The Rev. Casey dunsworth

serves as Associate Campus Pastor to the Belfry, the Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis

and as Program Director for LEVN, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network.

Saints and Squirrels—A Sermon for Francis

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

I was reading about St. Francis of Assisi earlier this week, to remind myself about his story—though he’s certainly one of the saints I’m most familiar with, I have to admit that a lot of them run together in my Lutheran brain. Nice men and women who did unusual things in the name of God and then maybe got murdered for it. Those are more the martyrs, but the lives of the saints are often grisly and rugged, since most of them lived several centuries ago.

Saint Francis, for example, lived at the turn of the 13th century, roundabout the Crusades. Francis had a vision of a world in which the afflicted were cared for—leprosy was rampant at the time, and people lived in irrational fear of its contagion and banished lepers from their midst. Francis, the story goes, embraced and kissed a leper before devoting his life to the service of others. He established an order of brothers—Franciscans—to carry out this work.

You may have heard this before—in a St. Francis Day sermon, perhaps—or maybe you’re more familiar with his other charism, blessing of animals and the natural world. He wrote a wonderful little poem that I want to read for you, now:

“I once spoke to my friend, an old squirrel, about the Sacraments—he got so excited and ran into a hollow in his tree and came back holding some acorns, an owl feather, and a ribbon he had found. And I just smiled and said, ‘yes, dear, you understand; everything imparts God’s grace.”[1]

Part of what I love about this poem, of course, is that he just casually chatted with squirrels, and did so often enough to write of them as his friends. Suffice it to say Francis was an unusual man. But what’s deeper than just the sweetness of this love of God’s creatures is the deep theological truth of that last line—everything imparts God’s grace. 

Francis was not complicated or fancy, and for him, neither was God. Everything that surrounds us in our real lives is sacred; we needn’t dress anything up in order for it to be holy—including ourselves. Francis was born into wealth, but he gave everything he had to the poor and lived on just necessities. He advocated for the fair treatment of all living things—humans, animals, plants, you name it—in a time of social upheaval and civil unrest.

Gosh, I wonder if there’s anything we can learn from St. Francis that applies to our own lives and our own society.

We are living in a time of unprecedented climate change. Animals and plants—and humans—around the world are in danger of habitat destruction and extinction because of human industrial activity. We are clear-cutting forests; we are polluting oceans; we are emitting carbon at irreversible rates; the ice caps are melting; hurricanes are wreaking havoc. Human civilizations are ravaged by war and poverty on every continent; healthcare is only available to those who can afford it; children die of preventable diseases every day.

In our modern religious climate, Pope Francis has moved in the direction of his namesake on a number of these issues. While we wouldn’t call a pope progressive under most circumstances, this one has understood the ways in which humans are connected to other forms of life, and encouraged Catholics around the world to consider their participation in global ills.

Saint Francis of Assisi “was an outspoken and controversial social activist. He was one of the greatest preachers of all time. His concern with poverty and ecology give him a strikingly modern [relevance]. He vigorously opposed the abuse of political power, particularly when it was wielded by the [Pope].”[2]

The reason that Francis is a saint, in my sort-of informed opinion, is in how much he modeled his life in the way that Jesus taught. He listened when he heard the words of Jesus we heard in tonight’s Gospel lesson:

“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.”

Both St. Francis and Jesus lived lives of inclusion, bringing those on the margins into the middle. No matter who you are, there are days when you’d self-identify as weary, and label your burdens as heavy. On those days—and every day—your Christian community welcomes you inside. These words of Jesus remind us that, though we may feel overwhelmed and beyond recovery, there is always someone to whom to hand over our heaviness. You can always turn your garbage over to Jesus. You can always come here and tell a friend or me about what’s up. You can always dump out your giant pile of study material and sort through it with a bad attitude, but a handful of candy from the basket. You can always sit here in this room and sing to your God about the truth of the love you know.

So, come. Come to the table, where all are welcome. For both St. Francis and Jesus—lovers of the earth, radical social activists, carriers of burdens—thanks be to God.

[1] St. Francis of Assisi, translated by Daniel Ladinsky in Love Poems from God

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