A sermon for the Feast of Francis, October 3, 2021
We honor St. Francis each year for a number of reasons. For us here at St. Stephen’s we resonate deeply with his respect and reverence for all of creation. This concern for our creation is a driving force behind many past ministry efforts, and continues to inform much of the work that we do as a parish and as individuals associated with this parish. We honor that connection with creation each year in our celebration of St. Francis and offering a blessing for the pets and animals of creation that provide us with companionship, with an example of the relationship between us and the other living creatures of creation. But, we can’t simply sum up all of St. Francis’ influence, teaching, journey of faith, with a blessing of our randomly assorted pets.
St. Francis was a much more complicated individual whose story challenges us deeply to consider what it means to follow Christ, what it means to live humbly before God, what it means to love our neighbor by understanding what it is like for the lowest of our neighbors to exist in this creation.
The young Francis came from a very wealthy family, and he enjoyed the limitless opportunities that wealth afforded him. With a carefree attitude, Francis lived his life without much concern for himself or others, simply accepting that the world would serve him because that’s the way it was.
But, that carefree life kept running up against his lived experiences of interacting with beggars, with clergy, with his own visions of God, and the call he received to serve the church, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”
These experiences eventually led to Francis renouncing his wealth and inheritance after being formally charged by his father for having stolen some silk, selling it to give the funds to the church for its rebuilding.
Francis then devoted himself to a life of poverty, only accepting the most basic alms, existing at times as a hermit, spending years begging for stones to rebuild chapels, and continuing to develop his understanding of faith and what it meant to follow God.
Still as a young man and new follower of Christ, Francis was inspired to go out and preach the gospel message to the commoners of his region, an uncommon practice because he had no license or formal training to do such ministry. But, this preaching inspired others and soon enough the Franciscan Order was born.
This order would grow quickly, inspiring many others to give up all of their worldly possessions and connections and simply give themselves over to the following of Jesus Christ, living his example in the world.
At the end of his life, Francis would have a vision and subsequently be inflicted with the stigmata, the five wounds of Christ, the first known instance of this mystical phenomena.
There are a lot of radical stories and examples of Francis’ ministry in this world. And they are all founded upon this understanding of Francis as someone who gave up everything he had to simply follow Christ, wherever it may lead him. The reason we make the connection between Francis and our pets specifically, and creation in general, are the stories of Francis’ love for our creation as something good created by God. This is reflected in his Canticle of the Sun which we will use today in framing our prayers of the people. Stories of his preaching to birds or his calming of a great and ferocious wolf, only serve to enhance the legends of his connection to creation and the creatures within.
These connections spring out of a clear theology that Francis professed, that the world was created good and beautiful by God but suffers a need for redemption because of human sin, and part of that redemption seeking meant communing with all members of creation as equal good within the whole of creation.
It’s telling then, through these stories, through the radical example of Francis’ life that calls us into a way of following Christ that goes well beyond what the vast majority of us are comfortable with, it’s telling that the gospel assigned to be read when we commemorate Francis’ life and ministry is that of Matthew 11.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
This gospel message offers to us the affirming knowledge that no matter how hard it may be to exist within this world, within this creation, if we’re willing to strip away all of our pretenses, to strip away all of our preconceived notions, to forfeit all of our material connections and wealth and offer them up in service of the faith, in service of the mission of the church, then we will deeply know that the gospel message is truth, that in Christ we find rest, that in Christ we find a yoke that is easy, a burden that is light.
This year, as we reflect on the life and ministry of St. Francis, we are facing a number of challenges in our world. Whether it be the reality of a world trapped in a time of pandemic, the looming global catastrophe of climate change that has already begun to irreparably damage and destroy the lives and customs of Native Peoples throughout the world, not to mention specifically in our Columbia River region, and the lives of those who are poor and economically depressed (who are largely people of color) in regions that continue to be impacted by stronger and more frequent natural disasters, or a flawed and broken political system that seems incapable of working towards bettering the lives of our whole united community, if ever there was a time to take a step back and sit at the feet of Francis, to be inspired by his life in ministry and the depth of his faith to simply trust in his relationship with God to provide all that he ever needed, today is that day.
It can be hard to trust that letting go of everything we desperately hold onto in favor of giving ourselves fully over to Christ is the easy path. And yet, it is right there, from Christ’s own mouth today. No matter how “hard” it may seem, a life lived fully in and of Christ, provides us with rest from the weary and heavy burdens that this life puts on us, that we put on ourselves, trying to “get ahead” in the flawed and broken systems and institutions that have been built upon human understanding and desire, not on Christ, not on love of God, not on love of neighbor.
Rest sounds pretty good right now when faced with all that is teetering on the edge in today’s world.
And, that rest we find in Christ is different than simply being able to give up our care and concern and simply be. Rather, the rest in Christ inspires and leads us, it fills us with strength and comfort, it provides a peace of understanding that we are following the way, and in following the way, there is nothing that can stand against us. This is why the yoke is easy and burden light in following Christ. While it asks us to give everything, all of ourselves, our whole being, over to Christ, when we do so, we find that we are filled with a strength unlike any we have ever known, we find that we are refreshed and ready to serve Christ in bringing forth the vision of the kingdom of God that has been laid before us, here, in our world, in this creation, today.
Francis saw the power that came in accepting this call, in coming to Christ, to take on the yoke of Christ, and lived a humble life that would go on to forever shape the understanding of how we can live into our faith. In honoring Francis today, we are challenged with honoring his example of ministry, of living into our own life of faith with the same level of conviction and steadfastness that even the birds of the air will stop and listen to us preaching the gospel of a wholly unified, good creation, that even a ferocious, marauding wolf and a terrified village can come together in understanding and coexist with one another through the power of Christ’s call to seek and serve all in love. This is the radical call that is before us today.
It begins in accepting the invitation from Christ today, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”