Today we honor the life and witness of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis is well-known and beloved for myriad reasons. Primarily, people tend to appreciate two things about him: his commitment to living in solidarity with the poor, which included dramatically stripping his clothing off, begging for food, and supporting the most needy; and, his affinity for the creatures of God, with stories of preaching to birds, negotiating with a violent wolf to make peace with the local town, and generally valuing the beasts of the earth. The second component of his identity is why we do things like the Blessing of the Animals. The first component, we tend to get a little uncomfortable with – or at least like to admire his commitment to being in solidarity with the poor, but not actually imitate it. In fact, one author argues, “Of all the saints, Francis is the most popular and admired, but probably the least imitated.”[i]
This week I have struggled with which component to bring to the fore: Francis’ solidarity with the poor, or Francis’ love of creatures. But as I looked to our gospel lesson, and started thinking about yokes, I realized, the two are not unrelated. You see, yokes were used to harness two animals for work. The yoke allowed the two not just to double their work, but to rely on one another – if one was tired, the other could push harder; and then the weaker one could later support the stronger one. Yokes, like Jesus’ work, were easy and made the burden light.
But beyond the mechanics of a good yoke, the yoke is also a good metaphor for how we see the gospel. Being yoked to another makes you connected. And once you are connected, and see how dependent upon one another you are, you begin to see how that connection extends beyond the two of you – that your yoked interconnection is a microcosm of the connectedness of all of God’s creation. When Francis was experiencing his conversion, he heard a sermon on another Matthew text. In Matthew 10, Jesus instructs the disciples to go and proclaim the good news, curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, and casting out demons. All of this without pay, without backup supplies, and relying on the kindness of strangers. After the priest explained the text to Francis, Francis’ response was, “This is what I wish, this is what I seek, this is what I long to do with all my heart.”[ii]
But what Francis learned and what we learn when we do likewise is helping the poor and the sick opens our eyes. We slowly begin to see all of humanity is connected. And the more we spend time seeing the humanity in others – especially the humanity in those we would rather not – then we start to see that our interconnectedness extends even further – to God’s creation, to God’s creatures, to the cosmos. If we open our hearts to one, we cannot help to open our hearts to all. Francis’ love for the poor and Francis’ love for creatures were not two separate things – they were one in the same.
In our psalm today, we heard the invitation to all of God’s creation: Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars; Wild beasts and all cattle, creeping things and winged birds; Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the world; Young men and maidens, old and young together.[iii] We bless animals today because Francis reminded us how all of God’s creation is worthy of love. But the invitation for us today is not just to love on cute dogs, cats, hamsters, and horses. The invitation for us is to start claiming our yoked nature – yoked to those we love, yoked to our political opponents, yoked to those who have different ethics and values than ourselves, yoked to parents who make different parenting decisions, yoked to those with different skin color or sexual orientation, yoked to those we see as deserving of God’s grace and those who are not. Our yoked nature allows us to pray the Prayer of St. Francis from our Prayer Book: “Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”[iv] We can do the work of St. Francis because of the yoke of Jesus. Thanks be to God.
[i] Holy Men, Holy Women: Celebrating the Saints (New York: The Church Pension Fund, 2010), 622.
[ii] Hilarion Kistner, The Gospels According to Saint Francis (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2014), 7-8.
[iii] Psalm 148.9-12.
[iv] BCP, 833.