Imagine, if you will, a castaway that wakes up on an island beach one day without any idea of how he came to on the island or where he came from. I’ve taken this parable, just so you know, from the writer Walker Percy. Fortunately, our castaway finds that there is a city on this island, and he is able to go to college, get a job, get married and have children, and even to join a bowling league. He becomes, in other words, a productive member of society. One day he’s walking along the beach and he notices a bottle on the shore which happens to have a message in it. The message reads “Lead melts at 200 degrees Celsius.” He knows well enough that this statement is false. While he stands puzzling over who would send such a message in a bottle, he notices another bottle further down the shore. This one has a message in it that reads “The Atman is the Brahman.” Which is, you know, a Hindu doctrine. As he walks the beaches he realizes that there are hundreds of these messages washed up on the island with more coming all the time. Then he finds one message that intrigues him more than all the others. It is a message describing how to get off the island. This, you see, is just the message he has been waiting for. But no one on the island will listen to him. They know of these messages, and they quite rightly point how that many of the messages are false and contradictory. Why trust this message? Besides, isn’t island life good enough for him?
This message about getting off the island can only have meaning to a castaway. He can’t know where the message came from. He can’t know if it is true. He can only believe it because he knows the island is not where he really belongs. No matter how good island life gets, he knows he is not truly at home in island life. Those who are content with island life, on the other hand, will never really understand the importance of this message. St. Francis, I think, was such a castaway.
Today is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th century friar from Italy who was famous for his preaching, his loving concern for the poor, the founding the Franciscan orders, for being the first to be given the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, and for coming up with the idea of the nativity crèche. He also wrote the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King” which is part of our service today. We sang this same hymn at the consecration of Bishop Gates, which was the last service led by Bishop Shaw as our bishop. We sang the verse “And thou most kind and gentle death/ Waiting to hush our latest breath, O praise Him! Alleluia! Thou bringest home the child of God/ And Christ himself the way has trod” At this moment every eye in the place went to Bishop Shaw, whom we all knew was dying of cancer and would be gone in a matter of weeks. Bishop Shaw at that moment for me was a living embodiment of our hope as Christians. He made the resurrection a concrete reality for me in that moment. The gospel of Christ took a moment that should have been painful and frightening into something very different.
Which gets, I think, to the base of why we celebrate saints in the Church. Some people show us that this Christianity business actually works. They show us that Christianity is a realistic life and not a just set of empty platitudes and abstract doctrines. We can see in these saints how the Gospel can transform our lives into something new. St. Francis’ life has several of these Gospel moments, but in this sermon I would like to raise up one moment in particular. Francis was born to a wealthy, Italian cloth merchant and a French noblewoman, and as a young person he was more than happy to enjoy his life of wealth and privilege. He liked to wear nice clothes, he liked to party with his friends. He even joined the military and acted the part of the gallant military officer. He had the good life. He had the best of island life, so to speak. But he was always far too generous for his own good, and would give away everything in his pockets to beggars he met. When his generosity began to eat into the bottom line of the family business, his father bullied to be more sensible with his money, quite reasonably fearful that his son was giving himself into penury. Finally, when Francis started throwing away his money to fund the rebuilding of a chapel near Assisi, his father had enough and he dragged him before the bishop of Assisi to demand restitution from the Church for taking his foolish son’s money. And in that moment, Francis realized that he had a choice between this world and the Kingdom of God. He couldn’t keep both, and he had to make this decisive decision in a very real way. So he stood up before the gathered crowd and renounced any claim to his inheritance from his father. He stripped off the clothes that his father’s money had purchased and piled them neatly in front of his father. He turned his back on his father and as he approached the bishop, the bishop opened his cloak and surrounded Francis with it. . In the words of our reading today, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Francis dropped the burden of his father’s life, and fled to the promise of the open arms of Jesus. “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
And this is exactly what the Gospel calls all of us to do—to flee the ways of this world and to seek our rest in the arms of Jesus. St. Francis realized he was a castaway. He had the best parts of island life. He had wealth and respectability. He had friends and family. He served his nation honorably in military service. He even had the Church when he was feeling “spiritual.” Perhaps he should have been satisfied with that, but then he received his message in a bottle, the Gospel of Christ and he knew the island life of his father wasn’t going to be enough.
We remember this moment because we find in the same Gospel a message of where we’re from and where we’re going. We can’t be sure that this message in a bottle is true, it is after all one message among many that say many different things about these matters. It is only because we, by the grace of God, realize that we are also castaways. Grace isn’t always this sense of serenity and comfort that some hymns make it sound. Sometimes grace is a sense of homelessness in this world.
Which isn’t to say, on the other hand, that this world is all bad. Island really can be good, even if it isn’t all there is to the story. We see in this hymn Francis wrote, all creatures of our God and king, a deep love and awe for this world. Even as we wait for our true home with God, for our ship to come in, island life is transformed by grace into the loving gift of God. Francis wrote this hymn about “Sister death” when he was dying his own particularly agonizing death. Even death for him was transformed by the Gospel into something that points the way to our true home in God. This is Francis’ meaning for us—to let all our lives and all our world be transformed into the loving gifts of God. In the Gospel, our world becomes the creation of God. In the Gospel all the people around us become our neighbors. In the Gospel the bread and wine of the Eucharist are transformed into the presence of God for us. In the Gospel, sinners like us can be transformed into saints. Amen.