Because of his great love of animals Saint Francis not only shows up on bird baths and bird feeders but it has become the custom that on his Feast Day all across the world people gather for “blessing of the animals” services like we had here on the lawn this morning … with an amazing assortment of “all creatures, great and small” from dogs of every shape, size and temperament to cats, rodents and even a few reptiles.
All of this to mark the ministry of Saint Francis – who believed that nature itself was the mirror of God. He called all creatures his “brothers” and “sisters,” even preached to the birds and – legend has it -- persuaded a wolf to stop attacking some locals if they agreed to feed the wolf. In our 21st century blessings of our animal companions and family members we are reminded through the ministry of a 13th century saint that we are connected to all creatures created by God and – as stewards of God’s creation – we have a responsibility to care for and respect all who share with us life on this fragile Earth.
And so – for me – Saint Francis is arguably the perfect patron saint for us to turn to in this time of global climate crisis … to support us in the work we have to do to live out the gospel in the world as advocates for environmental justice and to challenge those who ignore or dismiss climate change as a “myth” or “hoax.”(And as hard as that may be to believe there are some who do … I’ve actually seen them on the evening news!)
That brings me to another famous set of words attributed to Saint Francis – words that may not be as famous as the “make us instruments of your peace” prayer but important words nevertheless.
And those words are: "Preach the Good News at all times -- and if necessary use words.”
If necessary … use words.
Preaching for Francis didn’t just happen from words in a church on Sunday by a preacher in a pulpit. Preaching for Francis happened in the world through the actions of living out God’s values of love, justice and compassion … for the whole human family AND for all creatures, great and small. As a lover of animals, peace and creation Francis was also a man of action. Putting God’s love for the world into action was how he preached the Good News at all times – using words IF necessary.
And in his actions he challenged the church of his day – a church that had settled into valuing power and privilege over the call to follow Jesus out into the world in the service of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized. His “rule of life” was quite simply "To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps” – and as he lived out that rule he inspired others to join him ... giving up money, power and privilege and creating the Franciscan Order to serve the poor, the oppressed and marginalized … an order that continues to live out the Gospel in the world all these centuries later.
Saint Francis was willing to challenge the church to look beyond what it had become – an institution serving those who were already inside its walls and in its pews – and call it to live up to its high calling to actually be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world.
Saint Francis loved Jesus enough to challenge the church of his day -- and we celebrate his ministry when we follow in his footsteps by challenging the church of OUR day just as he did in his. And we do that when we challenge the church to not settle for building the church but continue to the work of building the Kingdom.
And what do I mean by that? Let me tell you a story.
A long time ago when I was a young mother my church had a Wednesday night soup and study series during Lent – and I signed up to go … partly because it was Lent and I wanted to do something to deepen my spiritual life and partly because there was child care and I could talk to adults for a couple of hours once a week.
One Wednesday night we had a visiting priest from South India and his subject was “building the kingdom of God.” And he used this example that I’ve never forgotten.
He asked us to picture a big, tall, beautiful building under construction. And then he asked to picture the scaffolding that surrounded the building while it was under construction … supporting it and framing it as it rose into the sky until it was ready to stand on its own.
He told us to think of the building as the Kingdom of God we’ve been called to build here on earth as it is in heaven … the kingdom we pray about every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. And then he told us to think of the scaffolding surrounding the building as the church.
And this is the part where he rocked my world. “The point of the church is not the church in the same way the point of the scaffolding is not the scaffolding,” he said. “The point of the church is to build the kingdom. And when the church gets it wrong is when it spends so much time polishing, preserving and fussing with the scaffolding that it forgets to build the building – forgets to build the kingdom.”
It was in that moment in that parish hall on that Wednesday in Lent I realized for the first time WHY it is we need the church – and not just as a place to go once a week to talk to adults! I realized that the church is not an end in itself – but that it is essential to our work of building the kingdom of God. And that was a learning that I took with me – eventually into seminary – and have carried with me through 20 years of ordained ministry.
And through those years I’ve had plenty of opportunities to remember that when the church becomes an end in itself rather than a means to build the kingdom it needs to be reminded of what its purpose is – what its role is – what its mission is.
That’s exactly what Saint Francis did by leaving the safety and security of the institutional church and going out into the world to preach the Gospel … using words if necessary. Taking the church out into the world and meeting people where they were in order to bring the Good News of God’s love, justice and compassion to them … not waiting for them to show up but going out to where they were.
And one of the things I heard in our rector-elect Mike Kinman’s sermon on Homecoming Sunday was the challenge to us to do exactly that … to both continue and to expand our commitment to going out to be the church in the world … beyond these walls … in both word and action … as we take the Good News to a world yearning for hope and healing … and as we work to be the change we want to see in our struggle to be part of the solution rather than contribute to the problem of climate change … as we work to dismantle systemic racism and stand with those who work to make #blacklivesmatter not just a hashtag but a reality in this nation.
The challenges we face are great – but the God who sends us out to love and serve the world in God’s name is greater. So on this Saint Francis Day let us pray to always to be open to the inspiration by the same Spirit who inspired Saint Francis – the saint whose love of all creation sent him out into the world as a beacon of that love, justice and compassion. Let us pray that today that the same beacon will continue to shine through us in our day as it did through him in his.
May God make us all instrument of peace, agents of compassion and followers of Jesus – on this Saint Francis Day and always. Amen.