Welcome to St. Francis in the Fields!
The December 27th, 1948 edition of Time Magazine contains a short article on the founding of St. Francis in the Fields. I have it framed in my office. The account spoke to me with a poignancy with which I was not expecting, because one can see – in this brief story – that the DNA of our fair church contains a strength of conviction concerning the proclamation of the Gospel that has held her strong through “the wind and the waves” for these past 80 years. At the end of the article, the reporter concludes with:
The people of St. Francis in the Fields consider themselves a long way from Christian perfection. Says Rector Clingman, "We’re not good people. We’re not a collection of saints, but a group of sinners. . . who are trying to live their lives from St. Paul’s 'Christ Jesus came in to the world to save sinners…'"
This quotation from St. Paul is part of what is known as the “Comfortable Words” section of our Anglican liturgy. Part of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, these four sentences (each a “comfortable word”) from scripture contain the beating heart of the Christian faith: the good news that God is no longer mysterious or distant, but has been revealed as the saving friend of sinners.
As is only fitting in a religion where the central symbol is a cross – a device of torture and execution – two of our “founding fathers” are people known as much for their failures as for their successes. The Apostle Paul was a murderer-turned-preacher, and Peter famously showed his cowardly colors at the very moment of Jesus’ greatest need, denying him three times “before the rooster crows twice”(Mt. 26:34; Lk 22:61; Mk.14:30). This cowardly failure of Peter was so emblematic for the early church that according to the Smithsonian Magazine, “In the ninth century, Pope Nicholas I decreed that a figure of a rooster should be placed atop every church as a reminder of the incident.”
Instead of denying our cowardly failures, we acknowledge that they mark us as human beings in need of a savior.
Though the idea of a repentant murderer and a coward being two pillars of a church would seem a less than auspicious way to begin, it’s actually perfect: it is the murderer to whom Christ appears with a new job: proclaim good news to those he was recently trying to kill. It is the coward whom Jesus taps as the rock upon which he will build his church (Mt. 16:18). These two men are chosen, as Rector Clingman might have put it, quoting the Apostle Paul writing in Romans 5:8, “while they were yet sinners.”
In Matthew 7: 24-25, Jesus tells the parable of the “wise and foolish builders,” in which a wise man builds his house on the rock. “And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.” This rock of faith – in the crucified and risen Lord and his life for sinners – is the rock upon which the church has always stood firm, and is the one upon which, almost 80 years ago, a motley band of sinners founded St. Francis in the Fields. As we look ahead towards the future, we know that whatever storms may come, our foundation is secure in the Gospel of God’s Amazing Grace.
The Rev. Nicholas J. Lannon