The following sermon was by delivered by Brother James Nathaniel to members of the Third Order of the Society of St. Francis on Saturday, January 16, 2021 via Zoom.
Good morning everyone.
It would have been nice to be there with you in public and speak to you and lead you through a quiet day there in Florida. However, the COVID pandemic has put a hold on such plans. Yet, we remain positive and choose joy and peace over fear and hatred.
Forty-eight years ago, the year 1973 was another moment in US history when, in the midst of trials and tribulations, some Americans chose hope over fear and charity over selfishness.
Some of us may remember that year or have heard about it from the history books. That year, inflation was continuing to rise, as it had been since the late 1960s. In 1973 alone inflation rose over 6%. The US dollar was losing value as a result of the changes being made to the world financial system that had been in place since WWII. In October, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries or OPEC imposed an embargo on the United States as a result of US support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The price of oil quadrupled sending the United States into an energy crisis. And finally, it was in 1973 when the impeachment process that would bring an end to Nixon’s presidency began to pick up steam.
And yet, even in the midst of all this sadness and discouraging news, it is more important than ever to celebrate and recall the good done by ordinary men and women. For these are the fratres minores of our own time, the folks whose contribution to building up the Kingdom of God inspires us to do that which we are called to do both as Franciscans and as part of the one family of God.
I am reminded of a story that comes from my old hometown of Kokomo, Indiana. Kokomo is a small, blue-collar, factory town of almost 60,000 people located just one hour north of Indianapolis. Before Christmas in 1973, a laid-off autoworker called in on a radio talk show called Viewpoints, hosted by a local deejay, Dick Bronson. Out of work and out of luck, the autoworker called asking what he was supposed to do to help his family have a good Christmas that year. In the spur of the moment, Bronson offered to donate half of whatever amount of money he had in his wallet at the time – 20 dollars. He encouraged the rest of his listeners to join with him and do the same. By the end of the radio program, Bronson had raised over $1,000 plus food and toys to help both the auto worker and other families in the area as well.
The next year, Bronson and the radio station dedicated six hours of radio air time to help raise money for children and families at Christmas.
The year after, the program expanded to a 47-hour radio telethon and auction.
Now, forty-six years later, “We Care” as the organization is now known runs a 48-hour radio and television auction the first full weekend of December and has fundraisers and programs throughout the year. Last year, even under COVID restrictions, We Care raised over $465,000. One hundred percent of the proceeds go directly to organizations that assist the disadvantaged and less fortunate as well as the mentally and physically challenged within Kokomo.
The story of We Care is not unlike the story of St Francis, who, according to legends, happened upon a leper and, instead of fear or disgust, was moved with pity. In his Testament, St. Francis writes: “When I was in sin, the sight of lepers nauseated me beyond measure...When I became acquainted with them, what had previously nauseated me became the source of spiritual and physical consolation for me.”
Saint Francis recognized in the lepers a most unique opportunity to see the face of God in these, the most pitiable of humans at the time. In the lepers (and indeed all those without wealth or land or prestige) Francis rediscovered a deep sense of fraternity. Even today, nearly 800 years after his death, St. Francis and his sense of human fraternity continues to bring people together from across all religious and cultural divides.
In his latest encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis relates how St. Francis’ love for all humanity inspired him to write on the urgent and timely need of a rebirth of universal fraternity. “Francis felt himself a brother to the sun, the sea and the wind, yet he knew that he was even closer to those of his own flesh” (Fratelli Tutti §2), writes the Pope. “I offer this social Encyclical as a modest contribution to continued reflection, in the hope that in the face of present-day attempts to eliminate or ignore others, we may prove capable of responding with a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words” (§6).
Why talk about Fratelli Tutti and, by extension, Let us Dream (which seems to me more of a continuation of the former rather than a new work)? Why should an American Anglican care what the Bishop of Rome has to say? I’m not going to make any arguments today about the authority of the Bishop of Rome as the patriarch of the West or his spiritual role in some future undivided Church. Other organizations like ARCIC, the Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission already go into that sort of interesting work. Instead, I would suggest we look at Pope Francis as the sort of man whose teachings for the past 8 years have, in general, been worthy of hearing, reading, and inwardly digesting. His past encyclical, Laudato Si’, and now Fratelli Tutti, are unequivocally Franciscan-inspired and, I predict, will be remembered as some of the most forward-thinking writings of any pope since Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris. In both Fratelli Tutti and Let Us Dream Pope Francis issues a call to all Christians and non-believers to realize once again their interconnectedness with one another and with all creation.
