Welcome to St. Francis Sunday — the Sunday when we remember the person most associated with animals in the history of Christianity. I have always loved St. Francis Sunday because it reminds me that Jesus’ life, Jesus’ death, Jesus’ resurrection, the good news for a broken world that we celebrate every Sunday — these events were not just for me, not just for humankind, but for all of creation.
A relationship between God and the non-human animals of the world can be found throughout both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. And Jesus is often with the animals — from his birth among the creatures in the barn, to his time with the wild beasts in the desert. From C.S. Lewis to John Wesley, from the Salvation Army founders to Leo Tolstoy and theologian Albert Schweitzer, there has always been a thread of Christ-followers who spoke up for the compassionate and Godly treatment of non-human animals in creation.
The 19th century preacher, Charles Spurgeon wrote “It is not only for the sake of the creature that is subject to cruelty that we would plead for kindness, but with a view to the good of the person causing the pain . . . Cruelty hardens the heart, deadens the conscience, and destroys the finer sensibilities of the soul . . . For the man who truly loves his Maker becomes tender toward all the creatures his Lord has made. In gentleness and kindness our great Redeemer is our model.” And of course, let’s not forget that most loved ordained Presbyterian minister who felt called to become a vegetarian because he said he wanted to “be a vehicle for God, to spread his message of love and peace.” We know him best as Mr. Rogers.
But, what about Francis himself? — The man we celebrate today.
Francis grew up in relative wealth and was a bit of a wild child. He was known for drinking and partying. He became a soldier and was captured and imprisoned. And it was during his time in prison that God came to Francis in visions.
When he was released, Francis renounced his old life and chose to answer God’s call to live in poverty and work to heal the Church. Some who knew Francis before his conversion, thought he’d lost his mind. The fact that he’d walk away from power and luxury proved this.
Most of the time, when people choose to stand with the marginalized, the poor, the suffering, when people choose to stand with those with whom Jesus stands — turning away from violence and greed and harm in favor of peace and generosity and healing – they are called unbalanced . . . as Francis was labeled. The choice Francis made, however, was to answer the call of the divine and that call is rarely something that can be understood within the value system of this world.
And Francis’ call got stranger still. If his friends thought Francis was mad when he chose to live in poverty, you can imagine what they must have thought when he began preaching to birds.
Francis believed that nature was the mirror of God. He called the animals his sisters and brothers. There are many legends about St. Francis and the animals, but one of the most famous is when he made a deal with a wolf. The wolf and townspeople were going after each other. The wolf attacking, then the townspeople retaliated, then the wolf responded in kind. The violence continued to escalate until Francis interceded. The townspeople agreed to put out food for the wolf and in return the wolf agreed to quit attacking them.
Pope John Paul II said Francis offers Christians “an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation . . . As a friend to the poor who was loved by God’s creatures, Francis invited all creation — animals, plants, natural forces, even Brother Sun and Sister Moon — to give honor and praise to God. The poor man of Assisi gives us striking witness that when we are at peace with God, we are better able to devote ourselves to building up that peace with all creation which is inseparable from peace among all people.”
I think about this in relationship to the way in which animals, the environment, human workers, human rights, and our own bodies are treated in our current food production system. I think about ways in which many of the practices of industrial agriculture, for example, are contrary to the values of my faith.
I’ll spare you the gory details of how animals are often treated in the industrial agriculture economy, you can find it by a simple google search anyway, but it’s safe to say that our current system of factory farming puts incredible strain on our natural resources. Unlike the more moderately-sized family farms that dominated our farming economy in previous centuries – with large, corporate factory farming, the extreme amount of waste created by raising huge numbers of animals in one place pollutes the land, the air, and the water. The residents of rural communities surrounding factory farms have higher incidents of illness, and their property values are often lowered by their proximity to industrial farms. To counteract the health challenges presented by overcrowded, stressful, unsanitary living conditions, antibiotics are used extensively on factory farms, which can create drug-resistant bacteria and put human health at risk.
When I think about the conditions that these animals have to live in it’s hard not to remember Jesus saying, “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings?” I think about the scripture that tells us, “Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord,” and when I hear that 70 percent of what was the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed to supply grazing land for cattle, I can’t help but think of the words of Jeremiah, “I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered, you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination.”
Our faith calls us to grace, mercy, gentleness and peace. St. Francis would ask us to consider whether that should extend to our relationships with our non-human sisters and brothers, and even to the very earth, all of which is God’s creation — all of which God saw and God said was good.
That right relationship, that calling to mercy, gentleness and peace, is contrary to a system that says that the only value in a thing is its economic value, that the only life that is valued is a life that turns a profit, that creation is a commodity and not a precious gift to be cherished and used wisely. But our faith — that good news — is, and should be, contrary to that approach.
“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?” Jesus asked. “Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.”
And that is a part of that good news today. None of us is forgotten by our creator — not even those who have fur, feathers, or fins. As a people called to love mercy, to do justice and to walk humbly with the one who remembers the one who is valued the least, we need to ask what our obligation is to our sister and brother animals and if we are meeting it as we are called to do.