Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 96:1-8; Galatians 6:14-18; Matthew 11:25-30
Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) was a witness to Christ in ways beautiful, charismatic, and extreme. He was a person of deep prayer and great compassion. He lived in an age of tremendous suffering, systemic corruption, and voracious spiritual hunger. He greeted these opportunities with courage, the unquenchable power of love, and a palpable freedom of the Spirit. He saw himself and his followers as “God’s jugglers,” mediating reconciliation within a divided church and witnessing to Christ’s joy to revive the hearts of the faithful.
In the Middle Ages, in Saint Francis’ day, the disease of leprosy, perhaps the oldest and most dreaded of all diseases, was a terrible scourge. Lepers would be seen with the most hideous of skin ailments: sores all over their bodies; bones protruding; eyes forever draining. Wounded people, broken down, festering, stinking. A leper died a slow, repulsive, ignominious, lonely death. And yet the source of a leper’s problems was not with their skin or bones. Those merely showed the symptoms. The problem with leprosy is with the nervous system. The nerves become deadened to any feeling. The nerves sense nothing in the affected area. And as the disease would spread through the body, the person would not be able to feel anything in the affected area.
A person with leprosy affecting their hand would be working using, for example, a broom or garden trowel with a splintered handle. They might tear their hand but not feel it, not know it, and a resulting infection would settle into this lame hand.
A man with leprosy is out walking. He slips and sprains his ankle, dislocates his hip, or maybe breaks a bone in his foot or leg, but he doesn’t know it because, with the leprosy, he cannot feel it. And so he continues to walk, as best he can, perhaps permanently tearing at the muscles and ligaments, even pulverizing the bones. And the man would soon become crippled, and still not be able to feel the reason why.
A woman with leprosy stands over a fire, cooking. She burns her hands on the scalding pot but does not know it because she cannot feel it. And she carries on, perhaps even for some days, until she sees – not feels, but sees – that her hands are aflame with infection. So long as she can see.
If the disease spreads to the eyes, the eyelids will lose their feeling. A bit of sand, maybe a pebble, is blown into the eye, but the leper does not know it because there is no sensation. The person blinks. They continue to blink, blink, grinding the sand into the eye, gouging, maybe blinding the eye.
That is the disease of leprosy. It is a continual state of being anesthetized in the cruelest of ways. It is like having permanent Novocain in the infected areas. And, except where there was miraculous intervention, there was no known cure in Francis’ day. The problem with the leper was their slowly losing maybe all feeling in their body… but never in their heart. The one thing that a leper would always be able to feel was rejection. As a leper would lose touch with their body, so they would lose touch with other people. In the Middle Ages, the response to leprosy by both church and state exactly mirrored the levitical codes of the Old Testament, which, of course, were in effect in Jesus’ own day. [i] Still in Saint Francis’ own day, lepers were outcasts. No matter who the person had been – whether they were prominent, wealthy, educated, of whatever culture or race or religion or gender – if they contracted leprosy, they would be thrown out, exiled, and quarantined, so dreaded was the disease.
In Saint Francis’s day, the local clergy performed a ceremony in which the priest would recite before the leper: “I forbid you to enter church, monastery, friary, mall, marketplace or tavern…. I forbid you ever to leave your house without your leper’s costume… to touch a well, or well cord, without your gloves… to touch children, or to give them anything… or to eat or drink, except with lepers.” [ii] And so, probably the only one who could be counted a true friend of a leper would be another leper. That is why, down through the ages, lepers stuck together. [iii] The only way a leper could come back into society and return to their family and friends was if they were given a clean bill of health. Just as it had been in the days of Moses and Aaron, so in Jesus’ day, so in the Middle Ages, it was the priests’ prerogative to give judgment, including whether a person’s body and soul had been miraculously cured. Body and soul, because the cultural assumption being that people contracted leprosy because they deserved it (like with most any other disease). Leprosy befell the person because of sin: sin that a person had tried to keep hidden, but that had finally been written all over the person’s face and body by God. God sent suffering to deserving people. Bad things happened to bad people. That was the worldview that had informed or infected the heart of a young Francis from Assisi… and he experienced a miraculous change. He was converted by Jesus. Some extraordinary new feeling came into his heart. He heard Jesus’ own words in the gospel lesson appointed for today, “…I thank you, Father of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” [iv] And Francis, who was privileged and popular and vain, was also a desperate young man, ravaged by a dis-ease called meaninglessness and hopelessness. T he French theologian, Leon Bloy, says that “there are places in the heart that do not yet exist, and into them suffering enters so that they may have existence.” Francis’ cold heart came alive. And in these repulsive and rejected creatures, riddled with leprosy, Francis met Jesus, and in meeting Jesus found himself. Their stigma became his stigmata. They belonged to each other. Francis’ world had been so turned upside down from how things had been for him that he said, “If you want to see the Kingdom of God, you have to stand on your head!”