Pope Francis begins Fratelli Tutti by setting the scene of our chaotic world. “How did we get here?” he seems to ask. By here, we mean the present state of our social and political systems. “Ancient conflicts thought long buried are breaking out anew, while instances of myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism are on the rise in some countries,” he writes (§11). We don’t need to look much further than the events of two weeks ago in Washington D.C. as a recent example of this. Nor do we need to look only within our own country.
Pope Francis particularly laments the waning trust in international institutions, such as the European Union and the United Nations which had come about as a direct result of worldwide war. Perhaps generations today do not fully appreciate the peace and tranquility these and similar organizations have preserved for nearly 80 years. “Once more,” write the Pope, “we are being reminded that ‘each generation must take up the struggles and attainments of past generations, while setting its sights even higher” (§11). We cannot become complacent in peace. We cannot take peace for granted, he seems to say. We need to continually work for it.
Here again, the example of St. Francis from his own time guides us. In an age of crusading and violence, Francis went out at great cost to himself and shared his faith with the Muslim Sultan Malik-el-Kamil. In the Sultan’s presence, he subjected himself, never raising up arms but forming a bond of respect, not rivalry. This event in Francis’ life gives us an example of how we ought to engage and respond to our neighbors, friends, family, and yes, even our enemies.
Today, instead of castles and fortresses made of stone and mortar, we have electronic bubbles with personalized news settings. We can choose which voices we hear and which voices we ignore. In addition to superstitions of the past, we have added a whole new list of deadly, baseless conspiracies such as QAnon, climate change denial, or election fraud. And again, the dwindling support and appreciation of the work made by international institutions like the United Nations and the European Union is threatening those institutions' very existence and hindering their ability to actually help preserve some semblance of peace. “For as society becomes ever more globalized,” writes Pope Francis, “it makes us neighbours, but does not make us brothers.” (§12).
But we are all brothers and sisters. “Fratelli Tutti” literally means, “Brothers all”. Despite the complaints of some English speakers, this encyclical has never been addressed to simply men. The words “Fratelli Tutti” is taken from St. Francis’ undated Admonitions which, although one might argue were directed to the First Order brothers, it seems illogical to therefore be of no worth to all Orders of Franciscans.
St Francis writes, “Let all of us, brothers, consider the Good Shepherd Who bore the suffering of the cross to save His sheep. The Lord’s sheep followed Him in tribulation and persecution, in shame and hunger, in weakness and temptation, and in other ways; and for these things they received eternal life from the Lord” (Admonitions, 6).
We are called by St. Francis to follow Christ, even in the midst of life’s trials. Not for a reward, but as the ultimate good in itself. To imitate Christ in all things is the singular path for all of us. Like the Emerald City drawing Dorothy forward, we progress along the yellow-brick road set before us.
And yet, all of our lives and stories and adventures will be different from one another. A key idea of our Franciscan life is that of haecceity or “thisness”. We are all human, yes, and we here are all Franciscans. Yet, individually we have our own journey, our own individual calling from God. “I have done what is mine,” said St. Francis on his deathbed. “May God teach you what is yours.”
What is our calling today? What can we do to affect the world around us, particularly in this time of division, of anger, of frustration, anxiety, paranoia, and indifference? Pope Francis writes, “Each day offers us a new opportunity, a new possibility. We should not expect everything from those who govern us, for that would be childish.” Instead, he encourages us to “take an active part” in renewing and supporting our troubled societies” (§77).
Christians especially have no excuse to refrain or retreat from their duty to care for the poor and marginalized. In fact, the Pope exhorts that it is precisely at the margins where so many of our own time are crucified in a manner not unlike how Christ was left to die.
Today, we don’t crucify people on beams and leave them to die on hills.
We instead crucify college students by putting them in debt for the rest of their years.
We crucify countless children and adults, de facto punishing them for being born black or brown, sending them to poorer schools with inexperienced teachers in dangerous neighborhoods.
