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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Thanksgiving for Creation
Commemoration of Sts Francis and Clare
South Sydney Uniting Church
October 4, 2015

Psalm 148; Galatians 6:14-18; Matthew 11:25-30

‘A sense of loyalty’

“[Francis] was above all things a great giver; and he cared chiefly for the best kind of giving which is called thanksgiving ... He knew that the praise of God stands on its strongest ground when it stands on nothing. He knew that we can best measure the towering miracle of the mere fact of existence if we realise that but for some strange mercy we should not even exist” (Saint Francis of Assisi, G.K. Chesterton).

“Clare founded the Order of Poor Ladies (Poor Clares) at San Damiano, and led it for 40 years. Everywhere the Franciscans established themselves throughout Europe, there also went the Poor Clares, depending solely on alms, forced to have complete faith on God to provide through people; this lack of land-based revenues was a new idea at the time” (http://catholicsaints.info/saint-clare-of-assisi).

God be with you

Thirteenth-century saints Francis and Clare of Assisi impress us still. There are aspects of their lives we might recall with the help of key words: conversion; rebuilding; haircutting; songwriting and letter-writing; peacemaking; founding; touching and healing; preaching; stigmata; Nativity; Stations of the Cross.

Not so well known are the following “fun facts”. Francis was born Giovanni (John) Bernadone. “Frenchy”/“Francis” was his nickname, in reference to his playing the guitar, a French musical instrument … Francis designed the habit as a basic garment for his friars. When one friar asked for shelter, Francis fashioned a hood for the habit – in Italian, a cappuccio or roof over their heads. It’s where we get the word “cappuccino” … Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty … Toward the end of his life, Francis who was blind, was welcomed by Clare at San Damiano’s. It was there that he wrote his famous “Canticle of the Creatures” …

The word “saint” means holy, and everyone is holy. There are church days on which we celebrate the holiness of every person and every creature on the earth. We’ve just celebrated a Season of Creation, and over four Sundays this year we’ve remembered the saintliness or holiness of planet earth and humanity, the sky/atmosphere and mountains …

But the word “saint” is also a means of honouring the lives of faithful people we find especially inspiring. Their efforts and their failures call to our own deep desires for peace and goodness. The saints, in this sense of the word, are our companions in faith, and remembering them can bring us close to God.

The Apostles’ Creed refers to the “communion of saints”, which means the family of saints. We don’t pray to them as such, but with them and for them, as we believe/imagine they pray for us. No matter the years or other barriers that divide (distance, culture, language, gender or class), we believe in a love that binds and binds up ­– a love that attends to our wounds as to our estrangements.

One striking thing to say about saints, in this sense of particular/peculiar disciples of Jesus, is that they are all dead. The churches of the East and West confer sainthood in regard to whole lives. It’s the churches’ way of saying that every year of a person’s life can be holy and helpful to others; every day is special, not just the successful days or the famous episodes.

It’s also the churches’ way of saying that death marks a new beginning in our relationships or communions. In a Spirit of love, Francis and Clare are with us – our brother and sister. Made holy by the Holy Spirit.

Only love, then, can make someone a saint. And death is powerless to prevent it. Death itself is the mode of passage. Death is the doorway, as we sing, to this eternal life ­– to life of real/divine quality.

In the Franciscan tradition Francis and Clare offer all kinds of spiritual encouragement. Clare, we might be surprised to know, is regarded the more masculine guide, and Francis the more feminine. In a gender-bending Spirit of love, Francis and Clare are with us – our sister and brother. Made holy by the Holy Spirit ...

In a conversation with Father Paul Ghanem from the St Francis of Assisi parish in Paddington, I asked: “Is there something important most of us don’t know about Francis or Clare? Is there something we could learn on their day of commemoration?”

Father Paul paused to think. Then said: “You might not realise how seriously they took their vows of obedience. Francis, for instance, didn’t just visit the Pope one time (to seek formal recognition for his order) but many times. He annoyed the local bishop time and time again. He wasn’t interested in mere permission to live a life of poverty and chastity. He was passionate about the gospel and about rebuilding the church – for everybody. Clare didn’t just write a couple of letters. As Abbess it’s likely she never left the grounds of San Damiano but she wrote hundreds of letters to noble men and women, bishops and cardinals. In the end, they wrote as many letters to her.”

I hadn’t thought of it like this. Francis and Clare might have started a sect, but instead revitalised Christian communities throughout Europe, then diverse communities on every continent. Their deferring to authority was motivated by a desire to bring the whole church with them. Their respect for authority was at the same time a respect for difference, for the rich diversity of the church and creation. “Is this the good news?” they queried. “Is this justice?” “Is this the way of peace?”

Their sense of loyalty to the church may serve as encouragement for us to resist sectarian arrogance or moralism, so often the condition for violence. It may serve as exhortation to a more inclusive, universal, even cosmic consciousness. In the name of Jesus who promised rest and the dignity of good and holy work in the world, in the name of Jesus who offered his animal self as companion in such work, let us work together.

May our love for peculiar dogs and cats, axolotls and birds ... open our hearts to other dogs and cats, axolotls and birds ... Like a spiral’s double movement, may our love be both focused and expansive.

One wise parishioner, Alan Ah-See, points out that a dog’s obedience, a dog’s loyalty, is often a means of guiding a human companion into wider and more joyful realms. Like a spiral’s double movement, may our love be both focused and expansive.

When we hear, for instance, about thousands of greyhounds discarded and killed by the racing industry – “one greyhound dies every day on an Australian racing track; up to 50 per cent of greyhounds sustain one or more injuries in any one race” – we are rightly troubled, moved, stirred to protest and reforms …

May our love for gentle, sociable and affectionate animal companions, like greyhounds, sharpen our resistance to every type of individual delusion or ideological extremism. Love is an invitation to ever-deeper relationship. Love relates us, one to another. Binding up and binding. The word “religion” recalls and evokes the words “ligament” and “obligation”.

A medieval song of praise is the basis for our ecumenical prayers today and the inspiration for a papal encyclical “on care for our common home”.

As you place a coloured ribbon or symbol of your animal companion in the web of creation artwork beside the altar-table, how are you inspired to love in both a focused and expansive way? How, in the Spirit of love, might you seek to bring the whole church/community/country/region with you? Let’s complete the homily together … Amen.