St. Francis Day, October 4, 2020

Penelope Bridges

The Easy Yoke of Love

“Come to me, all who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

This is the promise that Jesus makes to the disciples of John the Baptist, after John has been arrested. They are carrying a heavy burden of fear and grief, and they come to Jesus seeking comfort and reassurance that it’s worth carrying on. We know that burden. We are living in a time of almost Biblical levels of upheaval and loss. We are weary of bad news, of isolation, of Zoom, of political manipulation. There is some relief to be found in perspective: human beings have been here before and survived. We are an incredibly resilient species.

Our calendar of saints reminds us of those who cared for the sick during epidemics, those who were caught up in political conflict, those who spoke truth to power. The Martyrs of Memphis gave their lives tending the victims of yellow fever in the 1870’s. Galileo was put on trial for heresy in the 1630’s and was forced to travel through a plague-ridden country to attend court. And Francis of Assisi lived in a time when malaria was a constant presence and the small city states of what we now call Italy were constantly at war with each other. It isn’t new for humanity to be burdened by illness and conflict. And it is always possible for human beings to throw off the heavy yoke of fear and seek the easy yoke of love.

The word that comes to my mind when I think of Francis is Extravagance. Francis grew up as a spoiled rich kid, the son of a successful textile merchant. In his early life he led an extravagant lifestyle – wealth, furs, rich food, servants to answer his every desire. His family belonged to a new phenomenon of the time: the middle class: people who were wealthy not because they owned land or inherited wealth but because they had thriving businesses.

Francis was extravagant in everything he did, and he suffered for it. Following his romantic ambition to be a heroic knight he ended up shivering from malaria in a damp prison cell for a year. And when he turned to the monastic vocation he obeyed Jesus literally, kissing lepers, rejecting his old life, refusing to own possessions or even have a safe and comfortable place to live. He infuriated persons in authority because he wouldn’t compromise on anything. He practiced extreme Christianity, extreme faith, extreme poverty. He was extravagant in his love for the natural world and for the last, the least, and the lost of God’s children.

Francis took on the easy yoke of Jesus, the yoke of extravagant love. We love him for it, but few of us are willing to follow his example. The transformation of Francis from that spoiled rich kid with delusions of military glory to a homeless beggar with broken health isn’t a transformation we want to imitate. Yet Francis seems to have found joy in this transformed existence, and isn’t joy what we all desire?

Francis rejected wealth, as an empty promise. He recognized that the pursuit of ever-greater riches was antithetical to joy. We might build up material wealth to keep fear at bay, but the fear is still there, eating at our souls. Better to face down the fear, knowing that we are deeply and

eternally and extravagantly loved. That’s what Francis did: he faced down the fear of scarcity, of uncertainty, with his conviction that God loved him extravagantly.

God offers each of us extravagant love: how else can we describe the gift of life on this beautiful planet? Look around you at the gratuitous beauty of creation. God has created something ineffably beautiful for our enjoyment. Beauty can be found in the most unlikely places and when we are least expecting it; it is built into the natural world. Francis opened his heart to the beauty of creation. He recognized the holiness of each creature; we are told that he preached to the birds and befriended a wolf.

What would Francis say about the way we have treated our world since the industrial revolution? Asphalt, suburban sprawl, water pollution, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, acid rain, deforestation, petroleum fumes, oil spills, mountaintop removal mining. We torture our dear Mother Earth, and all in the name of increasing wealth. This exploitation of the natural world will not bring us joy; it will not relieve the burdens that we carry.

In honor of Francis we bring our companion creatures to be blessed. They are members of our families. And every creature on earth is likewise a member of the family of God. We owe the same care to all living things that we offer our beloved pets.

Throughout his monastic vocation Francis resisted the call to become institutionalized, for his brotherhood to own property, for a hierarchy to be established. He found joy in the simplicity of an egalitarian community, living day to day. He resisted all the trappings of empire, insisting on all of the members of his order simply being “little brothers”, with no resources, no savings, no grand cathedrals. All that changed in the centuries following his death, and today, some of the world’s most splendid basilicas are named for him. I have to wonder if he would have approved.

At the end of his life Francis insisted on being lifted off his bed and allowed to lie on the earthen floor of his cell. He wanted the embrace of Mother Earth to be the last thing he felt, as he was gathered into the eternal embrace of God.

“Come to me, all who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

We who are weary can find true rest in the joy of following Jesus, achieving even a fraction of Francis’ devotion: joy is to be found in reordering our priorities, rejecting fear, rejoicing in the beauty of God’s creation and treating every creature as we treat our nearest and dearest. Francis understood that we come from the earth and we return to it; as creatures of earth we share the yoke of care for this planet, and it is an easy yoke to be sure, for it comes cushioned by the extravagant love of God.

Amen.

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