Psalm 104; Romans 8:18-23; Luke 9:23-26
Ask someone on the street to name a Christian saint. You might encounter a pause for a moment or two, and then my guess is the name you would hear would be St. Francis. This is his day, October 4, and as you may know, here at this Cathedral we honor St. Francis every year by holding the Blessing of the Animals service out front. If you come this afternoon you’ll see dogs and cats of every size, along with goldfish and rabbits, mice and gerbils, maybe a horse or two from the Park Police.
Of course what we do here is bush league compared to what the Cathedral of St. John the Divine does in New York with its Earth Mass on St. Francis’ Day and its grand procession down the center aisle of camels and elephants, turtles and parrots, giraffes, zebras, and even tiny amoebae. There’s always next year.
St. Francis, we know, is the saint who loved nature and sensed God’s presence in every part of creation. I think it’s fair to say that he is Christianity’s most loved saint. Some of you may remember a Franco Zefferelli film of the 1960s called Brother Son, Sister Moon that captured both the spirit of Francis himself and the spirit of the hippie, flower-child age. I still remember the scene when Francis, being tried in the public square for selling his father’s bolts of cloth to give money to the poor, pulls every thread of his own clothes off, declares his freedom from the clutter of possessions, and becomes a wandering, penniless servant of God.
Philip Mangano, who has led the federal government’s efforts to fight homelessness, says he was converted to Christian faith watching that movie. All of a sudden he saw what a life fully alive could look like, and the cause of the poor became the work of his life.
But today I have to admit that after a youthful infatuation with him, for many years St. Francis was not my favorite saint. He seemed too extreme, unrealistic, over the top. A privileged and arrogant young man, he became as a result of a shattering crisis a poor preacher and teacher, sleeping outdoors and begging for food. There was nothing moderate or balanced about Francis; it was always one extreme or the other. And what do we do with a saint who takes Christ literally and gives away everything? How are we supposed to emulate that?
And then there were all those sentimental statues of St. Francis with a bird sitting on his shoulder that I would see decorating gardens and swimming pools—along with bird baths and in some places pink flamingos. We gas-guzzling Americans with our high-consuming lifestyles seem to love our St. Francis, but not enough to take him seriously.
Well, today I want publicly to repent of my condescension toward St. Francis and his garden admirers down through the years. I have come to think that Francis is maybe the essential saint for our time and the more statues the better. In a world that increasingly seems smaller, more frightened, and more self-destructive, St. Francis can show us another way.
Did you catch in the psalm we sang this morning the sweep of God’s providence and loving care for everything on earth—the springs in the valley, the mountains and the fields, the beasts and the birds, the grass and all the plants? “O Lord, how manifold are your works!” And did you catch the grandness of God in our New Testament lesson: “The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now,” St. Paul says. God’s saving work is not just for us humans but for all of creation—everything that exists. Every living thing has life because of God, and every inanimate part of creation is called into existence by God as well.
This is the God that Francis shows us—not a small, tribal, personal, care-giver god, but the God of all creation—the God who cares for every living thing, and even for the mountains and oceans and streams. Barbara Brown Taylor, in her new book An Altar in the World, asks, “How had I forgotten that the whole world is the House of God? Who had persuaded me that God preferred four walls and a roof to wide-open spaces?”
Francis of Assisi was born in 1182, the son of a successful cloth merchant. He grew up wealthy, spoiled, and self-indulgent, and he eventually joined the military just for the adventure. But in a war between Assisi and its neighboring city of Perugia, Francis was captured and spent a miserable year in a dark, grim prison where he also contracted malaria. The harrowing experience changed him and left him depressed and sick and wondering what to do with his life. Then one day he stopped into an old, falling down church, San Damiano, that still had a striking crucifix hanging behind the altar. Standing inside, it seemed as if Christ was looking directly at him, and he heard a voice saying, ‘Rebuild my house.’ Something happened to him at that moment that he would never be able to describe, and he began what would become a new life by going to work restoring the old building.
He began dressing in the hooded tunic of a peasant, imitating as closely as he could Christ’s poverty. The self-indulgent son of privilege now poured all his passion into living as Christ had lived. At first he was ridiculed, but slowly he won people’s respect and began to draw disciples around him.
Francis was no intellectual giant. His teachings were not complex. He simply wanted to live exactly as the gospels prescribed. Our gospel today about taking up your cross and losing your life to save it would have seemed written for him. He wanted to be “God’s fool” and to spend his time especially ministering to the poor, as Christ himself had done. And so he wandered the roads and paths of Umbria in his brown robe, trying to live as simply as Jesus, becoming friends of anyone he would meet, showing a special devotion to animals and the natural world, determined to treat all of creation with love and respect.
He had started out his new life rebuilding a church, but his life would be spent serving in the great house of God called the world. In fact, I learned from historian Thomas Cahill that during the Fifth Crusade Francis travelled to Egypt where he committed the shocking act of crossing the battle lines to meet with the Egyptian sultan, Malel el-Kamil. Francis was deeply taken with the religious devotion of the Muslims he encountered. He talked to the sultan about Jesus, and in a mosque it is reported that he prayed, “God is everywhere.” Kamil was impressed enough with Francis’s courage and sincerity that he invited him to stay for a week. After that Francis met with the cardinal appointed by the pope to lead the crusade to try to persuade him to make peace. The effort failed, but one historian describes Francis as “the first person from the West to travel to another continent with the revolutionary idea of making peace.”
