“Francis, We Hardly Knew Ye”
If I look a little tired this morning, I apologize. I’ve been up since 3:20 a.m. tweeting out insults to my detractors.
Today All Saints Church celebrates St. Francis of Assisi, and I was glad when they assigned me to be inside at the service inside rather than with the animals on the lawn. Don’t get me wrong. I love animals. But as the owners of two terriers (one a scotty, the other a cairn) Kathy and I are always mortified by their behavior around other dogs. Our terriers don’t need blessing. They need absolution.
You and I don’t know Saint Francis very well. As with many saints, we have a collective cultural cartoon of him. We tend to see Francis as a kind of blissed-out medieval hippie who walked round Italy picking daisies and smiling at wolves—a monastic version of Doctor Doolittle. Like all cultural cartoons, this version of Saint Francis trivializes him. Yes, he loved animals as he loved all creation. But there was a lot more to him than that.
When the current pope took the name Francis three years ago, I decided to read up on the life of the saint. To be sure, Francis did love animals. But he loved them as part of a larger openness to all of nature—his “Canticle of the Sun” famously praises brother sun, sister moon, brothers wind and air, sister water, brother fire, and sister earth. Francis saw God in all creation, and one of the reasons we respond to him in this moment is that his medieval nature mysticism anticipated our own postmodern love for an endangered earth and its creatures. But Saint Francis saw God not only in animals. He saw God in the poor, and that’s why he gave up a life of affluence for one of prayer and poverty and service to the poor and sick.
Francis did not live his life of prayer and poverty alone. Like Jesus, he gathered a community around him. Early in his ministry, Francis was viewed with suspicion and ridicule. His family disowned him. He and his brothers in the order owned no property or money, and they begged for their meals. Even more shockingly, Francis did not shun lepers but would embrace them and kiss their sores. The first responses to St. Francis were fearful and hostile. He was considered a dangerous madman before he was revered as a saint.
If Cardinal Jose Mario Bergoglio felt the need to call himself Pope Francis in 2013, he must have felt that Francis had something important to say to the 21st century. What can we take from this saint’s example to help us with the living of our lives?
You and I are living through an overheated moment in American society. While the presidential election may be the most visible evidence of the emotional process at work among us, the election is really more of a symptom than a cause. As a compulsive consumer of news, it seems to me that everywhere I turn I see people overwhelmed and overwrought, blaming their problems on scapegoats and behaving badly at every turn. I think this is true at all levels of our society. Our political life is overheated. Our personal lives are overheated. Our friendships and our households are overheated. Even people in churches can get a bit testy. The enmity on view in the election is only the tip of the cultural iceberg.
And then, of course, there is the unfolding of the story Friday’s killing of Reginald (Junior) Thomas at the hands of police here in Pasadena and the attendant protest yesterday. I have cops in my family, so I understand the pressures the police are under. But when is this seemingly endless drumbeat of police killing African American men going to end? The best way we can show that black lives matter is to stop taking them.
I’m not a sociologist, so I won’t hazard a guess as to underlying causes of this overheating. But I will try to put this moment into a religious context. Like the societies that surrounded Jesus and Francis—each one a holy fool who refused to accept the cultural norms of his moment—you and I have bought into some fairly pervasive and pernicious illusions—and that’s a religious problem. We have come to see the world as essentially competitive and not collaborative. We think there is not enough to go around and so we feel compelled to do everything to get ours first. We put our trust in leaders or systems or ideas that promise to make and keep us safe by giving us a leg up on someone else. We think that if we get and hoard enough we will be invulnerable to the risks and depredations of life.
For all its greatness, Western culture has consistently fallen prey to these illusions from Jesus’s day to our own. As these illusions collapse, things become overheated, as they are today. It is a sign of God’s forbearance, mercy, and grace toward us that holy fools like Jesus and Francis keep showing up in our lives to show us a way to bring our own personal and social temperatures back down to normal.
In today’s gospel [Matthew 11: 25-30], Jesus says two things we need to hear this morning. Here’s the first:
I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.
Maybe it’s important that we bless animals because, unlike us, dogs and cats have no intellectual pretensions. Both Pope Francis and Saint Francis have what we could call a “simple” faith, and here “simple” is a good thing. The more that we live in our heads, the more we make following Jesus more complicated than it needs to be. Francis of Assisi believed in God and Jesus in a way that was simple and yet deep. His life and action were grounded in the basic teachings of Jesus: love God, love people, treat everybody—including animals—with decency, compassion, and respect. When Jesus says that God has “hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and [has] revealed them to infants” he is telling us something simple yet deep about the meaning of life. Really smart people can do really stupid things. Really smart people can do really cruel things. Our intellects can often mislead us. When I have done something incredibly stupid or cruel, I’ve usually done it as part of a carefully-reasoned well-thought-out plan. Jesus and Francis call us to get out of our heads and into our hearts. That’s a lifetime journey for some of us, but Jesus would remind us that only as we approach profound simplicity will we be open to the depth and beauty of life.
And here’s the second thing Jesus says:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 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.
Francis gave up a life of relative affluence for a life of voluntary poverty. He spent that life in solidarity with and service to the poor and sick and outcast. And, like Jesus, he found the life of social solidarity finally easier and more joyful than the life of comfort. To the extent that you and I have bought into the values of an affluent, competitive society we have placed ourselves in comfortable traps. We strive to attain and keep our culture’s signs of success—an important job, impressive houses and cars, exotic travel—but at what cost? Francis did not give those things up as a way of self-punishment. He gave them up as a way of personal and social liberation. In taking on the yoke of Jesus, Francis discovered that loving and serving the poor, treating others with compassion, regarding the whole creation with reverence and respect—these actions were rewarding in and of themselves. They were not punishments. They were gifts.
In one way or another, each of us is a prisoner of our culture and its values. We are like fish swimming in the water of affluence which we can’t even see. It is part of God’s mercy to us that people like Jesus and Francis, others like Dorothy Day, come among us and show us that there is another way to live. It’s not that we all have to drop our jobs and pick up begging bowls. It is, rather, that we can follow Jesus and Francis at least by questioning the truisms our culture offers. He who dies with the most toys does not necessarily win. She who opens herself to God’s presence in the world, especially in the ones or things the world does not value, can live a life of generosity and joy in the here and now.
I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants. . . Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 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.
In this overheated season, let us stop and listen to Jesus and Francis. We can survive and actually flourish in this moment by seeing and living life as it is, not as our culture portrays it. Life is not scary. Life is beautiful. Life is simpler than we make it and easier than it seems. Like Francis, let us see each other as blessings rather than threats. Like Jesus, let us rejoice not in our sophistication but in the elemental values of love, compassion, reverence, and respect. Once again, let’s try to move out of our heads and into our hearts. And if we need some guidance in how to do that, let us turn to brother dog and sister cat, our teachers gathered this morning on the lawn. Amen.