5th October 1997
St Francis and a Series of Coincidences
Every now and then a number of apparently unrelated things happen together at the same time.
It's what we call a "coincidence". Those of you with good memories may recall a sermon of mine not so long ago on this theme "it was just a coincidence" and one of the points made was that Christians who believe in the Providence of God will not be surprised to discover that what the world sees as "a mere coincidence" has in fact been the deliberate action of our Divine Maker: in other words not a coincidence at all.
Well a number of things have happened in the past week or two which may indeed be "mere coincidences" but which fitted in too neatly with each other to be allowed pass without comment.
The first event was the terrible earthquake in Italy last week which practically wrecked the basilica of St Francis of Assisi and the incredibly valuable wall-paintings by the artist Giotto.
Reports seem to suggest that the Italian authorities have known perfectly well for several years that the building was unsound, that the so-called repairs done in the 1960s had used the wrong materials (concrete instead of wood) put together in the wrong way, but had chosen to say nothing about it until it was too late.
Secondly, when I came into St Stephen's yesterday I found that the east-end had been boarded up and a start made on removing the east window prior to having high-tensile wires inserted and the walls of the chancel to prevent a fate similar to that of the Assisi basilica happening to us.
Thirdly as we kept the feast of Saint Francis himself on Saturday we thought about the words that he heard in his famous vision in the ruined chapel of Saint Mary's Portiuncula where he dwelt "Francis, rebuild my Church: it is falling down!"
And then there is the fourth coincidence: the readings for today – which explain how sex and marriage were intended to be when God first man and contrasted with the appalling mess into which they had turned it even by the time of Moses; how our Lord unequivocally spelt out how things are supposed to be; and by contrast how since the 1960s anyway – at more or less the same time that the architects of Assisi were assuring everyone that they knew what was best for their church, the whole tide of the sexual revolution swept over us with the results in broken marriages, broken people, broken children and broken communities with which we are only too familiar today. This so-called liberation has turned into yet another tyranny.
All of which may of course been nothing more than a "series of coincidences". But for those of us who take our faith in God's seriously, and who look to his divine Providence as the star which guides us on a way to the heavenly City, it would be a serious mistake to assume that they must be nothing more than the workings are blind chance. As Saint Paul said of another series of apparently coincidences, all those misfortunes which overtook God's people on the wilderness, "all these things were written down as a warning to us who are the heirs of the ages which have gone before us".
In other words we neglect at our peril the "signs of the times" and their true significance for us. What the God is secular world regards as "series of coincidences" may contain, for the Christian, a number of most important lessons which have to be learnt and re-learnt in every generation no matter how many other people choose to ignore them.
What are these lessons? Well here of three for a start, which hit us immediately in the eye. Probably there are many others besides.
Firstly there is the lesson that we should be very cautious about relying on the views of so-called "experts". The people of Assisi were duped into thinking that concrete was better than wood on the ground that those in the know said it was. It's taken an earthquake (literally) and destruction of much that is irreplaceable to bring that judgment into question if not prove that they were mistaken.
It's not that there's anything bad or wrong in itself with concrete. In the right place it's a good durable material, cheaply produced and easily shaped. But its sheer strength and inflexibility makes it a liability under some circumstances, of which an earthquake is one, where the ability of wood to "give and bend" to a certain extent enables it to have a better chance of withstanding the enormous forces let loose by an earthquake.
All right, I hear what you say! – wood rots whereas concrete doesn't, wood gets infected with death-watch beetle – there's a hundred and one things to be said against wood as a building material. The fact is that some of the oldest buildings left standing today are made of wood, whereas concrete ones of the 1960s are cracking up all around us.
The second lesson is that churches, like society, need something running through them to hold them together. Saint Stephen's is having steel cable spreading through the walls rather like a dental brace to hold the walls and the East end together. In the same way society used to have a series of moral cables running through it which held it together, and one of these was the marriage-bond which consisted, let me remind you of:
The union a one man with one woman for life to the exclusion of all others
but, again in the 1960s, "expert" views were put forward to suggest that such ideas were "old hat", that Moses was right and Jesus wrong when the former instituted easier divorce proceedings and and the latter denounced them.
It was of course all part and parcel of the notion that man could get on very nicely without God thank you. As the ties which hold us together have been severed, one by one, in the name of "personal liberty and fulfilment" people have begun to wake up to the fact that something even more valuable than Giotto's wall paintings are in danger of falling into ruin. What has been lost is our vision of what we are as opposed to what we could be. That's been replaced with a dim idea of a "justice for everyone". What you can't really have justice without vision: and "without vision" as the Bible says, "the people perish".
And the third lesson we can learn from these coincidences is just how much a few determined, well-motivated people can do to build things up again. Whatever you think of as St Francis of Assisi you have to give it to him that, almost single-handedly, he changed for the better on the direction in which the Church of Christ was heading.
How did he do this? Well first of all he didn't try to do it on his own. Fairly soon he was joined by a number of men and women who reckoned that the movement which he started was "of God".
Secondly, he didn't try and change the world or the Church overnight. He started in quite a small way with the Portiuncula Church. Then he went on to found an order. The he went to Rome could obtain the Pope's blessing and from then onwards there followed an extraordinary series of adventures: being shipwrecked, taken prisoner and, nearing his death being privileged to receive the marks of the stigmata, the wounds of Christ in his hands and his feet.
So where does this bring us? Well, like St Francis we shall often be puzzled about what God intends to do with us next. But of this we can be certain. If we strive to remain faithful to what God in his wisdom has already chosen to reveal to us, we shall find that a path opens up in front of us and, strewn with apparent coincidences indeed, but a path which is undoubtedly leading somewhere.
We've woken up to the fact that the East end of St Stephen's is falling down and we've taken appropriate action. The next thing to wake people up into is that the liberalism of the 1960s has caused society to disintegrate. We need to get back to the Christian view of marriage and sex.
And having woken up, we must arouse others. What God achieved through some Francis of Assisi he is calling us to do today.
"My Church is falling down" he says to you and to me. "I want you to build it up again".
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