Tonight at Bethany we will share in an evening Jazz Vesper service. The theme of the service will be the simplicity of St. Francis. Some context follows.
Francis of Assisi was born in 1182, enjoying a very rich and easy life due to his father's wealth. Francis was constantly happy, charming, and a born leader. As he grew up, Francis became the leader of a crowd of young people who spent their nights in wild parties. Later Francis would join the military, he dreamed of being a decorated knight and war hero. Alas Francis was taken prisoner and held for ransom because of his wealthy father. He was chained in a harsh, dark dungeon. After his release Francis returned to partying with as much joy and abandon as he had before the battle. Francis volunteered again to participate in a military battle but Francis never got farther than one day's ride from Assisi.
There he had a dream in which God told him he had it all wrong and told him to return home. And return home he did. Francis started to spend more time in prayer. He went off to a cave and wept for his mistakes. But life couldn't just stop for God. There was a business to run, customers to wait on. One day while riding through the countryside, Francis, the man who loved beauty, who hated deformity, came face to face with a leper. Repelled by the appearance and the smell of the leper, Francis nevertheless jumped down from his horse and kissed the hand of the leper. When his kiss of peace was returned, Francis was filled with joy.
In his search for God Francis heard Christ say, "Francis, repair my church." Francis assumed this meant church with a small c -- the crumbling building he was in. Francis took fabric from his father's shop and sold it to get money to repair the church. His father saw this as an act of theft and dragged Francis before the bishop and in front of the whole town demanded that Francis return the money and renounce all rights as his heir. Francis not only gave back the money but stripped off all his clothes -- the clothes his father had given him -- until he was wearing only a hair shirt. Wearing nothing but castoff rags, he went off into the freezing woods -- singing.
Soon Francis started to preach. With companions, Francis knew he now had to have some kind of direction to this life so he opened the Bible in three places. He read the command to the rich young man to sell all his goods and give to the poor, the order to the disciples to take nothing on their journey, and the demand to take up the cross daily. Francis' family included all of God's Creation. In one famous story, Francis preached to hundreds of birds about being thankful to God for their wonderful clothes, for their independence, and for God's care. The story tells us the birds stood still as he walked among him, only flying off when he said they could leave.
There is something powerful about hearing this story at a time of such complexity, materialism and alarming climate change. The notion that a man of means would not only renounce wealth but also find joy in poverty and simplicity, replacing acquisition with holding to the moment with thanksgiving, was shocking then and would be even more shocking today. Imagine a movement like Francis’ today, the power of that movement to change people everywhere. To change people today one must be a representative of that change, and if churches are going to preach the Gospel they must be prepared to live that Gospel. Francis famously said, “Preach Jesus, and if necessary use words.” See you tonight.