The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Blessing of the Animals by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Sept. 30, 2018

Lessons:

Jeremiah 22:13–16

Galatians 6:14–18

Matthew 11:25–30

Psalm 148:7–14

 

I’ve been struggling these past few days. Maybe you have been struggling too.

Watching and listening to and reading about Thursday morning’s hearings was hard. Witnessing the kind of pain we saw on Thursday morn, the kind of grief that we saw, the kind of anger that we saw, the kind of trauma that we saw; well, I think that many of us paid a price for our witness.

I know that many of us paid a price for our witness.

I am not a survivor of sexual violence. I know that there are survivors here this morning. And I know that all of us have survivors whom we love in our immediate network. I don’t know what to say except I’m sorry. As paltry as that is, I am sorry that these past few days have touched such profound wounds in so many lives.

The price that we paid for watching these hearings was magnified for me and maybe for you by the deep mistrust and even contempt that it is apparent that many of our elected officials feel for one another and that many of our fellow citizens feel for one another. The marriage researchers, John Gottman and his spouse and collaborator Julie Gottman, have learned that contempt is the most consistent and reliable predictors of a divorce. What does this kind of mutual contempt mean for our country?

I realised how much all of this was weighing on me when I got up on Friday morning in a state of amorphous anxiety and anger. I was pissed off at nothing, at everything. I felt like I had been mainlining the news, that the reports out of Washington were an IV running directly into my arm and leaving me dangerously off-balance. On Friday morning, it felt like losing my keys or stubbing my toe might be the sort of thing that would be too much, that would leave me shouting and my hands shaking.

I remembered the scene in that movie About a Boy, in which a single Mom, played by the incomparable Toni Collette, is unable to fit a dish into her kitchen cupboard. And so she just begins to sob.

What do we do with an experience like this? How do you encounter it and not feel despair? How, in particular, do we encounter it as church?

Here’s what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to regurgitate something that you have heard elsewhere, somewhere outside of church, except dressed up in religious language. There is a quip from maybe 50 years ago that the Episcopal Church was the Republican Party at prayer. Here on the West Coast in 2018, our danger is almost the opposite, our danger is in becoming the Democratic Party at prayer – and the left wing of the party at that.

That’s not any better.

When a preacher, when a Christian, takes pre-existing taking points and then proof texts them with the Bible, when they enlist Jesus to back up whatever they were already going to say – that’s something that I have probably done, that I have assuredly done – well, we fail as disciples when we do that.

Here’s what I’d like to do instead. I’d like us to notice that this is the day when the church is full of an unusual number of furry parishioners, the day when we talk about and celebrate St. Francis. On occasion of shared hurt, I’d like to wonder about what this gentle Saint from the town of Assisi might have to teach us.

Generally speaking, we don’t spend a whole lot of time remembering Saints these days. Gone is the time when Feast Days were a big part of our shared life, when an English village would turn into something like a carnival when the Feast of St. Lydia or St. Stephen or whoever came along.

But Francis remains kind of a big deal. You see his statue in a lot of places, including Grace’s own garden. And on this day, we move his readings from mid-week to a Sunday in order to specially remember him. (That practice, by the way, while widespread is authorised nowhere in the Book of Common Prayer. This is a total deviation from the rules.)

Why do we do it? Is this just kind of harmless fun?

Maybe it is that. There is something wonderful about the prayers of the people when the congregational response includes a few barks. But I think that there is more than that going on. I think that this is a day that reminds us of who God is, of what God is like, and of what God thinks about us.

Every now and again, you’ll encounter one of those bumper stickers that says Dog is my co-pilot. And I have at least one friend who finds those stickers offensive or blasphemous.

But actually, I think that they might be okay theology.

What if the love with which a dog looks at the members of its family is a lot like the love with which God looks at you and me?

I have heard folks say that what they value so much about their pets is that their pets love them unconditionally. But as a theologian observed a while back, putting the word unconditional before the word love is actually a redundant. Love that is conditional isn’t love at all: that’s just approval. Genuine love is without limit or constraint. That is the kind of love that God has for you and me. We see that love made manifest in our pets.

In this season of hurt, know that you are loved. You are loved absolutely and without reservation.

Maybe that is a platitude. But it’s also true. And Francis knew that it is a truth that, should we come to believe it, should we come to trust in it, will change everything. Imagine what the world would look like if we all knew ourselves, knew in our bones, that we are God’s beloved children, and that our neighbours are equally beloved.

Francis was not, is not, a naïve saint. He knew about suffering, he lived in poverty, he worked for justice. Late in his life, he received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. His body bore the hardship of being alive, of risking love. But he also was and is a saint who knows that this life is so, so beautiful. And that Jesus is with us every step of the way, whispering God’s love our ears, challenging us to grow in faith and in compassion, to grow not so that God might love us, but to grow because God loves us.

We have big work to do. Big work as individuals, as a parish, as a county, as a human family, as a family of all of God’s creatures. If we are to do that work, the work of bringing justice nearer, of bringing the Kingdom of God nearer, we need the strength of God’s love. We need to voice of Jesus, which never ceases to say:

You are loved, you are loved, you are loved.

 

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost + St. Francis of Assisi + Blessing of the Animals by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Deuteronomy 30:11-20
Psalm 121
Galatians 6:14-18
Matthew 11:25-30

 

I spent this past week at Bishop’s Ranch, an Episcopal retreat centre located about ninety minutes north of San Francisco. I was at the Ranch as part of a self-directed preaching conference that six colleagues and I organised. During our time together, my colleagues and I looked at the readings scheduled for the coming year, we shared Biblical research and ideas, we preached draft sermons for one another. And in between our work, we went hiking.

Bishop’s Ranch is located on a multi-acre property in Sonoma County. And as those of you who have been there will know, it is a glorious spot: the rolling hills, the early-morning fog, and the abundant trees all glow with the artistry of God. A hiker does not have to go far from the sleeping quarters and the office and the dining hall to feel as though she is well and truly into the backcountry. In a handful of steps, the buildings are gone and the silence is old and deep. At midday, when we set out for our hike, even the birds were at rest, their song perhaps postponed for a siesta.

For the first hour or so, our hike was lovely. We encountered a picturesque lake and a wondrous view of the surrounding wine country. But – maybe because we underestimated the distance of the hike, maybe because we didn’t foresee how many hills and, therefore, how much climbing there would be, maybe because it was hotter than it looked – at a certain point, the hike stopped being fun.

We ran out of water. And at least two members our party ran out of steam. Unable to climb any further, they found some shade and sat down beside the road.

It was at this moment of dehydration and exhaustion that we looked up into the sky and noticed that there was a vulture circling overhead.

A couple of my friends and I hiked out. Thankfully, it was all of a mile back to the main office building. And there I asked the staff if they would mind going to pick up the rest of our friends. The staff did. And everyone got home and chugged a bunch of water. So, a happy ending. No big deal.

But the experience – well, it’s staying with me.

Living in an urban environment, I rarely feel vulnerable in the way that I did in the wilderness outside of Bishop’s Ranch; I rarely feel the kind of immediate vulnerability that I imagine our ancestors knew with regularity, the danger that comes from simply being alive and walking the earth. Occasionally my adrenaline will spike when I’m out on my bicycle and a motorist passes by too close. Occasionally I wonder about what the guy on public transit might be capable of who is screaming profanity at the air around him.

But most of my worries are actually relatively abstract: I worry that a time might come when my family doesn’t have enough money, that Phoebe and I might not be able to afford to pay for the university education that is, increasingly, a prerequisite if our children hope to avoid poverty; and in these weeks leading up to the election, I sometimes worry that our country’s social fabric is becoming thin and torn, that we are losing our hold on our ability to believe and trust in the humanity and the goodness of our fellow citizens.

But very rarely do I experience the ancient and totally non-abstract vulnerability that I touched (however superficially and however fleetingly) on the paths of Bishop’s Ranch. Here is the fear that the water or the food might run out right now. Here is the realisation that death, which an hour or two ago seemed safely decades away, might suddenly be standing close. Here is the understanding that the words of Ash Wednesday – remember you are dust and to dust you shall return – are not abstractions.

