"It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." - Galatians 2:20
Once upon a time, a dandy named Francis heard the gospel. He gave away his own money, then stole his father's to help the poor. Dragged before the bishop for judgment, he stripped off his clothes and, naked as a jay, strode out of town, a newborn. He'd been baptized as an infant, but this was the moment it took.
He became poor himself, suffering with the ragged on the streets. He sang about Brother Sun and Sister Water, preached to birds, did therapy with killer wolves, and lured the cream of Assisi's youth into the evangelical madness of his mercy. To everyone's revulsion, including at first his own, he embraced lepers, kissing their sores. Townspeople pelted him with stones.
He hung out in a ruined chapel, the Portiuncula. One day its crucifix spoke to him: 'Repair my church." Stone by stone, he rebuilt the chapel. Some say Jesus meant him to reform The Church, but Francis was literal-minded, inclined to the concrete, doable things in front of his nose.
Hungry for honor, he'd once gone to war. He returned traumatized, a haunted peacemaker. Which is why he's the patron saint of stowaways, having hidden on a boat headed to Egypt where he crossed enemy lines, found the Sultan, commended the gospel to him, and tried to end the fifth crusade. It didn't work, but the Sultan thought he was a rare lovely Christian and made sure he got home safely.
Francis loved everybody, even the luxurious Pope down in the holy cesspool of Rome (who'd surprised everyone by approving the Franciscan Rule). But most of all, Francis loved Jesus, following him with unhinged joy down to the last detail of Christ's freedom and agony. One night, legend says, seraphim lasered the wounds of Jesus onto his scrawny flesh.
Before Francis died, naked on the ground outside the Portiuncula—dust to dust—he told his brothers, "I have done my part. Christ teach you to do yours." He also said, "We have only begun to live the gospel." We, even dying Francis, have only begun.
Now he's in Paradise with Jesus. It's said that in the morning mist, angels can't tell them apart. His heaven teems with talking birds, repentant wolves, laughing water. The Pope's there too, singing duets with the Sultan. And lepers, thousands of lepers, roses blooming on their skin where Francis kissed them.
Most merciful God, on this day when we remember your servant, Francis, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world, so that by following his example, we may delight in every creature with perfect joy. Amen.
J. Mary Luti is Visiting Professor of Worship and Preaching at Andover Newton Theological School.