St. Francis Day
October 6, 2019
Rev. Isaac Bradshaw
Jeremiah 22:13–16, Psalm 148:7-14, Galatians 6:14–18, Matthew 11:25–30
Collect – Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I love a good docudrama. You know, the kind of movie or TV show that tries to explain a historical event or biography through drama, with actors, rather than using actual footage or taking liberties with the story…
Movies like The Queen, in which Helen Mirren plays Queen Elizabeth II in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death. Or maybe it’s a biopic, like Walk the Line, about life of Johnny Cash. Or maybe you, like me, were equally terrified and captivated this summer by HBO’s Chernobyl which is about… Well, Chernobyl.
What I like about them is the way in which everything happens the same way. As I like to say… same circus, different clowns. There’s the spectacular rise and spectacular fall, a redemption, a spectacular re-rise. Heroes win and villains get their comeuppance.
There is another mandatory scene. My favorite movie critic, Mark Kermode, calls these “chubby… Hmm..” moments. Good manners and good raising prevents me from fully explaining where the term comes from, but it refers to the scene in every docudrama or biopic where the subject does the thing they’re famous for. So it’s Helen Mirren putting on the crown, or Joaquin Phoenix strumming a guitar as Johnny Cash, going “I hear the… Car? Airplane… Train! That’s It… I hear the train a-coming…” Or when Chernobyl goes… well, Chernobyl.
So what’s the “chubby… hmm” moment for St Francis. What do you know about Francis?
For most of us, it’s the imagery of the slightly hippy-esque Francis… The one from Franco Zefferelli’s “Brother Sun Sister Moon” movie of 1972, communing with nature. Or maybe it’s the little concrete statues of Francis that populate bird baths across the world, with a kind of Disney-princess look with the birds of the forest alighting in his hand and woodland creatures climbing the hem of his monastic habit.
All of these images are true, it’s true that Francis travelled freely and as a beggar, spending time in the rough and tumble of the world, the poor and the beggars, and certainly a theology of nature that comes from Francis is strong… That is, after all, why the words and prayers of our liturgy today that emphasize nature’s relationship to God. But if that’s the end of the story, if that’s all we take away from Francis’ life then we have neutered what God would have us learn and what God would have us do in response to Francis’ life.
In the 1950s, there was a group of artists and intellectuals in France who looked at society around them and believed that the mass media market had created something they termed “the spectacle.” They were Marxists, anti-authoritarian and so they believed that the spectacle served to keep in place a system that kept humans from flourishing. Any threat to that system, and the spectacle can and would react to contain the threat. They referred to this action as “recouping.” And the spectacle, they said, had an infinite capacity to recoup, endless ways to turn a threat into something to be packaged and sold to waiting consumers..
I believe we can see this process unfolding right this very second. This week, mass and social media have spread the video of Brandt Jean, forgiving and hugging the convicted murderer of his brother, Botham. Botham had been simply sitting on his couch, eating ice cream, when an off-duty police officer walked into his apartment and shot him. According to her, she believed she was in her own apartment and that Botham was a burglar. The jury did not believe her, and she was convicted in 6 hours, and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. Maybe you’ve seen the video.
There’s no doubt it’s powerful, there’s no doubt that forgiveness of those who sin against us is central to the spiritual health of Christians. Just as we are forgiven by God for our sins, we have a duty to forgive. But… Is that what our media, secular and Christian alike, is showing us?
What I have not seen reported, or circulating on social media, is that Brandt tells his brother’s killer to repent. To accept Jesus Christ as her savior. Then, he forgives her. This may seem minor, but the excision of Brandt’s call to repent turns this Gospel, this good news that even a murderer, a killer of a 26-year-old, the good news that a Christian can live free of bitterness and anger and hatred towards the person who took his loved one’s life… Into cheap grace, a grace that cannot and will not save. A hug will simply not cut it. It may sell papers, it get clicks, it may feel good, but it will not cut it as an expression of the Gospel.
