison in Perugia for the next year. He was lonely and he got depressed. In this time Francis did some soul searching and this continued upon his release at the end of the year.[4]

Francis eventually came to understand ‘greatness’ in a spiritual sense. He gradually began to see that Jesus’ ways were very different from the ways of the world. Francis put down his sword. He gave away his mantle, armor and horse and devoted his entire life to God in an act of obedience. So, pondering such a change of heart, we pray [let’s say this together]:

Lord, Make me an Instrument of Your Peace.

In giving up his knightly ambitions, Francis began to feel his life was a waste, that he was a failure. He and a companion went between caves and ruined churches in the valley below Assisi where he could pray, be free to be himself and to ask, ‘What did God really want him to be and do?”

He was fond of San Damiano, a disused church that was small and dark. He was captivated by the large, wooden Byzantine cross. On the cross he saw a man who’d suffered as he was suffering now. He felt gradually drawn to the crucified Christ for the gift of forgiveness and a clarity of his mission.

He began to experience God deep within and God’s unconditional love for everyone. He experienced a joy that overwhelmed him. It’s fascinating the way most depictions of Francis represent him as a person of life and joy.

Francis was struck by the Beatitudes and how Jesus exalted humble things. Before he tried to be great by becoming a knight. He sought to climb the social ladder by wearing the latest and best clothes. He’d sought friends from high society. He was into one-upmanship. He wanted more prestige, more power, more glory, up, up, up. The Scripture that raced through his mind and challenged him came from Philippians 2. It speaks of Christ:

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

 Here Christ’s life is shown to be going down, down, down. Francis saw that this was love—to sacrifice, to be humble, to give of one’s self, to move towards the others, especially the lowest. He had a new direction in life and that direction was down. Downwardly mobile in order to put God above everything else.

His conversion was dramatically demonstrated when he met a leper down on the country roads around Rivotorto. Those with leprosy were cast out and kept separate from society. Whereas earlier his tendency was to avoid such people this leper reminded Francis of Christ who’d he’d been despised and rejected (Isaiah 53:3).

Seeing Christ in the leper, Francis approached the sick man and embraced him. His life overflowed with compassion. Both Francis and the man experienced healing. Francis would work among the lepers and other outcasts for the rest of his life. Realizing that God’s love must be channeled to all people, so we pray:

Lord, Make me an Instrument of Your Peace.

Francis and his group made a commitment to poverty—selling everything they possessed. Their simple Rule of Life based on the words of Jesus:

“Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff.”

(Matthew 10: 9-10)

Their ministry was based on these radical words of Jesus. They stuck to the essentials. They didn’t get sidetracked with great theological issues. Their work was not in the cloister but on the road. So, they went about two by two like traveling minstrels.

Many joined Francis. There’s a statement often attributed to Francis that goes: “Preach the Gospel and when necessary use words.” There’s no evidence that Francis said this, but the style of preaching by doing and being, sums us the Franciscan way. Then they’d return to Rivotorto to stay in two small huts that are now enclosed in a large church.

A young woman by the name of Clare heard Francis preach many times in the local churches. She was captivated by his message of poverty, simplicity and love. Her family lived high up next to the cathedral and was extremely wealthy. But at the age of 17 she escaped first to a Benedictine monastery without her family knowing. She gave up all her wealth, status and entitlement to her inheritance.

Her father and uncles tried to find her and take her back but she was determined. Later she transitioned to San Damiano where she developed a community now known as ‘The Poor Clares’. Unlike Francis, Clare and her sisters were not itinerant.

As a young follower of Jesus, Francis made many mistakes. One day to get money for his new work among the poor, Francis went into his father’s shop, took a bolt of material and a horse and he rode 15 kms to Foligno and he sold them both.

Outside the family home and chapel there’s a sculpture of his parents holding the chains where they imprisoned their son in the cellar as punishment. In the rear of the church today is a cell commemorating his imprisonment.[5]

When Francis shared his call with his family, to give up everything and minister to the poor they were horrified. His father had groomed him for his clothing business. But in the piazza outside the cathedral in Assisi[6] at a community court meeting, Francis gave back the money and then he publicly rejected his father’s way of life. He stripped off his clothes and gave them back to his parents. Then Francis literally left his past behind. How painful it is when your loved ones don’t share your sense of call.

