The Gospel According to Francis of Assisi
This is the day when we remember Saint Francis of Assisi or the as he was known in his day, “the Little Poor Man.” He was in fact fairly short. Francis was born in the town of Assisi in the year 1181. Assisi is a small hill-top town in Umbria, one of the poorest regions of Italy. Although this was a relatively poor part of Italy, there were a few very wealthy families in that town. Francis’ father, Peter Bernardone, was in fact a wealthy cloth merchant. He traveled often to France to obtain luxury fabrics from which his tailors produced fine suits for men and dresses for ladies. If you could afford the very best you went to Peter Bernardone in Assisi for your clothes.
Francis’ father was away on one of his buying trips to France when his son was born. Soon after he was born his mother carried him up to the church to be baptized. When the priest asked what the child’s name was, she replied, “John.” She loved that name. When her husband arrived back home the next week, he learned that his son has been born and that his name was John. “Not so!” his father declared. “The boy’s name will be Francis.”
Why Francis? His father was what today we would call a “Francophile.” He loved all things French — French food, French perfume, French songs. In fact. One of the things he loved about his business was that it involved frequent trips to France where he procured the fine fabrics that were used in the clothing he sold. As Francis grew older, he often accompanied his father on these trips and, like his father, he came to appreciate French cuisine and culture. He also came to speak fluent French.
In those days there were many traveling troubadours. They walked from town to town and when they came to Assisi, they were often invited to perform at the Bernardone home. Francis loved their songs and soon he had memorized several of them and was singing them for his family and friends. The songs were in French and many of them were about the heroic exploits of knights. Not knights of long ago but well known and much-admired knights of that day and age.
The more he learned about these knights the more Francis wanted to be one. And so, one day he announced to his father that he was going to begin preparation for knighthood. He would, of course, need a full suit of armor and several fine horses. For his horses, he would need the appropriate armor. And he would also need a squire — a man to assist him with his armor and to help him mount his house once he was fully suited in rumor. All of this would cost a king’s ransom but Francis had his heart set on it and his very indulgent father granted him his wish. You see, Francis was very enthusiastic about everything he did. He never did things half-way. That was his personality and it never changed.
When he was about 23 years old something happened to Francis that would, in fact, change him for the rest of his life. It seems it was not a single event but rather a series of things that were deeply disturbing to him. Perhaps it was a monk from a nearby monastery who engaged Francis in conversation about the life and teachings of Jesus. This monk would have been more educated than most. He could actually read Latin; the language of the Vulgate Bible and he could translate it into Italian. It would be nearly 500 years before the Bible would be translated into Italian. Francis had never heard the teachings of Jesus before. He learned that, according to Jesus, very rich people might find it almost impossible to enter the Kingdom of God. He laughed at the idea of a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle, but he got the point. He learned that Jesus’ ministry had been mainly to the very poor people of Galilee. The monk told him that once a very wealthy young man had asked Jesus what he should do to enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus told him that he should sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor and that he would have treasure in heaven. The saying of Jesus that stuck Francis more than any other was this one — “Give to everyone who begs from you and do not refuse.”
Not long after that conversation, Francis gave one of his famous parties. Most of his wealthy friends from Assisi and surrounding towns were there that night. There were much food and a seemingly endless supply of wine. And, as usual, Francis sang like one of those traveling troubadours. Late into the evening he stood up and called for silence. He had an announcement to make. To everyone’s astonishment, he told his friends that he would soon be getting married! And who is the lucky lady everyone wanted to know? But Francis wasn’t quite ready to tell them that evening. To celebrate, they left the house and went wandering through the streets of Assisi singing at full volume, their singing echoing off the walls. They probably woke up half the town.
The following day Francis told his parents that he had decided to marry and that the lady he was marrying was “Lady Poverty.” What was he talking about? His parents were very confused. Has he lost his mind? Lady Poverty! What’s this?
Later that day as Francis walked through the streets of Assisi, he saw a man with leprosy coming his way — a common sight in those days. Now Francis despised lepers and would go way out of his way to avoid coming near one. He hated the way they smelled for one thing and their oozing sores were disgusting! But on this occasion, Francis walked right up to this leper and greeted him. “Buongiorno!” As they spoke, Francis took off his jacket and insisted that the leper give him his ragged shirt in exchange. The leper was confused. But Francis insisted and so he slowly took off his shirt and put on the beautiful warm jacket. “Go in peace,” said Francis as he went on his way.
The next morning Francis encountered a group of five lepers. He greeted them and then told them to stay right there. “Sit here and wait. I’ll be right back.” He went straight to his family’s tailor shop and selected five beautiful new suites and ran back to the waiting lepers. “Here,” he said. “This is just what you need.” When he returned home his father was waiting for him. “Francis, what have you done with the five suits you took from the shop.? They are for some of my best customers who will be coming soon.” When Francis told him what he had done his father was furious.
And so, Francis soon realized that he would have to leave home. He told his parents that he loved them very much but that he would no longer share their wealth or their luxurious lifestyle. He wanted no inheritance. He was leaving it all behind. It wasn’t long before the people of Assisi began to refer to Francis as “Poverello,” which means the “little poor man.”
Our Lord said, “whoever does not follow me, is not worthy of me” and Francis took these words very literally and he took them very seriously. And here we are this morning, nearly eight hundred years later, still talking about Francis. Did he really understand the gospel correctly? I think he did.
It is clear that Francis’ understanding of the Gospel had nothing to do with escaping the fires of hell. It was not about the theology of atonement. Like marriage, embracing the gospel involved a life-long commitment. Francis lived into the gospel and by the way, he lived he proclaimed the gospel.
Given the wealth of his family, Francis might have become a major philanthropist. There was, for example, a leper colony just a few miles down the road from Assisi. He could have funded improved housing with comfortable beds and supplied wood for their stoves in winter. But, you see, that’s not what his vision was all about. The voice he heard was calling him to be poor — to embrace poverty as his way of life. He heard Jesus saying, “foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” And he also heard him say, “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Francis’ calling was not about helping poor people, It was about actually sharing the life of the poor.
Is the way that Jesus chose to live really an example for us to follow? Francis clearly thought that it was. The words, “follow me” occur repeatedly in the gospel narratives. I sometimes picture Jesus walking down a road and looking back over his shoulder he’s saying “follow me.” Francis took this call quite literally. He took it personally.
And so, I close with a prayer from our Prayer Book, a prayer that is perfect for the day on which we are remembering Francis, the Little Poor Man.
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those things that shall endure; through Jesus Christ ore Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen