Blessing of the Animals, The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi 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

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.

For I am gentle and humble in heart,

and you will find rest for your souls.

Why do we like Saint Francis?

Probably the most obvious answer, especially on a day like this one, is that Francis loves animals and so do most of the rest of us. Francis is the thirteenth century’s answer to Ace Ventura, Pet Detective: a bird perched on his shoulder, a mouse in his hand, wolves and dogs and cats curling around his legs.

And that’s beautiful stuff. To have a dog look at you in tail-wagging adoration is amazing, it is a foretaste of heaven. When a member of our family would return home after a few days away, our late dog, Bodhi, would run jubilant laps around the living room. In those moments Bodhi looked like he had won the lottery or, possibly, the Super Bowl.

There really is something to the old bumper-sticker prayer:

Lord, help me to be the person that my dog thinks that I am.

And so we are kind of going to be drawn to a saint who embodies our love of animals, who gets that love.

But I suspect there’s more, that Francis’ connection with animals is not the only reason that, in a time when most of us do not keep feast days, we keep Francis’ feast. My guess is that we are drawn to this human being because, almost 800 years later, we have the sense that Francis, in imitation of Christ, was and is deeply free, that he was possessed of a profound freedom.

Now before we go any further, let’s acknowledge that, in America, in October of 2019, freedom is a complicated word. We have neighbours for whom, somehow, wandering around a Walmart with an assault rifle is freedom; for whom the frantic consumption of the earth’s resources is freedom; for whom indifference to the suffering of the least of these is freedom; for whom celebrating war is freedom.

If that is what freedom is, may I be in chains.

I’d like to make the suggestion that real freedom, the freedom of Francis, the freedom of Jesus, is not like that stuff at all. Here’s the definition of freedom that I would like us to try out this morning:

Freedom is living with deep trust.

Freedom is living with the deep trust that God made us to be good; that our lives have meaning; that we, as individuals and communities, have the agency and ability to respond to God, to live into that goodness. It is to trust that there is enough, that God has given us a world of beauty and abundance, and that if we want, if we choose, there is enough for absolutely all of God’s children to thrive. It is to trust that no one and nothing owns us. And maybe this is more difficult – or maybe it’s the best part, I’m not sure – it is to trust that we don’t own anything, that everything we have, our very bodies included, are fleeting gifts.

Here’s the thing about freedom, about the freedom of Francis and of Jesus before him. Here’s what makes it kind of dangerous. Francis’ freedom is glorious, it is holy, it might be the best thing. But boy, is it hard.

Because Francis took Jesus totally literally when Jesus said Sell what you have and give the money to the poor. Francis chose to live in poverty; he chose to beg for his food; notwithstanding being disabled and what today we would call being chronically ill, he lived a lot of his life outdoors. He spoke Brother Sun and Sister Moon and, amazingly in our death-denying culture, even Sister Death.

And not many of us live that way. I certainly don’t. I like living indoors; I like knowing with something pretty close to certainty that I will have plenty of food for tonight’s dinner and for every dinner this week and every dinner this year; I like being able to travel; I like being able to save for retirement and for my children’s college education; I like having a computer and watching Netflix on it.

I am probably not going to be selling everything I have and giving it to the poor or to anyone else. And I don’t think all that many other Christians are going to do so either.

And yet I long – dare I say we long – for Francis’ freedom. Because as much as I like all of that stuff, all of the goods and services and privileges that I have, this stuff also troubles me, it is also something like a burden, something like a yoke that is heavy.

What does it mean that, by my own standards at age twenty, I am fabulously wealthy, and yet I am still worried that I won’t have enough, that my money will run out? If anything, I might be more worried than I was at twenty, more stuck in a place of scarcity than I was then. That suggests that I could have a hundred million dollars or a billion dollars or a gazillion dollars, I could have enough to pay off the national debt and still go yachting every weekend, and I would still be worried about running out.

And let’s be clear, my worry – and if this in any way sounds familiar to you, your worry – is not a character flaw or a failing or even a mistake. Rather, it is the consequence of careful design: constantly being worried about running out is how consumerism trains us to live. Consumerism tells me and you that we cannot join Francis in participating in the abundance of Jesus, in the feast where everyone gets fed, where the loaves and fishes never run out, because if we pass on the dish with the fish and the bread on it to the next person, there might not be enough for us.

So.

