Today we celebrate the Feast of St Francis of Assisi.
St Francis’ feast day – commemorating his death in the year 1226 – is part of WHY churches are increasingly celebrating a Season of Creation in late September and early October.
Francis is a widely-beloved saint, and a strong voice within Christian tradition for honoring God through love of Creation.
Many churches around the world observe the feast of Francis with a service of blessing animals – as we do.
I have heard criticism of pet blessings as a superficial engagement, almost a trivialization of Francis’ life and message – of turning something cute that was actually radical and important.
I think pet blessings are important too – but I take the point.
So who was Francis, and what was he about?
Francis’ life and witness have “held up” remarkably well for someone who died just under 800 years ago. There are lots of ways in which he pointed towards values and ideas that are more mainstream within Christianity or culture today.
Francis was born into comfort, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in the Italian city of Assisi. Even as a young man he felt conflicted between enjoying fine clothes and a carefree life, and compassion towards the poor. After a season of spiritual seeking, one day, while praying in an abandoned chapel called San Damiano, he had a vision of Jesus Christ and heard Jesus tell him, “Francis, go repair my church, which lies in ruins.”
At first Francis thought Jesus’ words referred to the decrepit chapel where he was praying, and he sold some of his father’s cloth to repair the building. This led to conflict with his father, which ended when Francis renounced his family and inheritance.
He started dressing like the poorest peasants of his region, in a coarse brown wool tunic tied at the waist with rope.
Intentional poverty would become a cornerstone of his movement and way of life – to prevent being compromised or distracted by worldly wealth and luxuries.
Francis began preaching to the ordinary people he met – a message of caring for one another, making amends for one’s wrong deeds, and seeking peace among all.
He proclaimed respect and care for every human being, saying, “Your God is of your flesh; God lives in your nearest neighbor, in every person.”
People started to follow and emulate him. A young noblewoman, Clare, was drawn to Francis and his teaching, and Francis supported her in forming a religious order for women – a counterpart to his group of male followers, who came to be called Franciscans.
Francis lived during the time of the Crusades – a series of military conflicts between Christian and Muslim powers. Yet in 1219 he undertook a peaceful mission to meet with a Muslim leader in Egypt, securing the right for Franciscans to live and travel in the Middle East for centuries to come.
Francis invented the Nativity scene, using real people and animals to create a sort of living diorama of the original story of the birth of Christ, in order to help common – and illiterate – people imagine and contemplate that great event more fully.
And Francis believed that nature was a mirror of God, calling all living things his brothers and sisters, preaching to birds, and making peace between a fierce wolf and the town of Gubbio.
In this season, we’ve been opening our 10AM worship with part of a hymn or poem that Francis wrote, best known as the Canticle of the Sun, which praises God by praising parts of God’s Creation, like Brother Fire, Sister Water, and Sister Mother Earth.
In his 2015 letter Laudato Si, calling Roman Catholics to care and advocate for creation, Pope Francis wrote, “[Francis] was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.”
I think Pope Francis is right to point to Saint Francis as a model for the necessary integration of care for humanity, care for creation, personal self-discipline and spiritual growth, and peace and justice work.
Today I’d like to take another step in thinking about how it informs and enlarges our theology when we take other living things seriously as our brothers, sisters, and siblings.
We know it’s important to many of our members that St. Dunstan’s strives to be fully inclusive of LGBTQ+ people. When we ask folks why they chose this church, it comes up a lot – that we are open about our commitments and that we’re working to move beyond mere words, to becoming a community that is safe, affirming, able to learn and improve, and willing to stand up and speak up when our members and their loved ones are at risk.
Often, in the public square, people who are opposed to or suspicious of LGBTQ+ equality will talk about Nature as part of their case. Whether that’s about sexual orientation and assumptions about how people are “supposed to” use their organs – or about gender identity and what someone’s DNA or body parts mean about how they should live in the world.
Either way: the message is that being affirming of LGBTQ+ people is against Nature – and therefore against God’s intentions, as the Creator and Author of nature.
The thing is: that’s a very limited view of Nature. When we approach God’s creation with loving attention and respect – as Francis did – we find that it’s often more complex, messy, and interesting than these deterministic binaries.
During our Creation Care Camp week with our middle school youth this summer, one of our most exciting outings was to Heartland Farm Sanctuary, in Stoughton.
We knew that our group would learn about the treatment of animals used for meat, eggs, and milk, and about humane alternatives. We didn’t know that we’d also learn more about what’s “natural” in terms of sex and gender.
The kids’ eyes got very big when we met Daisy the dairy cow. Daisy was born intersex, with both male and female organs.
She was sent for slaughter, since she was judged to be unlikely to produce much milk. She escaped, which led her eventually to Heartland, where she is well-loved and well-cared for.
Our group was surprised to learn that the biology of sex assignment can be complicated and can lead to problems, even for non-human animals!
And then we met Cream Puff the goose. Cream Puff is a domestic goose who was rescued from a pond after the Canada geese they had been hanging out with flew south for the winter, leaving them alone and lonely.
At rescue, Cream Puff was examined and determined to be a female goose, and was acting like a female goose. But as they settled into their new environment at Heartland, Cream Puff started to show some of the distinctive behaviors of a gander – a male goose. It turns out it’s not unusual for some kinds of birds to spontaneously change their gender behavior and even biology!
Is it appropriate to apply the human concept of “transgender” to Cream Puff? Probably not.
But is it appropriate to look to Nature to justify rigid identities and categories of sex and gender? Not really!
Looking to science – and particularly to biology – to help us understand the complexity of human gender and sexuality isn’t necessarily a helpful path. That can lead us into other tangles.
We are, all of us, more than our genes or our body parts, just as we are more than what our culture and history tell us to be.
But what science CAN show us is that Nature is not on the side of simple, limited, or unchanging ideas about sex and gender.
Today, three days out from the feast of St. Francis, and ten days out from National Coming Out Day on October 11, I want to call us to join Francis in seeing Creation as a mirror of God, and taking seriously our kinship with all living things.
Our parish Creation Care Mission Statement begins, “In response to the creative love of God made known to us in the beauty, complexity, and holiness of the created order…” then lays out our hopes and intentions – cultivating love of creation, serving as caretakers and advocates, and so on.
Our commitment to being an inclusive parish – to the growing and learning and stretching that that entails – is one of the things we do in response to the creative love of God made known to us in the beauty, complexity, and holiness of the created order.
Being affirming IS celebrating Nature in all its diversity, ambiguity, and mystery. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray.
Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may, for love of you, delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.