St. Francis and the Importance of Caring

St. Francis day in The Episcopal Church is a little strange. I feel I owe you that bit of honesty. St. Francis day is strange. We bring animals to church. Now, some of you know, I am a proud dog parent. I love my labradoodle Oscar. I am glad to get to bring him for a blessing. I love my dog. I love my church. I am grateful to have a day to bring the two together. But theologically, this is a little bit of an intellectual leap. I’ll be honest.

I take comfort that Jesus says, “I have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to the young.” When I was a little kid, I loved St. Francis day. I got to bring my dog, and my lizards, and my hamsters to church. My mom, loving parent that she was, made me pick from among our many pets. We could only bring the dog and one other creature. That was difficult for a 8 year old. And, for whatever reason, mammals always got my preference. I don’t know why. But I loved getting to bring my pets for a blessing.

I know there are some kids at Holy Communion that are looking forward to having their pets blessed, having their pets at church. So, I’m okay with leaning into the strangeness of this tradition. Sometimes God hides the truth from those of us who think we are clever, and reveals it to those who are children or childlike. I’m okay with letting the animals come walking down the aisle, one Sunday a year. After all, it’s probably not even the strangest thing we do around here at church.

As I lean into this blessing liturgy, I find a real comfort in the idea. We will be blessing the animals that are a blessing to us this morning. We will be thanking God for giving animals into our care. There’s a resonance for me in those bumper stickers you see that say “Who rescued who?” (I have to admit, the grammar police in me wants to carry around some other stickers with the letter “m” so I can change them to say “Who rescued whom?”) It’s a subject/object thing. But still, the resonance is there. God gives animals into our care, and for many of us God give us into the care of our animals.

Care is something at the heart of the Gospel, at the heart of what it means to be a Christian person, a spiritual person in this world. And care doesn’t always come easy to us. It helps to have some animal guides. Care is sometimes difficult.

This week we need some care. When I first heard the news of the shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, I confess: I wasn’t shocked. My first reaction was, “again?” I grew up in Jefferson County Colorado, and I attended the high school that is now geographically closest to Columbine. I remember that terrible April day in 1999. I remember the feeling of disorientation: “How could this happen?” I went to elementary school with students who were hiding under tables in the cafeteria. I remember the disbelief, the shock.

I didn’t feel a similar shock this week. I felt numbed. Roseburg felt like one more instance, more of the same, nothing new. When I talk to my black clergy colleagues, they know this feeling well. The number of school shootings, and shootings of school age children, in the black community is sky-high and far far under-reported. This week, as I heard the news of another school shooting, I had to actively work against my own cynicism. I had to fight against letting this feel normal. A school shooting should never feel normal. When did we start to let a school shooting feel normal?

St. Francis of Assisi, the strange young man we celebrate with this strange blessing ritual today, fought hard against his society’s sense of normal. He sang to the birds of the air, and ministered to the lepers and poor. This rich young man gave up his status, and worked to rebuild his society. St. Francis was working to get people to CARE again.

Sometimes the world wears us down. Sometimes the violence, and the political intransigence, and life itself wears us down. Sometimes it is hard to care. St. Francis of Assisi, invites us to care. Jesus invites us to care. If you take nothing else away from this Sunday, take this: God’s way is a caring way. God invites us to take care. To take care of ourselves, to care for one another, to care for our families, to care for our pets, to care for our communities, to care for our planet.

I think one of the most tragic responses we can have is this: “I just don’t care.” You know, Episcopal preachers are not known for preaching about the devil. I’m not one to say much about the devil, but if you believe the devil exists, I believe the number one thing he wants us to say is this: “I just don’t care anymore.”

God invites us to care. Always to care.

There’s a moment at the end of one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books that speaks to this need for care. The book is “The Lorax,” about the mustachioed little creature who speaks for the trees. As industrious human beings come and destroy the Truffula forest, the Lorax protests and protests. “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.” But his speeches fall on deaf ears. Finally the last tree falls, and the Lorax disappears. The story of the Lorax is a tragedy. But the book doesn’t quite end there.

The young man, the narrator of the story goes to see the Once-ler, the man who has told the story of the Lorax. He tosses the young child the last Truffula seed, and says:

Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax
and all of his friends
may come back.”

It might seem strange that a child is trusted with the last of a species, with the future of a book. But Dr. Seuss and Jesus both don’t underestimate children. The book goes on:

“But now,” says the Once-ler, “now that you’re here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot.” Friends, I don’t know a better explanation of the life of faith, for indeed the life of faith is a life of caring. Our planet needs our care. We need one another’s care. Our gun laws, and our mental health systems, and many many isolated members of our society, need us to care a whole awful lot.

Care takes balance. On the one hand, we can slip into cynicism, we can cease caring all together. There’s a real danger of that in our world. But the other extreme is possible. Sometimes care can metastasize into anxiety. When we become too anxious about the state of our lives, or the state of the world, that anxiety can be as toxic, or more toxic, than cynicism. Care is a balance.

Jesus reminds us this morning that, for the person of faith, the burden is light, the yoke is easy. Part of the balance of care is learning that we don’t carry the weight of the world, or even the weight of our lives on our own. We are part of a community of faith, and the burden is easy, the yoke is light, because we carry the work of caring together. In this congregation, we care for one another. We care together for our world. I’m frankly proud of the sharing that goes on here. This is a place where we can learn that balance of care, not anxiety, not cynicism, but God’s own caring, shared in community.

And learning to care takes some training, which brings me back to our strange Sunday. Those of you who have an animal know that changing behavior takes a lot of work. It can seem like the animal is training you (and let’s be honest, your animal IS training you.) Our very squirrelly twenty-month old Labradoodle-in-training Oscar is in the congregation with my husband Eli. For Oscar’s sake, I’m going to wrap up this homily soon.

Caring for an animal is a training. Caring for an animal teaches us patience and responsiveness. We learn that we don’t live only for ourselves. Early on a dark cold morning, when I am begrudgingly walking outside, when I really don’t want to be outside, I know that my dog is a spiritual teacher, my zen master of sorts. Because really, you’ll do things for a puppy that you’d never do for a priest. A good pet teaches us how to sacrifice for the sake of love. A pet teaches us how to care.

And so today, we’ll go through this slightly strange ritual of blessing animals. And I’d invite you to think about all of your teachers in the caring way of God. Who, or what, teaches you to care? How to you conquer the cynicism of our world? How do you find balance to your anxiety and care for yourself? How do you care for your neighbors? How do you muster the care our community and our planet needs? “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Amen.

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