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Christian Perspective, Meditations

John of Assisi and John of Epworth

Sermon preached by the Reverend Doctor Fred Kellogg at the Emory United Methodist Church, Virginia, March 2018.

Our scripture lesson comes from the closing verses of Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus’ Resurrection.  It is often called the Great Commission.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.  And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

About a thousand years ago, in 1182, a boy was born in the little town of Assisi, Italy.  He was given the name Giovanni, which is Italian for “John.”  So let’s call him John of Assisi.  He had a great impact on the history of Christianity.  If John had grown up in the 18th century, I think he would have been very comfortable as a Methodist preacher.  His mother was very important to him. Then 500 years later, in 1703, a boy was born in the little town of Epworth, England.  He had a great impact on the history of Christianity.  So we could call him John of Epworth.  If John had grown up in the 1200’s, I think he would have been very comfortable as a Franciscan monk  His father was an Anglican priest named Samuel Wesley.  His mother, Susanna Wesley, was very important to her son.  We can call him John Wesley.

John of Assisi’s father was a wealthy businessman named Pietro, like my great-uncle.  Pietro’s dry-goods store had a reputation for quality cloth, and the nobility as well as the church leaders thought very highly of the merchant.  Pietro’s wife was originally from France, and that’s how the little baby got a new name.  He had a strong mother who was French.  The boy’s name was changed to Francesco, Francis in English, meaning “Frenchy,” in honor of his French mother Pica, who was close to her son.

We have other examples of name changes. Think:  what was the original name of the most famous Baptist preacher in America during the last hundred years?   No, not William Graham or Martin Luther King.  When a baby boy was born to a Baptist preacher, he named the boy after himself:  Michael Luther King Jr.!  When the boy was 5 years old, his father changed both their names to Martin Luther King, in order to honor Protestant Reformer Martin Luther.  So we can call John of Assisi Francis of Assisi, and I’d like to show you how his life parallels the life of John of Epworth, whom we’ll call John Wesley.  Francis and John were close to their mothers, and John’s mother trained her children in Bible studies.

Assisi, Italy was a little town like Epworth, England.  It was about as far north of Rome as Epworth was north of London.  Assisi was a crowded little town, perched on steep mountains, with narrow alleys and high-walled houses.  My wife and I spent several days in Assisi for our 40th anniversary, so we got a feeling for the town.  Francis was sent to school to get a classical education, just as John Wesley went to Oxford for classical studies. But unlike John Wesley, Francis didn’t like school very much.  He was a wild teenager — he and other bored young people cruised the streets, threw loud parties, played their stereo with the bass turned full volume, and woke up the older people who went to bed with the chickens.  He worked in his father’s store a lot, but somehow he never became interested in money.

In fact, the longer Francis kept hauling in money for his father, the more he wondered why all this money wasn’t being used to help the poor.  He kept giving money to poor people.  He was a kind of  idealist:  the beggars would arouse in him questions about the meaning of life, and he would daydream about what the world should be, rather than being under the control of the wealthy and powerful.  His family was part of the 1%, not the 99%.

Similarly, John Wesley said:  “Money never stays with me.  It would burn me if it did.  I throw it out of my hands as soon as possible, lest it should find its way into my heart.”  And on another occasion, he said:  “I have heard to-day that I do not know the value of money.  What!  Don’t I know that twelve pence make a shilling, and twenty-one shillings a guinea?  Don’t I know that if given to God, it’s worth heaven, through Christ?  During his life, John Wesley gave away money in our currency more than $200,000.

During Francis’ lifetime, Italy was being torn apart by civil wars,.  Francis fought as a knight for his home town of Assisi.  He was captured and thrown into prison for a year.  The dampness, hunger, and lack of freedom were very hard on his health.  But these conditions moved him toward being more contemplative, meditating for hours at a time.  Francis’ negative experience was somewhat like John Wesley’s time in Georgia, where English prisoners were sent to establish a new British colony in the 1700’s.  He didn’t have an easy time in this rugged frontier area, but it moved him toward a deeper spiritual life.  After he broke up with his girl friend, John went back to England.  There he devoted himself to prayer and Bible study.  Once he was at an Anglican prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London, when he felt his “heart strangely warmed.”  That was a life-changing experience.

Francis began going off to secret places to meditate.  His father thought he had flipped his lid, his friends abandoned him, and the aristocrats began closing their doors in his face.  Similarly, John Wesley found church doors closing in his face, when he allowed unordained preachers to conduct outdoor services for coal miners.  What especially bothered the upper class of Assisi was that Francis was associating with beggars and other poor people and sharing his father’s money with them.  John Wesley visited prisoners and brought them food and clothes.

