A Sermon for the Feast of Saint Francis & Blessing of the Animals
St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Austin, Texas. Text: Isaiah 11:1 – 9.
We are here today to celebrate the life of Saint Francis – a man whom we remember in this service by blessing the animals who make our lives so full. St. Francis was known in his lifetime for a particular communion with ALL the animals around him – and part of his love for all animals, beautiful and not-so-beautiful, was because he literally lived among the animals – St. Francis was a homeless man. He was a church reformer who believed the best way to know Jesus was by begging with the poor in the streets, because the poor know Jesus the best.
St. Francis was also known for being a broker of radical peace between humans and animals. He famously befriended a wolf that was terrorizing an Italian village and brought both the wolf and the people into a reconciling relationship where the people would feed the wolf in exchange for the wolf’s protection and companionship.
I’m sure many of us here know the inexpressible comfort and companionship our own pets can offer us. There have been times in my own life when the companionship of my cats were the simple remedy to sadness. My cats certainly teach me how to be utterly present to the moment: though we know cats and dogs dream, we also know they are such instinctual creatures that they neither dwell in the past nor are anxious about the future. They are truly present to the moment. Jesus spoke of this too, when he said in Matthew chapter 6, “Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow seeds or harvest grain or gather crops in to barns, and yet – their heavenly Father feeds them … Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. ” Animals have long been our teachers in depending on God.
And yet, even as much as our pets can be reminders of God, their love is certainly not unconditional. I know for one my cats’ love for me is quite conditional on their wet food being served at the exact right time at the crack of dawn. Every. single. day.
And yet, this conditional nature of love is why our reading from Isaiah is so meaningful – because God weaves a vision for unconditional peace. An unconditional peace. A peace where children can handle the most venomous of snakes with gentle curiosity, where the bear and the cow graze on the same grass, in the same field, together. This is the kind of peace Saint Francis sought.
St. Francis was not naive. He chose not only to see the world’s suffering, but walked right into it. He did not seek a peace that suppressed voices that challenged him, but instead chose to find peace in the rabble of humanity. He sought a radical, unconditional peace, a peace where lions and wolves lay down with sheep – a peace so powerful that the predators of this world realize how much their lives depend on oppressing others – and so they change their entire way of being.
For it is not the sheep who is anti-peace – it is the wolf who seeks to eat her.
St. Francis’ life convicts us to see when we are the wolf, and reminds us how beloved we are when we are the lamb.
We can learn from the example of St. Francis when we seek this unconditional peace. When we choose to care for the earth even when it is inconvenient, when we see the violence on the news and stand up and speak out, when we refuse to turn a blind eye to the violence in our neighborhoods, the violence that leaves people homeless on street corners and children in detention centers – when we both bear witness to this violence AND when we say:
God has a better dream.
God has a better dream for me, and for us, and for the whole of creation. And we want to be a part of bringing God’s dream into reality – whatever it costs.