One of the things I always wonder about the St. Francis Day service with its furry, scaly, feathered, and winged worshippers, is why we only do this once a year? And then the service starts and I remember why—because it is a crazy thing to do. Nuts. As the opening sentence or hymn starts I, and I am guessing others too, become aware that chaos is lurking just beneath the surface, and wondering when it will be let loose. Will a dog go after one of the cats or will one of the cats notice that there is a cage with a bird in it one pew over? Will one of the snakes bust loose and head for a neighboring pew? Celebrating St. Francis Day is risky business because we cannot know how much growling, hissing, tail wagging and purring might occur. Which, in a way, is true of every Sunday.
But celebrating the Feast of St. Francis with our animal friends makes us more aware of the fact that relationship always involves risk, and that the God who risked everything for us calls us into relationship anyway–with God, and with all our fellow creatures, the infinitely varied works of the divine hands. It is, however, appropriate that we do something a little crazy today because St. Francis, Francesco Bernardone, was considered more than a little crazy in his own day.
In his 20’s he stood naked in the middle of the town marketplace and renounced his sizable inheritance in front of his parents, the bishop, and the entire population of Assisi. The townspeople thought this was more than a little odd–began to wonder about his mental health. Then, when he hung out with lepers and cleaned his wounds with his hands, well that just confirmed their suspicions.
Later on he preached to the birds, calling them his little sisters and little brothers and commenting that they paid better attention to the Gospel than the people did, which didn’t quite seem normal and didn’t go over very well. The icing on the cake was when he founded a religious order grounded in the belief that Jesus’ disciples could live as he did–owning nothing, begging for what they needed and trusting that God would provide for them just as God provided for the birds and for the lilies.
People who had a lot of stuff–more than they needed—thought Francis was crazy because he refused to distinguish between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor but simply gave to anyone who begged for anything from him: food, clothes, a smile, a kind word. While those who resented the rich couldn’t begin to fathom why he wouldn’t condemn them and their selfishness but rather just asked his wealthy brothers and sisters to open their hearts to the Holy Spirit, and then respond as their conscience commanded.
We have likely always thought of Francis as a saint, but in his day pretty much everything he did confirmed the commonly held suspicion that he had lost his mind. And the funny thing is that Francis didn’t even try to correct them. Instead he referred to himself as a “fool,” specifically, a “fool for Christ.” One who was fool enough to believe Jesus might have actually meant what he said–meant his disciples to live as he had instructed:
“Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.” “Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” “If your brother or sister sins against you, forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”
For the past 2000 years followers of Jesus have been diligently looking for the loopholes in these teachings. Parsing them. Looking for the ways we can hang onto whatever it is we treasure more than God. Scholars have all sorts of ways to couch and soften the texts.
But Francis was not a scholar– he had no need to pick apart Jesus’ teachings– he simply responded with his life– embodying the Gospel. He personified the “infants” Jesus talks about in our Gospel reading this morning– that is, the people who know that the risen Christ is with us and will sustain us as we seek to live as his body in the world. Francis took hold of this pure faith with single–mindedness and firmness. He lived a life of deep vulnerability and deep joy– which really seem to be sides of the same coin. He was unconstrained by all of the barriers humans erect to make ourselves feel safe. The barriers between us and those who have less than we do, in whose presence we feel ashamed; between us and those who have more than we do, in whose presence we feel jealous; between us and those we’ve hurt; and between us and those who have done us harm. The barriers between human and nonhuman animals, whom we too often treat as objects, disregarding the fact that they have their own inner lives of which we understand very little; and between us and the rest of creation, which we try more often to control than to respect.
Francis called his friends–he calls us– to stop trusting walls, physical and emotional, to keep us safe. Instead, he invites you and me to join him in a life of holy adventure, entrusting ourselves to the care of the one who entered this world as a helpless infant, who relied as an adult on the generosity of friends and strangers, who suffered torture and public execution–and who rose again as the Lord of all creation.
The Feast of St. Francis is a day to bless animals and to ask God’s forgiveness for our mistreatment of them and of the Earth, the home we share with them. And in celebration of our brother from Assisi, it’s also a day to bless children, a day to bless the poor, a day to bless our enemies, and a day to bless holy fools who are crazy enough to live as citizens of God’s kingdom in this life, not waiting for the next. Having lived his life that way, on his deathbed Francis offered his friends a final prayer: “I have done what is mine. May Christ teach you what is yours to do.”
Michael Curry, Bishop of North Carolina, said the following in a sermon he preached at General Convention in 2012.
“We need some Christians who are crazy enough to love like Jesus, to give like Jesus, to forgive like Jesus, to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God–like Jesus. Crazy enough to change the world from the nightmare it often is into something close to the dream that God dreams for it. And for those who would follow him, those who would be his disciples, those who would live as and be the people of the Way? It might come as a shock, but they, we, are called to craziness.”
May Christ teach us what crazy gospel acts may be ours to do. And may God give us the grace to accomplish those things as wholeheartedly, and as single-mindedly, as Francis did.