When Jesus’ disciples cry out for an increase in faith Jesus offers them two related teachings. The first is the familiar reminder that faith, even just a little, will enable the followers of Jesus to do wondrous things. But this uplifting and inspiring teaching is quickly followed by the second teaching, a caution about knowing one’s place in God’s plans. Even when God works wonders through us, with our mustard seed-sized faith, we must not seek praise. Our participation in God’s plans is God’s grace to us—nothing more, nothing less.
Yesterday we celebrated St. Francis day so I want to tell you a St. Francis story – maybe only part truth. This is not the story of how his father disowned him and he stripped naked in court and walked away. It’s not the story of how he received the stigmata. Nor is it the story of the Wolf of Gubbio. This is a story you may not have heard; this is the story of St. Francis and the Sultan Al-Kamil. It takes place during the Fifth Crusade – when Francis’ pilgrimage took him across the battle lines in ancient Egypt. He was immediately captured and brought before Sultan. According to some versions of the story, he challenged the Muslim clerics to a trial by fire: both he and they would preach from the heart of a bonfire and whoever was not burned alive would be the one preaching the true God. The Muslim clerics declined the challenge. Francis then offered to go into the fire by himself, with the proviso that if he was not burned up the Sultan and all his followers would have to convert to Christianity. The Sultan did not take Francis up on this offer.
Whether or not that’s true, it is known that Francis preached to the Sultan and his household, who were so impressed by Francis that the Sultan offered him numerous gifts — which Francis refused — and gave him safe conduct back to the Crusader camp. When in time the Crusader Kingdoms fell, the Muslim rulers granted permission for Christians to tend the Christian holy sites in the Holy Land, but that permission was not given to the Church as a whole, it was given specifically to the Franciscans. In fact this arrangement persists to this day — there is a Catholic office called “Custodian of the Holy Land,” and it is always held by a Franciscan; and in places where custody is shared by different Christian denominations — like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher — it is Franciscans who represent the Roman Catholic church. All because of that one visit between St. Francis and the Sultan.
Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” St. Francis acted out of this spirit of courage and faith when he crossed the battle lines in Egypt. He had no idea what would happen to him; he had every reason to expect to be taken prisoner at the very least. Afterward, he doubtless thought his mission had failed. But — he had made a connection — a moment of authentic human connection, two people meeting each other face to face — that has had consequences to this very day – over 800 years!
The world is full of people who are divided from us, even opposed to us — because of religion, or nationality, or ethnicity, or political views, or any of a thousand things. God calls us to reach out to these people in a spirit of courage and love, unashamed of our testimony about our Lord and our mission, our way of life. We may not convince them — we may not bring them around to our point of view. We may not even make peace. The world being what it is, the odds are against it.
The big problems in the world — hunger, war, religious conflict, and so on — often seem too big for us. Maybe they are. But we have to have faith that if we can move the pebble — then God will move the mountain.
In an interview shortly after his election, Pope Francis advises us: “Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself…” Sounding like his patron Francis, he says: “We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing… focusing on the essentials… We have to find a new balance; otherwise we will lose the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
~ Reflection by Sister Roberta Bailey, OSB, Prioress