Praying In The Spirit Of St Francis – Launch Of The Prayer Community

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Sermon for St Francis Day 2009. (Given By the Rev Cannon John Austen)

St Francis. A good name to have for your patron saint. One lady in our church was brought up at St Chrysostom’s in Handsworth. She said no-one could pronounce the name, so they used to call the church St Chrysanthemums.

No such problem with St Francis. Easy to say. A well-known saint, And someone whose joyful freedom has inspired Christians down the centuries.

And that joyful freedom in there in today’s gospel:

Don’t worry about stuff. Don’t worry about what you are going to eat or drink or wear.  Set your minds on his kingdom, and the rest will come to you as well. Sell your possessions. Give to charity.

And we say: Well, maybe that was possible once upon a time. But today?  No, that sort of thing is  just not possible in everyday life in the 21st century.

But the last verse of that Gospel (Luke 12: 24) is one that can pierce the heart:

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also….

Today, we are invited to go on pilgrimage. A pilgrimage to identify where a treasure might lie for us.

We are invited today to join a Franciscan pilgrimage.

Some of you have done a Franciscan pilgrimage. I heard about it. The trip to Assisi last year. And I know that visit made a very deep impression on many of you who went.

But today we are invited on a different pilgrimage with St Francis:

•    A Pilgrimage which doesn’t cost money, though it will cost a little time.
•    A Pilgrimage which doesn’t involve travel – but which may take you on a journey.
•    A Pilgrimage which we can do  alone, but which is much better in company.

It’s a pilgrimage of prayer, praying in the spirit of St Francis, from now until the end of the year.
Praying with St Francis 3 times a day, every day.

Does that sound quite a tough commitment?

I can make it sound not so hard – by saying that is  a very short form of prayer. And that the commitment is not open-ended – just to the end of the year, less than 3 months.

But for the moment, I don’t want to make it sound easy.

Instead, I want to tell you about someone who has been living with us at home for almost 6 months.

She comes from a Muslim country, and she is a very committed Muslim.

Now having lived in and around Handsworth or Aston for 35 years now, I know quite a lot of Muslims, and I’ve got to know something about Islam. And that may well be the same for you, with people you have come to know at work or in schools.

But this is the first time that we have shared our house with someone Muslim, and that means I’ve come to realise much better than before something of what being Muslim means in terms of everyday life.
And a very central part of being Muslim is the commitment to prayer.

Our friend prays 5 times a day. Its part of her life, and its not negotiable. She prays in her room, after washing in preparation for the prayer.

Meals, shopping, work and study all have to fit round her prayers – not the other way round. There are set times to pray – not usually a precise time, but a window of time during which she has to pray. It changes with the time of year, because the prayer times are related to the changing length of the days. She’s not embarrassed about her praying, she doesn’t apologise for it, she just does it. She’ll stop what she is doing in the kitchen, smile and say “I must go and pray now”.

We all went recently to visit some friends of ours, but beforehand she checked that there would be a room where she could pray. And when we arrived, she asked our friends if she could use a room for her prayers.
When we took her to Oxford for the day, she visited the mosque in the afternoon for her prayer.
Last weekend, in glorious sunshine, we all had a day out in the Cotswolds. As far as I know, there are no mosques in the Cotswolds, so at 1 o’clock, we found a quiet place in a park where she spread down her prayer mat and said her prayer.

All this has really challenged me – and perhaps you are challenged by it too. Life is busy and complicated, so I think when I pray on my own, I tend to fit my prayers round my schedule – not fit my schedule round my prayers. But life for Muslims is not less busy than life for Christians. Our Muslim friend fits her schedule round her prayers. That I realise is a difference between the way we view things.

Another difference of course is this: if we go for a day out somewhere, would we stop everything for a few minutes so we could say our prayers before we carry on?

Now I’m not suggesting we adopt the Muslim pattern.

But during these last 5 months I have been made to look again at our Christian rhythm of daily prayer, which is often quite weak, and half-hearted.

Which is why this pilgrimage of prayer with St Francis, which Paul has been working on, has rung loud bells with me.
Let’s look at what it involves:

Firstly, it involves prayer three times a day. Not just the morning, not just at night, but the day punctuated 3 times a day by a deliberate turning towards God. Not very long, but a non-negotiable turning towards God. Not because we suddenly feel holy and would rather like to have some time in prayer, but because we have said that we will do it. As the invitation brochure puts it:

Francis understood that we don’t always feel like
praying. This type of structured prayer can help us to
continue to pray regularly when we don’t feel like it,
as well as when we do.

Turning to God three times a day isn’t about feeling:
it’s a joyful obedience to God’s love.

Secondly, it involves a rhythm of prayer done with others. One of the strengths of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan is that is done with others. And so many people keep Ramadan faithfully. Everyone breaks their fast at the same time.
Well, keeping a pattern of prayer as a community is much easier than trying to do it on your own.
Which is why the invitation to praying in the spirit of St Francis is so good. It is an invitation to share, as a church, in a daily pattern. To draw strength by knowing that other people are doing it as well. To be accountable to one another, and to know that you are trying not to let your friends down.

And thirdly, it is prayer that has a particular purpose. To pray for one another, to pray for the community of the church, to pray for the world. It isn’t just a self-improvement programme, to get spiritually fit (though that’s not a bad idea!). It’s about what the gospel said: finding out where your treasure is, and there will our heart be also.

This invitation comes with a commitment. A commitment to pray this way until the end of the year. Just under 3 months. There’s a beginning – when you sign up. And the commitment lasts just till the end of the year.

And you aren’t committed to anything else.

I make it sound like an advertising offer. “If you decide not to continue, we promise that nothing will be taken from your account, and no-one will contact you”.

It’s not like that. It’s not a pressure thing at all.

Paul’s invitation says this:
My hope is that you too might
like to keep this ‘rule of prayer’ with us,
remembering to pray for one another, for our
community and for our world.

If we don’t find this pattern of prayer suits us, we can stop. It won’t suit everyone. But how do we know unless we try?

And how better to try than by following the way of St Francis, in a building dedicated to St Francis, starting on St Francis Day, in the company of people from this church?

Amen