Feast of St Francis (patron saint of animals and creation)
Jeremiah 22:13-16; Galatians 6:14-16; Matthew 11:25-30
Sermon given 4 October 2020 at St. Luke’s Episcopal, Seattle.
Good morning, friends. How are you doing? No, really, how are you feeling in your body? Are your muscles taught, waiting for the next bad news? How is your self-care going? Have you fed and watered yourself this morning, poured your daily tea or coffee? What is the weight of your spirit today? It is October, so I just wanted to check.
When did you last intentionally touch the leaf of a plant, or feel the new growth of a tree, or any other living being? For the gardeners, how are your plants treating you this season? Do they inspire you with their flowers and fruit? My spouse and I planted columbine plugs in the spring that we had picked up from the King County Conservation district. We have been stunned to see one plant offer up three little flame colored flowers, and another has filled out, deciding to devote its energy to leafing rather than producing blossoms. They’re such jewels under our big fir tree, bursting into color as soon as the sun touches the petals. . . What riches have you stumbled across lately?
Regardless of how we’re feeling, you and I have made it this far into the pandemic, and there seems to be no end in sight. Summer weather has allowed for some movement (most weeks), but the season is changing. Murmurs in the news and in conversations have us starting to pivot toward winter—but, this morning, let us pause, together, just for a moment. Take a deep breath. And another one. Let today be a centering prayer. All those worried thoughts can just dissipate into the fog, you do not need to hold on to them. Instead, notice the air, look for signs of change among the trees, listen to different sounds from the birds. Lean in to the spirit of St Francis of Assisi and of St Clare. (And) Hopefully you can join us later this morning (virtually or here socially distanced) as Mother Hilary offers blessings for our little beasties, in honor of Francis, patron saint of animals and the environment.
Saints Francis and Clare ordered their lives according to vows of complete renunciation of goods and property. Through a mystical vision, Francis was inspired to divest himself of worldly possessions and to start a church order that espoused absolute poverty. His little friars were instructed not to take any money for their work—not even to buy clothes (or books!). In the year 1212, Clare, eldest daughter of a nobleman, heard Francis preach during Lent and decided she, too, must follow this way of service and poverty. With the help of Francis and an aunt of hers, Clare made a daring escape on Palm Sunday. Some days later she was followed by her younger sister, Agnes. Both girls, Clare especially, were supposed to have married well to further the wealth of their family. But instead, they chose to follow the gospel message to leave everything behind and follow Christ. Without the protection of Francis and other members of her family, no doubt Clare and Agnes would have been forced back by their father to live a very different life. I wish I had had time to research the friendship between Francis and Clare. The fact that a young woman inspired a whole new monastic order at this particular time in history is surely a compelling story. But, as with so much of Christian history, we are left with a man’s writings to tell us of the women who potentially did far greater things.
In the writings of St Francis, there is a “Prayer to obtain Poverty” it says, in part,
“O Lord Jesus, show me the way of thy very dear Poverty…for I am tormented for love of her, and I have no peace away from her… Thou hast made me [love] her, and behold, she is full of sadness, repulsed by all…Lord Jesus, Poverty is the queen of virtues, for her Thou didst leave the throne of the angels and came down to this earth; in thine eternal love thou hast espoused her…[and] she was so faithfully devoted to thee.”From the “Prayer to obtain Poverty”
This figure, also referred to as Lady Poverty, holds a very specific place in Francis’ imagination. He speaks of her as others speak of the Holy Spirit: in terms of her intimacy with the person of Jesus, her presence at Jesus’ birth, throughout his life and, especially, at his crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Lady Poverty seems to represent the denial of every material comfort that Francis himself chose to eschew when he left his life of wealth and privilege. And as the “queen of virtues” all other principles for monastic living are oriented toward Poverty. For him, Lady Poverty is almost more desirable than Wisdom.
This intensity of ascetic living is difficult to envision today. Church and society tend to favor independence over communal living, to begin with, and to preach a gospel of (more or less) total self-sufficiency. Don’t be a burden on anyone. We even allow it to creep into our language around mental and emotional health. I did it at the beginning when asking about your self-care. Dependency of any kind is seen as the antithesis of a virtue. But it is this personal-bubble imaginary that keeps us from truly seeing much further beyond our mobile devices.