On the road where Francis embraced the leper there developed some churches called ‘leper churches’. We visited two, one of which now is the site of a religious community.[7] A first-year novice from Albania showed us around the church and we said, “Do you miss your home country?” She said, “Yes, very much?” We asked, “Are your parents happy at your coming here?” She said “No, but nor were the parents of Francis and Clare.” So, mindful of the cost of discipleship, we pray:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Francis and his followers would take refuge in the mountain hermitage way above Assisi to pray in caves and drink in God’s beauty. Having been refreshed he’d go back to the valley, the lepers and the church.

Are you getting to see the rhythm in the lives of Francis and Clare? They were committed to these two things; Action and Prayer. The most important word in this phrase is not Action or Prayer but it’s the word ‘and’. Keeping these things together in a beautiful rhythm.[8]

Francis sensed this connection with creation in beautiful Umbria and this care for plants and animals marked his ministry. He called the earth his mother, the sun his brother and the moon his sister that must be loved and cared for. His praise to God for all creatures is expressed in his famous poem or prayer, ‘The Canticle of the Creatures’.[9] He saw peace as not only something internal or between one person and another but as extending to creation and even to a cosmic mutuality and dependence. With such a vision of peace we pray:

Lord make me an instrument of your peace.”

One day when Francis was at the San Damiano church, he was meditating on this very same cross and it was as if Francis heard the voice: “Rebuild my church.” He thought the living Christ meant rebuild San Damiano and the other run-down church buildings below Assisi that nobody attended. They did renovate these church buildings[10] but bit by bit and stone by stone, Francis saw it as God’s call to help repair the church at large spiritually and morally.

Francis sensed God was calling him to start a new movement. Subjected to a degree of criticism, he thought his group needed some church authorization. So, in 1209 this young man from little Assisi went to the mighty city of Rome and presented his simple Rule of life to Pope Innocent III for his approval.

At first the Pope said “No.” He didn’t want more dissidents and heretics. He told Francis, “Go back to your pig sty.” Francis and his friends did that literally that very night. They sleep with the pigs but during the night the Pope had such bad dreams that the next day he recalled Francis. He gave him his blessing. He created the ‘Order of Friars Minor’ (lesser brothers) that came to be known as the Franciscans. If God is really in something, even if the highest leader is opposed to it, God will bring it to pass.

The Pope asked, “Would you like me to ordain you as a priest?” Most people would delight in such a personal affirmation but self-emptying Francis didn’t want to take on a status or a rank so he declined. He wanted to be a lay person. He wanted a movement that everyone could join.

The story of Clare is even more compelling recognizing the status of women in that day. She wrote the Rule for her community and it was sent to the Pope. This was the first time that a woman had ever written a Rule and made such a request to the church. Just before her death (1253) she received news of the church’s approval.

In 1219 Francis went to the Holy Land where the Crusade wars were under way between Christians and Muslims. There was such a climate of hate, intolerance and violence.

Francis travelled to Egypt to meet the Christian warriors and tell them that what they were doing was wrong. Then he went to the Muslim community. This was dangerous for there was a bounty for the head of any Christian. He was taken to the Sultan where he embraced the Muslim leader and conveyed a message of peace. The sultan was impressed that Francis came not with a sword and that he addressed them as brothers. He spoke of love, humility and reconciliation. He stayed several days to learn about their faith.

Unfortunately, the Crusades didn’t stop but something important happened between this Muslim Sultan and the Christian friar. The Muslim leader turned over the control of Christian holy sites in Muslim territories to the followers of Francis. He also gave Francis gifts—an ivory horn (used in the call to prayer) and a prayer mat.[11] Francis was a bridge builder. He welcomed people of other traditions and faiths. He listened and learned from them. He sought to find common ground, to support truth and healing wherever it’s found. Mindful of the call to build such bridges, we pray:

Lord, Make me an instrument of your peace.

In 1226 at the age of forty-four, Francis and his friars knew that his life was coming to an end. At the Portiuncula which is now surrounded by a large church [St Mary of the Angels] Francis was, at his request, laid naked on the ground. The others prayed Francis’s prayer or poem, ‘The Canticle of the Creatures’.

