Sunday, October 2, 2016



(Sermon  by the Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred B. Vergara, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church,  130 Jerusalem Avenue, Hicksville, NY 11801. October 2, 2916)
A story is told of a missionary who went to Africa to evangelize the natives. While they were in the jungle, they met a hungry and ferocious mountain lion.  The African guides, being good runners, were able to escape but the missionary was a heavier he could not run as fast. So when he was about to be caught by the lion, he decided to drop to his knees, closed his eyes and prayed, “Lord, save me from the pangs of the lion.” For a minute, he expected the lion to ravage him but was not. When he opened his eyes, he saw that the lion was also kneeling in front of him. He got so excited and exclaimed, “Praise the Lord! Even the lion is now Christianized!” The lion roared and said, “Quiet! I also pray before eating!”

The saint we honor today may not have converted a lion but he was known to be a patron saint of the animals. St. Francis of Assisi is one of the most venerated religious figures in Christian history. He founded the men’s Order of Friars which would later be called the Franciscan Order; and the women’s Order of St. Claire. Of course, he is most remembered for his treatment of all creations as “brothers and sisters.”

Who is St. Francis and how what can we learn from his examples? There are three things we can remember of St. Francis: the rich who chose to be a beggar; the beggar who reformed the church; and the missionary who loved the whole creation.

A.    The rich who chose poverty

A few years ago, I saw the movie “Brother Sun and Sister Moon.” It was about the story of St. Francis and St. Claire. Then three years ago, my wife and I were privileged to travel to Italy and had a chance to visit Assisi where Francis was born and San Damiano Church which Francis repaired.

The early life of Francis was one of wealth and privilege. Born in 1181, he was one of the seven children of a rich and prosperous silk merchant Pietro di Bernardoni and Pica De Bourlemont, a noblewoman. He was first named Giovanni, a very common Italian name, in the absence of his father who happened to be in France when he was born. When his father returned to Italy, he started calling Giovanni as “Francesco,” which means the “Frenchman.”  His renaming of his son was in celebration of his commercial success and his fascination of France.

Francis became a soldier in 1202, as most men in those days had to go through. He joined a military expedition and was captured and taken prisoner. Upon obtaining his freedom, he returned to Assisi but became seriously ill. His imprisonment and illness combined to give him a spiritual crisis and a new vision of himself.  On one pilgrimage to Rome, he sat among the beggars and when he returned to Assisi, he began to exhibit strange attitude towards wealth and fortune.

In one of these accounts, he was selling silk and velvet for his father when a beggar came to him and asked for alms. Francis gave everything he had to the beggar. His rich friends chided him for his act of charity and his father scolded him in rage. Francis took off all his royal clothes and ran naked and from then on, lived the life of a beggar. He was a rich young man who renounced wealth and embraced poverty.

B.    A Repairer of the chapel, a restorer of the church

The man who became poor continued to experience  deep conversion.  One day while praying in an old, decrepit church in Giminiano, Francis  received a vision. He saw the icon of the crucified Christ telling him, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My House which was falling into ruins.” At first, Francis took this to mean the old church he was praying. So he campaigned to repair the church. Little did he know that the restoration of the chapel means the renewal of the Roman Catholic Church, from being a church for the rich with worldly wealth and power to being a Church for all people, with preferential option for the poor.

Francis adopted the simple rule, “to follow the teachings of our lord Jesus Christ and to walk in His footsteps.” That would become the mission statement of his Order. Soon many young men, including those who were rich like him, abandoned the life of wealth, power and privilege and devoted themselves to preaching on the streets in rags, denouncing worldly possessions.

One day in 1211, a young noblewoman by the name of Clare of Assisi heard the sermon of Francis and was touched by his message. Her cousin, Rufino, was also touched and together, they left her family’s palace and joined the band of Francis. Francis received her and that began the Order of the Poor Ladies or Poor Clares was born.

Francis appealed to Pope Innocent III to recognize their order. It was a dramatic meeting between Francis dressed as a beggar and Pope Innocent dressed in royal robes. The Pope had initial doubts and was hesitant to approve of the Order. But he saw Francis in a dream holding up the basilica and maybe moved by that vision, he granted license to what would later become the Franciscan Order. The Order of St. Francis and the Order of St. Claire would thereafter revolutionize the Roman Catholic Church with the spread of Christianity and their message of simplicity and love.

C.     The Missionary to the world and all creation

After the approval of the Roman Catholic Church, the Franciscan Order was now determined to bring the gospel to all God’s creatures even out of Italy.  He set out to Jerusalem and was shipwrecked by a storm. He sailed for Morocco but an illness broke off his journey to Spain. He went to Egypt during the 5th Crusade and crossed the Saracen lines and spoke with the Muslim Sultan, a successor of Saladin. According to some sources, the Sultan gave Francis permission to visit the sacred places in the Holy Land and to preach there. Later sources say that the Sultan secretly converted to Christianity and accepted a death-bed baptism as a result of his encounter with St. Francis.

The conversion of the Muslim Sultan was one of the greatest miracles of that time but greater things were still to come. The Order of St. Francis grew in an unprecedented pace more than any other Catholic Orders.  Francis called all creatures as brothers and sisters. He preached to the birds and the animals and legends say that the birds and animals would likewise treat him as their own brother, protector and friend.  It is said that he persuaded a wolf to stop attacking the village people if they feed him. The pact was made; the wolf was paraded by Francis before the people, the people  befriended the wolf, and the dogs made friends with the wolf and there was peace in the village and Francis blessed the wolf. His deep sense of brotherhood extended to all that he even referred to death as “sister death.”

Then on September 14, 1224 at the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, Francis received a stigmata, the gift of the five wounds of Christ, given him by the seraph, a six-winged angel on the cross. With this stigmata, he died on the evening of October 3, 1226 singing Psalm 142, which says in part, “When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you (Lord) who knows my way.”

The rich who became a poor man of Assisi has given us a lesson that peace is not only the absence of war, but the absence of any ruptured relationship and the peace that surpasses human understanding begins first in our hearts. The Prayer attributed to him says it all:

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.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

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