The Feast of St. Francis (Transferred) | St. Paul’s, Evansville

Joanna Benskin | 9 October 2022 | Job 39:1-18 | Psalm 121 | Romans 8:18-25 | Matthew 11:25-30

Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may, for love of you, delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Today we welcome animals into the church, and we celebrate the life of St. Francis. We’ll keep things simple today; we’ve got critters to bless and vanities of the world to renounce and creation to enjoy. So we’ll remember St. Francis’ story and reflect on the gifts his holy life offers us now. In the words of our collect, St. Francis renounced the vanities of this world and delighted in God’s creation.

Francis was a generous kid drawn to spiritual things. His family had made a comfortable life as silk merchants in medieval Italy, and Francis enjoyed the luxuries of that life.

The stories tell us that in his early 20s, Francis had a vision in a church near his home. Christ appeared to him and called on him to repair the church. Francis tried to use his family’s wealth to pay for repairs, and his father beat him, locked him up, and took legal action to disinherit him.

Some versions of the story even say that while the trial was going on, Francis renounced his inheritance and stripped naked to give back the clothing that belonged to his family. The bishop then covered Francis with his robe.

Francis went on to found the Franciscan order, a brotherhood of monks dedicated to poverty. With them, Francis preached the good news of Jesus, lived simply, prayed, and found holiness among people begging and sick people, where he saw Christ’s presence most clearly on earth.

St. Francis saw all people as sisters and brothers and siblings, and even claimed a kinship with God’s non-human creations. There’s a story about Francis negotiating a peace treaty with a wolf that was terrorizing a town called Gubbio.

There’s also a story that when Francis was travelling with some of his brother monks, they came up to some trees full of birds. And Francis said, “Wait a bit. I’m going up there to preach to our sisters the birds.” And he came close, and he spoke God’s love to the birds, and they didn’t fly away.

St. Francis is known for his delight in God’s whole creation as good and beloved and interconnected. We see that joy in creation in our reading from Job. The mountain goats and the wild donkeys and the ostriches might be beyond our control. Sometimes the world’s creatures are beyond our understanding. And yet, God made them too. God delights in them too, and we can share God’s delight in them. They are part of creation with us.

St. Francis wrote a prayer called the Canticle of the Sun to give thanks to God for different parts of creation and claim them as our sisters and brothers and friends. He wrote:

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and pure.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night; and he is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong.

And so this is one of the gifts of St. Francis’ life for us: to help us see the beauty and wonder of creation around us. This is why we (and many churches) bless animals near St. Francis’ feast day—because St. Francis saw God’s creatures as holy and good and worthy of our respect. St. Francis shows us how to “delight in God’s whole creation with perfectness of joy.”

And this might seem like a paradox in St. Francis’ life—he both rejects the world and loves the world.

He turns his back on the life that’s expected of him: the money, the busyness of the family trade, the comfort and respectability that his family worked so hard for. And in doing so, he turns to face the world God offers—the face of Christ amid poverty and suffering, a kinship that includes the sun and the moon, the water and the wolves and the birds.

He says no to one form of enjoying the world in order to say yes to a different one. We see this in the language we use at baptism: Our faith calls us to “joy and wonder in all God’s works,” and at the same time calls us to renounce “all sinful desires that draw us [away] from the love of God.” Though most of us aren’t going to be saints like Francis, we are called to this same tension.

This paradox—where we both love the world and reject the world—exists for a reason. It’s because the world itself is in a crisis of identity, and we’re right there with it. St. Paul tells us in Romans that creation itself longs to be set free.

Creation is in labor; creation is still waiting for what God will do. God is in the process of redeeming this world, and right now it is both wondrous and wandering astray. The world we live in is both God’s glorious and beloved creation and at the same time, it’s a place full of distractions and cruelty and confusion.

And so it makes sense that we both need to “renounce the vanities of this world” and “delight in God’s whole creation.” For St. Francis, the renouncing led to the delight. Giving up his share of wealth and comfort and social importance was what led him to the kind of life where he could see Christ in his poorest neighbors and commune with the birds.

So I wonder what that call might look like for us now. I wonder how we might reject the vanities of this world in order to delight in what God has made and claim our kinship with creation. We can start small.

 Maybe instead of buying something that we don’t need and that won’t last, we could share that money with someone we know who could use a hand.

Maybe there’s a claim on our time this week that we might do out of habit or obligation, but we kind of know it will be neither useful nor joyful—and maybe we could try crossing that thing off the calendar this time. Maybe we could take a walk in the woods or snuggle an animal instead.

Maybe we’re being hard on someone and we could ease off. Or maybe there’s a relationship where we never feel like we’re seen as good enough; maybe we could start to let go of that person’s expectations a bit and make room for joy.

Because God wants to give us joy, friends. God wants to free us along with all of creation. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Perhaps like St. Francis, we’ll find that when we renounce the vanities of this world, it’s our own heavy burdens that we’ve laid down. And we can walk a little lighter.

There’s a lightness to St. Francis’ way in the world—he suffered pain and trouble on the path he chose, and yet his gift was to see the beauty God gave in the midst of it. Releasing control opened St. Francis up to new kinds of joy and wonder and connection and playfulness.

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney gets at this sense of play in a poem about St. Francis preaching to the birds, and we’ll end with that:

When Francis preached love to the birds

They listened, fluttered, throttled up

Into the blue like a flock of words

Released for fun from his holy lips.

Then wheeled back, whirred about his head,

Pirouetted on brothers’ capes.

Danced on the wing, for sheer joy played

And sang, like images took flight.

Which was the best poem Francis made,

His argument true, his tone light.

Friends, may we also find such lightness as we lay our burdens down and delight in God’s whole creation. Amen.

A manuscript illumination of St. Francis with birds and animals, from Italy ca. 1320-42; in the public domain and accessed through the Met Gallery online.