St Francis' Day A Sermon delivered to the Auckland Community Church
Tonight we are using the liturgy A Celebration of Life to remember and celebrate the life of St Francis of Assisi. In our prayer, we gave thanks for the lives of the Saints and prayed that our lives too may be “moulded in the love of Jesus Christ”. Earlier today this space was also used to honour St Francis' great affection for animals. A few hours ago this church was filled wall-to-wall with animals of every kind lining up to receive their blessing. We do this in remembrance of him. St Francis proclaimed the goodness of God and ministered even to the animals.
Saint Francis believed in the 'relatedness' of all things – in the familial sense of the word 'related'. Sometimes when I hear theologian's use words like “relatedness” or “connectedness” I wonder if they are using them, in a metaphorical sense or in the St Francis sense.
In his Cantacle of the Sun, St Francis calls the Sun his “brother” who also bears the likeness of the “Most High”. The Moon, water and Mother Earth are all his sister's and the wind and air are his brothers. The force of bodily death he also calls “our Sister”. The four elements, the celestial bodies, and the forces of life and death are all siblings in creation – for St Francis, creation is all about relation.
These elements, bodies, and forces all do as they have been divinely ordained to do. They are all part of the divine dance that makes up our reality. Creation itself for St Francis is in the likeness of the “Most High”.
A natural world theologian – St Francis believed in the goodness of creation but that creation suffered and was in need of redemption. Because being and suffering were wound together so tightly, he felt compelled to take as his bride – Poverty. This was his ministry, to live in solidarity with the poor. Why he chose the metaphor of marriage to describe his own relationship to that destructive force of poverty is a wonderful topic for reflection and meditation.
During my own reflection this weekend I came to the conclusion that it had everything to do with the transforming power at work between two bonded entities. Relationships do not allow us to remain static in our being. The interaction between two bonded beings is transformative and after the encounter, neither is the same – both have been transformed.
I thought of St Francis again this weekend when I heard the big news that scientists have discovered the most promising candidate in our search for earth-like planets. The fact that an earth-like planet, possibly capable of sustaining life, was found so early in the search has given scientists cause to think that maybe earth-like planets are in abundance in our Milky-Way galaxy.
The planet known as Gliese 581g is a mere 20 light years from Earth. It is believed the planet is comparable in size to earth. It orbits around a red dwarf star with which it is tidally-locked. That is, one side of the planet is constantly faced towards its sun and the other side is always in complete darkness. This is similar to the relationship our Earth has with our moon. The far-side of the moon is never visible from Earth. We are tidally-locked in a cosmic dance.
It is on that border between Gliese 581g's light and darkness that scientists believe is the most likely place to find life if life or the potential for it exists there. The temperature, not too hot and not too cold may be just right at this border.
At this stage, it is a lot of scientific conjecture based purely upon our observations of the relationship between this planet and its sun. Scientists can't actually see this system up close to gain telemetry; however, it is believed that the planet is in just the right proximation from its sun as to be in the “habitable zone”.
In fact Gliese 581g's presence was only detected by our most powerful telescopes due to the “wobble” of its star. That means that the planet's gravity pulls on its star causing a wobbling effect. This is the scientific method employed to find exo-planets. We look for wobbling stars, calculate how large the planet pulling on it is and than calculate their approximate distance from each other to see if the planet is a good candidate to host life.
The relationship between a star and its orbiting planets is one of transformation. Depending on their proximity to each other, among other characteristics, they are either involved in a dance that makes life a possibility, or in a dance that makes life impossible.
The reason I thought of St Francis when I heard this news is I believe he would have understood this interaction between entities as transformative power like his ministry to the poor. Francis knew that in order for his ministry to be life-giving, he had to open himself up to transformation. He became like a wobbling star being pulled toward the poor who were craving for the fullness of life.
I'm sure too that St Francis would not be surprised to hear that science has proven him correct, that indeed all creation emerged from a single and continuing act of interaction between matter and energy. Everything in creation is indeed related. Creation then, is an ongoing interaction and transformation. That sounds a lot to me like ministry.
The image of St Francis giving away all he had and living his life in solidarity with the poor, makes me think that if he is the standard in sainthood, then I will very probably most certainly never qualify for sainthood. But is that the message of St Francis' example to us? If we are all charged with ministry, and I believe we are, is the goal of our ministry that our lives become so completely self-sacrificing that we too must marry Poverty?
I don't think for St Francis, that detaching from material things and withdrawing to live a life of self-giving was a sacrifice for him. In fact, I believe this was an inseparable part of his identity, this is who he was. It was as inseparable for him as our Queer identities are to us.
And there are all kinds of ministries and there are all kinds of poor. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus names more than a few, pre-scripting each kind with the adjective “blessed”. Blessed are the poor for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Saint Francis inspires me to be pulled toward the kind of poor that I am ordained to work among – the poor in human rights, the poor in mental health, the poor in voice. Like a wobbling red dwarf star that feels pulled to entities craving the fullness of life, so goes my ministry. That feels more like an inseparable part of my identity rather than self-sacrifice.
Sainthood then to me is like elevating people to a level of holiness because they have green eyes or because they're tall or because they have freckles, all parts inherent in their identity which they had nothing to do with. The point of sainthood then to me is to teach us to look inside our own identities to think about our own ministries to think about who or what we are being pulled toward. Feast Days then are an opportunity for us to explore and think about our place in the greater work of the Church and to remind us that our own ministries are about fulfilling our identities, being who we were meant to be.
Ministry as demonstrated by St Francis is that power in each of us, to be part of a greater transformation. St Francis challenges each of us to recognise that we too are wobbly stars and if we haven't already done so, maybe the Feast of St Francis gives us the opportunity to think about letting our planets pull us closer. Amen.