Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Saint Francis and the Animals

On Sunday evening I was the preacher for our outdoor service for blessing animals. Being an outdoor service with a collection of pets who couldn't care less about what I said, I went for short and sweet. I actually loved the challenge of preaching with the cars whizzing by on one side and a trio of French Bulldogs wheezing away on the other, looking out over a collection of dogs, a cat, and a rat.

Here is the manuscript, although as with all of my preaching and talks there was plenty of room for the Holy Spirit to take over and edit on the fly!

It is big. Shaggy. Scary. Many of you have seen it, lurking in the shadows waiting to attack. Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve heard the stories. The howls, the attacks. No fear, you friends tell you. It isn’t afraid of anything. Even the town dogs can’t defend anyone or anything from it. Some of them have even been eaten. It won’t stay in the hills, and it isn’t satisfied with attacking the flocks. Rumors say it even attacks people. The Wolf.

But most people are distracted. They aren’t here for the wolf. They are here for a more interesting reason. Your Italian city of Gubbio is the temporary home for the renowned preacher, Francis. He isn’t much to look at, in his patched and rough brown wool garment, barefoot, tonsured. But he draws people in to listen to him. He has that charisma, that genuine caring about every living creature that gets close to him.

He preaches about the gospel, how the kingdom of God is drawing near. Rumor says that he heard the Gospel say to sell everything and give alms; to not worry about anything but to trust God to provide for every need. If God cares for the every sparrow, how much more will God care for His faithful children? Francis teaches people to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, and unlike the priests, he is out among the ordinary people. Like us. He doesn’t live in a fancy palace or wear expensive clothes. Yours are probably worth more than his.

One day, while Francis is teaching about all of creation being his brothers and sisters, someone in the back of the crowd whispers a remark about the wolf. It was meant as a whispered comment to his neighbor, but someone overheard it and it shot through the crowd. He stopped, and someone explained to him that your town is under attack from this terrible creature. He goes on teaching, but when he is done and the crowd begins to disperse you notice that he is whispering to his followers. They gather themselves together and head out of town, up into the hills.

Soon his followers come straggling back, a look of fear on their faces as each passes back into town. Then, Francis comes back. But he most certainly isn’t alone. Pacing alongside him is the wolf. It certainly looks fierce, the way the whispered stories describe it. Francis enters the marketplace where everyone is gathering, and when he reaches the center he stops. The wolf quietly sits beside him. All eyes are turned to this unlikely pair. Francis explains to you that the wolf is hungry, and looking for food. If we, as a town, agree to feed him, the wolf will no longer attack our animals or people. You hear the quiet roar as the people around you talk to their neighbors about this turn of events. Eventually, one of your leaders calls out your assent.

We will feed the wolf. But how do we know that the wolf will keep his end of the bargain?

Francis ignores that question for a moment as he turns to speak to the pack of dogs in one of the alleyways. He tells them that if they will not bother the wolf, the wolf will leave them alone. Someone in the crowd snickers, and it echoes over the quiet heads of the people who are watching and waiting to see what this crazy holy man will do next.

He turns to the wolf, reaches out a hand, and blesses him.

This is the sign to assure us that the wolf will keep its end of the bargain?

A blessing, indeed.

Of course, this is all based on legends about a real man. A real saint. Francis of Assisi. He really did exist, and he really did talk about all of creation being his family. One of the more famous poems or prayers that he wrote is called Canticle of the Sun, or Praise of Creation. He talks about Brother Sun and Sister Moon; Lady Poverty and Sister Death. It really is no wonder that he has become the patron saint of the environment (and animals)! But it is for stories like this about the wolf of Gubbio and his preaching to the birds that we most strongly associate Francis with blessing animals.

For many of us, our animals are indeed our family, certainly they are our close companions and friends. In Francis we find someone who is not afraid to agree with us, who is not afraid to say that as part of creation, these creatures deserve the blessings of God just as much as humans do.

And so, around the feast of Saint Francis we gather together to celebrate, bless, and remember our companions of the not so human variety. We bring them, or the memories of those who have gone ahead of us, to the arms of God and we bless them. Because even though Jesus was undoubtedly human, none of us can say for sure that God doesn’t come into our lives through the love of our pets.

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