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.