The Rev. Frank
Let Us Begin
In either the year 1181 or 1182, Pietro di Bernadone, a wealthy textile merchant in the Italian town of Umbria, and his French wife, Pica, had a son they named Francesco. Francesco was part of the new Italian middle class that was coming into its own. His father’s wealth and his natural charisma, made Francesco a leader of the youth of his town. Francesco dreamed of earning glory in battle. He got his chance at an early age when he enlisted, along with the other young men of Assisi to fight in a feud against Perugia. Francesco’s side lost the battle and he was imprisoned for a time. Defeat in battle and illness in prison caused Francesco to turn away from his visions of glory on the battlefield.
Francesco’s path toward God took a series of turns closer and closer to God, rather than an all at once conversion. However, the course of Francesco’s life was profoundly changed by at least two formative experiences. On a pilgrimage to Rome, Francesco saw a beggar outside of St. Peter’s Church. The Holy Spirit moved Francesco to trade places with the beggar. Francesco exchanged clothes with a beggar and then spent the day begging for alms. That experience of being poor shook Francesco to the core. Later he confronted his own fears of leprosy by hugging a leper. Like trading places with the beggar in Rome, hugging a leper left a deep mark on Francesco.
But contrary to the way his story is often presented, the man we now remember as Saint Francis did not change overnight. For years Francis struggled over how to live out the Gospel. Shaped by his experiences with the beggar and the leper, he had a strong identification with the poor. Francis cut himself off from the opulent lifestyle of the Italian Middle Class and sought out a more radically simple life. Francis and his followers tried to actually follow Jesus’ teaching with all that meant.
Francis held out extremely high ideals for himself. He sought to really and truly humble himself and to be as Christlike as possible. One example is a writing on true joy he dictated to a fellow monk. Francis said,
What true joy is:
A messenger comes and says that all the masters in Paris have come into the Order; this is not true joy. Or that all the prelates beyond the mountains and the king of England [have entered the Order]; this is not true joy. Again, that my brothers have gone to all the unbelievers and converted all of them to the faith; again, that I have so much grace from God that I heal the sick and perform many miracles: I tell you that joy does not consist in any of these things.
What then is true joy?
I return to Perugia and arrive there in the dead of night; and it is winter time, muddy and so cold that icicles have formed on the edges of my habit and keep striking my legs, and blood flows from such wounds. And all covered with mud and cold, I come to the gate and after I have knocked and called for some time, a brother comes and asks, “Who are you?” I answer, “Brother Francis.” And he says go away; this is not the proper hour for going about; you may not come in.” And when I insist, he answers, “Go away, you are a simple and stupid person; we are so many and we have no need of you. You are certainly not coming to us at this hour!” And I stand again at the door and say: “For the love of God, take me in tonight.” And he answers, “I will not. Go to the Crossiers’ place and ask there.” I tell you this: If I had the patience and did not become upset, there would be true joy in this and true virtue and the salvation of the soul.”
Francis wanted to conform his life to God’s will in such at way that even cruelty of a fellow brother of the religious order he founded could not wreck his joy.
By the time of his death, Francis had accomplished much. Francis Order of Friars Minor was endorsed by the Pope and a similar order was established for women. He could look on thousands of lives transformed by his call for repentance and simplicity of life. Franics own example of a Christlike life transformed the Italy of his youth within his own lifetime, yet from his deathbed, Francis said to those of his Order of monks, “Let us begin, brothers, to serve the Lord our God for up to now we have made little or no progress.”
I don’t believe that Francis was overly critical. He was just a man transformed by the love of God and the joy that flowed from a deep understanding of all that God has done for us. In relation to that, all he accomplished in his lifetime was nothing.
I bring up the story of Saint Francis on this First Sunday of Advent for today is a day for beginning again. In late November of 2000, I sent out word to the few folks involved with King of Peace that we would attempt a few services for the Sundays of Advent. What I meant was that King of Peace had never held regular worship services and I was not sure we had all the pieces in place. I cautioned folks not to invite others, just come and let’s worship. So, unofficially, we began worship on the First Sunday of Advent in 2000 in that back corner of this room.
That Sunday we had the same readings as we do today. In the meantime, in three years of Sunday services, we have read through the entire lectionary. Though none of us, me included, have made every service in this building since that Sunday, we have read our way through the Bible once, while praying our way through the church year three times.
It is very appropriate that on this first Sunday of a new cycle of three years, we have a reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. This is the most ancient Christian document of which we know. Written between January and August of the year 51, this letter from Paul to the Christians in Thessalonica gives us our earliest glimpse at Christianity. Today we read the first words of that earliest Christian writing. Paul writes, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” I know the feeling.
He went on to write, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”
Paul’s prayer for a church that had come a long way was that the people who made up that church would abound in love for one another and that they would have their hearts strengthened in holiness by God.
Even though they had made much progress, there was room for improvement. The same is true for us. Each of us, no matter where we are on our own spiritual journey, has room to grow. If you don’t think you have much room to grow in your knowledge and love of God, that is the surest sign that you do have progress to be made. Francis understood this. That’s why he could look back and say that they had made little progress by the ends of his days. But, rather than being filled with despair by this, I can imagine the Francis who could write so eloquently about joy, could feel joy at the challenge of room for growth.
King of Peace has seen a lot of growth in the three years since we first started the lectionary cycle of readings. We have grown from 30 that first Sunday to have had as many as 107 in worship. We have grown in awareness in our community as King of Peace has become well known, especially considering the size and age of us as a church. A 7,900-sq. ft. building has taken shape out back and will soon be home to us, the church. We have seen lives transformed by the power of the Gospel we preach and the sacraments we celebrate. We have rejoiced together over births, in more than 20 baptisms at weddings and numerous meals. We have mourned together in the wake of the tragedy of 9-11 and more personal tragedies of deaths within our families.
Yet, with all the things God has done and is doing in our midst, it is not the time to get a big head or to rest on our laurels. Compared to all that God has done for us. Compared to all God has in store for us, we have but just begun.
There is so much more room to increase and abound in love for one another. There is vast room for change as God strengthens our hearts through our common worship and in our daily lives. Now is not the time to feel that we have arrived. Now is the time to feel that we have so far to go, and to see the joy in that realization.
Let us begin, sisters and brothers, to serve the Lord our God for up to now we have made little or no progress.
 This quotation is taken from Francis and Clare: The Complete Works in The Classics of Western Spirituality series by Paulist Press in New York.
King of Peace Episcopal Church + P.O. Box 2526 + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526