St. Francis of Assisi

1 Oct, 2023

By the Rev’d Andrew Coyle

Season: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Readings: Exodus 17:1-7 | Philemon 2:1-13 | Matthew 21:23-32.

Today we remember and celebrate the life and witness of St Francis of Assisi. St Francis is perhaps best known for his love of animals and nature. And there are a number of stories that are told that illustrate that. He once befriended a wolf that was terrorising the Italian town of Gubbio. He is also known for preaching a sermon to the birds of the air.

My grandmother, whose middle name was Francis, had a picture on her wall of Francis with birds fluttering around his head and perched on his outstretched arms. And it’s because of stories like this that Francis has been jokingly referred to as “the patron saint of bird baths.” There are other stories, though, that help us to see how Francis’ love for nature was part of a much larger spirituality that embraced the whole of life. One of those stories tells how he took off his clothes in public!

That story goes like this…

Francis was praying in front of a crucifix in the run-down local church of San Damiano. And the crucifix seemed to speak to him, saying, “Francis, go and rebuild my church, which you see is in ruins”. So Francis goes and sells some goods belonging to his father and uses the proceeds to rebuild the church.

Now, Francis’ father was not pleased with this turn of events, and there is this public show-down between Francis and his father where Francis renounces his father. And he takes off his clothes, clothes paid for by his father, and he lays them aside. He then devotes himself to a life of poverty. Now, why would he do that?

Well, I think that in that story, we hear an echo of our gospel reading this morning.

In that gospel reading, 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”. Now, the heavy burdens that Jesus’ listeners were carrying were the religious observances and obligations laid upon them by the scribes and Pharisees.

Those may not be our burdens, but we carry burdens nonetheless. Ill health, financial insecurity, our fears and anxieties about the future and about our own lives, our concerns for those we love and for the state of the world.

All these things weigh upon us. And all these things were as much burdens for Jesus’ first listeners as they are for us. So when 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…”, it may seem like a strange kind of contradiction to seemingly exchange one burden for another and to somehow find rest in taking on that other burden, that other yoke. But what Jesus is actually offering is the difference between slavery and freedom, the difference between oppression and liberation.

Because all of us live under the weight of an oppressive regime, that was certainly true of Jesus’ first listeners who lived under Roman occupation. But I am not referring to any particular form of government but rather to a prevailing mindset or worldview that underpins our lives. Underneath all our fears and concerns and anxieties about our own lives and the future, there is, for many of us, both rich and poor, this most basic fear that there is just not enough to go around: not enough material resources, not enough love, not enough hope, so we must all scramble for what we can get. And this fear “that there is not enough” can lead us to see the earth and its resources in a particular way: the earth and its resources become things to be exploited, things to be owned and consumed, things to be converted into wealth and possessions to ensure our safety and our security.

The resources of the earth and its creatures become commodities to be bought and sold. We see them as things whose value lies primarily in how they can meet our needs. This fear “that there is not enough”… not enough material resources, not enough love, not enough hope… can also lead us to see other people in a particular way. The people outside our immediate circles of concern become our rivals, our competitors for the necessities of life, our competitors for the love of others, and so we can become fearful of and hostile towards each other, treating those outside our immediate circles of concern, whether they be individuals, communities or nations, with suspicion and mistrust and outright antagonism.

In Francis, however, we see something of a different life, the life to which Jesus calls us, a life unburdened by fear, a life shaped by hope and a trust in the love of God. When Francis sold his father’s goods to pay for the repair of the church, when he renounced all the wealth and privilege of his family, when he took his clothes off there in front of his father and everyone
else… it was to show that he was no longer bound by the expectations of his father and by all the social conventions of the time. What he was doing was shrugging off all those things that keep us burdened with fear, all those things like the pursuit of wealth and power that we believe will keep us safe from all the difficulties of life but which actually blind us to the needs of love, and compassion and mercy that are the things that actually release us from our fear and help us to live more freely.

And this is where we see how Francis’ spirituality was all of a piece: his love for animals and for nature, his concern for the sick and the poor. Francis had the same regard for all people, but particularly for the poor and the sick because he understood the fundamental equality of all human beings. He understood that we are all made equally in the image of God. But he extended this sense of equality to encompass all the creatures of the earth because he understood that we and all creatures also share the same source: our life and the life of every other creature comes from God.

We are all children of the same creator, and this is why Francis addressed his fellow creatures as “brother” and “sister”. Francis, then, in the spirit of Jesus, in the footsteps of Jesus, invites us to understand the common heritage we share with each other, with all created beings, with the planet, and with the whole order of creation. And he invites us to be relieved of our burdens of fear and insecurity, the burdens that pit us against each other, the burdens that drive our exploitation of the earth and of each other, and to take on instead the yoke that Jesus’ offers, a yoke that leads us in the ways of gentleness and peace with each and with the whole of the created order, a yoke that leads us to recognise our shared identity and heritage as
children of God and leads us into a life of love for one another and for the world, we share with the whole of God’s creation.

So we remember and celebrate the life of Francis as one who has walked the way of Jesus before us, and whose life and witness continue to point us toward the God of love and grace and mercy and compassion, or whose life and witness continue to call us on as we seek to walk in his steps.

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