I would not know why you all who are here are followers of Jesus Christ? I don’t know most of you personally. I would not know your story, and so I don’t know how Jesus has broken through to you. But I would suspect that it is because something in you is broken. Something in your past or something in your present is broken. It may have to do with your family of origin – things done or left undone, said or left unsaid when you were young. It may have to do with your health, with an addiction, with a character flaw, with being lonely or loathing or lost, with some insufficiency which is mostly your secret, some break in your own glittering image, and that breakdown has been Christ’s breakthrough to you. It may be paradoxical, but it is also undeniable, that what otherwise could have seemed the kiss of death in your life has actually been the portal to new life, the abundant life that Jesus has promised us.
And that is what happened with this Francis from Assisi. He moved from disdain for the outcasts – lepers being the most extreme – to compassion for these outcasts. (The English word “compassion” comes from the Latin pati , meaning “to suffer,” and the prefix com- meaning “with.”) Compassion means suffering with and suffering for another. Compassion is a melding of passionate love and tender mercy. [v] Francis found himself identifying with those who would otherwise be among the least and last and lost, in whose presence he found Jesus was really and irresistibly present. And he and his early followers came to spend a great deal of time in their sweet company. I suspect that most all of you know something about this, if your heart has been broken open by Jesus. You suddenly find that you have deep things in common, even with those from whom you otherwise could be alienated. Francis saw no reason other than to take Jesus’ words in today’s gospel quite literally: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.” And that is what he and his band of friars set out to do, healing, helping, exhorting others more by their example and by their words. [vi] You may know that wonderful passing remark from Saint Francis and his early followers. In their witness to Christ their goal was to “preach always, using words only when necessary.” – I’ll say here, as an aside, that this Franciscan type of “preaching” with the hands and heart is the kind of passionate ministry that I have personally witnessed in the wonderful work of the Saint Francis Center here in your own diocese. The Saint Francis Center appears to me to be as much an out reach ministry as it is an in reach ministry, a place of mutual blessing. That’s how it looks to me. Marvelous!
Today we are making many promises. Some of these promises are new, and some of them are re newed. We have already heard our new Bishop Co-Adjutor make solemn promises about his own faithfulness to the Holy Scriptures and to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church. We, in turn, have expressed our own desire that Rob be ordained a bishop, and we have explicitly promised to uphold him. And more promises will be elicited from our brother Rob: about his obedience to Christ, faithfulness in prayer, pasturing the flock, governing the church, showing compassion to the poor and strangers, and defending those who have no helper. Many promises. And in turn we all, together, will be invited to renew our own baptismal promises. Very bold promises.
Promises, by nature, are not made alone. You make a promise always in the presence of at least one other person, a witness, because these deepest expressions of desire could otherwise, on some days and in some ways, be forgotten, or qualified, or rationalized away, or even denied if we were not held accountable by the witness of at least one other person who has heard our vows in the light of day. And promises, by nature, always point to another possible way: that left to our own devices or deceptions, we could do otherwise. Promise-making comes out of our deepest place of desire, and they recognize the likelihood of our lesser desires, some days even seeming more attractive. Promises covet the help of accountability to at least one other. We do need one another.
You may know that after the early days of enormous growth and unanimity between Francis and his followers and the church whom they served, there was discord. And it was for principled reasons: various factions among his own friars quite certain that they were right and that they were being faithful to both their baptismal promises and to the profession promises within their own brotherhood. And the church hierarchy was as smitten as it was suspicious of Francis. What to make of him? The Francis whom we may remember (or may want to remember) who manifested such love and joy toward sea and sky, fish and fowl, young and old, the well and wounded alike, also knew what it was to face real controversy and dissension. And so the prayer of Saint Francis, so familiar to many of us, comes out of quite a difficult place. This is a prayer for God’s provision, and a prayer for our co-operation with God. This prayer of Francis did not come out of an easy place. Francis was facing enormous conflict, both within his own community of friars and within the church at large.
