“Jesus and Francis showed deep tenderness towards creation and passionate advocacy against injustice.”
Care for Creation Commentary on the Season of Creation—Year B 2012
By Rob Saler
St. Francis Sunday in the Season of Creation in Year B
What do we picture when we picture Jesus in our minds? How does he look, act, and talk?
I vividly recall one afternoon spent sitting in a seminary classroom, listening as the professor told us why she couldn’t stand much of the preaching that she heard as she traveled to various mainline Protestant churches. In an exasperated tone, she complained that “it seems like the main message is usually nothing more than, ‘It’s nice to be nice because Jesus was nice!’”
Because the historical Jesus is several hermeneutical and cultural degrees removed from us, it is inevitable that, in preaching about his life and teachings, we pick and choose to as to “construct” an image of Jesus in our minds and those of our listeners. Not only is this inevitable, but it is a valuable part of the homiletic craft. However, a key requirement of honest preaching is that we preachers let the texts “bring us up short,” as the philosopher Paul Ricouer was known to say. That is, we should let the biblical texts—in all their untamed difference from our own social locations—disrupt our assumptions, challenge our preconceived notions, and urge us towards exegesis and preaching that do justice to the parts of God’s word that sit most uneasily with our own habits.
What my seminary professor was pointing out was the temptation of modern preachers to render a picture of Jesus that is so tilted towards the “softer” sides of his life and ministry—welcoming children, forgiving sinners, preaching nonviolence, etc.—that we miss the intensity of the mission that animated his life and work. According to the gospel narratives, the same Jesus who exhibited tenderness and compassion in the face of vulnerability also displayed great anger, biting sarcasm, and aggressive denunciation when confronted with that which he saw as detrimental to God’s justice (such as the hypocrisy of Judean religious leaders, abuses within the temple, and pretentiousness on the part of agents of Caesar). The same Jesus who says that he is “gentle and humble of heart” in the Matthew text for this Sunday is the one who was aware that his ministry would bring a “sword” to the Earth. If we Christians say that Jesus exemplifies and, to a certain extent, defines God’s love, we must realize that such love is not “niceness.” It is passionate care for that which God loves, a care that is not afraid to become confrontational when faced with that which denigrates God’s purposes in creation. The fact that, in the Matthew reading, Jesus’ talk of his own gentleness comes after a series of “woes” to disbelieving regions serves as a useful rhetorical illustration of this point.
But what of St. Francis, who is honored this Sunday? St. Francis is regularly lauded as being among the most “Christlike” of all the saints. In both art and preaching, he is rendered as a gentle soul whose simplicity of living and whose lyrical love of nature engender warm feelings in our modern souls. Such a picture is not necessarily wrong; however, like the “nice” Jesus, it misses some essential aspects of the Franciscan legacy.
As numerous historians and philosophers (most recently Giorgio Agamben) have pointed out, the Franciscan movement’s embrace of poverty posed a stark challenge to the Western medieval church’s exercise of hegemony through massive accumulation of wealth. While we might hear “St. Francis” and think immediately of a harmless monk preaching to the birds, mention of “Francis” in his own era was just as likely to be met with allegations of troublemaking, disruption, and even heresy (for instance, the early codification of the Dominican order’s role in enforcing orthodoxy came about at least partially as a response to Franciscanism and its nettlesome critiques of the church’s abuses of power). St. Francis, like Jesus, may have exemplified Christian love; however, we are again saying that such love is not “niceness” but passionate and courageous witness ON BEHALF OF God’s creation and AGAINST that which sets itself against the work of God’s kingdom. Like Jesus, Francis exhibited love by celebrating the vulnerable and defending the poor.
Eventually, even Francis’ legacy would be “domesticated.” The church has, in fact, made a kind of pet out of St. Francis. His beautiful “Hymn to Brother Sun” survived and was celebrated, but his order’s strictures against ecclesial riches would be tamed and incorporated into imperial Christendom. In our day, with the advent of liberation theologies that advocate a preferential option for the poor, we might be in a better position to appreciate the radicality of the “historical Francis” even as we are called to recognize the vast challenge to wealth accumulation and rapacious acquisition that is presented to us by the historical Jesus.
In previous commentaries, I have stressed the importance of preachers avoiding the common trap of sentimentalizing nature. If nature is rendered “cute and cuddly,” then such departure from reality leads to unconvincing speech; meanwhile, it is a short leap between domestication and commodification. Similarly, when honoring St. Francis this day, the preacher has a fine opportunity to present Francis in all of his wildness. To preach the kind of love that St. Francis typified is not only to celebrate the beauty of Earth; it is also to lift up simplicity of living, eschewal of unjust wealth, and calling the church to repentance for its own acquiescence to unsustainable values.
If a sermon is to be preached in the spirit of Francis, then such a sermon will be risky—and likely deeply rewarding. The beauty of Jesus and Francis comes from the fact that they showed how deep tenderness towards creation and passionate advocacy against injustice go hand in hand. Such beauty is the kind that acts in harmony with the Spirit to heal God’s good earth.