But of course what comes down to us most is Francis’s love of nature—his delight in every part of the creation. He saw everything animated with God’s presence and love. He seemed to view the rocks and streams as his blood relatives. Near the end of his life Francis was often sick, frail, and increasingly blind, but still he managed to write the great song of praise “The Canticle of Creation.”
Most high, all-powerful, good Lord…
Praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures,
especially Brother Sun,
who is the day and through whom you give us light.
Praised be to you, my Lord,
through Sister Moon…
through Brother Wind…
through Sister Water…
through Brother Fire…
Praised be to you, my Lord, through our sister, Mother Earth
who sustains and governs us
and produces diverse fruits
with colored flowers and herbs.
The poem keeps going. Francis can’t stop praising, can’t stop celebrating God’s presence in every part of the world; can’t stop loving every living creature and every part of the earth. This fool for God just couldn’t hold back his delight and surrender to God’s holiness shining through everything.
You hear the same passion in the seventeenth-century Anglican poet Thomas Traherne, who wrote, “You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with stars; and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because [others] are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.”
And thanks to modern science we know that when Francis spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, he was saying something close to literal truth. Did you know that all of the carbon that is an essential part of the human body originated in nuclear explosions in stars? The atoms in us once were part of a star in the heavens. So we are literally people of stardust—brothers and sisters of the earth and the stars.
Francis shows us how urgent it is for us twenty-first-century types to learn to see the world again as charged with the grandeur and holiness of God. There is a very good chance that the survival of the human race may depend on it. If we learn to revere the world again, we won’t permit the tops of mountains to be decapitated for mining and the valleys below polluted. If we learn to revere the world we won’t stand for some of the things our guest today, ocean explorer Sylvia Earle, describes in her book: vast accumulations of human garbage the size of the state of Rhode Island floating in our oceans, for example.
It may well be that the great moral question of our time will be whether we can again see as Francis saw. If the earth is God’s creation, if as Psalm 24 says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,” then we are guests, temporary visitors with the responsibility of caring for it all during our time and then handing it on to our children and grandchildren.
As it happens we have turned out to be selfish, uncaring, destructive house guests who leave the place far worse than we found it. We Americans with 4% of the population are producing 25% of the world’s greenhouse gases. And now when the global crisis is urgent, we seem unable to offer significant leadership.
Environmental writer Bill McKibben recently reported that in the summer of 2007 sea ice in the Arctic began to melt dramatically, many decades ahead of what people had expected. By the time the summer was over, there was a quarter less ice at the pole than any time in human history. That has forced many scientists into making major revisions in their predictions and in their sense of what has to be done. The goal had been to hold the planet to a carbon dioxide level of 450 parts per million. But they saw that the catastrophe was already starting to happen at the current level of 390, and the new target had to be to hold the level to 350, well below where we are now. Soon it will become impossible to slow the change if something isn’t done.
And so, he says, the politically impossible is the urgently necessary. Dire warnings of droughts and rising sea levels and intensifying storms are coming not from delusional cranks but from the most widely respected scientists. The consequences of not acting could be disastrous.
For this, Francis is our saint. Bill McKibben doesn’t believe our politicians are capable of making the hard decisions that have to be made, and so he is calling for a people’s movement called 350.org on Saturday, October 24. He believes that it is going to have to be ordinary people seeing the world more as Francis saw it, as Jesus saw it, who will be able to bring the pressure and demand the actions necessary to protect our world and hundreds of millions of people whose lives will be devastated by rising sea levels, vast new areas of droughts, and intensifying storms.
Francis calls us to take our place in the great house of God that includes the whole world—every nation, every religion, every creature, every part of God’s creation. It is a house where different religions can live together in mutual respect, where we humans see the earth as a treasure to be honored and protected, where animals are not treated brutally for the sake of our dinner table or destroyed by our careless use of the earth. It is a home where the poor that Francis and Jesus loved are honored guests who are getting our nation’s best help.
There is a church in London—St. James Piccadilly—that has caught St. Francis’s vision of the God of all creation. There the priest just after the Eucharistic prayer holds up the plate of bread and says,
We break this bread for those who worship the God of the Hindus, for those who follow the path of the Buddha, for sisters and brothers of Islam, and the Jewish people from whom we come. We pray that one day we may be one.
We break the bread for the earth we have plundered. We pray that one day the earth may reflect in all its fullness the glory of God.
We break this bread for those who have no bread, for the starving and the homeless, for all the people who are forced to be on the move. We pray that one day the planet will be a home for every living thing and person.
We break the bread for the broken parts of ourselves. We pray that one day we may know the wholeness of Christ.
That is the vision St. Francis gave us 800 years ago, and we are still trying to learn to see as he saw, and to follow Christ with his passion. Stay with us, Brother Francis. We need you.
(Thanks to Thomas Cahill in Mysteries of the Middle Ages for the history of Francis.)