And so when Francis prays, “Make us instruments of your peace,” he speaks out of a context where there was not peace. When he says, “Where there is hatred” (because there was hatred ) he prays, “let us sow love.” When he prays, “Where there is discord (because there was discord ), let there be union.” When he prays, “Where there is doubt (because there was doubt), let there be faith.” When he prays, “where there is despair (because there was despair), let there be hope.” “Where there is darkness (because there was darkness), let there be light. “Where there is sadness (because there was sadness), let there be joy.” And the phrase on his lips, which I find most revealing and most meaningful: “Where there is injury, pardon.” For Saint Francis, and I would say for all of us, those with whom we have much in common, whom we know the most and love the best, are also those whom we can hurt the greatest. Saint Francis knew this and saw this, even in his own lifetime and among his own community: “where there is injury, pardon,” because he knew how easily it could be otherwise. The late Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, said that “the secret of the Christian is not that we are always in the right and put other people in the right, but that we are forgiven. That’s the secret. And so, the strength of the Church is not the strength of its clergy, nor the strength of the faithful. Rather, the strength of the Church is the strength of Christ who forgives us, humbles us, and can therefore do something with us.”
Francis was not a good person, not by his own reckoning. He saw himself a poor person, sorely in need of the grace of Christ mediated through those who could seem the least and the last and the lost, and who makes strength come out of weakness. [vii] In these days ahead we will need one another, we all will need one another to help us keep our own promises and to receive the promises Christ makes to us, to be with us always. Without these promises made in the presence of one another, and without Christ’s grace mediated through one another, things could be otherwise in these days ahead. We need one another. We belong to one another.
Our dear brother, Rob, in these recent weeks many of us have heard about the legacy of leadership that precedes you in this diocese, so much for which to be thankful. And now, for such a time as this, we need you to be a bishop in the church and for the people of the Diocese of Colorado. [viii] All these qualities of character that we already know of you – your collegial style of leadership, your giftedness in listening; your pastoral care, your ability to reconcile; your prophetic courage, your extroversion, the contemplative side of your prayer and the solitude you cherish, your mischievous humor, the hiking and cycling and ragtime piano-playing, the breadbaking. The devotion of your wife, Ginger, and your children, Colin, Alan, Kate, Anthony, and your other beloved family members and many friends. Let it shine, let it all shine. You will need all of it, and we will need all of it in our life together in the days ahead.
Just one last thing. Rob, I’ll recall some precious words you know well, Jesus’ reminding you of your focus in saying to you:
“Turn toward the sun.
Feel the breeze.
Be still and listen.
Stay with me.”
It’s a promise.
[i] Leviticus 13:1-59 records the Lord’s words to Moses and Aaron with exhaustive instructions regarding both the physical and spiritual health of the diseased individual and of the surrounding community.
[ii] Insight drawn from The Road to Assisi; The Essential Biography of Saint Francis, by Paul Sabatier 1884. Jon M. Sweeney, ed. (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2003), p. 17.
[iii] See Matthew 10:5-15 and Matthew 11:2-6, with parallels also in the Gospel according to Mark and Luke.
[iv] Matthew 11:25.
[v] The grace of compassion, a tender loving mercy, springs from the very heart of God. Compassion is about shared suffering and the conversion of judgment. For us to mirror God’s compassion is some of what it means to be created in the image of God. The grace of compassion was central to Jesus’ own formation and ministry, e.g., we read that “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in… synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:35-36).
[vi] In one of the earliest Franciscan documents, The Three Companions , Francis is remembered as saying: “Let us consider that God is his goodness has not called us merely for our own salvation, but also for that of many people, that we may go through all the world exhorting people, more by our example than by our words.”
[vii] Saint Francis, like Saint Paul, came to understand his weakness in the context of his own conversion to Christ, who said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:9-10).
[viii] The phrase, “for such a time as this,” comes from the Book of Esther (4:14) as she found her voice on behalf of the people she served.
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.