This is the sermon the Rev. Karen Calafat preached at the diocesan worship service for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Sunday, October 4, 2020.
St. Francis’ Day Homily
Karen A. Calafat
Ah, St. Francis, that nature-loving, joyful saint who frolicked through the forests and fields of the Italian countryside, preaching to the birds and bunnies and any creature that would listen. Stories are told of Francis being in the woods of Mount Subasio near Assisi and preaching, then discovering the birds had gathered around him, even letting him touch them. That is why statuary of Francis often depict birds in his arms or on his shoulders. Francis considered all of creation a family as referenced in his Canticle of the Creatures: Sister Moon and the stars, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire, and Mother Earth.
Francis is easy to admire for those of us who are animal lovers and those who love nature. Some say Francis is the most loved and least emulated of the saints. You see, Francis was very strict in his religious devotion and disciplines, going to the extremes in fasting and poverty. As a matter of fact, Francis died at 44 years old in part because he had been so hard on his body. Francis referred to his body as, well, since it is Sunday morning, I will adapt it and say, “Brother Donkey”. Near his death, Francis said he wished he had been kinder to Brother Donkey. He did not insist that the brothers in his order follow his ascetic practices. That is a relief because most of us are not keen on giving up food and giving away our cherished material possessions and riches.
There is much more to Francis than his love of nature. What Francis taught and encouraged was in keeping with what Jesus taught. I want to highlight 3 of those teachings today as I think they might offer us guidance and support during this season of upheaval:
- The importance of Prayer and Solitude
- Moving toward and through discomfort
- Living a Gospel of Love
First, Scripture tells us Jesus went away for time alone to rest and pray. Like Jesus, Francis realized the importance of solitude for a strong relationship with God, a strong spiritual foundation. Many of us are spending much more time than ever in solitude due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us are not fully enjoying this solitude that has now become monotonous and isolating after going on 7 months of it. We have cleaned closets, organized drawers and worked a lifetime of jigsaw puzzles. We have binge watched Hallmark movies, Netflix series, OD’d on news and missed sports.
How much more can we take??? Perhaps a simple prayer that Francis taught his brothers can help us. Many of the Friars minor, as they were called, wanted to copy Francis and do what he did, but Francis insisted he was doing what Christ gave him to do and they needed to spend time in prayer asking God what was theirs to do, saying, “I have done what was mine, may Christ teach you what is yours to do.”
In your moments of solitude, ask God ‘what is yours to do’ for the day, or even for the moment. Perhaps it is for you to take a nap or take a walk. Maybe it is for you to write a note to a friend, an acquaintance, or an elected official. Maybe it is for you to practice fasting one meal a week to see how it impacts your spiritual life. Or maybe it is for you to practice some other spiritual discipline that you’ve never tried or that you’ve neglected for a while. Maybe color in a coloring book or simply sit on a bench and study nature.
The possibilities are endless of how God might answer the prayer, “What is mine to do today?”
Second, Moving Toward and Through Discomfort
Jesus taught us to “Love our Neighbors as ourselves,” and to “Love our enemies.” Francis was terribly uncomfortable with one sort of neighbor, even disgusted by these neighbors with leprosy. He avoided them, walked great distances around them, and feared them. He came to realize his bias and, in his desire to overcome it, embraced and kissed the cheek of a leper. This act transformed him and moved him through his discomfort to a place of comfort.
Who do you need to hug? We all have biases – it is part of being human. Diversity advocate, Verna Myers, makes a plea to all people to acknowledge our biases and then move toward the groups that make us uncomfortable. She says, “We cannot get comfortable until we go through being uncomfortable.” In her TED talk she used herself as an example, referring to an incident with a female airline pilot. She was excited to hear the voice of the female captain at take-off, thinking, “Yes! A woman pilot!” Later in flight, when turbulence kicked in she thought, ‘Oh no, I hope this woman can drive this plane! I hope she can fly!’ Verna recognized her flight bias to be for male pilots. I heard an African-American man share a similar story about being on a flight with a Black pilot and thinking to himself, ‘Man, I hope this guy can fly,’ recognizing his bias for white, male pilots. Acknowledging discomfort with a female pilot or a black pilot are the first steps in addressing bias.
Racial biases are playing out in the news on a daily basis. There are Black/White biases, Brown/Black biases, Black/Brown/Asian biases. We have biases. We need to stop insisting that we don’t. For example, in this hot political season, you Democrats are likely biased against Republicans and vice versa. Some men are biased against women in political or religious leadership. Some women are biased against men. Who do you fear, dislike, avoid? Who do you not know or understand? Francis hugged his greatest bias, a leper, those on the fringes who were outcasts of society. Francis loved the neighbor with whom he was most uncomfortable. Who do you need to hug? (Well, when we are able to hug again, but don’t use this as an excuse!) Who do you need to get to know? Who do you need engage to move you beyond your biases — to move through your discomfort?
Third, St. Francis lived and taught a Gospel of Love, which is exactly what Jesus instructed. If we are to be good and true Christians, true followers of Christ, we must practice a Gospel of Love. It is even said that Francis and the brothers tried to outdo one another in acts of love. Now I am not encouraging us to begin a competition of who can outdo the other in love, but perhaps we might try outdoing ourselves in love. Love more than you have. Ask God how you might show more love? There are many ways to love more. Perhaps you begin with yourself. How can you love yourself more? Take better care of yourself in the unrest of our country? Jesus said, “Love your neighbors as yourself.” From self-love, we have more love to give others.
Finally, there is a Prayer of St. Francis I encourage you to pray in moments of solitude when you are enjoying the song of birds or the beauty of nature; in moments of discomfort when a bias is realized; and in moments where love is needed. It goes like this: “Almighty, eternal, just and merciful God, give us scoundrels your grace to do for you what we know you want from us, and always to do that which is pleasing to you. Amen.”