What I find interesting about saints Francis and Clare is how their refusal to own material goods translates to an attentiveness to the natural world and the worship of creation—not, as in, creation becomes an object of worship, but rather that they become attuned to creation’s own acts of worship. Perhaps you’ve heard another work that St Francis is known for, called the “Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon” (or the “Canticle of Creatures”). What’s remarkable is just how scriptural it sounds. He writes:
“Praised be You my Lord with all Your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
Who is the day through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor,
Of You Most High, he bears the likeness.”
“Praised be You my Lord through Sister Water,
So useful, humble, precious and pure.”
Compare that to our Psalm from today which begins:
Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights!
Praise him, sun and moon; praise him all you shining stars! (148:1, 3)
In the language of praise, we catch a glimpse of how creation relates with God through worship. Do we know this to be absolutely true about the rest of creation? Is it possible for things to communicate in this way? Who can say? But think about Genesis, how humans were last to come to the party on the sixth day. Or how in Job, when God speaks out of the whirlwind and demands, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”. .“Do you give the horse its might? Do you clothe its neck with mane?” (38:4; 39:19) In this creation theology there is little room for human grandiosity.
Turning to today’s readings we hear of King Josiah of Judah who (as Jeremiah reminds the king’s son) defended the poor, did justice and still ate well, which was a sign of riches and divine provision. In the Galatians passage Paul reminds us not to boast in anything but the cross of Christ. The prestige or social marking of circumcision means nothing in light of the resurrected Jesus (though it may have meant holding on to certain protections for those early Jesus followers under Roman occupation). For Paul, it is more important to live into the promise of becoming a new creation in Christ (which is the baptismal journey) than to hold onto the comforts of privilege. Here he echoes what he said at the beginning of his letter, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (2:19b-20a)
We can see these messages lived out through the rule of St. Francis. Poverty and humble service are key refrains under the Franciscan order. They are also easily romanticized. If you have seen the 1972 film, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, you would be excused for thinking that St. Francis was a pre-Enlightenment hippie flower child who just wanted to give out free hugs to human and nonhuman kin. A slightly more realistic/sober appropriation comes from historian Lynn White, Jr. who, in a 1967 article entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” suggested that Francis might be just the saint we need to correct the kind of slash and burn theology that supports economic development to the detriment of ecological vibrancy (and, I would add, sociocultural resilience). Pope Francis has furthered the ecogroovy connection particularly through his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Sí, “On Care of Our Common Home.” Poverty and humble service invite us humans to refrain from constructing a world in which we are the center of the universe, so that we might make space for our fellow creatures. But, of course, we already have constructed such a world. In which case, perhaps a disarming saint with flower power is exactly who we need right now. Or, following in the spirit of Francis and Clare, perhaps it is time to learn from the plants.
Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, of a gift economy of strawberries and the sacred intimacy of sweetgrass. Writing out of her experience as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and as a trained scientist, she allows her own journey to guide the narrative. “To walk the science path I had stepped off the path of indigenous knowledge.” Early in her career she attended a special gathering and, after listening to a Navajo woman speak for hours of the plants in the valley where the woman lives, Kimmerer says, “Her words were like smelling salts waking me to what I had known back when I was picking strawberries.” Plant life, its many voices, relations, dependencies and needs become the focus of the text, the “teachers,” reading and being read against the scientific tradition, starting with significant differences in language and naming. Strawberries, also called “heart” berries, are symbols of a complex gift economy in which a circular dynamic of responsibility, generosity and obligation forms a basis for communal relations. “Generosity is simultaneously a moral and a material imperative.” In other words, a plant gives generously when it receives the nutrients, light, and water it needs. Without those elements it cannot support the lives dependent upon it. We humans as apex creatures have an obligation to give generously to one another and to the rest of creation. And we know that environmental racism is a real thing—just look to the Duwamish, the river and the people.
But we are in the midst of a pandemic. How do we do all this—a new gift economy, new responsibilities, changing obligations. That is why we are going to take a moment today to step outside, and simply pause. Listen for the praises of our fellow creatures: of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, of water and wind, of flower and seed. Let your mind reach out to the cedar and Douglas fir, the broad leaf maple and the white oak. Then, imagine that you are among the crowd listening to Jesus give this invitation, “Come to me, all who are weary, carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” We can learn from a gentle Jesus and we can learn from plants together.