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The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

On the Path

I am posting two sermons today, one for our Patronal Festival, and the second for the Blessing of the Animals.

Readings: Job 9:1-16; Psalm 148; Galatians 6:14-18; Matthew 11:25-30

One of the real benefits of dog ownership is that it forces you to walk. I take my two little dogs out twice a day, rain or shine. We are blessed in Mississauga to have many places to walk. Bicycle paths lead in every direction. They take you through parks and under busy roads so that you never have to leave the path. The many paths can be confusing. When I first moved to Mississauga my dog and I got hopelessly lost by following a path out onto the wrong street.

One of my favourite paths takes us around Lake Aquitaine. Even when the weather is fine and warm and many people are taking advantage of it, the park is a tranquil oasis in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city. As fall sets in the lake takes on a different feeling. It returns to nature as fewer joggers and cyclists take to the paths. The trees begin to turn glorious colours. The reeds at the side of the lake wave majestically. Ducks swim on the lake. Squirrels are everywhere. We will often stop at the top of a hill and look out over the lake, taking it all in. A sense of peace comes over me. It opens up within me a great dream of what the world might be and of how we might be at peace with one another. It reminds me of our patron, St. Francis and of our parish mission statement.

Together we are walking with and celebrating the spirit of St. Francis on a journey of worship, service, fellowship and peace.

As a parish we are trying to follow the path set for us by St. Francis. We live generously, reaching out into the community, opening our hearts to those in need. Our spiritual life is rich. This is a community that knows how to come together in prayer and in praise. The diversity of our congregation both in age and in culture brings richness to our worship and to our fellowship. We are growing in so many ways.

But the pathway is filled with twists and turns that challenge us. There are times when we are wearied by the journey, when we need encouragement. There are times when the path comes to a dead end and we must go back and look for new ways to carry on. There are times when it takes us in new directions where we lose our way or find ourselves on uncharted territory.

So it was for our patron saint. Born into privilege, power and wealth, during his early life Francis was on a pathway of self indulgent behaviour. He experienced an amazing conversion in which his life was turned around by God. It began with a journey. Francis met a leper. The man’s condition repulsed him. He overcame his feeling, reaching out and embracing the man. That simple gesture changed everything for him. Afterwards he reflected that what had formerly been bitter had become sweet. What was formerly sweet had become bitter. As he came to recognize Jesus in other people and through the beauty of nature, his conversion deepened. He renounced all of his worldly possessions in order to commit himself to serving God. He served the poorest of the poor. He spent his time with lepers, prostitutes and those whom the world abandoned. He embraced poverty and even pain with a sense of joy that could only be found by living out his life as God had called him. Through all of the challenges of life he became an instrument of God’s peace.

His gospel witness inspired a band of followers including people who had partied with him in his former life, along with members of the nobility, and clergy. They adopted a rule of life inspired by three passages of Scripture opened at random by Francis. “If you would be perfect, go and sell all you have and give to the poor and follow me.” “Take nothing with you for the journey.” And finally, “If anyone will follow me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” He and his brothers spent their lives doing exactly that. They brought about a spiritual renewal that began with the rebuilding of ruined churches, but led to a wonderful renewal in peoples’ lives.

St. Francis died on the eve of October 4, 1226, lying on the bare floor, poor in the eyes of the world, but rich in God’s grace. Among his last words was a call to continue the work of renewal in the church. “Let us begin again,” he said, “for until now we have done nothing. May each of us do our share to spread the Gospel.”

Is there not in each of us that dream of how the world might be and how we might be at peace with one another in the world? In the dream we are not simply receiving a gift from God. We are co-creators helping bring it into fruition. It is a dream planted in us from our birth. But things happen to shatter the dream. It seems unattainable. We may long for it, yet it is beyond our grasp. Somehow we are not able as Francis was to give ourselves fully. Life throws obstacles in our path. We are held back by our fears, insecurities, infirmities. We busy ourselves trying to make our lives as secure as possible. We try to take care of ourselves and those we love. We become preoccupied with putting aside enough for our future needs. Unthinkable things happen – tragedy, sickness, loss. We grow older and perhaps wiser, but we defer the dream or even abandon it.

How did Francis manage to keep the dream alive both in his personal life and in his community? It was his deep commitment to prayer, to the study of Scripture, to worship. It was his deep commitment to living out his life seeing Christ in others and allowing them to see Christ in him. It was in his allowing God to reshape his life.

As we reflect on our life as a Christian community, where is our path leading us? Where is it leading you personally? Have you let Christ change your life? We need to spend time in personal prayer and reflection on Scripture. There are guides for us to do that. There is a booklet available on the tract rack to help guide us in reading. Our Seekers group will be starting its leadership course soon. Hopefully that will lead to new Bible Study groups becoming available to people. But put aside time in your busy day to pray. Francis prayed as he went about his daily life. His life became a prayer. Sending up a prayer of praise as we go about our lives is a good way to stay on the path.

We may think that we don’t know enough to read the Bible or pray. The Gospel reading from Matthew speaks to us of a faith dependent not on our intellect, but on our experience of God. We don’t need great intelligence or education to be close to God. The Bible stories are meant to connect to our story. The Acts of the Apostles and saints of the Church continue to be enacted in our communities through our actions. We need to allow the Spirit of God to work in our lives. Francis made those connections in his life. He possessed great charm. He was attractive to people. People took to him. They may have been startled by what he had to say, but they were drawn to his child-like curiosity, to his sense of humour, and to his sense of joy. They listened to him and responded to his preaching. More importantly they responded to the way he lived his life, to his close relationship to Christ. We can all do that.

Where is our path leading us as a parish? As Francis did, we celebrate the Good News of Christ. We worship God, serve our world, our country and our community and strive to be instruments of peace. We don’t do it alone, for Christ is with us on the Journey. Christ walks with us on the path. When our pathway becomes fraught with difficulty, Christ continues to journey with us. This parish is a spiritual centre. It is a haven for people in need. It is a place of healing, comfort and nurture. Our church is filled with people who are being the church in the world. We are truly beginning to live out our mission statement.

So remember that we never walk this road alone. God walks with us. There are many who share the road, family, friends, neighbours. And Francis is a model for us, offering us guidance as we follow his example and live our lives seeing Christ in others, reaching out to a needy world, recognizing all of nature as part of God's magnificent creation and having 'peace' as our watchword. Let us continue to follow the path as we celebrate the Good News of Christ, as we worship God and as we strive to be instruments of peace.
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