Today we honor St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most beloved saints of the church. Most of us think of Francis as the patron saint of animals and creation. When we think of him we may think of a St. Francis statue in a garden. We may think of various images of him preaching to birds. Some of us may even recall that tale where Francis negotiated peace between a village and a wolf that had been terrorizing the town. That is why when we celebrate St. Francis’ feast, we also bless animals – the creatures that were so dear to him. That is also why we often worship outside – honoring God’s creation, which Francis loved so profoundly.
The challenge with honoring Francis in this way is that we forget the other parts of Francis’ life – quite frankly, the much more difficult parts of St. Francis’ life. You see, Francis’ love of creation comes from a deeper place. Francis first started his journey to God out of a new relationship with wealth. Francis was the son of a wealthy businessman in the 1100s. He had everything at his disposal, and his father wanted him to enjoy that privilege and pass that privilege to Francis’ own children. But in his early twenties, Francis had an encounter with a beggar that changed everything. Suddenly the trappings of wealth no longer felt like a safety net or source of comfort – they feel like a burden – a barrier to the life Christ calls us to lead.
And so, Francis renounced the wealth in his life, reportedly even stripping off the clothes his father had given him to show how fully committed he was to this new way of life. He married “Lady Poverty,” and invited others to join him. The lifestyle is so austere that many joke that that Francis is one of the most revered, and yet, least followed saints of our faith.
I remember in college having long conversations about living in solidarity with the poor. We were presented the idea over and over again, but we could not get our heads around what living in solidarity with the poor meant. Several graduates tried – volunteering for at least a year after college. Some joined intentional Christian communities, in the hopes that living simple lives in community might help them get closer to that solidarity. Some traveled to impoverished countries to serve among the poorest, while others worked in the nonprofit sector in the States. But we always came back to one crucial question: can we live in solidarity with the poor? Most of us have a safety net, whether our safety net is family, wealth, education, or citizenship. Can we even help the poor if we renounce everything like Francis?
I must confess, I do not think there is a good answer to the question about living in solidarity with the poor. And I am not convinced that most of us can live like Francis, begging and living in tattered clothes. But what Francis is trying to do is help us see how money gets in the way of our relationship with everything else. That is why Jesus talked about money so much. Jesus even led a life much more similar to Francis’ than ours – wandering through life, depending on the hospitality of strangers, and telling his disciples to give up staffs and bags when they go out to meet the people. Both Jesus and Francis began to learn that living without the comfort of wealth meant entering oneself into a state of vulnerability – a state where true, holy, meaningful relationships begin; a state where everything’s value changes – down to the birds that sing, the creation that breathes beauty, and even the pets that show us unconditional love.
Of course, each of us has to discern what taking up Jesus’ or Francis’ way means for us, knowing that many of us have family obligations and debts that must be managed. But what Jesus and Francis do today is invite us to not allow those burdens to become an excuse for not making ourselves vulnerable. Jesus says today, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” For those of you who have worked with farm animals, you know that yokes are meant to fit smoothly on to animals, distributing the weight and burden in a manageable way.[i] That is what taking on the yoke of Christ, and walking the way of Francis is like – a life, that if taken on, is manageable. We may be scared to put on our shoulders the burden of vulnerability. But Jesus promises the burden is light, the yoke is easy. And Francis shows us the world of beauty that opens when we simply let go. Amen.
[i] Douglas R.A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 129