Sermon for the Feast of St. Francis
October 4, 2015
Metropolitan Community Church of Hartford
Commentary: I don’t think the connection is as strong as I would like between the Gospel text/Jesus and the St. Francis story. But it went well. Texts are below.
A reading from the wisdom of the poet Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
In these human words, God’s voice is heard.
Matthew 6:25-33 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your God feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will God not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed God knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the commonwealth of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Today’s gospel passage makes me twitchy. It’s part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus tells us just about everything we need to know about how to be his followers. The Sermon on the Mount includes the Beatitudes, the prayer that Jesus taught, the admonition not to judge others, the exhortation to love our enemies, and the command to love our neighbors as ourselves. While all of those aspects of following Jesus are challenging, for me, none of them are as difficult to follow as the instructions in this passage. Don’t worry? Are you kidding me, I want to ask Jesus. Do you even KNOW me?
Because I am a worrier. I am a worrier to the point that it sometimes paralyzes me. Last week, April and I were getting ready for our vacation, which we had dubbed the Great Southern Road Trip. It was basically 6 days in the car, driving down to Georgia to do a wedding and a baptism, and back, with stops along the way to see family and friends and visit DC. We had decided to take coolers with food rather than eating fast food along the way.
Now, I was all for this idea for several reasons, but I had no idea how to make it happen. For me, the idea of trying to figure out what to buy and pack – what we would actually eat, what wouldn’t spoil – was overwhelming. Added to that was the worry about how much ice we would need, how often we would have to buy or find more, where and how we would empty out the water when the ice melted, how drippy things in the cooler would get and would we remember a towel … well let’s just say I was paralyzed with worry.
Not so my wife. While she is a very practical person, she is NOT given to worry. She made a list of foods she thought we would need and enjoy on the trip (including peanut butter and jelly), and we went to the store where we bought what was on the list. She trusted that what we bought would be just fine for the trip, and that we could replenish ice and other essentials along the way. She packed a towel in the bag of dry goods, along with salt, pepper, napkins and entire roll of paper towels. At no point was she paralyzed with worry because she trusts that as long as we do the best we can, things will work out.
This is what Jesus is trying to teach us with these examples about the lilies and the birds. The word is that is translated as worry in this passage means something like “absorbed by” or “concerned with.” So Jesus is encouraging us not to be absorbed by or concerned with what we will eat or what we will wear. He tells us to instead be absorbed by and concerned with God’s reign and God’s justice and trust that when we are doing God-work, things will work out.
But much like our food packing, this is not a magic formula. We have to be about doing the work – there’s no magic. But we don’t have to be consumed with materialism. In our day, materialism takes on many forms, and is almost glorified. Money, careers, material things and cultural conformity are the values of our society. “Keep up with the Joneses! Get the latest technology, the biggest house, the fanciest car.” I bet I’m not the only person here who has spent time wondering what I’m doing wrong because I don’t have the house or car of my dreams.
But Jesus’ message is not “Do things right and I’ll reward you with Solomon’s splendor.” Sometimes I kind of wish that was the message. Follow the rules and you’ll have a nice house, or perhaps something as simple as not having to worry about food or clothing or how to pay the bills. But that’s not the message. Rather, we are told to seek God’s justice and God’s reign and trust that the rest will work itself out. So very hard.
St. Francis, whose feast day is today, took this lesson very much to heart. St. Francis is known for his love of animals, which is why churches often do pet blessings around St. Francis Day. He was, in fact, a lover of animals. He saw animals as siblings of human beings because we are all created by our loving God.
Stories about the life of St. Francis include that he preached to the birds, which would flock around him and perch on him to listen. Another is that he talked with a wolf that was terrorizing a village and convinced him to stop if the villagers would give the wolf food every day. And the wolf agreed to this plan and eventually became so friendly with the villagers that they mourned when it died. So it’s not surprising that St. Francis is often depicted all sweet and clean with lots of cute cartoon-y animals all around him.
But the truth is a little more complicated. The truth is that St. Francis probably looked a lot more like a homeless guy on the street. When Francis decided to follow Jesus, sometime around 1205, he went all in. He began by hanging around the lepers in town (the most despised people there were in that society), and after a while, Francis’ wealthy father accused him in the town court of shunning his responsibilities. Francis actually agreed with his father and the story goes that there in the middle of town stripped naked, handed his clothes to his father, and renounced his family’s money.
Eventually, he writes in his “Testament,” “God gave me brothers,” — others who were following Francis and his belief that giving up all possessions and trusting God for everything was the best way to follow Jesus. In 1210, Francis went to the Pope and asked to establish a monastic order. He was worried that the church might notice his growing band of brothers and realize that their way of life implied criticism of the wealth of the church. Which of course, it did.
By the time Francis died, he had given up control of his community, because it had gotten so large. And even before his death, the church was co-opting his popularity, building a large, grand basilica in Assisi in honor of a man who refused to own more than one tunic or any other material possessions, and for whom poverty was a founding principle of his order, the Franciscans. The church even went so far as to punish the Franciscans who wanted to remain faithful to living in poverty by declaring that anyone who taught that Jesus and the disciples lived in absolute poverty was teaching heresy.
Jesus and Francis were both radicals for their time and both were at odds with the empire and with the religious leaders of their day. And that’s where we can learn from them both. We can learn to seek out an alternative, countercultural way of living – an “alternative lifestyle” if you will. Many of us in the queer community and our friends and loved ones already understand this. Perhaps we’ve had to seek out “families of choice” when our biological families have rejected us. Perhaps we’ve been seen as radical, crazy, or too outspoken about “those issues,” and have to rely on our community to accept us and welcome us.
Living counterculturally doesn’t mean that we don’t have to attend to our needs, however. Like all created beings, we need food, and clothing, and shelter. And for some of us, or maybe for all of us at different times, finding those things for ourselves and our loved ones is our primary concern. During those times, we may feel that seeking God’s reign and God’s justice is a luxury. But if all of us Jesus followers are first seeking the realm of God, living in the countercultural way of St. Francis and Jesus, we will be there to help our siblings who need us – to be their family and their community. That’s what it means to seek God’s reign and God’s justice in this world.
St. Francis believed that we are all a part of creation – none higher or lower than any other. That radical notion made him appear crazy and created a huge counter cultural family that endures to this day in the Franciscan monks. Check out our local Franciscans at St. Patrick St. Anthony some Saturday. They are still subverting the Catholic Church hierarchy by radically welcoming all God’s children.
And let’s all follow Francis’ model by living in a way that sets us apart from society in our love and care for each other and for all whom society deems less worthy.