Harrowing Of Hell
October 9, 2012

St Francis

Preacher: The Reverend Kate Wesch

Genesis 2:18-24, Galatians 6:14-18, Matthew 11:25-30

In the name of God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A Tale from The Little Flowers of St. Francis

One cold, wintry day Francis was traveling on foot with Brother Leo, one of his closest friends, to Santa Maria degli Angeli.  Knowing that Leo was bothered by the cold and the freezing rain falling on them, Francis said, “Leo, although we may give sight to the blind, cause the deaf to hear, and even raise the dead – these things are not the source of perfect joy.”

Confused and somewhat angry, Leo walked more briskly, leaving Francis further behind him.  After another short while, Francis spoke loudly to Leo, “Brother, know that even if we know the scriptures by heart and have learned the words of the theologians – there is no perfect joy in that!”

Leo heard him, but walked even faster, pretending he hadn’t.  Soon, Francis shouted to him, “Leo, my friend, if we know the courses of the stars, and the virtues of all of the plants and herbs – these things will never be the source of perfect joy!”

For two miles, this went on.  Finally, Leo stopped, turned quickly around, and said, “Francis, please – tell me the source of perfect joy!”

Francis replied, “When we arrive at our destination – our cloaks drenched by rain, our bodies shivering with cold,  — hungry, and tired – and we knock at the door of our host asking to come in – if he then says to us, ‘Wait outside until it is dark’ – and if he then insults us, calling us thieves and perverts, and he tells lies to his neighbors about us so that they come and beat us, leaving us for dead –if we bear all of this with patience, kindness, and love – we will be brimming with joy.  In self-conquest is perfect joy.”

(Sabatier, Paul, “The Road to Assisi: The Essential Biography of St. Francis,” page165)

This anecdote is taken from the Little Flowers of St. Francis, a popular collection of stories compiled at the end of the 14th century, nearly 200 years after his death. This story jumps out for me because it seems to highlight the nature of St. Francis’ transformed character.  And character, after all, is what we have been talking about lately

This morning, Holly Boone led a forum on the life of St. Francis to investigate and ponder the many extraordinary facts and persuasions of his life.  And in the service this morning, we honor and commemorate him by inviting your beloved pets into this holy space and blessing them.

Francis began his life as the pleasure-loving son of a prosperous merchant in a small, twelfth-century hill town of Umbria and ended it as one of the most beloved Christian saints.  Along his journey, Francis abandoned the comfort and safety of conventional life to embrace poverty and extreme asceticism.  He not only followed his own convictions, but also persuaded many to join him.

The stories and myths surrounding Francis are many, including his acquisition of the stigmata, his unique relationship with animals and nature, his mentoring of St. Clare, and his desire to repair the church and found a religious order.  The reason he did any one of these things is simple.  He did them for the love of God, for he loved God more than himself or any other thing in this world.

Francis found joy in the presence of God and his goal on this earth was to remove absolutely anything that had the capacity to come between his soul and God. For him, that meant living a life of simplicity, discipline, and intentionality. Francis experienced God in nature and through his relationships with birds, wolves, and other creatures.  Francis had a remarkable spirit and inspired many, many people to follow him during his lifetime and enduring until today.

I think most of us can relate to St. Francis a little bit in our own relationships with our pets.  Some of us are cat people. Some of us have fish, hamsters, or reptiles.  Some of us enjoy watching animals in the wild such as herons, hummingbirds, or squirrels.  Personally, I have always been a dog person.

I grew up with Scottish Terriers and have enthusiastically rescued large mixed breed dogs since college. In fact, it was a year ago today that our sweet dog, Zappa, was diagnosed with cancer.  Very early in our relationship, Joel and I rescued Zappa, a 50 pound pitbull, from the side of the road.  Zappa was our first child.  He was young and sick when he found his way into our lives.  He had been abused terribly and was malnourished.  It took months to rehabilitate his body and even longer to heal his soul.

What transpired over the years was a gentle soul who learned to trust again.  As his faith in us grew, our love for his presence in our lives also grew.  From the day he was diagnosed with cancer until he died peacefully in our arms, it was two weeks.  And in those two weeks, we rode an emotional roller coaster.

In many ways, Zappa taught us self-discipline, as I imagine caring for your pets does the same.  We had this huge responsibility, before we had a child, that required constant and consistent care and nurture.  We had to be home at certain times to walk him or feed him.

We had to make arrangements if we were to be away from home for very long.  And because of his horrific start in this world, we had emotional responsibilities to aid in his recovery.

We loved and cared for him day in and day out, as so many of you do with your dogs and cats, and we never stopped or missed a day until he died.

The two most important things Zappa taught me were love and consistency. If I upheld my end of the bargain by loving him and caring for him on a consistent basis, he returned with his love and trust.  Isn’t that how our relationship works with God?

Perhaps, God gave us pets to help us understand in our very bones, the love God has for us and the self-discipline it requires.  God is always there, but we have to seek God.

When we are faithful and consistent to attending worship and to daily prayer, God’s presence feels immediate.

We can learn so much from St. Francis and from our pets.  Francis wrote many prayers, most of them focusing on the need and desire to Praise God!

Today let us praise and bless our relationships with our pets, the ones here today and the ones we remember in our hearts.  Next time you snuggle up with your dog on the couch or give your cat a soft pet as she strolls by or watch a bird outside the window, remember Francis and his desire to experience God fully and completely.