Here is the glimpse of the vulture descending, not for some unfortunate and expired woodland creature, but for me.

Today we mark the most popular non-official Feast in the entire Episcopal calendar: St. Francis’ Day and the Blessing of the Animals. Francis’ official Feast Day is on Tuesday. But in a flagrant violation of every rule there is, many parishes, this one included, move Francis’ collect and readings to this day, so that we hear about this 11th and 12th-Century saint on the day when our congregation is appreciably more furry than usual.

The belovedness of this Feast Day, the energy around it, is palpable. I look forward to this day all year. And I know that a lot of you do as well. Over the years, I have met a number of folks who self-identify as “C & E” churchgoers – the two days of the year on which they are reliably in church are Christmas and Easter. But it’s only in the last year or two that I have begun to meet “C, E, & F” churchgoers – the three days that these folks won’t miss are Christmas, Easter, and St. Francis’ Day.

Part of the belovedness of this day has to do with the simple joy of being in a room filled with pets. There is a kind of holy chaos here, there is delight in knowing that at any minute a hymn might be joined by a bark or a howl of whatever noise it is that a guinea pig makes.

Another part of this day’s belovedness comes because it offers us a ritual opportunity to name just how much we love our cats and dogs and birds, what good and loyal friends they are to us, how they companion us in our days of celebration and our days of sorrow. I notice that, when a pet dies, people are often embarrassed about sharing their grief – I don’t understand why I am so upset, someone will say, it’s just a cat. But the Blessing of the Animals declares that, actually, having an animal friend is a really big deal and, therefore, the death of such a friend is a big deal. We can and do share a deep love with a cat or a dog or mouse or a bird. We can and do experience deep loss when such a friend dies.

And part of the reason that this Feast Day is beloved – and this is the aspect that I am wondering about most strongly after my experience on the trails of Bishop’s Ranch – is that by gathering with and among animals, we remind ourselves that human beings – that we – are divorced neither from the beauty not from the danger of the natural world.

We are inheritors (maybe from the Victorians – I’m not sure when this idea got its start) of the notion that we are observers of the natural world, of the animal world, but that we are not really participants in it. The sun and the moon, the hills and the trees, the animals that dance across the canopy of the sky or upon the arc of the land: we can measure these things, we can tame them, we can use them, we can perhaps even exploit them. But they are separate from us.

This separate and controlled way of relating to nature is embedded in a lot of our culture. Clothes and buildings and landscaping and cleaning and rituals alike all declare that we aren’t in the wild, we aren’t of the wild. The buildings in this neighbourhood, this church included, tend to be pretty orderly in nature. The pews are lined up in a precise way, the costumes that people like me wear are carefully cared for, many of us have smart haircuts, we are reasonably well-dressed. One of the things that a building like this tells you is that the natural world – and in particular, the dangers of the natural world – well, that stuff is somewhere else.

I suspect that part of us – a big part of us – senses that this declaration of nature’s somewhere-elseness is false. And so we are drawn to a day on which – with a church full of animals, some of them furry and some of them us – we remember that we are not observers of creation, but we are part of creation. We are drawn to the Feast Day of Saint who is able to speak of the earth – and to the earth – with the language of reverence and awe and love. Francis’ love extends up and to including the earthy reality that our time on this planet is finite, that we are here but for a while before our bodies return to the clay from which God shaped us.

It is Francis, in his writings, who speaks of Sister Death.

When we escape from the frantic work of avoiding vulnerability – either because we choose to participate in a day such as this one or else because we receive the difficult gift of having the kind of experience I had on the hiking trail, in which we are startled by the evidence of our own mortality – we may be surprised to find that there is something good and freeing in the very thing that we sought to avoid. There is something waiting in the danger, beyond the danger. Because in recognising that this life is fragile and fleeting, we often recognise as well that it is an uncommon and a beautiful gift. We recognise that, during our sojourn on this earth, we have a glorious and brief opportunity to do something divine, to join Francis, to join our animal friends, to join Jesus, add to the sum of goodness and beauty and love in the world.

