At this point, most people know at least a little something about Saint Francis. He was born in 1182. After a frivolous youth, he began his Christian life in earnest in his early twenties. He renounced all material possessions and took to the streets, wandering where the Spirit led him, preaching as he went, and relying on alms for his sustenance.
All of that is impressive, but what made Francis so special was the spirit of joy with which he lived. Apparently Francis routinely burst into songs of joy. Occasionally people would fuss at him because his exuberant singing was not appropriately dignified for a man who had dedicated his life to God. Francis would apologize, and keep on singing.
Much of Francis’ joy came from God’s creation.
In one famous story, Francis preached a sermon to the birds. As the story goes, they literally flocked to hear him and listened attentively until he finished. Then they flew away. That is why statues of Saint Francis so often include a bird.
In another well-known story, villagers were set to kill a wolf who had been attacking their livestock. Francis intervened, preventing them from hurting the wolf and taming the wolf. From that day onward, villagers fed the wolf, and the wolf never again harmed them or their livestock.
I do not know whether those stories actually happened exactly like that. But what they illustrate was Francis’ desire to live in harmony with every creature in God’s creation.
Francis’ love of song and his love of creation came together in his hymn “Canticle of Brother Sun,” which he wrote towards the end of his life when he was suffering from the various ailments that would soon kill him. We sang a version of it at the start of the service this morning (“All Creatures of our God and King,” Hymn 400).
The hymn begins and ends by summoning “all creatures of our God and king” to sing God’s praises. In the middle stanzas, Francis invites the sun, moon and stars to join in. He invites wind and water, fire and earth. He invites flowers and fruits. He invites people who do their best to forgive their brothers and sisters and people who suffer. Last of all, Francis added an invitation to death itself to join in praising God.
And although our hymnbook does not translate this part of Francis’ song, Francis addressed every part of creation as his brother or sister. He called the sun and wind and fire his brothers. He called the moon and stars and water and earth, and even death, his sisters.
For Francis, every part of creation is brother and sister. Every part of creation is related to every other part, including us. Every part of creation comes from God and reflects the goodness and love of its creator. And so every part of creation joins with us as we join with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven who forever sing God’s praises.
I love Francis’ relationship to the rest of God’s creation. And I am persuaded that Francis has at least two lessons to teach us about creation.
The first has become commonplace, and yet it bears repeating. If we view creation as one big family that includes us, we should care for our non-human brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, we are not very good at that.
This summer, I read a disturbing book called The Sixth Extinction.
According to the author, there have been five great “extinction events” in the past. Species go extinct all the time, but in the great extinction events, conditions on the earth change dramatically enough and quickly enough that lots of species go extinct basically all at once.
The author argues that we are now living through a sixth great extinction and that human beings are a large part of the cause.
Here is debate about this around the edges. But a couple of things seem clear. First, species are disappearing at a much higher rate than normal. And, second, at least some of this is our fault.
One of the more immediately visible problems here is a consequence of introducing exotic pests, which prey on native species. Hemlocks are among my favorite trees. They are common here and at least as far south as Georgia. Not so long ago, people inadvertently introduced an Asian insect called the Hemlock wooly adelgid into the United States. Now the adelgid is killing all the Hemlocks.
We can watch it happen. Little white balls appear on the underside of hemlock needles. The tree gets more and more bare. After a few years, the tree dies. That is happening to millions of trees in the eastern United States right now.
Litter is another problem about which there is no debate. Last week, I watched a film about plastic bags, the bags we get at the store to carry our purchases. Apparently plastic bags are now the number one consumer item in the entire world, and a high percentage of the bags we throw away ultimately end up in the ocean. Fish eat them, and that causes problems up and down the food chain. In its grossest scene, the film showed dead albatrosses that were literally filled up with the plastic they ingested when they ate fish.
Most of the time, most of us do not think much about hemlocks or albatrosses or the thousands of species that are at risk of disappearing. But on Saint Francis Day, we should pause to mourn the damage to our brother hemlock and our sister albatross and to our other brother and sister species. We should repent of our role in degrading the environment. And we should commit to doing what we can to make things better.
At this point, there is not much we can do about the wooly adelgid. But we can use less plastic, which would help fish and sea birds. And we can do lots of other little things to reduce our negative impact on God’s creation.
But that is only one of the lessons that we can learn from Saint Francis. The other lesson is Francis’ joy in God’s creation.
Francis spent a fair amount of time away from other people. But Francis was never alone. Francis was always surrounded by his creation family, by brother sun or sister moon, by birds or flowers or water. For Francis, every part of creation was a companion on his journey towards God. And every part of creation reminded Francis of God’s presence in and around him.
Francis was special, and so Francis was especially aware of God’s presence in creation. It may be that few of us will routinely break into spontaneous love songs to creation and to God. That may be a good thing for my own human companions!
But Francis’ example reminds us that all of creation is an incredible gift from God. Francis reminds us to pause every once in a while to appreciate the beauty of nature and to thank God for it. Francis reminds us to see the grace and love of God in the world all around us all the time.
And so, on this Saint Francis day, I thank God for the example of Francis and for the gift of creation. In the name of the Father who created all things, the Son, who redeems all things, and the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies all things. Amen.