Isaiah 52:7-10 Psalm 96:1-8 Galatians 6:14-18 Matthew 11:25-30
In the calendar of the Church, we remember today Saint Francis of Assisi, born in year 1181. In the Middle Ages, in Saint Francis’ day, the disease of leprosy, 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. 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. 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 legal codes of the Old Testament. Lepers were outcasts. No matter who the person had been – whether they were prominent, or wealthy, or 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 where the priest would recite to 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.”[i] 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.[ii] 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 was that people contracted a disease because they deserved it. 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.”[iii] And Francis, who was privileged and popular and vain was also a desperate young man, ravaged by a dis-ease called meaninglessness and hopelessness. The 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!”
If you consider yourself a follower of Jesus Christ, why is that? I suspect it’s 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 gateway 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 patī, 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.[iv] 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. He and his early followers came to spend a great deal of time in their sweet company. Many of you likely 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, giving hope to others more by their example and by their words.[v] The Franciscan motto was: “Preach always; use words when necessary.”
After the early days of enormous growth and unanimity between Francis and his followers, there was a breakdown. And it was for reasons that are very familiar. Various factions among his friars became convinced they were more “Franciscan” than Francis himself. Some thought Francis had become too rigorous; some thought he had become too laxed. Meanwhile the Church hierarchy was double-minded about Francis. The hierarchy was as smitten as it was suspicious of Francis. Was Francis building up the institution, or was he sabotaging it? What to make of Francis of Assisi? People were of mixed minds. We want to remember the Francis who showed such love and joy toward sea and sky, fish and fowl, young and old, the well and wounded alike. All that is true. However in his own lifetime Francis also faced enormous conflict and dissension, both within his own community of friars and within the Church at large.
The prayer attributed to Saint Francis that begins with, “Lord, make us instruments of your peace” was very autobiographical for Francis. The prayer, “Lord, make us instruments of your peace” came from a context where there was no peace. When Francis prays, “Where there is hatred” (because there was hatred among his own ranks) he prays, “let us sow love.” When he prays, “Where there is discord (because there was strident discord among those closest to him), 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 deep disillusionment), let there be hope.” “Where there is darkness (because there was absolute gloom), let there be light. “Where there is sadness (because there was such grief), let there be joy.” And the phrase which I find most revealing and most meaningful: “Where there is injury, pardon,” because there was so much injury happening among his own friars, various factions convinced only they had it right.
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. Francis prays, “where there is injury, pardon,” because he knew how easily it could be otherwise.
Francis of Assisi is a saint for today. He gave such a poignant example to how connected we all are to one another – with all our differences in culture, language, race, gender, sexual orientation, education, vocation, age, privilege, health – we are so much the same, we belong to one another, and we need one another. Francis also gave us such a poignant example of our being stewards of creation, to the life that surrounds us on earth and sky and sea, in birds and animals, flowers and trees. All living creatures, not just humans, have a claim on life. We belong to one another; we need one another. Saint Francis really shows us the way for today. But lest we romanticize Francis and presume that if we get it right and do it right, we will be understood, valued, and respected, that was not ultimately his experience. Yes, by some; not by others. Some days we can only live our lives from the inside out, holding fast to what we know to be true when we face opposition or misunderstand. During those times, those seasons of our life, we need to pray for the gifts of faith, hope, and love of God to inform us, that is, to form us inside out in the face of what may be misunderstanding or hostility coming at us from the outside in.
The great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr – the author of the “Serenity Prayer” – said “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.” Faith, hope, and love: living our lives from the inside out. We have a great witness to this in blessed Francis of Assisi, whom we remember today.[vi]
[i]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.
[ii]See Matthew 10:5-15 and Matthew 11:2-6, with parallels also in the Gospel according to Mark and Luke.
[iii] Matthew 11:25.
[iv]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).
[v]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.”
[vi]Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), also the author of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that you will make all things right,if I surrender to your will; so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.”
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