Tuesday, October 7, 2014

feast of st. francis

Feast of St. Francis, Year A, 2014
St. Thomas' Whitemarsh
preached at the Blessing of the Animals service

"7 Praise the Lord from the earth,
   you sea monsters and all deeps...
Wild animals and all cattle,
   creeping things and flying birds! 
12 Young men and women alike,
   old and young together! 
13 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
   for his name alone is exalted;
   his glory is above earth and heaven."
(Psalm 148:7-14)

Welcome to the wonderful chaos that we fondly know as the blessing of the animals! Each year we bring our beloved animals, both stuffed and alive, with us to church. Not only do they receive a blessing, but they share with us in worship, adding their voices to ours to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord" (Psalm 98:4). The joy their presence in our lives bring us is without comparison, and in loving them we experience a microcosm of God's love for us and all creation. 

Daniel and I have enjoyed watching our puppy, Becket, play in our yard. He loves to gnaw on sticks and proudly prances around the yard with them in his mouth. He appreciates the satisfying crunch of leaves--both underfoot as well as in his mouth. As Becket explores the world around him we are made to pause and look around us, which reminds us of the simple joy of this amazing creation we are privileged to be a part of. 

Last Wednesday we brought Becket to the church to introduce him to the Alle*gro & St. Francis choir. We let him loose and the kids chased after him and he chased after them all around campus. The children's squeals of pure, unadulterated glee were beautiful songs of praise to the Lord. 

Some of you might remember that the blessing of the animals always coincides with the feast of St. Francis. Francis is well known for his love of animals and nature. You may have noticed statues of the beloved monk with a bird on his shoulder or arm decorating many people's gardens--in fact we have two on campus: behind Church Hill Hall and in the chapel. Francis was kind of a pied piper of all creatures; the legends surrounding him and animals are pretty bizarre. In one, he notices birds in the trees and begins preaching to them. At his encouragement they begin to flap their wings and sing their praises to God. When he finishes preaching, they fly away. In another tale a bunny comes up to him to be petted. Francis takes him back to the woods and lets him go, but the bunny follows him and climbs into his lap. This is repeated a few times before Francis has one of the brothers take the bunny back. The final story is the wildest. A wolf has been terrorizing a village, eating not only beloved pets but people as well. Several valiant efforts have been made to kill the wolf, but to no avail. St. Francis hears of the village's problem and decides to help them out. He and another brother and some villagers venture into the woods, responding to their warning of danger with the affirmation that God will protect him. After a little while the villagers get freaked out and tell Francis they're not going any closer. So Francis and his companion continue in pursuit of the wolf. Suddenly the wolf jumps out in front of them, snarling. But he can't hurt them because his mouth has been shut by God! St. Francis calmly speaks with the wolf and asks him not to hurt the people anymore. The wolf promises by shaking on it--literally. Then the wolf follows Francis and the brother back to the village, where the wolf again shakes on a deal with the villagers. They agree to help provide food for him and he agrees not to terrorize them. The wolf stays with the villagers for two years, and when he finally dies from old age, the villagers mourn him. 

St. Francis is known for his love of animals, but there is so much more to him than just that. He starts out as the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, and by all accounts, as a young man he is a spoiled brat. But much like Robin Hood in "The Prince of Thieves," he comes back from war (as well as an illness) a changed man. Sitting in church one day, Francis thinks he hears God telling him to rebuild the Church. He takes this to mean he is supposed to literally repair the church building. So, he goes back home, grabs a huge load of his father's expensive silk, and sells it at the market so he can give the money to the church. Well, his father is not too happy about this, and they get into a public argument. His father disowns him, and Francis is so disgusted that he gets rid of everything his father ever gave him...including the nice clothing he's wearing. Yep, you heard that right; St. Francis walks away from the crowd naked. He takes a vow of poverty and proceeds to work odd jobs in exchange for food and stones so that he can repair the church without his father's help. He also begins to take care of lepers, endangering his life, much as the healthcare workers today taking care of patients with Ebola. Francis becomes well-known for his preaching, and young men begin joining him in living a life of simplicity and poverty. Together they form the order of Franciscans, spreading the love of Christ with their words as well as in the way they treat others. They care for the sick, the outcast, and the animals; they care for those considered the "least of these" in creation. Francis early on makes the same mistake that many of us make when we think of church as a building; over time he comes to realize that church is broader and more far-reaching than just a building--it's people that make up the Church. 

In a letter written by St. Francis to Christians, he said, "O how happy and blessed are those who love the Lord and do as the Lord himself said in the gospel: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your whole soul, and your neighbor as yourself. Thereofore, [sic] let us love God and adore him with pure heart and mind." 

While you and I might not be called to a life of total poverty, I think we can learn a lot from St. Francis about caring for all of God's creation. We are blessed to live in this glorious and dangerous and heartbreakingly beautiful world. May we have the grace to praise God by taking care of the least of these among us, both two-legged and four-legged. 

Becket making friends with the St. Francis & Alle*gro Choir

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