Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. Rhonda Mawhood Lee preached this sermon October 9, 2011, the first Sunday following the Feast of St. Francis, for the Blessing of the Animals service at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Durham, N.C.
Why do we only take animals to church once a year? Aside from service animals, most churches only allow them into worship on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Why is that?
It’s because bringing animals into church is crazy. Every year when they join us, chaos lurks just beneath the surface. We all wonder, will the dogs chase the cats, the cats chase the hamsters, and the birds and spiders scatter to the four directions? Or more accurately, when will all that happen?
Celebrating St. Francis Day is risky, because there’s no way to know in advance what the proportion of growling to wagging, and hissing to purring, will be. Human nature being what it is, that’s true every Sunday.
But celebrating the Feast of St. Francis with our companion animals makes us more aware of the fact that relationship always involves risk, and that the God who risked everything for us calls us into relationship anyway -- with him, and with all our fellow creatures, the infinitely varied works of the divine hands.
It’s appropriate to go a little crazy on St. Francis Day, because during his own lifetime, many people thought Francesco Bernardone was insane.
They thought he was crazy in his 20s, when he stripped naked in the town square to renounce his inheritance in front of his parents, the bishop and the entire population of Assisi.
And when he kissed and hugged lepers, cleaning their wounds with his ungloved hands.
They thought he was crazy when he preached to the birds, calling them his “little sisters” and remarking that they paid better attention to the gospel than people did.
And later, when he founded an order grounded in the belief that Jesus Christ’s disciples could live as their Lord had, owning nothing, begging for what they needed and trusting God to provide for them as he did for the birds, the fish and the lilies of the fields.
People who had more possessions than they needed thought Francis was crazy because he refused to distinguish between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. He gave to everyone who begged from him -- money or food if he had any, or a smile and a kind word if he had nothing else to offer.
People who resented the rich couldn’t understand why Francis wouldn’t condemn their selfishness; instead, he asked his wealthy sisters and brothers simply to open their hearts to the Holy Spirit’s call and respond as their consciences commanded.
Even though many of his contemporaries already venerated him as a saint, almost everything Francis did was interpreted by someone as a sign that he had lost his mind.
Francis didn’t argue with them. He openly admitted that he was a fool, but not just any kind of fool. He was fool enough to believe that Jesus actually meant his disciples to live as he had instructed.
“Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.”
“Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.”
“If your brother or sister sins against you, forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven times.”
Over 2,000 years, learned scholars have labored endlessly to explain away those teachings. The gallons of ink spilled and the forests of trees sacrificed in that effort constitute an ecological disaster in their own right.
But Francis was no scholar. Not burdened by the responsibility to tame or tone down Jesus’ message, he was free to respond by letting his whole life embody the gospel.
When, as a grown man, Francis experienced his conversion to a life of holy poverty, he became one of the “infants” Jesus mentions in Matthew 11: the people who know that the risen Christ is with us and will sustain us as we seek, together, to live as his body in the world.
Francis latched onto that pure faith as firmly and single-mindedly as an infant latches onto the breast or bottle that is its only source of nourishment. And from that moment on, he lived a life of deep vulnerability and deep joy, unconstrained by any of the barriers human beings erect to make ourselves feel safe.
The barriers between us and those who have less than we do, in whose presence we feel ashamed; between us and those who have more than we do, in whose presence we feel jealous; between us and those we’ve hurt; and between us and those who have done us harm.
The barriers between human and nonhuman animals, whom we too often treat as objects, disregarding the fact that they have their own inner lives of which we understand very little; and between us and the rest of creation, which we try more often to control than to respect.
Francis called his friends -- he calls us -- to stop trusting walls, physical and emotional, to keep us safe. Instead, he invites you and me to join him in a life of holy adventure, entrusting ourselves to the care of the one who entered this world as a helpless infant, who relied as an adult on the generosity of friends and strangers, who suffered torture and public execution -- and who rose again as the Lord of all creation.
The Feast of St. Francis is a day to bless animals and to ask God’s forgiveness for our mistreatment of them and of the Earth, the home we share with them. And in celebration of our brother from Assisi, it’s also a day to bless children, a day to bless the poor, a day to bless our enemies, and a day to bless holy fools who are crazy enough to live as citizens of God’s kingdom in this life, not waiting for the next.
Having lived his life that way, on his deathbed Francis offered his friends a final prayer: “I have done what is mine. May Christ teach you what is yours to do.”
May Christ teach us what crazy gospel acts may be ours to do. And may God give us the grace to accomplish those things as wholeheartedly, and as single-mindedly, as Francis did.