Not far from Assisi was a small ruined chapel.  It was practically abandoned, with only an old priest who would say Mass once in a while and sleep the rest of the time.  Francis liked to go there to sit and meditate, especially since it was open day and night.  One day while Francis was kneeling in this little chapel, looking up at the crucifix, he felt that a voice came from the cross, which said:  “Francis, go and rebuild my house which is threatening to collapse!”

Francis assumed that the message was about the little chapel, which was about to fall down.  So he decided to take his share of the family business and sell it, in order to repair the church.  In a few hours, he loaded his horse down with bales of wool and silk, sold them to his father’s customers, sold his own rich clothes and his horse, and brought the bag of money to the priest of the chapel.  Then he moved in and spent a month working on the chapel.  Francis was 25 years old, about the same age as John Wesley when he helped to form the Holy Club, a prayer group of students at Oxford   That little group was also called by some students Bible Moths, because they devoured the Bible, and other students called them Methodists, because they were so methodical.   If things had turned out differently, this church could be the Bible Moth Church, and the children would be called Caterpillars!

Francis cleaned the walls of the little chapel, fixed the benches, cut the weeds, and spent a lot of time in prayer and meditation.  But he was also worrying about what his folks would think, since he had taken what he judged to be his share of the family property without asking.  He knew the answer would be No!  And he left without telling his folks where was going.  Remember, Italian families were very close-knit.  When a month was up, he came back home.  His father locked him in the basement.  Pietro hoped that a few days in solitary would make him come to his senses.  Francis spent his time singing, and never apologized.  When Pietro had to leave town on a business trip, Francis’ mother quickly let her son out, giving him food and money.  Where did he go?  Right back to the little chapel that he had fixed up.  When his father got back home, he had a legal request drawn up to disinherit his son and to banish him from the household.  A summons to appear before the city tribunal, supported by the church hierarchy, brought Francis to the town piazza.  People all crowded in to hear the goings-on.

The bishop invited Pietro to explain his case, and he gave a lengthy description of how Francis had squandered the family fortune on homeless and poor people, against parental authority.  Francis’ defense was very simple:  “Lord Bishop, very gladly will I give back to my father what belongs to him; and not only the money, but also my clothes!  The only father have is my Father in heaven.”  That’s why we don’t call him by his full name, Francesco Bernardone, but by the town where he lived.  He then proceeded to strip himself stark naked, and threw down his wallet and clothes in front of his father.   The bishop quickly found a servant’s cloak to put around Francis, and the young man walked out of town free as a lark.  He went to the home of an old friend, who gave him clothes which were to become distinctive for Francis and his later followers:  a brown robe, a rope tied around it, a hood, and a pair of sandals.

As you might guess, though, it was soon back to his unfinished task of rebuilding the chapel.  He needed stones, bricks, and mortar, so he began going around begging for those.  He mixed the mortar himself, re-plastered the whole church, and chinked in the cracks and holes.  For food he went around with a beggar’s bowl from door to door.  The people of Assisi surprisingly gave him food.

When Francis finished that little chapel, he worked on other churches.  One day the priest was reading the gospel lesson during Mass, and Francis’ Latin was good enough for the words suddenly to have a real impact on him.  He felt that they were directed straight at him, and gave him his life’s mission:

“Go and preach, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is near!’  Heal the sick, bring the dead back to life, heal the lepers, and drive out demons.  You have received without paying, so give without being paid.  Do not carry any gold, silver, or copper money in your pockets; do not carry a beggar’s bag for the trip or an extra shirt or shoes or a walking stick.  Workers should be given what they need.”

This was like John Wesley’s warm-heart experience.  It gave Francis a clear definition of what he had been looking for all along:  a commission to PREACH THE GOOD NEWS, to PRACTICE COMPLETE POVERTY, and to WORK TOWARD PEACE.  So he started going around preaching, wherever anyone would listen.  His hearers were deeply moved, and some of them made the decision to follow him.   As their numbers increased, they needed structure and organization.

Francis knew that he couldn’t just wander around preaching, without any ecclesiastical sanction.  So with eleven followers, he set out for the Eternal City to receive the permission of the Pope to found a new Order.  Pope Innocent III was still young — and of course innocent!  He was a little worried about this group, which appeared to be somewhat fanatical.  People trying to follow complete poverty might be starting a cult which wouldn’t fit into the church universal.

Remember that John Wesley also didn’t want to break away from his denomination, the Church of England.  He didn’t allow his chapels to be called churches at first, because he hoped to eventually reunite with the Anglicans.  If John had had his way, we would be Episcopalians today!

