I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.
The story of the Great Commandment--to love God with all your heart, mind and soul and to love your neighbor as yourself--appears in all three of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke). And this commandment is rooted in the Shema, the commandment from the Book of Deuteronomy that obedient Jews recite twice a day--Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one: And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. It is by far one of the most beautiful commandments that we have because it calls us to love God with all our being, and to love each other and ourselves. In all that we do, in all that we are, our love is to be directed outwards. It calls us to love even in the midst of challenge and sorrow.
Since returning from diocesan convention, I’ve been thinking about this commandment and our Baptismal Covenant’s call to respect the dignity of every human being. At diocesan convention, the focus on our work together was on the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. You may be asking yourself, “what’s that”. The Doctrine of Discovery has its roots in a papal decree (or bull) issued in 1452 that “specifically sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples” (http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/dod/). Our guest speakers at the convention talked about how this doctrine has been imbedded into our laws to not only violate treaties that have been developed with Native peoples, but also to take away their land, mineral and water rights. Our guest speakers talked about the racism that is implicit in the aftermath of the Doctrine of Discovery; that Native peoples were and are considered “less than” white people, that their rituals and customs have been appropriated (the wearing of feathers, the commodification of sweat lodges and vision quests), and the naming of sports teams and their mascots (the “Warriors” or the “Redskins”). These are challenging realities that we are faced with as white people, and we have a lot of reconciliation work to do.
I’ve also been thinking about this commandment in my work with the emergency voucher program. As several of our church members can tell you, writing a gas voucher or a grocery voucher isn’t necessarily “hard” work. But when we encounter our guests, do we love them? Do we see them as children of God? In a conversation with a woman this week who came in seeking help, she mentioned that so many people had looked with her or treated her with suspicion. She was road weary, hadn’t had a hot meal in weeks, hadn’t bathed in while. When I was able to get her into a hotel for the night on Thursday just before the big rain happened, she cried. She was exhausted and grateful.
And in the course of emails and volunteer trainings and scheduling for the Warming Shelter to open on November 16, I have encountered people who have deep compassion for the unhoused. I have also encountered people who are hard hearted--why can’t “those people” get a job, save their money, get a place to live. For some, homelessness is the result of poor choices and unfortunate life events; they don’t have the skills and resources to manage their lives in a way that would have prevented them from living on the streets. For others, mental illness, abuse, and or addiction led to their situation. Our job is not to stand in judgment, but to give a hand up...to see these individuals as beloved children of God, to be the hands of Jesus in offering healing, to respect their dignity.
When Jesus is questioned by the scribe in Matthew about the greatest commandment, Jesus is being offered a theological challenge. The scribes and Pharisees had been working to trap Jesus in legalistic and theological queries as a way of challenging him--to prove that he was not the Messiah. And Jesus accepts the challenge, offers his response to the greatest commandment, and takes it a step further by adding the “to love your neighbor as yourself” part of the commandment. Through his response, he is showing that he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. And he does so with love and compassion, responding to the bigger question of what matters in the kingdom of God--not just what matters in temple politics.
What comes next in the gospel for this morning is this strange little back and forth about whose son is the Messiah--God’s or David’s. It concludes in verse 46 with: No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions. While on the one hand, we could understand this to mean that Jesus stumped the Pharisees. But if we look at the course of the narrative, this is the last set of questions or tests before the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. This is a pivotal moment in the gospel narrative, and it comes on the heels of a teaching about love.
This radical love that Jesus talked about, the radical love and inclusive kingdom of God that Jesus preached, is part of what led to the cross. It reminds us that to really love God and our neighbor as ourselves, to be centered and grounded in love, is risky. And yet, it is the greatest gift we can give and receive.
Let us pray:
Holy God, whose name is not honored, where the need are not served, and the powerless are treated with contempt: may we embrace our neighbor with the same tenderness that we ourselves require; so your justice may be fulfilled in love, through Jesus Christ. Amen.
(All Desires Known, Janet Morley)
Today is one of my most favorite days on the liturgical calendar. I love that we get an opportunity to bless our animal companions in community and to share a little of the joy that we experience in our daily lives.
I remember the first pet blessing I went to in seminary. Our preacher that day was fantastic and had a wonderful sense of humor...he wasn’t easily offended when a bark or bird squawk interrupted his sermon. But what I remember even more about that day was the title of his sermon... “Rescuing St. Francis from the Bird Bath”. It automatically conjured this image for me of the cement statue of St. Francis that my grandmother had in her garden. And I’m willing to guess that a similar image might come up for you as well when you think of St. Francis.