His famous last words on October 3 1226 as he lay dying were these: “I have done what was mine to do; now you must do what is yours to do.” This statement points to God revealed in every person. Our job is not to be a Francis of Assisi, a Clare or a Mother Teresa. It’s to do what is ours to do.

So, we pray together:

Lord: Make me an Instrument of your Peace.

Prayer

The prayer that Francis would often pray before the cross:

Most High, glorious God

Enlighten the darkness of our hearts.

Give us true faith, certain hope, perfect love, sense and knowledge,

That we may carry out your holy and trued command,

Amen.

Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Study

Icebreaker

What have been the facts and features of the life of Francis and Clare with which you have been familiar?

Ever been to Assisi and if so, what were your impressions?

What features of the life of Francis and Clare have impressed and inspired the many who have wanted to tour Assisi or go on pilgrimage?

Why do you think the current Pope (who is a Jesuit) adopted the name of Francis?

What expressions of Francis’ conversion strike you?

The entire theology of Francis could be summed up in the cross on which he frequently meditated. Has there been a book, a cross or some other object that has shaped your understanding of God and Christian mission? Talk about such shaping.

Ponder this reading:

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

Someone has described the song in Philippians 2: 6-9 as something of a ladder that describes the downward movement of Christ. How many rungs can you identify and which inspire you?

Think about encountering the man with leprosy and the embrace of Francis. Has anything like this been part of your experience? Did the love for a person come first, a vision of Christ in the person or the command to welcome?

Reading:

“Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff.”

(Matthew 10: 9-10)

How do we response to such a call of Christ when we are surrounded by so many things?

How do we stayed focused on the mission of Christ and not get sidetracked? What sidetrack slows you down the most and causes you to detour?

Any thoughts about Clare of Assisi that give you questions or inspiration?

Francis and Clare had family members that never embraced or blessed their call to follow Christ. Reflect on ways that this has or continues to be your experience.

Think and talk about the way God’s creation and beauty impact your life.

Discuss the way that Francis saw peace as extending to animals, the sun and to a ‘cosmic mutuality’. What does this mean for us?

Francis did not want to take on a rank, status or difference and so he refused to be ordained and become a clergy person. In what ways can we follow such thinking and the practice of the priesthood of all believers?

What inspires you about the way Francis addressed the Christian crusaders and sought to build bridges with Muslim leaders? How might we exercise such bridge building today?

His famous last words on October 3 1226 as Francis lay dying were these: “I have done what was mine to do; now you must do what is yours to do.” What do you find liberating about such a thought?

Any further aspects of the life of Francis and Clare that you wish to reflect upon?

Pray for yourself and one another that we might be instruments of God’s peace in particular ways.

 

[1] The Chiesa Nuova (New Church) is built over the site believed to be the birth place of Francis. About fifty yards away from the church is an alley that says it was formerly in an animal stall where Francis was born.

[2] The baptistery where Francis was baptized can still be seen in the then cathedral, San Rufino.

[3] Before his conversion he is described as “lavish, vain, worldly, proud, a spendthrift.” Before his conversion, he is described as “lavish, vain, worldly, proud, a spendthrift.” In Bret Thoman, Saint Francis of Assisi: Passion, Poverty & the Man Who Transformed the Catholic Church (Kindle Locations 274-275). TAN Books. Kindle Edition.

[4] His father paid the ransom so Francis could come home.

[5] The church of Chiesa Nuova.

[6] The Church of Santa Maria Maggiore.

[7] The Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Susa encloses the San Rufino d’Arce church while the church known as Santa Maria Maddalena is on the property of a family on a sharp bend in the road near the highway overpass.

[8] The Franciscan author, Richard Rohr, often makes this point in his writings when describing ‘The Center for Action and Contemplation’.

[9] This is said to be finalized by Francis in 1224 in San Damiano.

[10] These churches were San Pietro of Spina and St Mary of the Angels in the valley.

[11] These two gifts are preserved in the reliquary chapel in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. Bret Thoman, Saint Francis of Assisi: Passion, Poverty & the Man Who Transformed the Catholic Church (Kindle Locations 2650-2651). TAN Books. Kindle Edition.