We crucify the elderly, sending them to die alone in homes or abandoned, that is if they can afford it.
We crucify parents by providing little support for family care, making it almost impossible to support a family with one income.
And we crucify the lower classes, making it virtually impossible for unions to effectively organize and demand better work environments or better wages.
“If the Church disowns the poor,” writes Pope Francis, “she ceases to be the Church of Jesus...There is only one word for the Church that becomes a stranger to the poor: ‘scandal.’ (Let Us Dream, p. 120).
In our church’s Baptismal Covenant, we are reminded of our promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (The Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 305). Pope Francis frequently laments the lack of respect present in our world today. As often is the case, neither our political or economic institutions seem interested in putting the common good of our societies in the center of public policy decisions. Instead, our Western culture and Western ethos prioritizes individual autonomy “to the exclusion of all other values'' writes the Pope. “Without a vision for society rooted in the dignity of all people,” he writes, “the logic of the unfettered market ends up turning life from a gift into a product” (Let Us Dream p. 116). Comparing our modern society’s obsession with more and more money to the Biblical Tower of Babel, he concludes, “if you put money at the center, you enter the pattern of sacrifice: whatever the human cost or the damage to the environment, the tower must go higher and higher” (p. 117). This diminishing value of each human life affects us all. How much attention do we afford to a new job numbers report or an interest rate hike by the Federal Reserve? How many hours are spent arguing on cable news about what such changes mean? But what does it say about a society that obsesses more over government finances and stock portfolios rather than child poverty or homelessness, or simply brushes it off as a necessary evil? “Necessary for whom?” we ought to ask.
How many of us in the West seem more interested in preserving our way of life than sacrificing a little for the good of all? This sort of conceited, dangerous individualism is best exemplified in the resistance to many of our fellow Americans refusing to wear a mask in public. Putting a simple piece of cloth over one’s face in order to save the life of others is one of the easiest tasks one can do. Yet, because of misguided ideas about “personal freedom” many of our fellow countrymen and women will die. Today, just over 400,000 Americans have now perished as a result of the coronavirus. Two days ago, 4,000 Americans died. Since January began, there have been multiple days where fewer Americans died in 9/11 than due to the coronavirus. To me, some people’s refusal perfectly describes the selfishness and individualism Pope Francis is encouraging us to resist. It tells me that we still have a long way to go.
But again, what can we do here and now?
Similar to the origins of We Care, we do not have to move mountains in order to be the heroes we need for our own time. We simply need to be open and responsive to where God is calling us, wherever and whenever that may be.
During these times, not all heroes are those working in hospitals.
Some heroes are limiting their time outside to prevent catching or spreading diseases.
Some heroes are helping their children learn as much as they can while schools are still closed.
Some heroes are protesting the racial violence done against their fellow Americans.
Some heroes are taking politicians and companies to task for their role in global climate change.
During the Second World War, not all the heroes we remember were serving in Germany fighting Hitler. Some served in factories. Some collected milkweed pods. Some took pride in rationing for the troops.
During the Civil Rights movement, not all the heroes we celebrate were in Washington marching. Some attended sit-ins. Some appeared on talk shows. Some wrote books and poetry.
During the September 11 attacks, not all heroes wore a fire mask and walked into the World Trade Center. Some tucked their children in at night and made them feel safe. Some gave blood. Some signed up to serve. Some stood up for their Muslim neighbor.
These heroes of the past—like the heroes of today—put others before themselves. This is the essence of Pope Francis’ message. It is the essence of the Christian message. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Saint Francis writes as much in a passage also used by Pope Francis in his encyclical. “Blessed is the servant,” writes the saint, “who loves and respects his brother as much when he is far away from him as when he is with him, and who would not say anything behind his back that he would not say with charity in his presence” (Admonitions 15).
And so, brothers and sisters, we certainly have our work cut out for us. We know there are going to be hard times ahead. But perhaps in no other time since the end of the Second World War are we left with an opportunity to begin the world over again. We are in the figurative desert but we are almost through the woods. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Where will we be when we have moved through that tunnel? What future will we behold once we have passed through this vale of tears? Let us dream and let us build that future, together.
For information about We Care and the work they do, please visit their website at: http://www.wecareonline.org/
Brother James Nathaniel can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org