October 7, 2018 – 20th Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 2:18-24; (Mark 4:35-41); St. Francis
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
This past Thursday, October 4th, was the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi. On the Sunday nearest that day we honor St. Francis and his love for God’s creation and God’s creatures in our hymns, prayers, and in the blessing of animals. By a fortuitous coincidence this year our lesson from Genesis has to do with creation, and I thought a look at that lesson would be a good place to begin this morning.
There are two accounts of creation in the book of Genesis. We are most familiar with the first account (Genesis 1:1 – 2:3) which begins with the first verse of the first chapter of the book – “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” This is the story of God creating day and night, the sky and seas, sun and moon, vegetation, the creatures who dwell in sea, sky, and land, and finally human beings – all in six days followed by the seventh day on which God rested. After each stage of creation we read, “and God saw that this was good.”
The second account of creation is in the second chapter of Genesis (2:4b – 25). This story is centered on human beings and begins with the creation of man, whom God placed in the Garden of Eden, and then the creation of woman from man’s rib. The account goes on from there with the famous story of The Fall. Our lesson today is part of this second story of creation.
In several branches of Christianity all the accounts of creation and many of the stories in scripture – such as the account of The Fall – are understood to be literally true. In the Anglican and Episcopal tradition we do not generally approach scripture in this way. We believe that these stories convey truth without being literally true. They are myths, like the myths of other cultures and time periods. As you probably know, most cultures have accounts of creation. One of the things this means is that we don’t have to choose between a scientific understanding of creation and a biblical understanding. The two understandings are true in their own way.
What can we learn from the biblical account of creation? What has been accepted as theologically valid in our tradition? We believe that the created world is good and has value because it is the creation of God. God’s creation is good but it is not God. So Christianity is world-affirming without being world-worshipping. Creation has a claim on us: it is God’s, it is good, it is our home, and we are meant to both enjoy creation and be good stewards of creation. These are beliefs we hold about the created world.
One more comment about God and creation. To modern people the opposite of the created order is “nothing.” But to the ancients the opposite of the created order was something much worse than “nothing.” It was an active, malevolent force which we might describe as “chaos.” When God created the world, God subdued this force of chaos and transformed what was uninhabitable to a livable habitat full of goodness.
We find an echo of this way of thinking in the Gospel passage we just heard. A great windstorm arose on the sea which threatened the lives of Jesus and the disciples as their boat was being swamped. Creation is good, but creation is also dangerous. When Jesus orders the wind to cease and the sea to be still, he is doing the work of God. And his disciples wonder, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Eventually Jesus’ disciples will come to understand just who he is, God’s Messiah.
Today we honor St. Francis of Assisi. He was a disciple of Jesus whose life is a wonderful example of joy; of humility; of compassion; of love for God, for the poor and the sick, and for all God’s creatures.
Francis’ father was a wealthy merchant in 12th century Italy. Until the age of 24 Francis enjoyed his privileged position. He was extravagant, well-dressed, fun-loving, and carefree. Then his heart was touched by the suffering of beggars and lepers and of Christ on the cross. Gradually Francis changed. He spent less time with his friends and more time tending lepers. He worked to rebuild a church that was in disrepair. Finally, he renounced wealth and possessions. He became a beggar and devoted himself to serving the poor and preaching the gospel. Many men and women followed Francis’ example of humble service.
St. Francis is well known for his special relationship with animals. He is reported to have preached to the birds, and so he is often depicted holding a bird. It is also reported that St. Francis wanted everyone who owned an ox or an ass to give them a good feed on Christmas Day out of reverence for the presence of an ox and an ass at the manger in which the infant Jesus slept. Because of his remarkable reverence for God’s creatures many churches honor St. Francis by blessing animals on his feast day, as we will do today.
St. Francis’ joy in God’s creation is the part of his spirituality that is popularly emphasized. Equally important – perhaps more important – was St. Francis’ spirituality of the cross. St. Francis meditated on the passion of Christ and had a deep perception of its importance. He believed that discipleship meant a willingness to suffer with and for Christ. Two years before his death St. Francis was at Mount La Verna. He had a vision of an angel and an understanding that he was to be transformed into the likeness of Christ crucified. St. Francis received the stigmata – the marks of the Lord’s wounds – in his hands and feet and side. In his last years St. Francis suffered from blindness and disease, yet never lost his joy. This is one of the mysteries of Christian discipleship, that just as Christ crucified and Christ resurrected are both true and real, in our lives both suffering and joy exist together. What St. Francis knew and what countless other deeply spiritual people know is that resurrection ultimately triumphs over death and joy over suffering. What St. Francis knew and what countless other deeply spiritual people know is that while we are among our suffering brothers and sisters, we may find joy in helping to relieve their suffering, by sharing the many blessings God has given us.
St. Francis believed that the Christian life was to be a life of prayer. Please turn to page 833 in The Book of Common Prayer. In honor of St. Francis let us pray together the prayer attributed to him.