Pope Innocent III was one of the most powerful popes of the Middle Ages.  He told Francis he would have to pray about the matter, and Francis should come back the next day.  During the night the pope dreamed that the Basilica in Rome was falling apart, big cracks were appearing, and he didn’t know what to do as the church came down on him.  Then along came a little man dressed in sackcloth and a rope.  He put his shoulder to the building like Superman, and held it up.  When the pope woke up the next morning, he called Francis in and approved the Order.

Francis asked that it be given the name ORDER OF FRIARS MINOR, to indicate that its members are “little brothers,” minor figures, rather than trying to carve out for themselves a lofty place.  The nickname for the Order is Franciscans, just as Methodists are sometimes called Wesleyans.  Francis set one important requirement for the Order:  each morning, the monks had to chant [chant!] “Good morning,” to start the day off right.  One monk became tired of this ritual, so one morning he chanted, [chant!] “Good evening.”  The abbot said, [singsong chant!] “Someone chanted evening.”

Francis’ Order kept on growing, and he was known as the “Little Poor Man.”  Now you see why the current leader of the Catholic Church chose the name “Pope Francis” when he became the Pope, because he too identifies with the poor.

Like Brother Wesley, Brother Francis never really learned how to relate well to women.  Probably John Wesley would have done better to have taken a vow of celibacy, like Francis!  But neither religious leader disliked women.  In fact, Francis was very close to a well-to-do woman named Clare, who wanted to devote herself to a life of poverty and service.  Clare sneaked out of her parents’ mansion and met with the Franciscans in the middle of the night.  Francis took a pair of scissors and cut off all her hair; she put on a rough cloth habit with a rope around the waist.  Her sister and some other young women eventually joined her, and the bishop gave them the little chapel.  Francis helped them to make it into a community, the Second Order of Franciscans, known as the “Poor Clares.”  The Order still emphasizes poverty and service, especially caring for sick people.

One of the most famous legends about Francis is that he was walking through the countryside, together with one of his friars, and they came to an area where birds of all kinds of colors and sizes were.  They stood there for a time admiring them, and then Francis began to preach.  The birds all gathered around him, while he preached to them as to brothers and sisters.  He told the birds to thank God for the valleys and mountains and springs and food, and for the beautiful voices that God had given them.  The birds chirped, cocked their heads, and beat their wings to show they understood, like Methodists saying “Amen” in a revival meeting.  When the sermon was over, he made the sign of the cross and gave them permission to leave.  They then flew away singing.  That’s why you see statues of Francis with birds perched on his shoulders, like statues of John Wesley on his horse.  (I wonder:  did John Wesley ever preach to his horse?)

Francis also created something which was quite different from the usual monastic orders of monks and nuns:  a Third Order, for people who were very much attracted to the Franciscan way of life, but who were already involved in families.  It had Francis’ ideals, vows, and guidelines for spiritual growth, but it was designed for lay persons.  Some of the famous members of that Third Order are Queen Elizabeth of Hungary, King Ferdinand of Spain, Christopher Columbus, and Dante.  John Wesley’s equivalent of this Third Order was involvement by church members in all aspects of church life – not just leaving everything up to the clergy.

Francis continued to preach whenever and wherever he could, as long as he lived.  Like John Wesley, he had poured his time, his energy, and all his physical strength into the community that he loved. There is a beautiful prayer that is attributed to Francis of Assisi:

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

Where there is hatred, let me 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 I 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;

It is in dying that we awaken to eternal life.”

John Wesley edited the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, preserving for Methodists many beautiful Anglican prayers. He may6 have helped his brother Charles, who composed almost 6,000 hymns.

What can we learn from the lives of these two persons?  From John Wesley, we can learn from his motto:  “The world is my parish,” like the Great Commission.  That is, the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is so great that we want everyone to hear about it, whether it is through missions, evangelism like that which Billy Graham is the prime example, sharing Bible stories in Sunday School classes and families reading books together, or even college classes!

From Francis of Assisi, we can learn a reverence for all of Nature.  God didn’t just create human beings; he gave us the world as a garden, to take care of and preserve for future generations.  That has a lot of ramifications.  Francis’ closeness to Nature is exemplified in a poem which became a song in our hymnal, and we’ll close with that hymn.  Please turn to page 62 in your hymnal.  Seven is a number of completeness in the Bible, so we’ll sing all 7 stanzas.  Each one expresses something important, so if your voice gives out before the seventh verse, just hum along.  Please stand as you are able, and feel free to sit if you can’t stand for the whole hymn..

About religiousjourney

I'm a professor at Emory & Henry College and operate the religiousjourney.com blog.

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