St. Francis Day: Love without Judgement

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 this 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. Have you ever seen that bumper sticker: “I want to be the person that my dog thinks I am?”

There is a certain reassurance to owning an animal. Animals look to us for comfort, for an ear scratch, probably most of all for food. We can be cynical and believe that’s all our animals want from us. But I think there’s something more.

Sometimes you’ll hear Christians arguing that animals don’t have souls. Well, don’t they?

I’ve said before from this pulpit that I believe animals can be some of our spiritual teachers. At least one of the early church teachers agreed. In the first centuries of the early church, Abba Xanthius, one of the desert fathers said: “A dog is better than I am, for he has love and he does not judge.”

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. He saw the Sun as his Brother, the Moon as his sister. He saw all of creation as a fellow-creature, a relative. As I read this difficult Gospel passage, I can’t help but think of Francis.

Jesus often had to contend with the ambitions of his disciples. He regularly overheard them as they argued. Who was going to run the temple when Jesus took over Jerusalem? Who was the number one disciple in Jesus eyes? Could Jesus promise that one disciple would sit at his right and the other at his left hand? Human ambition was rife, just like it is today.

Jesus often told his disciples that they didn’t know what they were talking about. Become like little children, he’d say. The place of the disciple is not at the right hand of the host, but serving, sometimes thanklessly.

Truthfully, very few followers of Jesus have ever really taken Jesus seriously on this teaching. Francis was one of them. He saw the wealth of the people around him. He saw the opulence of the church, and it made him uncomfortable. He wanted another way to live.

So Francis served. He started by rebuilding a little neglected church. Then he started caring for the lepers, the hungry, and those who were left behind in his society.

And Francis understood something. When you look at the world with eyes for service. When you look at the world not asking, “how can I be recognized,” but instead, “how can I be helpful?” When you look at the world that way, you are looking at the world upside down. You see the world from a totally different perspective.

This, I think more than anything, is what Jesus wanted for his followers: a different perspective. You don’t have to be dogmatically religious. You don’t have to be fixated on money or power. Life is bigger than those pursuits. Real joy can be found, you just have to let go, change your viewpoint. Be of service.

A dog is better than me, because he loves without judgement. So much of our judgement, if we’re honest, is a game of comparison. We judge others so that we can lift ourselves up. I know I do it all the time. I compare the car I drive, the house I live in, the success of my church to my neighbors. I’d say that I compare clothes, but that’s a little niche in my case. Clergy collars are pretty standard from one brand to the next.

In this way, animals can be good spiritual teachers. Our dog Oscar, he really doesn’t care whether we buy him a name brand chew toy. Some of you know that I’m a frisbee player. When Oscar was new, I bought him a few fancy dog frisbees. He’d catch them once or twice, but then he’d get bored. Drove me crazy. What drove me more crazy was that he couldn’t get enough of sticks. Regular old, grows on trees, free as the birds, sticks. He loves them. Can’t get enough. Will chase them all day.

He loves without judgement.

And there’s a freedom there.

We often talk about salvation in church. Sometimes that sounds pretty “pie in the sky” to me. I sometimes wonder if Jesus offers salvation in the here and now. I wonder if our happiness. I wonder if the health of our society and the health of our planet, I wonder if all of that would improve if we could learn to love without judgement. If we could see the world from a different perspective, the perspective of Francis and Jesus, if we could be (even just a a little more ) the people that our pets think we are.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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