My sermon for St. Francis Day, 2012
Blessed Francis. I grew up and was baptized, confirmed, and ordained at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Palos Verdes, California, and so I love this Saint. Like here, we blessed animals every year, like here we had a statue of St. Francis gazing lovingly at a bird on his arm. We even, as a junior choir when I was about 12, performed the musical, “Francis, Little Man of God” and I played Brother Leo, one of his companions. Francis was the icon for me—and is for many of us—of the perfect human way to love creation, to embrace all creatures of our God and King, and brother sun and sister moon.
But there’s a lot more to Francis’ story that can speak to us today than just his love of creation—he spent a year as a prisoner of war, his life of deliberate poverty might really challenge us today in our love of things, his raising up of women in his movement under the leadership of his friend, Clare. But the aspect of Francis’ life that has been calling out to me most this week is his encounter with the Muslim world.
In his vocation as a monk, St. Francis felt this passion to go and convert Muslims. He tried twice in his life to get to Arab areas and preach, but shipwreck and illness turned him back both times. Finally in 1219, ten years after he first tried to make such a journey, Francis made it to Egypt in the midst of a Crusade, during a standoff in battle between the Christians and Muslims. Somehow, Francis talked his way behind enemy lines into an audience with the Sultan of Egypt, Malik al Kamil.
What actually happened between Francis and the Sultan is anybody’s guess. The stories range from a meeting where nothing happened and no one was affected, to Francis offering to walk through fire as proof of Jesus’ divinity. In some versions of the story, the Sultan changes how he treats his Christian prisoners—give them better treatment and more dignity because of his respect for Francis. Still others say that Francis and the Sultan had an intellectual dispute that lasted for days and became great friends, though they still did not share a faith. Still others have Francis as this sort of modern day peacemaker, trying through nonviolence to stop the crusades.
Regardless of what actually transpired—and the stories get more and more dramatic and serving the idea of Francis as saintly and orthodox Christian the later they originate, Francis spent several days as the Sultan’s honored guest, and they were both affected by their encounter—if not as greatly as either of them might have wanted. The crusade didn’t stop. Francis didn’t convert to Islam. The Sultan didn’t convert to Christianity. But Francis’ order was allowed to go to Jerusalem without paying tributes, which led to their presence—even today—as the order in charge of the Roman Catholic section of the Church of the Holy Sepulchure; Francis emphasized the need for all Christians to pray at the sound of church bells, in a nod to Islamic prayer practice of responding to the call of the muezzin. And He greeted everyone by saying “Peace be upon this house”—a similar greeting to the Salaam Aleikum of Islam.
We can define the opposing sides of our present day conflicts in a number of ways—but certainly religious differences are one of the several causes for the violence we see in the world today—most obviously in the recent violent protests in the Muslim world about the movie that was perceived to slander the Prophet, and in the subsequent bafflement in the West about why even a blasphemous movie could be perceived to be a valid cause for violence.
Which leaves us with asking: how does Jesus want us to live in an inter-faith world? The world in which Jesus lived was certainly no different from our own as far as having people of differing religious beliefs living on top of one another. Jews were never a majority population; neither were Christians until the 4th Century. Jesus expected us—it would seem—to live, work, and interact with people of different beliefs all the time. So are we supposed to be like the story of Francis where his aim in engaging people of different faiths is their conversion? Or are we supposed to learn and be changed by the experience ourselves?
What would Jesus do or say? In the Gospel today—the Gospel appointed to remember St. Francis, there is a strong emphasis upon the mystery of God’s self-revelation. God is revealed in Jesus, to those who are neither wise nor intelligent, but like infants, and God is STILL a mystery. We only know God insofar as we are like infants, insofar as we admit that we know nothing and can do nothing, and rely entirely upon God for our lives. Not until we are entirely humble, entirely giving up of ourselves, until we give up the burdens of the world and take on the burden of the yoke of following Christ can we begin to know God. Therefore, speaking about other people’s understanding of God is something we must do cautiously, particularly if it is a criticism.
Paul, in writing the letter to the Galatians—a Church with whom he was very very angry, writes strongly tonight against our pride in ourselves: don’t boast about anything except the cross, he says. In other words, don’t boast about your religion or yourself, boast about what Jesus did, who Jesus is.
If many forms and centuries of Islam, including the present, can be characterized by violence, so can many forms and centuries of Christianity, including the present. Jesus had a lot more to say about his own religion—Judaism—than he ever did about anyone else’s. For Jesus, religious criticism went inward, not outward. Self-reflection is the best antidote to violence—to ask ourselves why we are lashing out… and who the real object of our anger is… and if we are complicit in an upward spiral of conflict. Francis and the Sultan met during a crusade informed by religion and power and money and ethnic and tribal and historical conflict. How familiar that sounds. But they were able to talk during all that conflict.
We need to be like Francis and the Sultan—clear about our own faith; open to learning about the other; and open to fellowship across our divisions. Because a real hope of interfaith dialogue is not—necessarily—change in the other. It’s change in ourselves. It’s that in learning more about my neighbor’s faith, my own faith may be clearer; my own compassion may be deepened; my own heart and mind and soul stretched. Not by leaving my own faith behind and taking on the other faith—that’s just religion shopping—but because through greater knowledge, we can grow closer to God. And it’s taking a very long view—because our dialogue may not end this crusade; but it may lay groundwork to prevent the next one.
What happens when we read the famous Prayer of St. Francis with interfaith relations in mind? To remember that its author wrote it out of his experience that included those days with the Sultan. To me, it takes on different meanings, and becomes even more apropos for our situation today. Because in our world religions today there is hatred; there is injury; there is doubt, despair, darkness, and sadness. To seek to understand rather than be understood.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.