Jeremiah 22:13-16 Doing justice and righteousness is knowing the LORD
Psalm 148 The splender of the LORD is over earth and heaven
Galatians 6:14-18 A new creation is everything
Matthew 11:25-30 The yoke of discipleship
Franciscan Rule, Pastor Fred Kinsey
The Franciscan Rule originates with St Francis himself. It was revised over the years, but is a kind of distillation of his thought and practice, and the guiding rules he himself and all Franciscans lived by, which he encouraged others to emulate, as well. Two points from the Franciscan Rule seem important to lift up today:
1) “they[you] should cultivate the Franciscan spirit, of peace, fidelity, and respect for life, striving to make of it a sign of a world already renewed in Christ.” 2) “…they/[you] should respect all creatures, animate and inanimate, which “bear the imprint of the Most High,” and [you] should strive to move from the temptation of exploiting creation to the Franciscan concept of universal kin-ship.”
On Christmas Eve in 1123, 3 years before Francis died, Francis was planning to celebrate Christmas in the little mountain village of Grecio, Italy. It seems that the parish there, had the same dynamic we do, with the precipitous rise in attendance of the faithful for the Christmas service – because Francis thought the Chapel there was too small for all the worshipers who would attend their Midnight Mass.
So Francis decided to hold the service in the public square, out in the open, in the heart of the village. There was a carved-out niche in a rock, like a cave there, which was perfect. This, as Francis knew from visiting the Holy Land, was like the traditional birthplace of Jesus. Many in the hill country of Bethlehem lived in such caves. And there were often just two rooms, one for the family, and the other for their animals. Luke’s nativity account says only that, ‘Mary gave birth to her first born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger – the animal feeding trough – because there was no room for them in the inn.’ Whether it was the back room of the inn, or a distant relative’s home, we don’t know. But it certainly sounds like Jesus was born in the room with the animals.
So St. Francis arranged to set up a manger with straw in it, and even made sure there was an ox and a donkey. His intention was to show the utter poverty that the Savior-King was born into. And according to St. Boneventure, who wrote about it not long after, it was a solemn and moving experience. And as Francis preached the midnight mass, he was full of, tears of joy, that Christmas Eve!
Some say this was the beginning of the tradition of the crèche, the Nativity scenes we still use today at Christmas time. And who amongst us doesn’t have a favorite! I know Kim and I have one at home, which is a rather eclectic scene we made from a variety of carved wooden characters. It began with just a simple crèche of olive wood we bought in Bethlehem when we visited in 2005. It’s just the baby Jesus in a manger with his parents standing over him, pictured in a cave opening, with a native palm tree overhanging the entrance, and a star just above. And we’ve simply surrounded it with various animals from around the world, we’ve collected from here and there. An ox and ass of course, but also some sheep, seeing how the Shepherds were the first visitors that holy night, but also a giraffe, an antelope, a spotted-leopard, and a rhinoceros!
Today, of course, we are celebrating all of the animals, and especially all the pets who are worshiping with us, God’s fellow beloved creatures! Dogs seem to have the clear majority today, but I wouldn’t want to debate with the cat owners, which are more precious in God’s sight!
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that St Francis, who founded the Franciscan order, on the vow of poverty, also developed the doctrine of the animals being our sisters and brothers! His love for all creatures, and his theology, totally matched up!
And the journey that Francis took to get there, was real! It was formed out of his early life of privilege, growing up in a wealthy family that had some means, was able to travel, and expected things in return for their patronage. By some accounts, when Francis was younger, he reveled in his privilege. He was handsome and gallant, he delighted in fine clothes, he became a troubadour, gaining the popularity of many of his peers. But percolating underneath, Francis was questioning this life. And one day, when his conscience got the better of him, and he gave a beggar all the money he had, he was chided by his rich friends.
And though he didn’t let that deter him from his calling, it’s notable the lengths Francis had to go to detach himself from this life. His father, who had invested in his son and wanted him to follow in his footsteps, derided him for wanting to leave. Once even, he beat and bound Francis, and threw him in the cellar, before his mother was able to rescue him. Such can be the punishment for challenging the hierarchy of white male privilege, then, or now!
But Francis sought the counsel of the scriptures and traditions of the church, and he formed a vision. Francis saw in Christ a model for living simply, and being open to the Holy Spirit, our breath of life, which counsels living, not by bread alone, but by the living Word of God.
So Francis, once the heir of the good life, came to live with the poor, forming one of the Church’s most significant movements, in the Franciscan Order. He healed the sick, fought corruption in the Church, and rejoiced in the wonder and gift of creation. Francis saw the spirit of life, not only in all people, but in the whole animal kingdom.
Believing in the Creator of the whole universe, the maker of heaven and earth, and that we are called to be in covenant, in relationship, with God, through the example of the humble child born in a lowly manger, ignites in us a burning desire to care for the whole earth and all God’s creatures, our sisters and brothers. It is no coincidence that followers of Jesus, are lovers of the animals, and friends of the poor.
Again, the Franciscan Rule says, “you should respect all creatures, animate and inanimate, which “bear the imprint of the Most High,” and [you] should strive to move from the temptation of exploiting creation, to the Franciscan concept of universal kin-ship.”
Where is this kind of humbleness in our culture, in our church & society, today? Certainly not in our elected leadership, who at the top, favor the policies of the rich, who have already given-in to the temptation of exploiting our land, water and air.
Let us, today, be the humble servants! And let us start in the style of the Franciscans – by taking pride in blessing our pets and animals, our sisters and brothers. Let us, the meek, be the inheritors of the earth, and the lead caretakers of God’s very good creation. For the power of God is manifest in our Savior who was born in a make-shift manger, amongst the barnyard animals. The kingdom of God is found in weakness, through the vulnerability of carrying our crosses – a yoke made easy, and our burdens made light, as Jesus says in our Gospel. And the powerful, will be brought low.
For this is what St Paul meant when he said, “a new creation is everything!” And “for those who will follow this rule,” like the Franciscan Rule, “peace and mercy be upon them.”
Let ‘Peace and mercy be upon us’ as we bless our animals today, our sisters and brothers. And as we become the ‘new creation,’ Jesus lived and died, and rose again for.