A sermon preached on the Feast of St Francis of Assisi,
on September 29, 2019 (transferred from October 4, 2019)
at The Anglican Parish of St Thomas, Kefalas, Apokoronas, Chania, Crete, Greece,
part of the Anglican Church in Greece and
a chaplaincy of the Diocese in Europe, Church of England.
Strictly speaking it should have been either the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, or The 15th Sunday after Trinity, but next Sunday, October 6, is the Harvest Festival, and as I could not commemorate St Francis and have a blessing of animals then, I moved it forward, thereby bumping Michael and his colleagues. May the angels forgive me.
Also, much of this is stolen from the Wikipedia articles on St Francis and his writings.
Readings for the Sunday were:
Genesis 1.:1-2:4, Psalm 148, Galatians 6:14-18, and Luke 12:22-34.
Today we commemorate the life and witness of Saint Francis of Assisi. He lived in the late 12th century and into the first quarter of the 13th century. He was born wealthy and was expected to take over the family business of selling silk. Being of the upper classes, at the age of 19 through 23 he also served as an soldier. After a series of spiritual experiences he began to follow Christ in a radical fashion, by letting go of power and wealth, and adopting a life of poverty and humility. This disarmingly simple life, grounded in the gospels and especially the Sermon on the Mount, attracted others. This was the beginning of the Minor Brothers, better known as the Franciscans.
Francis supposedly talked to the animals because he believed they were creatures of God, like us.
One day, while Francis was traveling with some companions, they happened upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Francis told his companions to “wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds.” The birds surrounded him, intrigued by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away.
He is often portrayed with a bird, typically in his hand. Another story goes like this:
In the city of Gubbio, where Francis lived for some time, was a wolf “terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals”. Francis had compassion upon the townsfolk, and so he went up into the hills to find the wolf. Soon, fear of the animal had caused all his companions to flee, though the saint pressed on. When he found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at Francis’ feet.
“Brother Wolf, you do much harm in these parts and you have done great evil”, said Francis. “All these people accuse you and curse you … But brother wolf, I would like to make peace between you and the people.” Then Francis led the wolf into the town, and surrounded by startled citizens made a pact between them and the wolf. Because the wolf had “done evil out of hunger, the townsfolk were to feed the wolf regularly. In return, the wolf would no longer prey upon them or their flocks. In this manner Gubbio was freed from the menace of the predator. Francis even made a pact on behalf of the town dogs, that they would not bother the wolf again. Finally, to show the townspeople that they would not be harmed, Francis blessed the wolf.
While these stories may or may not be true, having been written down only some years after his death, what is true is that he wrote a poem in Italian, called the Canticle of the Sun. It is quite possibly the first piece of literature written in Italian, in the Umbrian dialect, more than a hundred years before Dante wrote the Divine Comedy:
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun . . .
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon. . .
Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Wind, and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather through which you give sustenance to your creatures.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth . . .
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no one living can escape . . .
This is best known to us English speaking peoples as “All Creatures of Our God and King” paraphrased by the Rev’d William Draper, published in 1919, and usually sung to the German 1623 tune Lasst Uns Erfreuen:
Because of his association with animals, Francis is, among other things, the patron saint of the environmental movement. Pope Francis took his regnal name from him because of Francis’s concern for the poor and the environment, and his second encyclical, Laudato Si, concerning the dangers of climate change and its effect on the the most vulnerable on Earth, takes its name from a verse in The Canticle of the Sun.
Now, because of these stories about Francis and the animals, and his understanding that all creation worships God, it seems appropriate to bless animals and our pets, This is a growing liturgical act that is popular in Canada and the United States, and is sometimes celebrated in the Church of England and other English denominations. Many of you may recall an episode of The Vicar of Dibley in which this happens. At the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine in New York City it is a major event, with a special jazz setting for the Eucharist called Missa Gaia, which is unique in using a wolf call as the tune for the Kyrie. The service there involves a broad range of animals, including elephants, camels, tortoises, parrots, cows, horses, and, of course, dogs and cats.
Now, dogs are mentioned more than a dozen times in the Bible. Cats, not so much, perhaps because the little guys are associated with the Egyptians, the people who enslaved the Israelites. The Bbible does mention big cats, including leopards lions, the reference to the Lion of Judah being the most obvious one.
The basic theological issue for me is whether we should bless the animals, because, after all, they already bless us with their presence and love. I resolve this by remembering that we bless God, so it is right that we should invite God’s blessing on these creatures who are so much a part of our lives.
As part of creation, they reflect the Creator. This is stated no better than in a song from ten years ago by the American Christian songwriter Wendy J. Francisco in her song G O D and D O G, so we’ll end with that.
I look up and I see God, I look down and see my dog.
Simple spelling G O D, same word backwards, D O G.
They would stay with me all day. I’m the one who walks away.
But both of them just wait for me, and dance at my return with glee.
Both love me no matter what – divine God and canine mutt.
I take it hard each time I fail, but God forgives, dog wags his tail.
God thought up and made the dog, dog reflects a part of God.
I’ve seen love from both sides now, it’s everywhere, amen, bow wow.
I look up and I see God, I look down and see my dog.
And in my human frailty . . . I can’t match their love for me.