Genesis 2:18-25 ‘Animals created as partners’
Psalm 148 ‘All creatures praise the Lord’
Matthew 6:25-29 ‘How God has made creation beautiful’
Threads of Life, Rev. Fred Kinsey
Why did he do it? Francis of Assisi had everything. He was born into wealth and privilege. His father was a very successful merchant of cloth, who married a woman from a wealthy family from France. They had made sure Francis was educated at all the best schools, and groomed him to become a leading man in Assisi, to carry on the family business, and do even better than his parents. But none of that was to be.
How did this heir to a family fortune, end up changing the world, as creator of an Order, based on vows of poverty? Did it start with the kiss of a ravaged leper’s hand, when giving him his cloak just didn’t seem like enough? Or perhaps it started before that, when Francis was captured as a prisoner of war?
Francis was about 19 or 20 when he joined the battle of his home town, Assisi, against a neighboring city, Perugia. But despite the exuberance of valor, and the protection of his armor, Francis was captured and spent nearly a year, helplessly waiting, until ransom would finally arrive. Then in his release, a debilitating fever overwhelmed him. He received no warriors’ welcome back home, only convalescence. Like soldiers who miss the danger and risk of war, Francis intended to enlist again as soon as he recovered. But his ambitions of knighthood were reoriented unexpectedly by a vision or dream, which bid him to return to Assisi and await a ‘call’ to a new kind of knighthood. Very mysterious! But Francis took it deadly serious. Was this what transformed him?
As Francis awaited the call, he didn’t do nothing! He dedicated himself to solitude and prayer. He searched all the way to Rome, where outside the Vatican he experienced the poverty of beggars, and even though he had feared lepers, he was moved to minister to one, giving alms and kissing his hand.
Or was it, as his biographer claimed, the incident at the ruined chapel of San Damiano, just outside the gate of Assisi? There Francis heard the crucifix above the altar command him: “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see, is well-nigh in ruins?”
So, was this it? Was this his new knighthood? Whether Francis knew it or not, he was slowly but surely becoming alienated from his upbringing, his family, and the wealth of the kingdom of this world. This pleasure-loving cloth merchant’s son, was becoming disoriented from all he had been taught, and reoriented in his understanding of the ‘threads’ that hold together the basic goods of life.
At first, thinking he was supposed to physically rebuild the old chapel, Francis started selling off his family’s warehouse of woven goods to finance the project – before his father called the cops on him! And taken to trial before the bishop in the public marketplace, Francis admitted this expropriation of goods, and promptly returned his father’s money. But then, in front of the whole town, he started stripping off the rich robes, the fine threads of a privileged cloth merchant’s son he wore, handed them to his dad, and, stark naked before the townspeople claimed, “Hitherto I have called you father on earth; but now I say, “our Father, who art in heaven.” In shock, the bishop hastily covered Francis with a peasant’s smock.
In time, Francis would add only a cross to make the transformation complete. As a person of privilege, Francis had taken up the cross, that the poor and powerless already carry, and now stood with them utterly dependent in their prayer for “daily bread,” deliverance, and resurrection joy. His renouncing of human wealth and power, and his new open-air lifestyle, first attracted ridicule, but gradually other young men and women (Clare of Assisi) also became radicalized, and the Franciscan, and Poor Clare movements, were born.
As a deacon of the church, Francis embraced material poverty as the way of Christ toward a rich and sacramental connection to all living things. This included the rejection of violence as an offense against the Gospel’s command to love – antithetical to the reverence and wonder, due all living things, as a reflection of their Creator’s love. The Orders of Francis and Clare kept to this simple rule of love for all creation, but had an especially tender heart, for all things dependent on God’s love and care, and our reflection of that love and care, in service to these creatures, in the web of all life.
I wonder if Francis’ realization of his essential nakedness, and his deliberate embrace of dependence on God as the path to joy, is at the heart of his sacramental awareness of the gift of all the small creatures, so that he might call them sisters and brothers? Today, we bring our animals, these siblings we love, to be blessed, in honor of St. Francis, recognizing in them, and in their companionship, a loyal love and a tender dependence on us, that puts us in mind of our life in God.
In our Gospel, Jesus says, 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
In this, Jesus encourages and teaches his followers to not lose heart, in our path of discipleship. This was the task of the Franciscans who took up a life of poverty, so that the rest of us could learn the gospel message and become followers too.
I am reminded of that popular image of St Francis, the statues found in gardens everywhere, of the robed saint with hands outstretched, to welcome the birds he is said to have preached to. When we lived in the UP, one of our cross-country ski trails had a shelter with a fireplace to stop and warm yourself at. Someone had also stored a bag of sunflower seeds there. Because, if you filled your hands with the seeds and stood out in the snow with your hands outstretched, the chickadees would find you, come lite on your fingers, look you in the eye, and grab a seed or two, before flying off. I don’t know if we were preaching to the bold little birds as much as they, in their clerical black and white feathers, were reassuring us that we are cared for by our Creator God!
“Therefore I tell you,” said Jesus, “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?”
For Francis, the clothing that created his privilege from the riches of his father’s business, were not nearly as attractive as the simple threads of his Franciscan robe that connected him with the kingdom of God, and the spiritual riches of the web of life. Francis teaches us what is important in life, and what to prioritize.
Or as Emerson Powery says: “God will take care of you ... so take care of God's justice in the world. There is more to life than concern for daily needs, though this may be difficult for some (cf. 6:11). But Jesus expects his followers to put forward energy into things that give more meaning to life. We must strive to discern how God is working in the world (i.e., "God's kingdom") and how to participate in acts of justice on God's behalf (i.e., "God's righteousness" [vs.33]). Beyond that, everything else will take care of itself. [workingpreacher.org]
And finally, from our 2nd Reading and Psalm today, words and belief’s St Francis himself, it seems to me, could easily have penned:
(Psalm 148) 10wild beasts | and all cattle,
creeping things and | flying birds; …
13Let them praise the name | of the LORD,
whose name only is exalted, whose splendor is over | earth and heaven.
(Rev. 5) 13Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing:
“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” 14And the four living creatures said, “Amen!”
May we, with Francis, have such joy, humility, and trust in God. May the threads of our lives be woven into the fabric of the kingdom of God, as we await the day of righteousness and renewal.