Sunday, October 04, 2015

Sermon; 19 Pentecost, Proper 22B; Mark 10:2-16

Today, October 4, is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi.  And today is the day we honor him by holding our annual pet blessing.  I was asked at our men's breakfast last week why we have a blessing of the animals.  I replied, “Because, in the words of Tevye, 'Tradition!'”  But there's more to it than that.

St. Francis is probably the most beloved and well-known saint in the Church.  He was born into a wealthy family in Assisi, Italy, in 1181 or '82, and was, by some accounts, the Johnny Manziel of his day – the typical spoiled rich kid.  While heading off to war and glory in 1204, he had a vision that changed his life.  He renounced his worldly ways and money (to the great displeasure of his father), and began a life of poverty and preaching.

He gained a following which was granted official recognition by Pope Innocent III, established two other Orders, traveled to Egypt in an effort to secure a peaceful end to the Crusades, rebuilt decrepit churches, and created the first Nativity scene in 1223.  He did all of this while under a strict vow of poverty, using only his desire to serve Christ to the best of his ability.

Francis had a high view of creation, contending that, as recorded in Genesis, it was all good.  That goodness is reflected in humans, animals and plants, but is corrupted by our sin and is in need of redemption.  This love of creation was shown in his Canticle of the Sun where he wrote of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.  We are probably most familiar with this Canticle in hymn 400 of The Hymnal 1982, “All creatures of our God and King,” which,  unfortunately, is not one of our selected hymns today.

As I said earlier, St. Francis is probably the most well-known and beloved of the saints.  We've turned him into garden statues and bird and bath feeders.  We have one of these in our rose garden, by the way.  We bless pets on his feast day and turn him into a character who would be right at home in the forest with Bambi and Thumper.  But, as LFF says, while “Francis may be the most popular and admired of all the saints, he is the least imitated.”

Lest we get too enamored of this gentle, God-fearing, creation-loving saint, don't forget he turned his back on a successful business and a financially secure future in order to live as Jesus instructed his disciples – taking no purse, no staff, no extra clothing.  Like Mother Theresa, he spent his life among the poor.  There is a reason this current pope took the name of Francis.

He worked among the poor because, according to Scripture, God is most concerned for them.  Over and over again we hear the words of God in the law and prophets telling us to treat the poor with dignity and respect.  And over and over again, through the law and the prophets, we hear God admonishing the rich and telling them not to neglect the least of God's children.

There's a scene in today's gospel that gives us an example of what the law, the prophets, Scripture and God are talking about.

Jesus is in a house discussing marriage, divorce, adultery and all kinds of groovy things when people begin showing up with their kidlets for Jesus to bless.  The disciples didn't much care for this intrusion.  Whether they thought children should be taught elsewhere to be admitted to the assembly only after they understood what was happening, or whether they thought children shouldn't be allowed in because they might be a disruption to the adults is never really stated.  What is stated is that they spoke sternly to the children.

But Jesus doesn't let this pass, and he gets indignant with his disciples.

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them.  For it is such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

Today, as with at any time in history, children are some of the most vulnerable and at risk members of a society.  Whether they are children living in war torn areas, children facing high mortality rates, or children facing extreme hunger on a daily basis, children are at the top of the “least of these” list.

In a sense, children represent everyone and everything that is vulnerable.  We need to be less like the disciples who try to control and limit the presence of the vulnerable, and more like Jesus who sees the vulnerable as a blessed part of the equation.

How we treat the vulnerable and marginalized in society is important.  How we treat a vulnerable ecosystem is important.  How we treat the animals is important.  In other words, how we, as stewards of God's earth, treat all of creation is important.

And this is why we honor St. Francis today.  Because Francis understood that God cares for the vulnerable in all aspects – for the poor and vulnerable people among us, for the vulnerable environment we live in, for the vulnerable animals at our mercy.  He understood that all those are vulnerable as a result of our sin.

We honor St. Francis today because he understood this and worked to make things better for all vulnerable.  And maybe the reason we have the tradition of blessing the animals is because that's easier than advocating for the poor, saving the environment or working in shelters.

Today we welcome and bless one vulnerable group of God's creation in the name of St. Francis.  And that's a good thing.  Hopefully it isn't the most important thing we do for the least of these and the vulnerable in the world.



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