The season of creation: st. francis day...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for this coming Sunday, October 6th,
during which we will honor World Communion Sunday as well as St. Francis Day.  For the first time at this church - and the first time in my ministry - we will share a blessing of our pets ceremony followed by Eucharist.  What follows is my reflection on this strange and crazy sacred holiday - one completely overlooked by the world - but one that is ripe with gospel insights in super abundance.

Here’s a confession:  for most of my adult life I have secretly wanted to be a Franciscan monk! I LOVE Franciscan spirituality, I cherish the wisdom and example of Francis in history, I totally dig Zefferelli’s cinematic interpretation of this ministry in “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” and I am both spiritually and aesthetically knocked out by the blessing of the animals liturgy.

·      Don’t get me wrong, I know that my adoration of all things Franciscan is mostly a romantic projection and I am well aware of the practical impediments to joining the monastery:  I am a Protestant, for God’s sake, and I love my wife profoundly – and my children, too!

·      Still there is a part of me that cherishes the innocence and tenderness of St. Francis of Assisi. I think the new Pope, Francesco I, was clear about in this by selecting the name of Francis for his new ministry. I know that as I have matured in ministry, I have looked to the witness of Francis as one of my guides:  Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace…

And when our Sunday School material for this “Season of Creation” suggested that we join with other congregations in the Reformed tradition for a blessing of the animals liturgy, I thought to myself, “Hmmmm… I have wanted to do this at least ONCE before I leave this earth.”  So, with less time in front of me than behind, I had a conversation with both our Worship and Christian Education ministry teams about making this happen – and when they were almost as tickled and intrigued as I was – I took that as confirmation by the Holy Spirit and wet all of this in motion.

Now let’s be clear:  there is something totally crazy about what we’re doing today, right?  An Anglican preacher, Rhonda Mawhood Lee, has written:

Bringing animals into church is crazy.   (And every year when they join us on St. Francis Day) 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, we wonder 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…

But the beauty of being so crazy on this day alongside of our animal companions is that in doing so we realize “that relationship always involves risk –  that the God who risked everything for us calls us into relationship anyway – with the Lord,  with all our fellow creatures, (with creation) and all the infinitely varied works of the divine hands.” ( sermons/ rhonda-mawhood-lee-go-little-crazy-st-francis-day)

In the Christian tradition – Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox or Reformed – this is known as being a Fool for Christ:  living in such crazy trust and faith that we take the way of Jesus to heart by letting his words become flesh within and among us.  That’s what St. Francis did in his era – and make no mistake – most of the people in his day thought he was crazy, too.  Because with a childlike tenderness and trust, he spoke truth to power, he loved those who hated him and he gave himself to the breaking down of barriers instead of building stronger walls of separation.
To my mind Francis put into practice the gospel lesson for today.  The people who valued order over compassion and common sense over the upside-down values of the kingdom of God didn’t want to waste Christ’s time with the children.  In that era, the little ones were not included in public worship or times of teaching because they had no value or wisdom to bring to the table.  They were noisy and easily distracted and better left at home in the care of their mothers.
·      And while our pets today won’t be impressed by this fact – or really anything else I say to you – let me push a bit deeper because it is likely that it was the mothers who were bringing the children to Jesus for a blessing.

·      Scholars tell us that the blessing most coveted in that time had to do with protection from the evil eye – a curse that malevolent souls put upon others – in order to cause physical or emotion pain.  It is a belief that still runs deep throughout Middle Eastern cultures.  When we were in Turkey a few years ago, everyone and their cousin had talisman like these to ward off the curse of the evil eye. 

·      In the time and culture of Jesus, because children were so vulnerable and defenseless, it is small wonder that their mothers wanted blessings against the evil eye, right?  Most of us don’t share fears about our children receiving a curse, but we still do everything in our power and understanding to make sure our little ones are safe and projected and that includes everything from vaccines to childcare and parent/teacher conferences.

So what we have in these few lines from Scripture suggests a three layered story involving the craziness of Jesus and his upside-down values:

·      First, Jesus welcomes and embraces both the children and their mothers to his circle of wisdom and protection.  He breaks down the barriers rather than builds higher walls.

·      Second, Jesus tells ALL the adults something essential about Christian living:  it looks crazy when evaluated through the lens of the status quo. To experience the blessings of God’s kingdom we must learn to live with a tender vulnerability and childlike trust in the Lord.

·      And third, this story is likely a parable about how the early Church differed from both the traditional Jewish and pagan cultures of the time:  Christians welcomed and even encouraged “participation by the whole family… as children were blessed as they became part of the whole community of faith.”  (New Interpreter’s Bible, Matthew, p. 387)

·      Are you still with me?  Do you see where I’m going with all of this in the light of the craziness of St. Francis?

Francis was a beautiful, crazy child of God – a fool for Christ – who hugged and kissed lepers, who called the birds his little sisters and the wolves his wounded brothers, who wandered the land singing to the sun and inviting us to listen to the songs of praise shared by the trees and plants and lilies of the field.  He was called crazy by his family who hated the fact that he chose the simplicity of Brother Poverty over the comfort of his father’s wealth. 

He was considered unstable by many church leaders who feared that his uncomplicated and child-like description of the Gospel would rob them of their power and influence.  And he was judged unsophisticated and imbalanced by the scholars of his age because Francis was 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.” (Mawhood-Lee, ibid)

Francis lived like a vulnerable and open child.   And like a joy-filled child of God he didn’t see the barriers that so often keep us divided and antagonistic.  You see, he sensed that most of the time we separate ourselves from one another to maintain the illusion of safety.  We are afraid of so many things – shame, power, guilt, racial divisions, sexual exploitation, political loyalties – and so much more.

·      So Francis invited us to become friends – to give up our loyalties to the barriers and divisions that we think will keep us safe – and start trusting that God’s love in the cosmos is greater than any other force in all creation.

·      Like Jesus we all came into this world as helpless children who had no other option but to trust the generosity of adults for our care.  Like Jesus, we too have known suffering and fear and sometimes betrayal and isolation.

·      And if we have shared these truths with Jesus in a life like his, Francis asks us to trust like a child that we will share the blessings and renewal of a resurrection like his; so that whether we live or whether we die we rest in the love and grace of the Lord.

It is a totally crazy way to go through life – not unlike bringing our pets into this Sanctuary – but it is the way of Jesus who asks us to bless our enemies, bless our children, bless our intimacy with creation through our pets and trust that living like fools for Christ is the better way. Like you, I can’t do it all at once – I want to – but I know it is going to take me a life time to be so crazy that I can live like a child of God.  But I want to… and today gives me permission to take one more step on that journey. 


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