Sermon Preached on October 6, 2019
Creation IV, St. Francis Day Celebration (and Maine Marathon)
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME
Galatians 6:14-18 (assigned for feast of St. Francis)
Matthew 11:25-30 (assigned for feast of St. Francis)
Francis to Frederick
Today all over the country Episcopal Churches are celebrating St. Francis Day, and lots of them have animals all over the sanctuary, or maybe outside on the lawn. There are kids and pets, and maybe some larger animals like horses and donkeys, or even exotic animals like snakes and tropical birds… but we can be sure there’s lots of noise and chaos, and hopefully a lot of laughter and joy as well. We are celebrating here as well, though we reserve the up-close and personal blessing of live animals for the afternoon – because there’s enough chaos this Sunday of the marathon and water stop.
People love this Sunday – making St. Francis one of the most popular saints. Though there’s more to Francis than his love for animals. Francis was born 1181 in Assisi, in Umbria, Italy, into a life of wealth and social position. After hearing a call from God to repair the Church, Francis gave up all money and family ties (recognizing only his Father in heaven) and embraced a life of poverty and service.
He went from town to town preaching, eating whatever he could find, wearing only a sack tied with a cord and owning nothing. He considered it living in obedience to the Gospel, and in freedom. Having nothing meant he had nothing to fear – nothing anyone would want to take, nothing to protect, nothing weighing him down. Taking to heart the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel text – Francis put all his trust on God to care for him and he found freedom and joy in ‘resting in God’.
People began to notice this strangely pious and yet free man preaching the gospel, and others decided to join him. As the number of his companions grew, Francis realized that they needed some kind of ordering principles: He chose extreme poverty, humility and service. Which you would think would be difficult and unpopular and yet the group continued to grow. Eventually Francis went before Pope Innocent III, to get his approval for the founding of a new Monastic Order, called the lesser brothers, and commonly known as the Franciscans. The Order continued to grow during his lifetime, numbering in the thousands. The order could not possess money; and each Franciscan could have only a tunic and cord, a pair of pants, and, if really necessary, a pair of shoes. Because the order wasn’t tied to place, they served the communities they felt called to serve, and moved to places where they were most needed. Their mission – to serve Christ by serving the least of us.
Francis was known for his contentment, he sang as he went from town to town, he loved nature; he spoke to the birds and the animals as though they were his friends. There are lots of legends about his kindness to animals. My favorite – once in the midst of a storm, Francis found a cave for shelter. He went in to get out of the storm, only to find that a wild donkey was sheltered there first, so he asked the donkey’s pardon, and went back out into the storm, rather than make the donkey leave. These legends form the connection between St. Francis and animals, and why animals play such a large role in this feast day.
Which brings us to the part we’ve been waiting for – the animals. A reflection by Frederick Buechner On Animals:¹
Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2:19). Following Adam’s lead, we say that is the elephant and the albatross, that is the weasel and the goldfish. What or who they really are we do not know because they do not tell. They do not tell because they lack what is either the gift or the curse of speech, depending on your point of view. Perhaps another reason they do not tell is that they do not know. The marmalade cat dozing among the nasturtiums presumably doesn’t think of herself as a marmalade cat or as anything else for that matter. She simply is what she is and what she does. Whether she’s mating under the moon or eviscerating a mouse or gazing into empty space, she seems to make herself up from moment to moment as she goes along.
Humans live largely inside their heads, from which they tell the rest of their bodies what to do, except for occasional passionate moments when the tables are turned. Animals, on the other hand, do not seem compartmentalized that way. Everything they are is in every move they make.
When a dachshund takes a shine to you, it is not likely to be because he has thought it over ahead of time. Or in spite of certain reservations. Or in expectation of certain benefits. It seems to be just because it feels to him like a good idea at the time. Such as he is, he gives himself to you hook, line, and sinker, the bad breath no less than the frenzied tail and the front paws climbing the air. Needless to say, the whole picture can change in a flash if you try to make off with his dinner, but for the moment his entire being is an act of love bordering on the beatific.
“Ask the animals, and they will teach you,” Job says to his foul-weather friends. Innocence, as above, is one of their lessons, but the one Job has in mind is another, that is, that “in [the Lord’s] hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being” (Job 12:7,10).
When the ravens came and fed Elijah bread and meat by the brook Cherith (1 Kings 17:6), we’re told they did it because the Lord commanded them to. However, I suspect that since, in spite of Poe, ravens are largely nonverbal, the Lord caused the sight of the old man to be itself the command the way the smell of breakfast is a command to be hungry or the sound of your best friend on the stair a command to rejoice.
Elijah sat there all by himself—bald, on the run, in danger of starving to death. If the ravens could have talked, they would probably have tried to talk either the Lord or themselves out of doing anything about it. As it was, there was simply nothing for it but to bring him two squares a day till he moved on somewhere else. The sleek, black birds and the bony, intractable prophet— since all life is one life, to save another is to save yourself, and with their wings, and beaks, and throbbing birds’ hearts all working at once, the ravens set about doing it.
My friends, this morning we have moved from Francis to Frederick (Buechner), and now to the animals who are close to our hearts. The Show and Tell portion of our morning: if you remembered to bring a photo of an animal who blesses your life, or if you can pull up a photo on your phone, take a moment to share that with someone near you.
With these beloved ones in our hearts, let us pray:
Hear and bless thy beasts and singing birds,
And guard with tenderness
Small things that have no words.
1 Frederick Buechner, On Animals, posted on January 20, 2018, www.frederickbuechner.com, originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words.
2 Margaret Wise Brown, A Child’s Goodnight Book, 1943.