A sermon for the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (and remembering St. Francis of Assisi)
October 2, 2016
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
We like to look to Jesus, and to St. Francis, for that matter, for comfort, for them to make us feel better. But in today’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook, he challenges his disciples… and us. The disciples say, “Lord! Increase our faith!” Jesus’ answer is basically—“What are you talking about? You don’t need any more reason to trust God. If you just trusted a microscopic amount, huge things would happen.” He continues with an illustration from the duties of a slave. You aren’t entitled to some huge bonus, extra vacation and a testimonial dinner for just doing your ordinary job. Trusting God in difficult times, having mercy and patience with other human beings and being generous with our lives and our substance are just part of being responsible adults in this world. God expects it of us and the blessing of God’s mercy is not greater because we occasionally remember to do it.
That may sound grumpy, but the thing is, religious people can sometimes get self-congratulatory about their own virtue; puffed up over simple acts of generosity or kindness—and in doing so they neglect to see the goodness and generosity in others and fail to respect the holiness and integrity in those who receive their gifts. That is the last thing that Jesus wants of his disciples. God’s mercy is abundant for us—there is no sense in which anyone can say that they have done enough to deserve more than anyone else.
All of this is in keeping with a beloved feast we are celebrating today: the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, which we observe through the blessing of the animals.
Of all the people of the Middle Ages, Francis of Assisi was the most concerned with Jesus. His preaching and the preaching of his followers, the Franciscans, centered on stories and images of Jesus. This was quite a contrast both from the learned and abstract doctrinal teaching of the universities and the moralistic preaching of most parish clergy at the time. Francis saw many of the same things that Jesus did: the manipulation of rules and teaching by those with some wealth or authority for the sake of their own comfort, accompanied by the miserable suffering of the poor.
He embraced poverty—Lady Poverty, he called her—calling to mind the troubadour and courtly love traditions of his time. He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, and as he embraced poverty and came into conflict with his father, he appeared in the public square before the Bishop of Assisi and a gathered crowd, and he removed all of his rich clothing, and left it there, walking out of the square naked.
Like Jesus, Francis was not particularly impressed by people who used their advantages to make themselves comfortable. Since most people are that way sometimes, Francis sometimes found it necessary to find a better audience. Very early in the time that Francis started his ministry of preaching, he saw a huge flock of birds in a tree, and he spoke to them in their simplicity, so that people might learn to be so simple:
“My little sisters the birds, ye owe much to God, your Creator, and ye ought to sing his praise at all times and in all places, because he has given you liberty to fly about into all places; and though ye neither spin nor sew, he has given you a twofold and a threefold clothing for yourselves and for your offspring. Two of all your species he sent into the Ark with Noah that you might not be lost to the world; besides which, he feeds you, though ye neither sow nor reap. He has given you fountains and rivers to quench your thirst, mountains and valleys in which to take refuge, and trees in which to build your nests; so that your Creator loves you much, having thus favoured you with such bounties. Beware, my little sisters, of the sin of ingratitude, and study always to give praise to God.”
If the birds can be grateful, so should we. There is so much that we have been given: the gift of reason and of human love; of enough to eat, and the ability to give to others. Some of us have been blessed with the companionship of animals, creatures with personalities who give and receive affection. They are God’s creatures who bless us with their presence.
Let us give thanks to God for the blessing of their simplicity and their vitality. A little later we will have a blessing of the animals, and we pray for all animals to be well treated and well taken care of. We also pray for those who care for animals, that they may be blessed and be able to give good care to them. Please also remember the animals who have died and the families that have lost them. The place of such an animal in the life of a family or community is particularly noticed when they are gone. Let us be grateful to God for all these lives among us.