A sermon for the Feast of St. Francis preached at Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis, MO.
Francis of Assisi helped my family to gauge the depth of the snow. At my parents’ house in Colorado, a concrete statue of Francis with birds on his shoulder stands in the view of our big window seat. When the snow falls deep during a Colorado winter, we measure the storm by how much of Francis is still visible. When the snow is light, our garden saint transforms into a garden gnome, the snow forming a conical hat on his shorn head. In a blizzard, the saint vanishes completely.
Francis was that rare sort of human being who leaves a mark on society. People across the centuries, and across faiths, find a love for this eccentric from twelfth century Italy. When he was 24 years old, he decided to take Jesus at his word, to consider the lilies of the field, and to let go of earthly cares. He famously stripped naked in the public square, and renounced his family’s wealth. Francis was the best kind of literalist, more than some religious people we have today, he took Jesus literally. He thought Jesus was serious about poverty and trust. Francis was a true literalist, and he set about restoring a church, and caring for the lost, the least, and the left out of his town. Over the next 20 years, thousands across Europe would be touched by this young man’s vision of what faith and life can mean.
I remember well the St. Francis’ days of my youth, because we got to take our dog to church. On the record, I think we should always be able to take our animals to church, but I’m not the dean. Francis was famous for his care of ALL creation. When he considered the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, he really considered them. There is a story that Francis once went down to Rome to consult with the pope. There were some disputes with local church officials, and the friars (Francis followers) were worried about what Rome would say. Francis returned, and the brothers asked him how the trip went, with nervous faces.
Francis replied: “It was so exciting. On my way back, the birds sang to me, the sun kept me warm, the stars lit the night sky.” Francis really considered those birds. To him, their words were more important than the pope’s. I suspect this is why we find some resonance in Francis today, why people who have a hard time trusting religious institutions can put some faith in Francis. Francis saw the big picture of grace.
For Francis, the Christian faith taught that we are capable of caring for God’s creation. That is one of the beauties of the faith represented in this great cathedral. We are invited to care for the earth, and all of the earth’s inhabitants. Francis spoke of “Brother Son and Sister Moon.” He befriended wolves and cicadas. In the life of Francis, we see a friendship with creation, an openness to all of life. Francis said that for his monks, their enclosure was the whole wide world.
We have a great need to learn from Francis in our time. A recent study from the World Wildlife Fund estimates that human activity has caused the loss of half of the wildlife since 1970. Not species, but total number of animals has decreased by 52 percent. The danger of humanity is that our choices have the power to destroy life, and our choices have been destructive.
Yet, Francis reminds us, the opposite is also true. Our choices have the possibility to help life flourish. Human beings can choose to live in harmony with nature, to embrace our sisters and brothers in the animal kingdom, to care for this fragile earth. We have the capacity, the talent, the intelligence to help life to flourish on this planet. We simply need to learn from better teachers. We need training in Francis’ way of caring for all of our planet’s life.
Those of you who have an animal know that changing behavior takes a lot of work. It can seem like the animal is training you (and let’s be honest, your animal IS training you.) Our very squirrelly nine-month old Labradoodle-in-training Oscar is in the congregation with my husband Eli. For Oscar’s sake, I’m going to wrap up this homily soon. Caring for an animal is a training. Caring for an animal teaches us patience, and responsiveness. We learn that we don’t live only for ourselves. Early on a dark cold morning, when I am begrudgingly walking outside, when I really don’t want to be outside, I know that my dog is a spiritual teacher, my zen master of sorts. Let’s be real you’ll do things for a puppy that you’d never do for a priest. A good pet teaches us how to sacrifice for the sake of love.
So today, we bless our animal companions. We bless the spiritual teachers we have in creation, and we give thanks for St. Francis, a man whose found God in all creation, a saint who can act as a measuring stick. Francis invites us to live into our God-given capacity to care for creation. How can we begin to treat all God’s creatures as sisters and brothers, and work together that life might flourish? Our planet and all her creatures will have a better shot at abundant life if we measure our lives against Francis.