So I wanted to spend a little time this morning reflecting on the life of Francis and how we might live out the prayer that is attributed to him--to be instruments of peace.
Francis was born in the town Assisi, which is about 41 miles north of Rome in the year 1181. Francis’ father was a wealthy merchant who had great hopes that Francis would one day also become a merchant and take over the family business. As Francis grew up, he was very popular with other young people his age and was enamored with the French--the music, the romance, and the wandering life of the troubadour. And he wanted to be a knight--he deeply desired to have the glory and prestige that came with the popularity of being a nobleman.
While going off to participate in the Fourth Crusade, Francis had a vision from God to return home. After returning home, Francis was faced with disappointment and ridicule from those who had heard of his dreams for fame and glory, as well as the disappointment of his father. He spent most of his time in prayer, weeping for the sins he had committed in his youth. It is said that one day while riding in the countryside, Francis encountered a leper. He got down from his horse and kissed the leper’s hands. In return, the leper also kissed him, and this kiss filled Francis with great joy and peace.
Francis is also said to have heard Christ speak to him while praying at the ruins of the church at San Damiano; that Christ said to him to rebuild the church. Francis thought Christ meant the literally church, so he took fabric from his father’s business and sold it to pay for the construction materials. Enraged, his father accused him of theft and took him before the bishop to demand that he return the money and renounce his inheritance. However, the bishop took pity on Francis; he instructed him to return the money and that God would provide everything he needed. Right there and then, Francis returned the money and even gave back his clothes. He left to return to San Damiano.
As Francis worked to rebuild the church stone by stone, he also started to preach. He wasn’t interested in reforming the church necessarily or even being a religious leader; he just wanted to bring people to God. As people started to follow him and ask to be his companions, he turned to the Bible to find how to live in right relationship together. Thus the Rule of St. Francis was born: to give to the poor, to spread the Gospel, and to carry the cross of Christ. Francis’ companions came from every walk of life--the rich and the poor--and true equality of God’s children was practiced--to love, honor and respect all regardless of their status in the world.
Francis believed that all of creation was his companion and brother or sister. It is said that he once preached a sermon to the birds to give thanks to God for their being and for all that God had provided, and that the birds stood still and quiet as he walked among them. Another time he is credited with talking to a wolf so it would stop terrorizing a village; the wolf indeed started to “behave” and the villagers took care of the wolf providing him with food. Francis has also been credited with writing the “Canticle of the Sun” which praises God for the creation of Brothers Sun, Wind, Air and Fire as well as Sisters Moon, Water and Earth.
While Francis and his companions tried to live simply, and they also gave as much as they could to the poor in their communities. Francis and his friends worked for what they needed and never accepted money as payment. When he appealed to the Pope to allow his group of friends to establish a religious order, the Pope thought he was a beggar and threw him out. It was not until the Pope had a vision of Francis rebuilding the church that he understood who Francis was and the ministry he was doing.
The rest of Francis’ life was spent trying to convert people to follow God. Several times this resulted in punishment and imprisonment. But it also allowed his order to grow...in 10 years, the Franciscan brotherhood had increased in numbers up to 5000 men.
After battling with blindness and illness, Francis eventually died on October 4, 1226 at the age of 45.
What I take away from the story of St. Francis is his obedience to God’s call in his life and his love of others--including all of creation. When I think of the challenges I face in my own life, the everyday struggles and joys--I think of Francis working to understand who and what God wanted him to do. Sometimes it meant preaching to the birds and talking wolves into behaving, and sometimes it meant offering love to the unlovable...the lepers among us. In our day, St. Francis may have appeared to be a bit “off” and a little “crazy”...but that’s what it means to be a disciple of Christ...to live out the life God has planned, to share the love and peace of God with others, and to rejoice always.
I wanted to close with a short poem by Jan Richardson to help bring us full circle to the blessing of the animals which is what is probably on the forefront of our minds right now…
You who created them and called them good: bless again these creatures who come to us as a blessing fashioned of fur or feather or fin, formed of flesh that breathes with your own breath, that you have made from sheer delight, that you have given in dazzling variety. Bless them who curl themselves around our hearts who twine themselves through our days who companion us in our labor who call us to come and play. Bless them who will never be entirely tamed and so remind us that you love what is wild, that you rejoice in what lives close to the earth, that your heart beats in the heart of these creatures you have entrusted to our care.
May we be faithful and loyal companions of God and each other.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.