Sermon for St Francis’ Day
October 4, A.D. 2015 St Mary’s, Busselton
In the + Name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer, Amen.
This story about Jesus and a mule comes from one of the apocryphal Gospels, one of the writings that didn’t make it into the New Testament. But I’d like to imagine it tells us about how Jesus thought and felt about animals. Here’s the story:
They came across a man with a pack-mule. But the animal had fallen because its load was too heavy, and the owner beat it so much it started bleeding. So Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, why are you beating your animal? Can’t you see that it is not strong enough for its load, and don’t you know that it feels pain?’
But the man replied, ‘What is that to you? I can beat it as much as I want to, because it is my property and I paid a lot of money for it.’ …
But the Lord said, ‘Can’t you see it bleeding? Can’t you hear its cries of pain? ‘
But he said, ‘No. Can’t hear a thing.’
And the Lord was sad and exclaimed, ‘That’s bad news, that you can’t hear it complaining to its Creator in heaven, and crying to you for mercy. Very bad news for those it complains about in its distress.’ And the Lord touched the animal. It got up – its wounds healed!
Jesus then said to its owner, ‘Now carry on your way and don’t beat the animal anymore, so that you too will find mercy.’
No one here would treat their pet like that mule owner.
I’ve been impressed by those dogs which have earned a medal in the war in Afghanistan for their bravery in sniffing out hidden explosive devices, bombs and mines, before they blow up and maim and kill people. I think the Army awards the medals because they know that the dogs are brave. The dogs understand the danger, and the dogs do their dangerous job to protect their humans. It’s quite wonderful.
War is a strange place to start on St Francis’ Day. St Francis thought that trying to get peace by going to war was a bizarre idea, like hammering stones to turn them into water: wrong tool, wrong method, wrong materials. Yet St Francis spent at least three months with the Crusaders in the Nile Delta, nursing the wounded and the soldiers who had succumbed to mosquito-borne diseases. He caught malaria himself during this time. He looked war straight in the face. War is part of the human experience. St Francis cared about soldiers because he knew that God cared about them.
I don’t think, though, that there were dogs helping the soldiers in the Fifth Crusade in Egypt. To have dogs helping in war, you need to know how intelligent they are and how people can bond with them, so that man and dog become a team to accomplish a task. Of all the thousands of knights and soldiers at Damietta, Christian and Muslim, I guess St Francis was the only one who really knew that it was possible for animals and humans to have such a strong bond. We’ve learned a lot from St Francis.
There’s a legend that St Francis tamed a wolf that was terrorising the village of Gubbio. Now, that may have been only a legend, or the baddie in the legend may have been a human bandit or terrorist nicknamed Il Lupo, ‘the Wolf’, but it is possible that it was a real wolf. There are people who have such a connection with animals, like St Francis, that simply by his calm presence, the wolf sensed that Francis was friend, not out to chase and kill him.
The idea back in Genesis where Adam names the animals is that in the beginning we had that close rapport with animals. We are supposed to feel a connection with them. When a pet comes into our home, we give it a name. That’s what we’re supposed to do. It’s more than a childish game.
I grew up with animals on a farm, and our parents emphasised on the one hand that we shouldn’t make pets of our sheep and cows, but on the other hand, they treated the animals with care. They knew that they felt pain. Dad knew that if the sheep were spooked in the shearing shed one year, they would remember and be frightened the next year. It simply made good sense to treat them well.
And when we meet a wild animal, a lizard or a kangaroo, say, our first instinct should be to acknowledge it. The way St Francis did this was by calling every creature his sister or brother. The pair of wedge-tail eagles we sometimes see over our back fence at Novacare are magnificent, and they come from God. They are our brother and sister.
The more we learn about animals, the more we should respect their complexity. We know that dogs and cats communicate, and they learn more ways of communication to fit in with their human companions. But ‘chooks’, hens, also communicate. When they are out foraging and scratching, one always stands guard, and she has a different squawk to indicate a predator over-head or good food underfoot. And it’s vital that her mates understand her straightaway. Scientists have done experiments to show that fishes feel pain, and they give sophisticated intelligence tests to octopuses!
Animals are not dumb. They share our planet as our sisters and brothers, so we bring our pets for blessing, thanking God for all they give to us, whether they are domesticated pets like cats or dogs, working animals like the donkeys Jesus borrowed to ride into Jerusalem, or whether they are wild animals with no human contact. We thank God for them all – and welcome pet rocks, cart-horses and orcas, and everything in between, for a blessing today..
But St Francis went a step further. In his Canticle of the Sun, he calls the sun and moon, the earth and wind and weather, all the inanimate things that make up the environment, that support life, he calls all those things brother and sister too. Because we are all connected. Our bodies are made up of mud and oxygen – water, earth and wind. The trace elements that make the subtle difference and bring us really alive come from Brother Sun and the other stars.
One place to read more about this is in Pope Francis’s latest encyclical Laudato Si’. The Pope even takes the name from The Canticle of the Sun, ‘Laudato Si’’ means ‘Praise be’ and is the first two words of every verse of the Canticle.
The writer of Genesis saw the garden, the river, the trees and the animals, and the humans, as a whole, a gift from God, to be cared for and nurtured. Blessing pets is not just something nice to do: it’s a commitment to care for each other, for every living thing, and for everything that supports life, to the glory of the Creator.