Years ago in the east end of London, I met a remarkable little old lady. She was what some call a ‘bag lady’: a homeless woman who carries her possessions with her, perhaps in just a pair of plastic bags. Her story was typical of many homeless people, although very unique, like that of every homeless person. In this lady’s case, she would tell a very brief biographical tale on a kind of continuous loop. This began with the words ‘I was a Barnados girl’, which, when repeated would start her off again on her abbreviated life-story. Was she then a sad person lost in a tiny, poor and vulnerable world, cut off from the rest of us? No, not exactly. For, in some ways, she was more in touch with existence than most, if not all of us. For this seemingly poor and aged waif had an amazing quality: namely the ability to see the plants and the animals alive around her, even in the middle of such a busy and environmentally threatening city as London then was. If you walked along with her for just a minute or two, she would point out, and open your eyes and ears to, the animal and plant life you almost always missed: the grass and the sometimes beautiful flowers which pushed through the concrete and the cracks; the birds and the insects and the urban wildlife, which, sometimes incomprehensibly, managed to thrive in the otherwise all-too-human jungle of the city. Almost everyone else was too busy, or too self-obsessed, to ‘consider’ these ‘lilies of the field’ and ‘birds of the air’. It took a similarly overlooked human being to notice and to celebrate these astonishing signs of God’s resistance. And, as she drew you into such contemplation and celebration, you thereby discovered the presence of mystery and grace.
One of the names I was given when I was born was Francis, in its masculine form. So, over several years, I pondered it. well.Today it is not one of my legal names. However it is still very valuable to me. According to the dictionary it means, particularly in its Latin form ‘Frenchman’, which is a lovely little challenge of inclusion for some of us brought up with centuries of conflict and xenophobia between England and France. In its Teutonic, and American usage, it also however means ‘Free’, which seems particularly life-giving to me, and certainly one beautiful way of considering our little brother Francesco, St Francis, the patron site of this college and its site. So what are the features of this freedom which Francesco lived and encourages in us? What difference may walking with St Francis make to us and our world today?...
If the Feast of the Epiphany tells us anything, it is that truly holy gifts come from surprising places. Why else would the bearers of gold, frankincense and myrrh not only be Gentiles – unclean foreigners, from other nations – but also Magi to boot? Recent Christmas tradition has called them the Wise Men, or the Three Kings, but there is nothing in the text to say that they were kings, or only male, or only three of them, or even ‘wise’ in typical Jewish understanding. In fact the word Magi may indicate the word ‘magician’, as used, disapprovingly, elsewhere in the New Testament. So we have a story today where the main bearers of the revelation of Jesus Christ, and its symbols, are potentially very dodgy outsiders indeed. Of course this is highly intentional. For, from the very start, in its genealogy of Jesus, Matthew’s Gospel is keen to tell us that God’s revelation, and salvation, involves surprising people and surprising divine moves. So it was then and remains now, if our eyes, ears and hearts are open. When I begin by saying my address this morning is inspired by a funeral I attended this week, you may therefore recognise something of that same surprising movement of our surprising God…
As today we celebrate the feast of All Saints, it is important to remember that in a real sense we are all saints, for we are saved, made whole, by our faith in Jesus Christ. At the same time we celebrate today the great Saints, those whose lives shine with God’s glory and grace so much that we are drawn to follow in their footsteps. I am sure we will all have our favourites in that great panoply, but as we are here at St. Francis College I thought I would share with you a story about someone, we’ll call him Simon, who set out to follow St. Francis...
Let me begin with a famous story from the life of St Francis of Assisi.
A long time ago, the town of Gubbio in Italy had a major problem. A wolf had been eating their livestock and attacking, and even killing, those who had been sent to kill him. Understandably therefore the people of Gubbio grew very afraid, and even frozen in their fear, quarreling together about what was to be done and inflicting their anger and anxiety on one another. What could be done? In the end, they realised, perhaps only God could save them, so they asked the holiest person they knew, St Francis of Assisi, to help.
St Francis did not take the task lightly. He knew that the wolf was indeed capable of great violence. Yet, as someone who was particularly close to the ways of animals, he sensed that there might be another way. So he took courage and walked out into the woods where the wolf scarily lay. Then, in the depths of the forest, making the sign of the cross as the wolf came upon him, he spoke softly ‘Brother Wolf, I will not hurt you. Let us talk in peace.’ The wolf was caught in uncertainty. This man did not approach him with weapons and violence. He had no anger or fear. Instead, Francis’ powerful spirit of peace and compassion unnerved him, touching his own pain and fear. So the wolf sat down on his haunches and listened. Francis told the wolf what the people of Gubbio were experiencing, all about their pain and fear and anger, and he asked the wolf ‘why are you attacking the livestock and the people? Why did you kill?’
The story goes on that the wolf then told Francis his story: how he had been left behind by his own pack when he was injured: how he preferred deer and rabbits but he could not run fast enough to catch them, so had had to settle for the people’ sheep and goats; how he only attacked when he was really desperate and hungry; and how he had only killed people when they had seemed to threaten him. Hours passed as Francis and the wolf pondered together. Then Francis, understanding that the wolf had genuine remorse for what he had done, asked the wolf to accompany him to Gubbio, to ask forgiveness, that all might be reconciled. Slowly the wolf put his paw in Francis’ hand and they walked into the town.
In Gubbio, the people were amazed and powerfully moved by the wolf’s repentance. For those who had lost loved ones or livelihoods, it was particularly challenging. Could they too let go of their own pain and fear and violence, share in God’s forgiveness and begin again together in peace? Time passed with much reflection. However, in the spirit of Christ, anguish turned to healing and even expectation. The wolf was turned from enemy into friend, and the town’s greatest help and protector. How then might we too respond, in our fear and struggles, to those who seem to threaten us in our own day?...
..The apostles said to the Lord 'increase our faith!' The Lord replied 'if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.'
This exchange invites a question, 'how much is enough?' How much is enough of anything - faith, love, food, work, information? We live in a culture that is dominated by the excess of many things. Yet as human animals we are driven by a seemingly insatiable appetite for more. While this may be a part of our biology, our scriptures and traditions teach us another way that may help us off the treadmill of more, more, more. God in Christ invites us into another way of seeing the world and our needs within it...
by Jon Inkpin, for Pentecost 18 Year A, Sunday 12 October 2014
This Friday, Bishop Cameron Venables spoke at our city Peace Forum on the subject of ‘Building Bridges – Sharing Humanity - Everyone Matters’. As a visual illustration he brought a teapot. Why a teapot? Well, what do we do we with a teapot? We make a cup of tea, don't we? Making a cup of tea, sharing hospitality, even with those very different from us – isn’t this a very simple but powerful way to build bridges, share our common humanity, and ensure that everyone matters? That is certainly my experience, not least recently. The Islamic Society literally offered a cup of tea in friendship recently to myself and other community leaders. A week yesterday, on St Francis’ day, Dawn and Phil helped reciprocate,, by offering afternoon tea to our Muslim friends, as we recalled Francis’ prophetic meeting of peace with the Sultan in the midst of the Crusades. This week, it was a wonderful delight for some of us to share a table together with our Palestinian Christian visitor, with Jews, Muslims and many others, in a Buddhist monastery of all places. This is part of what it is to be a city of peace and harmony in our troubled contemporary world. So who will each of us share a cup of tea with this week? Who will be at our table? For sharing the infinite hospitality of God: this is the heart of the good news of Jesus, even if today’s Gospel story seems (Matthew 22.1-15) to sit a little oddly with it….