St. Francis of Assisi + Blessing of the Animals + Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Jeremiah 22:13-16

Psalm 148:7-14 

Galatians 6:14-18

Matthew 11:25-30

 

To visit the town of Assisi is to step into a place which is equal parts awesome and ironic.

Walking up the hill to the town’s enormous and ornate basilica, you will pass gelato stands, stores selling postcards and T-shirts, and restaurants which offer an approximation of Italian food designed with the tourist’s palate in mind. The opportunities for you to spend money are just about without limit. Once inside the vast church, the testimony to the work of money continues, albeit in a different form – you are now within a structure that would cost north of a hundred million dollars were you to break ground on it today.

On the August afternoon that my wife, Phoebe, and I stepped out of the heat of the Italian summer and into the subdued light of the basilica, the sanctuary was full of tourists. A sign at the door indicated that we were to maintain silence, but the throng of folks from around the world, laden with their heavy burdens of telephoto lenses and mobile phones, seemed to be having some trouble remembering that rule. Thus, a young Franciscan was charged with pacing the space with a cordless microphone in hand. Periodically, he would intone: SilencioSilencio.

The worship space was spectacular. It proclaimed a God who was immense and ancient and impossibly beautiful. However, that space, as inspiring as it was, was not the reason that we had come to Assisi. To find that goal, we descended a set of stairs into an entire second basilica, still older than the one above, its walls infused with the smoke of centuries of candles. At the far end from the stairs lay the tomb of St. Francis.

It is said that Francis stood about 5’4”; short by today’s standards but likely average given the nutrition of his time. Francis is most famous, today, for his easy facility – for his communion, even – with animals. At times the remembrance of that charism holds the risk of turning him into a caricature: Francis is kind of the pet detective of the 13th century, a sparrow perched on his shoulder and a ferret or two nestled in the pockets of his robes. While that image is charming – and maybe even inspiring – it is also incomplete. It neglects two vital aspects of this saint, two aspects which make Francis way more exciting and way more challenging as a spiritual teacher.

The first exciting challenge that Francis offers to us lies in is his choice to become poor. Francis was born rich. But in a decision that would represent heresy for many people in the First World, especially the folks who gave us the prosperity gospel, he decided one day to join a group of men begging outside of a church. And with the cold pavement beneath him and the hunger growling in his guts, his hands outstretched in the hopes of the blessing of a coin, Francis abruptly understood that he was learning at least as much – if not more – about God sitting on the street outside of that church than he did when he sat on a pew within it.

So Francis made the decision to become what many people would call a loser, or a bum, or a welfare queen. He set aside his wealth and started searching for the divine in all sorts of people, things, and places. He looked for God in faces of the poor and in the natural world.

It is nature which brings us to the second exciting challenge that Francis offers to us. Francis insisted that nature was the image of God. He used language to speak of nature that wouldn’t be out of place in Native American mythology – language that we don’t necessarily think of as Christian. He wrote of “Brother Sun” and of “Sister Moon.” Indeed, Francis encountered nature in a way that would not be out of place here in Portland, where many folks say that they find the divine most easily on a hiking trail or beside a lake (this very week I saw a bumper sticker on a car outside of Grace Memorial that read, “I believe in God: I just call it Nature”).

Francis’ understanding of nature as God’s image did not confine itself to the beautiful. He insisted that all of nature, not just the animals cute enough to make it into our homes or our petting zoos, show us God’s image. God’s image is to be found in mosquitoes and in rats and in hurricanes and in droughts and in illness. Francis was sick much of the life – he was what we would now call chronically ill – and he wrote that his illnesses, much like the son and the moon, were his brothers and his sisters.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find that line of argument hard to hear, especially as I start to plug actual illnesses into the equation. I don’t imagine, for instance, that there is person in this church whose life has not been touched by cancer. I suspect that just about everyone here either has had cancer or has lost of a loved one to cancer or knows someone enduring radiation or chemo right now. I don’t know, therefore, that I am ready to speak of Brother Cancer. I don’t know that I am ready to talk about Sister Parkinson’s or Brother Alzheimer’s or Sister HIV-AIDS. I don’t know that I am ready to use the language of family for these diseases. In fact, I have difficulty talking about those diseases without using profanity.