In addition to being St. Francis’ feast day, today is the first day of our fall financial stewardship campaign, that season of the year in which all of us who love this place that we call Grace Memorial are invited to prayerfully consider making a pledge towards God’s work through our parish. And when I realised that these two things were going to coincide on the calendar, St. Francis and money, I thought to myself:

Well, that sucks.

What a bummer that something as joyous as remembering Francis and blessing animals is intersecting with the annual chore that is a pledge campaign.

But then I thought some more and I prayed some more and I said:

Why am I acting and talking about giving to God’s church as though it were a chore? Because my experience actually hasn’t been that way at all. My experience – much to my surprise – is that financial stewardship is kind of a joy. That giving intentionally and prayerfully to church is a tiny taste of the freedom that Francis had.

This is a testimonial.

I don’t know if we are allowed to give testimonials in the Episcopal church. But here we go.

When I first started going to church on a regular basis some fifteen years ago, I encountered this idea called pledging. I’d never really heard of pledging before, it wasn’t part of my life anywhere else, anywhere in the so-called secular world. And so Phoebe and I had to encounter this question:

We love this church; how much are supposed to give? How much do we want to give? How much can we afford to give?

Both of us were working in the performing arts which, as you perhaps know, is the opposite of lucrative. We weren’t wealthy.

Rather than tossing a dart at a board or rolling dice or whatever, we took the advice of our priest, Peter, who said, Why don’t you try out giving twenty-five dollars a week? (Indexed for inflation, maybe that’s $32 or $33 a week now.) We did, and our family’s adventure with pledging began.

Over the ensuing years, we were lucky enough or blessed enough or privileged enough to increase our giving. It wasn’t a linear increase, like an escalator going up: when I went to seminary and our income got dramatically reduced at the same time that we started paying tuition, our giving reduced dramatically as well, and then it resumed its increase as we entered the workforce.

Now, here’s the problem with hanging out with people who have gotten serious about following Jesus. They challenge you. Their challenge is loving, but the challenge is real nonetheless. People who have gotten serious about following Jesus challenge you to see the dignity of every human being, even the human beings whom you don’t particularly like or respect. People who have gotten serious about following Jesus challenge you to understand the earth as something holy, as something pretty close to God’s body, and therefore as deserving of our reverence. And people who have gotten serious about following Jesus challenge you to have a day planner and financial statements that both proclaim how big a deal the Gospel is in your life.

Some of these people even challenge you to consider tithing.

Let me pause here to say that I am aware that I am walking out into a little bit of a minefield here, that there is more than one person in this room for whom the subject of tithing is a catalyst for annoyance or even resentment. And I get that: like so many things that the institutional church has gotten its hands on, the tithe has been used in a screwed-up way a lot of times, it has been a weapon for guilt trips and shame.

But I want to suggest that, like other churchy words that so many of us are suspicious of – words such as evangelism or ministry or even religious itself – we are allowed and maybe even called to take back the word tithe, to claim it, to allow the possibility that it is something good and holy. That the ancient, Biblical practice of setting aside 10% of what God had given us and giving that 10% back to God just might be wonderful.

A few years ago, Phoebe and I started to wonder about the tithe. We were drawn somehow to this practice – like a lot of the things the Holy Spirit does, She kept on gently and persistently suggesting to us that we take on this practice. Phoebe and I looked at each other and said: Is there any way that we could pull that off?

I have a gross salary of just over $80,000 a year. Is there any way that we could possibly give just over $8,000 a year to Grace?

But starting a few years ago, we tried it out.

And friends, the tithe has become one of the most rewarding aspects of our family’s shared spiritual practice.

For our family, the tithe has been the end of wondering whether we were giving enough, whether we were making a sacrificial gift to our church. It has been the end of being conflicted about our giving. It has been a choice to live with generous hearts, to know that our finances match up with our values. It has been a choice to trust that we have enough, that God’s abundance includes us. It has been a declaration that our money doesn’t own us. It has been a choice to loosen our grip on our money.

It has been a little taste of St. Francis’ freedom.

I know, from speaking to other folks who tithe, that our experience is not unique. That for those who are able to adopt this spiritual practice, it is liberating. And so I will invite you to talk about tithing with your loved ones, to pray about it, and if you haven’t done so before, to consider whether tithing might be a spiritual practice that you would like to try.

I reckon that we love Francis because, like Jesus before him, he was so deeply free. He took Jesus’ yoke and he learned from Jesus. And in doing so, he found rest for his soul.

May you and I find that kind of freedom that Francis had.

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.