We are a small Episcopal Church on the banks of the Rappahannock in Port Royal, Virginia. We acknowledge that we gather on the traditional land of the first people of Port Royal, the Nandtaughtacund, and we respect and honor with gratitude the land itself, the legacy of the ancestors, and the life of the Rappahannock Tribe. Our mission statement is to do God’s Will in all that we do.

Sermon, Oct. 1, 2023, Pentecost 18, Season of Creation V

Who can tell me what this is?  Yes, a map.  These days we mostly use GPS to map our trips, but these paper maps can come in handy as well. But when we travel, we have to have the right map to get us where we want to go.  If I’m traveling in Virginia, is this map going to help me?  Which one do I need?

We all know stories about maps that lead us to hidden treasure.  If we follow the map we will find the treasure! 

Now here’s the most important map we can have—a map that gives us the directions we need to get through our lives  without getting lost and also leads us to the treasure, which is the kingdom of God.     

This is the Bible. 

For instance, in today’s Old Testament reading, God says, “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, (That is, stop going the wrong way!) and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God, Turn then, and live.”  (That is, turn and go the right way!) 

Head  toward safety and life rather than toward danger and death. 

Today I want to tell you the story of a person who was headed in one direction, and then he heard God ask him to turn and go in a different, better direction.  

This man’s name was Francis.  His father was a wealthy merchant who sold cloth.  He wanted Francis to become a merchant as well.  But Francis thought it would be even better to become a knight, so his father got him a suit of armor and a battle horse and Francis went off to war.  He got captured and spent a year in jail.  When he got out of jail he was very sick.  As soon as he recovered, Francis went riding off to war again, but this time, he had a vision from God.  God told him to STOP!  Do not go back to war.  The only problem was that in the vision, Francis didn’t hear what he was supposed to do or where he was supposed to go next, but only that he could not go back to war.  So Francis devoted himself to prayer, while waiting for God to tell him what God wanted him to do next.  

You might say that Francis was consulting his map, looking at all the places he might go, and praying about which direction would be best.  He started giving up the things in his life that didn’t please God.  Francis was beginning to get a new heart and a new spirit. 

One day, he was walking in the countryside and he came to the ruins of a small church.  He heard Jesus speak to him, ““Go, repair my house, which you can see is in ruins.”  So Francis took this message literally. He thought that God wanted him to repair the church building.  So  Francis started taking cloth from his father’s business and selling it to make the money he needed to repair this little church.  His father was furious and hauled Francis to the bishop.  When Francis and his father came before the bishop, before anyone said anything, Francis took off all of his fine clothes, gave them back to his father, and told the bishop that his only father was God.  As Francis stood there, completely naked, the bishop took pity on him and gave him a cloak, and Francis left his town and his family forever. 

He started off on  his journey.   

Francis repaired several churches and then one day when he was in a church on Sunday morning, he heard the priest read these words from Matthew’s gospel, ”And as you go, preach the message, ‘The kingdom is at hand!’…Don’t take any money, or any extra clothes, or shoes, or even a walking stick.   You deserve your food.   And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it, and stay with him until you depart.”

Francis knew that God meant these words for him. By listening to the words from the Bible, Francis knew what he should do next.  Now he could see his next direction from the map in the Bible.     Francis  took off his shoes, put on a rough tunic, and began going through the countryside preaching the gospel that the kingdom of God is at hand. 

By this time, Francis understood that the church he was supposed to repair was not just a building, but that he was supposed to help people to see that God’s kingdom is already here, all around us, in all of creation.  He could now see beyond the walls of a building out into the whole earth of God’s kingdom, everywhere around us.

Francis took on the job of preaching to anyone he met about God’s goodness, and how God loved every person and every creature and every part of creation, and how we are brothers and sisters with the sun and the moon, and the animals—that all of creation is one big family, that we are all interconnected with one another and with all of the rest of creation—that we already live in the most beautiful kingdom  imaginable, God’s creation all around us, and so we are to love it and care for it as we care for ourselves and the people we love. 

When Francis heard birds singing, he knew that they were praising God, their maker.  Or when he heard the water flowing over rocks in a stream, or pouring down a waterfall, he knew that the water was praising its creator.  But sometimes the creatures, like people, forgot that they were part of God’s kingdom on earth.  So Francis preached to these animals to get them to turn back from fighting and killing and to choose life instead. 

The children heard a story today about Francis preaching to a wolf who was terrorizing a village and killing and eating some of the people.  Francis went out to meet the wolf, and asked the wolf to stop hurting the people.  In return, Francis asked the villagers to feed the wolf so that he would no longer suffer from hunger.  And so the wolf agreed, and the wolf and the villagers became great friends, and the villagers fed the wolf until he died of old age. 

Isn’t that just like the kingdom of God?  That we all love and care for one another, and live in peace with one another? 

Because Francis had gotten a new heart and a new spirit, he was able to help other people to get new hearts and new spirits as well.  And not just other people, but also animals, like the wolf!  Francis believed that we can all live in peace in the kingdom of God.    

Now one other thing about Francis that some of you know, but others may not, is that Francis is responsible for creating the first living nativity scene.  He wanted people to see for themselves the wonder of the birth of Jesus, so he got people to dress up and play the parts of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the angels, and he also added live animals to the scene!  When people asked him why he had the animals there, Francis said that the animals surely praised God for the birth of Jesus too, and that they should be represented, for Jesus came not just for people, but for all of creation.   

I bet you might have a nativity set that has not only Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus , but also some sheep and maybe the donkey or even a cow—that’s thanks to Francis that we include the animals.  And when we act out the Christmas story at church—we should thank Francis for the idea! 

Francis eventually became a saint.  The day we celebrate Francis is on October 4th every year.  This year, St Francis Day is this coming Wednesday.  So that’s a good day to give thanks for creation, to give thanks for our pets and to thank God for them, so the children are going to hand out pet blessings to those who want them a little later in the service.  Not just October 4th, but every day is a good day to remember Francis and to take a walk outside, and to say hello to Brother Sun and Sister Moon, to speak lovingly to the birds and the spiders and to thank God for the flowers and the trees, and for the beautiful world in which we live. 

Every day is a good day to be kind to one another, and to help one another, and if someone needs something, to share.  That’s what Francis did. 

But the most important thing of all that Francis helps us to remember is to use the right map, that is the map in the Bible that tells us all about Jesus.  If we prayerfully follow the map that Jesus laid out for us,  we will get our new hearts and new spirits along the way.  When we go wrong, this map will help us to turn and go the right way again.  And at last we will find our treasure, and realize that God’s kingdom is already here, all around us. 

So on this last Sunday of this year’s Season of Creation, let’s promise to keep following the map that Jesus gave us and that St Francis used before us,  and to love one another and all of creation as much as God loves each of us.