This Sunday I had the pleasure of celebrating the Feast of St. Francis with the people of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Laurelhurst (Seattle, WA). Here is the sermon I shared.
Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Isaiah 11:6-7,9 (“They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;”)
Psalm 148:7–14 (“Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea-monsters and all deeps;”)
Matthew 11:25–30 (“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”)
“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.” There is something wonderfully logical and terribly difficult about this passage. Once you get rid of all of your possessions, they no longer weigh you down. To be divested of wealth and official power is, in a very real way, to be truly free. You are no longer responsible for keeping track of it all, or managing it fairly. You can simply live. At the same time, it can be terribly frightening to give up all that control, or at least the appearance of control, over our surroundings. Money is power. To have no money is to be powerless, at least in one sense of the word. On the other hand, you gain a whole new freedom to focus on the here and now, to act simply. St. Francis epitomizes this aspect of Christianity. He gave up money and privilege, and yet we remember him for the power he wielded, for the way he shaped the world. Many of you will know the story. Francis was the son of a wealthy merchant. After a somewhat frivolous youth, he decided to renounce everything and embrace radical poverty. The order he founded gave up claim to any property and begged daily for their food. And yet, they were respected for their devotion to God and Gospel. Francis became an advisor to popes and princes. He inspired thousands to give up their money and privilege, to take on service and live in harmony with the world, both human and natural. It is easy to remember Francis in a sanitized way, as someone who loved animals and embraced simplicity, but Francis was troubling figure as well. He renounced learning and scholarship, he denied and punished his body, and he was totally uncompromising in his theology. Contemporaries found him very difficult to live with. By all accounts he was dirty and hungry and obnoxious. His followers were thought rabble by the respectable people; they were beggars preaching radical social change. More than one Church historian has quipped that Francis is the most beloved, yet least imitated saint in the calendar. He stood for an entirely different way of being in the world, one with different priorities: love over power, community over individual freedom, service and poverty. These things were his wealth, and he used them fully. And perhaps that is part of the message. It’s not just a matter of giving stuff up. It is a matter of using the freedom it gives you to serve God and neighbor. Francis embraced poverty so that he could embrace the Gospel. We have this balance then, of giving up power and taking on responsibility. Jesus’ burden is light, but it is a weight we carry, a taking on of the world. And strangely, the weight of the world, is easier to bear than selfishness. That is the foolishness of Jesus and of Francis. I don’t know about you, but this foolishness does not come easily to me. It is hard to give up control, to give up money and earthly power. It is hard to even imagine what this greater and lesser burden might be. But I have seen a glimpse of the answer, and I will share it with you. Francis was not a fan of education. I think he saw it as an excuse to hide from the real world, to focus on yourself and your own understanding. And yet, his followers became one of the pillars of learning in the late middle ages. The Franciscans were important in the developing universities. Franciscans Roger Bacon and William of Ockham were key pioneers for aspects of modern science. Nor do I think this was an accident, because Francis’ idea of poverty was not solely about self-denial. Undoubtedly, there were aspects of that to his thought, and at the end of his life he repented of some of his zeal, particularly in punishment of the body. Francis poverty was inspired by true humility, the finding of one’s place within the greater whole, the appreciation of all creation as God’s handy-work and the proper perspective on our own significance. We are important – vitally important, not because we are unique, or alone, or perfect, but because we complete the picture. We are significant precisely because we are one among many, both as individual humans and as a species. We celebrate that today. We celebrate the working out of God’s will, not only in our lives, but in the life of the world. Nature, the environment, the planet, even the vast expanse of interstellar space. We recognize God’s relationship with the creatures of earth and sky and sea, and God’s relationship with us through them. The same balance of poverty and power, found in Francis thoughts about money, can be seen in his words about creation. By giving up our focus on humanity alone, we begin to see God’s role for us in the Cosmos. In the collect, we pray “that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy.” Delighting in the entirety of creation. It sounds simple, perhaps simplistic, but it is not. It is as difficult and important as poverty. It requires a commitment to inquiry, curiosity, and care. It requires looking to the last and the least with love. To wonder at things beyond our immediate human interest. We are part of something larger, something grander than ourselves. To say ‘creature’ and ‘creation’ is more than a description of living things and nature. Those words speak about how they fit together, how we belong within the harmony of God’s world. Science is showing us that creation is broader, deeper, and more wondrous than we had imagined. Not only the seas, but the dirt below us and the sky above us are saturated with life. Even our own bodies form their own ecosystems of creatures, insects, bacteria, and protists. We say in the Eucharistic prayer (Prayer 3 from Enriching Our Worship) “these gifts your earth has formed and human hands have made.” Bread and wine, in addition to being staples are collaborations. They cannot be made without plants, bacteria, and other one-celled creatures. The bread which we break is made from wheat. But we can’t eat plain wheat; the chemicals are hard to digest. Bread must be fermented; we add Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or baker’s yeast. The yeast breaks down the sugars, giving bread its taste, and producing the carbon dioxide bubbles that make the bread expand or “rise.” The wine which we share is made from grapes. We can eat grapes plain, but historically the water was not always safe to drink, so we would ferment grape juice, using some of the micro-organisms to protect us from others. The same species of yeast is added to grapes, turning sugars into alcohol. Wine also has bacteria like Lactobacillus, that change the flavor and can help our immune systems. Both bread and wine reflect a delicate balance of contributions from a number of creatures, directed by human hands. Eating with one another is an abstract symbol of our unity in Christ, but it is also a very concrete participation in the community of creation – different creatures working together. One of the things I love about Christianity is that the symbols are layered. We eat this meal together as a community of humans. The bread and the wine come from human work, but they also reflect a collaboration of humans with the rest of creation. The more we care about creation, the more we investigate. And the more we investigate, the more we find deeper connections, and broader communities of life. Yeast itself reflects a collaboration between two kinds of cells – but that’s enough biology for today. The point is that we can always enter more deeply into the mystery of communion, even when we think of it in straightforward scientific terms. We are one bread, one body in Christ. As we become more aware of our integration with the larger world, we cannot help but ask how we affect it. Do we add to, or take away from the fundamental beauty of creation? The answer, of course, is that we can do either…or both. And yet we have this great gift of reason, and with it curiosity and hope. The gift of reason allows us to ask and act, to be intentional about our communities to build a greater collaboration in fuller appreciation of God and Gospel. Jesus asks us to love our neighbor, friend or enemy, family or stranger. We take this Sunday, this feast day, to remember that neighbors are not only human. Our neighborhood embraces the whole of the Earth, and perhaps the stars as well. We are called, like the Good Samaritan, to care for all those we meet on the road, whoever – or whatever – they may be. I truly believe that love of God IS love of neighbor; the two are inseparable. And so I stretch myself every day to know life better, so that I might know living things better. I start with humans, but ask, what does it mean to love a pet, a dog or a cat, a bird or a salamander. What might it mean to reach out further and love a yeast or a bacterium, these creatures that live so closely with us and impact our food, our health, and our livelihood. It is hard to imagine that kind of humility, the kind of poverty that places me in community with the microbes. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. I don’t know exactly what it means to see myself from God’s perspective, and see my value, not in contrast with the value of other creatures, but as part of one bread, one body with them, part of the life and light that is Jesus Christ. I don’t know if I can love the whole world, but I believe, and I hope, by God’s grace, that by the end of my lifetime, I might love as much of it as possible, to take on the burden of loving the last and the least, to be, with Francis, part of the dance of creation.