Matthew 11:25-30 Year C, Feast of St. Francis
In the Roman Catholic Church, St Francis is the patron saint of animals and ecology. He was known for his love of animals and creation. That’s why we have the animal blessing near his feast day. Most people also know that he was committed to a life of poverty. He was born to a wealthy family. He could have done anything with his life—led a life of leisure if that was his choice. And he did…for about 25 years. He worked for his father who sold fine cloth and did very well. But he gave it all up. The story we typically hear of his conversion/transformation is that he was praying in a church in front of a crucifix and he heard the voice of God tell him, “Francis, repair my church.” However, there was more that led up to that.
When he was a young man, what he really wanted, was to be a knight. He wanted the honor and the glory. When Assisi went to war with another town in Italy, he got his wish. However, he was soon taken as a prisoner of war and was held for a year. Like many prisoners of war, he was held in deplorable conditions. Since his father had money, he was ransomed and returned home, but only after considerable trauma. Despite the ordeal, his dream of knighthood was not diminished.
In 1205 there was a call for knights for the 4th crusade. He got his father to buy him all the fancy and expensive armor. He got on his horse and left, determined to be a hero. A day into his journey he had a dream where God told him he had it wrong and he needed to return home. Amazingly, he listened.
Imagine what that must have been like…returning home after 2 days, never even making it to battle. It must have been a humbling experience. He knew what God had told him, but everyone else knew him as the man who had gone off to prove himself in war only to return after 2 days.
It was only after that and then more intense time in prayer that he had his true conversion experience. Yet even with this profound experience, there was some confusion when God told him to repair his church. He thought God intended him to repair buildings and that was what he initially did. He sold all he owned and begged, to repair buildings. It was after years of that when he realized his true calling was to create an order of Franciscans who would live in poverty and served the poor and oppressed. They had no need of restored buildings. In some sense, they repaired the heart of the church.
St Francis has so many things to teach us in his words and actions. One part of his story that we don’t talk about is how discernment fit into his life and teaching. Discernment is a word we often use but rarely define. It means trying to understand God’s will in your life. The prayer we used for the collect today is a prayer written by St. Francis. “Enlighten the darkness of my heart, and give me true faith, certain hope, and perfect charity, sense and knowledge, that I may carry out your holy and true command.”
I would think that almost all of us yearn for God’s direction in our lives. We just have a hard time identifying that direction. It’s comforting to know that St. Francis had this challenge as well. He made mistakes, he sought glory and honor. He also faced consequences and learned from those consequences.
I imagine that when he returned from the crusade that he didn’t fight, people judged him harshly. He almost surely judged himself. He might have felt like a failure. This was his dream after all—to be a knight. Yet in the end, that failure taught him something and can teach us something as well.
This Gospel text is a famous one, mostly because it’s so incredibly comforting. At one time or another (probably many times) we feel as though we are carrying heavy burdens and long for rest. A yoke is a tool used when working with animals that are pulling large loads. The yoke can be used on one animal, or two animals can be yoked together. Here, Jesus is offering to share the load with us—so that we might be yoked to Jesus. I have always loved that image. Yet there is a part that I have never really paid attention to. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart…” Learn from me. If we are truly yoked to Jesus, we cannot help but learn from him. We can see what he sees, experience what he experiences. When we see, or even just try to see with Jesus’ eyes, then everything looks different.
This text is perfect for honoring St. Francis—but not because of the promise of rest for the weary. That’s important, but that wasn’t what St. Francis was all about. He was intent on knowing God and knowing the people who most needed God. That requires humility. Jesus said, “Learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart…” If God, the creator and savior of humanity can be humble, why is it so hard for us? Why are we so often convinced that we have the right answers? I think some people mistake humility for insecurity or low self-esteem. That’s not what it is. It’s knowing your worth, but also knowing that your worth, and all that you have is dependent on God. It’s means relying on God for direction and being willing to learn from all that you have experienced—even your failures.
St Francis wasn’t wrong to join the war. It was a step on his path and it helped form him. Every step on our journeys is an opportunity to get closer to God. Discernment isn’t a clear and direct path. It’s a path. The important thing is that while we are on that path, we are learning from God and about God. We are praying to know God more deeply. And hopefully, we will have companions on that journey, others who will help us.(Sometimes they will companions with 4 legs who can remind us of what it is to care for another being, and to be loved unconditionally. Often it will be the two legged kind.) Because it can be an exhausting journey. But in the end…every step…every step leads us to where we need to be as long as we keep listening, keep learning from God.