And that, I think is the point. No need to repent, no need to recognize wrong-doing, simply receiving a hug, simply feeling good, is all that is necessary to be saved. That’s the message of the spectacle. You can buy anything you want, just don’t buy into that Christ stuff. “Aslan is not a tame lion,” wrote CS Lewis; take this tame, cuddly toy lion instead, screams the Spectacle.
St. Francis’ story is much more than bird baths and communing with God in nature. He was the son of a wealthy fabric and clothing merchant, who was intended to inherit that wealth and power. In 1205, at San Damiano in northern Italy, while praying in a ruined church, he received a vision of Christ, who implored, “Francis, Francis… Rebuild my church.” He sold a collection of his father’s fabrics and gave the money to the priest of the place. When his father attempted to seize repayment from Francis, Francis renounced his worldly wealth, stripped naked, received a cloak and pilgrim’s tunic and departed his old life, committing himself to the evangelical vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. He later founded the Franciscan Order, dedicated to the preaching of the Gospel to the ends of the earth, including the camp of the Sultan of Egypt during the 5th Crusade. He died, weeks after receiving the stigmata, a physical manifestation of the wounds of Christ, at the age of just 42.
No birds in the forest. No communing with nature. Just the mere rejection of everything the world holds dear. Jesus in the Gospel implores his listeners: “Come to me, all who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
It seems incomprehensible to us today, to understand that what Francis did was to exchange the burden of a life of wealth an easy living with a life of poverty and obedience. Christ calls us to nothing different than that. We, today, can make that same exchange. The burden of the spectacle, or the easy and light yoke of the Gospel.
Earlier, I mentioned the docudrama Chernobyl, and suggested that the “chubby… hmm?” moment was the explosion. But I’m not sure now. I think it’s at the end, when the lead scientist, Legasov, stands before a kangaroo court and, having told and participated in lie and after lie to protect the Soviet state, the system that created the disaster at Chernobyl… Finally tells the truth. What is the cost of lies? he asks. And the spectacle, represented by KGB officer who tries to threaten him… Not with violence, implied by the iron grate set into the floor. No, the KGB officer threatens Legasov with more truth… “You’re one of us, Legasov.” he says, as he leans close into the scientist’s face, recounting all the ways Legasov lied and aided the Soviet spectacle. Legasov’s punishment: obscurity. His identity is stripped from him. The spectacle tries to tell us that rejecting it’s tame lion in exchange for the real lion of Christ is dire, we’ll be different, our identity as consumers stripped from us, so take this Consumerist Jesus instead. If we feel bad, all we need is a hug. All we need is to go into the woods and have birds land on us… You know, like hippy Francis. A recoup-ed Francis. A re-couped Christ. You’re one of us, Isaac.
We can, like Legasov, have our own “chubby hmm” moment. We can ask, “What is the cost of lies?” instead of “What is the cost of truth?” We can lay down our burdens of believing and speaking lies, that all it takes is a hug, all it takes is a bit of time in the woods and exchange it for the Gospel, the good news, that the burden of following Christ is taken on by Christ himself, that the yoke he gives us is easy and light, full of real life, not mediated through the mass media of the spectacle. Because, you see, the situationists were wrong. The spectacle doesn’t have an infinite capacity to recoup, because there is one person that will cause its collapse and free us from the sinful system we have erected around us: Jesus Christ.
That’s the Gospel. That’s the good news that Francis lived. Jesus is a threat. Francis is a threat. The truth is a threat. You can be a threat. And you will be challenged, and, if possible, recouped back into serving the spectacle. Even Chernobyl, one of the most dangerous places on earth, has recoup-ed… For a low, low price, you too can visit the site of the worst ecological disaster in the history of humanity. IT’s a tourist site.
The one neighbor of Botham Jean who was willing to testify against a police officer… He’s dead. Murdered yesterday evening. It’s dark and easy to despair. But that abyss will be your fate if you go half-heartedly.
God calls us, just like Francis, to not simply rebuild His church but to rebuild his people through the simple declaration of the truth of the Gospel. We can ask ourselves what is the cost of truth, or we can ask ourselves what is the cost of lies? Francis chose truth, and he chose life. He chose the freedom to serve and love others as Christ served and loved him. Take Jesus’ yoke upon you. For you will find rest for your souls.