[N.B., A sermon delivered at St. Richard’s Episcopal parish, Winter Park, FL, Oct. 6, 2019 on celebration of The Feast of St. Francis and Animal Blessing]
|Cross in San Damiano Chapel which spoke to Francis: "Rebuild my church."|
“Both here and in all your churches around the world, we adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross [+] you have redeemed the world.” (Traditional Franciscan prayer upon entering and departing a church) AMEN.
Blessed Feast of St. Francis, everyone! This is a special day on the church’s calendar and a special day in the life of our parish. It is a day I, as a third order Franciscan, look forward to each year.
But why do we celebrate this day on which Francis of Assisi died? What is so special about Francis? I think that with the exception of this particular feast day, this parish follows the church calendar devotedly. While we may celebrate the feast days of other saints at our morning and evening prayer services, our Taize services, and the special services we hold throughout the year, this is the only main Sunday service of which I am aware that we deviate from the Church Calendar to celebrate a saint. For the record, this would ordinarily be the 17th Sunday after Pentecost.
So why Francis? What is so special about this feast day?
The life of Francis offers us some clues. He was a man of privilege who gave it all up to serve the poor and the sick. A real hell raiser in his younger life, he was called the Prince of Fools by his drinking buddies who often drank on Francis’ dime. But after being captured during one of the ongoing wars against nearby city-state Perugia, Francis spent a year in a dungeon awaiting his ransom. There he had time to reflect. And when he came home to Assisi, he was a different man.
One of the changes in Francis was a newfound compassion for the poor, especially the lepers. A man born into a life of leisure, he had come face to face with the disturbing lesson that many of us must come to grips with: lives of privilege often come at the expense of the poor. As the prophet Jeremiah says in today’s lesson: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages…” Jeremiah says the just king is he who is conscious of “the cause of the poor and needy.”
Francis would devote the rest of his life to working with the many impoverished people who lived in the shadows of the prosperous city-states like Assisi.
So the first reason we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis is that he is a living example of human transformation, of redemption, and of ongoing human development ever more into the likeness of G-d. If Francis can grow and change, so can we.
Another change in Francis was a shift of his attentions from the transitory pleasures gained from his own 13th CE version of a consumerist society to the immense treasures of the natural world all around him. In doing so, Francis rejected the fearful vision of the medieval church that saw the world as fallen, sinful and full of evil just waiting for an opportunity to spring itself on unwitting victims. The psalm for today reflects a bit of the vision that Francis saw: “Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars; Wild beasts and all cattle, creeping things and winged birds; Fire and hail, snow and fog, [even] tempestuous wind, [all] doing his will…”
Where the medieval church looked around the world and saw sinfulness, evil and danger in every direction, Francis’ vision saw beauty, goodness, joy. Everywhere Francis looked, he saw the image of the Holy One.
So the second reason we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis is that he lifts up our gaze from our own transitory, consumerist lives and redirects them to the beauty of the natural world around us. And in a time when “this fragile earth, our island home” is in serious need of our attention, the wisdom of Francis’s vision is surely needed.
Along with the natural world, Francis’ understanding of the goodness of creation decidedly included us human animals. He held an exalted vision of human nature and an accompanying appreciation for the human body. This was a clear departure from and a badly needed corrective to the fearful visions of the human body that informed the medieval church and still informs the vision of many religious conservatives today.
There are many humanities scholars who believe this new appreciation for the human body was one of the causes of the Renaissance which would sweep Francis’ Italy a mere two centuries later. Indeed, in the Basillica in Assisi which bears Francis’ body, a number of frescoes depicting the life of Francis by artists with names like Giotto and Cimabue would demonstrate the first stirrings of the great gift to the world of the Renaissance – the use of perspective in art.
Similarly there are scholars in the social sciences who trace some of the roots of notions of human rights to Francis’ insistence upon respect for the image of G-d borne by every human being, beginning with those for whom his own society held little regard. Matthew’s Gospel today reports Jesus speaking to the little ones of his own time whom he loved. “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to these little ones, for Father, such was your gracious will.”
The cherishing of the little ones, the least of those in his own society, strongly informed Francis’ insistence that underneath the veneers of poverty and illness, the image of G-d was present on every human face, whether we could see it or not. Mother Theresa would later echo Francis’ vision in her work with the dying in inner city Calcutta whose divine image she insisted hid beneath “the distressing disguise of the poor.”
In today’s Epistle St. Paul speaks of his “carrying the marks of Jesus branded on my body.” Francis’ extensive work with lepers may well explain the famous stigmata that he bore as well as the loss of his vision as he neared a premature death at the age of 45. In his dying words, Francis said that if he had to do anything differently he would have been kinder to Brother Ass, his name for his own body. Not surprisingly, one of the many legacies of the Franciscan movement is the string of hospitals that his order operates around the world.
So a third reason we celebrate St. Francis this day is that he has called us to value our Selves, our bodies and all other human beings as very good creations of G-d.
Finally, the legacy of Francis offers us a positive vision of our relationship with G_d, Creation and the Afterlife. While Franciscans have not been known for their scholarship, St. Bonaventure, a peer of Saint Thomas Aquinas at the University of Paris, would articulate an alternative orthodoxy from the Augustinian vision that had dominated western Christianity.
Bonaventure envisioned a G-d whose relationship to human beings begins at our creation, continues throughout our lives and ends with our reunion with G-d. He insisted that our connection to G-d is inseverable, even by human sin, even by our decision to ignore or reject that connection.
Thus, for Bonaventure, it seemed obvious that we come from G-d, we find our existence in G-d and ultimately we return to G-d. I have to say as a Franciscan that I find that understanding much more compelling than any of the theologies which speak of separation from G-d and any conditionality of G-d’s relationship to us. My guess is that many of you do as well.
So a final reason we celebrate Francis and his Franciscan legacy this day is because he offers us a theology of hope, of connectedness, of divine presence, that is not conditioned upon anything. That, in my view, points toward a G-d worth worshipping and a saint worth venerating.
So why celebrate St. Francis? He is a saint who models for us the possibilities of redemption, of transformation, of ongoing development ever more into the likeness of G-d. He is a saint who call us to cherish the natural world we have been given to lovingly maintain, where the goodness of G-d can be seen everywhere we look. He is a saint who calls us to value our own lives and our bodies, just as they are, and to see the image of G_d in every child of G_d, the image that is always there even when it is buried beneath the distressing disguises of poverty, disease, addiction, and, yes, even the political ideologies with which we violently disagree. Finally, he is a saint who reassures us we can trust G-d with our very lives, both in this world and the next.
This is a saint worth breaking out of our Sunday calendar to revere. For me and for many, Francis models a spiritual path worth following. And for all of us, to the degree that path incarnates the Way of Jesus, it is a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston 2019