I want to suggest that these two exciting challenges from Francis – his choice to be poor and his insistence on seeing God everywhere, absolutely everywhere, including in injustice and illness – make him a particularly important Saint for us living in America right now. Because these two exciting challenges in concert invite us to examine the world with a hopeful criticality, perhaps we could say with a Gospel criticality. And as or more importantly, Francis’ two exciting challenges invite us to examine ourselves – and the systems in which we participate and from which we profit – with a Gospel criticality.

There are any number of subjects that we might consider critically and hopefully. Maybe your gears are turning right now, maybe you are wondering how Francis might examine us to understand poverty or hunger or economics in a new way. Rather than trying to talk about everything and, thereby, risking talking about nothing, I’m going to choose but one subject. And because it is raw in our minds right now, I’m going to choose the subject of violence, and in particular the subject of school shootings.

My experience of watching the nightly news is that, more often than not, it draws me into a place of passive fear. Maybe this is why Phoebe and I don’t own a TV: I find it hard to hear about the stock market and the senate and the latest school shooting without ending up with this curious and maybe contradictory combination of adrenaline and apathy, a state in which I am both thoroughly wound up and equally convinced that the world is irreparably broken, in which there is nothing to be done except to despair to drink heavily.

But Francis invites us to hopefully and critically ask: What if the world doesn’t need to look the way that it does? What if, much as I stopped participating in my inherited wealth, you can stop participating in your inherited assumptions about how life has to be?

We can begin living differently by doing something small. Let’s refuse to lavish attention on perpetrators. Hostage takings became less common when the popular media made the decision to stop giving free publicity to hostage takers and their demands. Suicides among teenagers declined when the popular media stopped publishing details of suicide pacts – what psychologists call the “contagion” of these destructive ideas declined. Let’s do the same with the perpetrators of school shootings. Let’s deny them the spotlight.

And while our critical hopefulness has got us wondering about living differently, let’s go even further. Francis proclaims that we don’t actually have to live in a country in which a young man who has fallen into a poisonous mixture of rage and alienation and narcissism finds it hard to get help but easy to go buy an assault rifle. We don’t have to live in a country where the only answer we can think of to that young man is even more people carrying guns, where the only answer is more and better violence. We can change that if we want.

If that strikes you as naïve – well, it is. Gospel criticality is always naïve. It is what St. Paul calls foolishness. When someone first said, “We could end slavery!” that was naïve – the American economy was predicated on it. When someone first said, “Women could have the vote!” that was naïve – women had been shut out of governance for so long. And how recently – ten years ago, even less? – did we know that marriage equality would never come to America in our lifetimes, and it would never ever come south of the Mason-Dixon line?

Francis challenges and enlivens our consciences by showing us the example of his life. Francis invites us to look at him, to witness a man who truly sees Jesus Christ in the least of these, our brothers and sisters. Who does not just visit the hungry and the prisoner, but who lives with them. Who does not just see God in nature but who lives beneath the canopy of the sky. Who testifies that he sees God in all things and means it. Who quietly invites us into Gospel criticality, quietly asks if we are willing to say yes to following Jesus as he has done.

Phoebe and I walked back down the hill from the great basilica which houses Francis’ mortal remains. Past the post cards and the T Shirts and the fake Italian food. We walked through that place of awe and irony, in which the life of a man dedicated to poverty and simplicity is remembered amid opulence and, maybe, even excess. I imagined Francis walking beside us, his ancient sandals on the cobblestones. I wondered if he would be angry to see this, his resting place.

My guess, however, is that, were he to visit Assisi today, these 800 years after his death, Francis would surprise us anew.

I imagine him standing there, amidst the chaos of that street. He is smiling gently, laughing at a joke that only he can hear. I imagine that, even in the bustle of tourists and the shouting of merchants, what Francis sees is the face of God.