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Faithful Companion - Sermon for St. Francis of Assisi Sunday 2015

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The unconditional love of our animal companions helps us to ease our troubled times. And when we're left even without our faithful pets, Jesus Christ can relieve us of all of our burdens. 

 Please listen to the sermon rather than read it.  The text is included for your convenience, but it is not entirely like the delivered version, which includes nuances that can't be read.  

Sermon delivered at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Berkeley. 

October 4, 2015  - St. Francis of Assisi Sunday.  

"Faithful Companion".  Text is from Matthew 11:25-30

Greetings to you, my sister and brothers, saints and sinners, children of God. As we arrive at today's reading, Jesus had been talking about how the children of Israel rejected John, and they subsequently rejected Jesus, saying that John had a demon for being an ascetic and that Jesus was a drunkard and glutton for eating with sinners and tax collectors. 

When we look these sayings here at this point in Jesus ministry, we have to remember that the context of Jesus' pronouncements, particularly in Matthew's gospel, are such that they are said after Jesus has done some pretty unsettling and remarkable feats. 

Earlier in the Gospel, Jesus has healed a leper.  But in doing so he has put his hands on an unclean person.  Jesus, a holy man, has made himself ritually unclean while at the same time healing him, violating the Jewish cleanliness laws in doing so.  He then went and brought the servant of a centurion back from the brink of death. An incredible miracle, but done on behalf of not only a gentile but a member of the harsh Roman ruling class. 

And then Jesus eats in the company of sinners, further angering those who would wish for a messiah of their own choosing, one who is Jewish through and through, who follows Jewish custom and law to the "T". This Jesus of Nazareth, who is showing so much potential, is nevertheless not falling in line with their ideals. Jesus is following his own path, and is doing so in a frightening new way, one that threatens to undermine the entire foundation that the hierarchy of the Jewish faith. Jesus is not just a storm, he is a hurricane, Jesus is not just a tremor, he is a cataclysmic earthquake. 

And yet, these people, so embroiled in politics of the day, these Pharasees, priests and scribes who have it out for Jesus, are the very people Jesus has come to save. And yet they continue to make the decision to follow the prevailing culture and systems rather than the entirely obvious messiah there before them. 

Despite their obvious flaws, Jesus loves all of those people. In spite of the fact that they hold fast to traditions that are stale and outdated, that served to ensure the survival of people wandering through the desert, in spite of the fact that their doctrine is adversarial to the underlying core of what it means to love God and be loved by him, Jesus nevertheless calls them to him and calls them and all of us to join him in this promise.  

Even as he criticizes us, he invites us to him. Even as we struggle, those of us who have rejected the help that we may be given, he tells us flat out,  

"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest."  

Blessing of Banjo.jpg

And Jesus, who suffered more than anyone could suffer, who had the greatest burden of all, tells us in no uncertain terms, "My yoke is easy, my burden is light." What is a yoke? He is not talking about the yellow part of an egg here. What Jesus means is the harness that goes around the neck of oxen in order to pull a plow. How can a yoke even be easy?  

We are the plow that Jesus pulls. We are the burden that Jesus carries.  When Jesus says my yoke is easy, he means that it become easy when we yoke ourselves to him. When Jesus says my burden is light, it is us, our burden that we give him that makes it that much more light for us. 

Life, my sisters and brothers is about suffering. Some of us suffer a great deal more than others. But none of us is ever alone in our suffering. Part of being the body of Christ, part of being of service to each other is being able to give up our burdens to each other.  And to see one extreme way of giving up the things that weigh us down, we need only look to the life and times of the saint who we remember  today, Francis of Asissi.

Now, the Lutheran church is not exceptionally big on the reverence of Saints. In fact the abject focus on saints as objects of prayers rather than a Christ-centered concentration was a large criticism that Martin Luther had for the Roman church of the time. But that does not mean that we cannot look to these holy living people and the examples of their lives. And in recent years St. Francis has gained in popularity as one who is given particular focus on one day out of the year, October 4. 

Francis of Assisi was born into privilege. As the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, he heard, while he was praying in the old church at San Damiano, the voice of Jesus, telling him to repair his damaged house. He immediately set on a mission, one which his enraged father would disown him for, and he, in turn, disowned his family legacy, throwing his clothes at his feet and storming off naked. Francis took it upon himself to repair the church, and, without an income, rather than begging, he found scraps of food in trash bins. He also earned food as a day laborer, refusing money but being paid in bread, milk, eggs and vegetables. Eventually the life he was leading inspired many young men to follow him, leading to the creation of the Franciscan order.  

If anyone can be said to have been willingly suffering for the sake of the Gospel, it would have been Francis of Assisi, and yet I cannot help but think that he himself was comforted, knowing that Christ was there. That by relieving himself of the burden of life, of money, of worldly things, that he was able to give it all up to Jesus and be secure and safe, relying on the grace of his Lord in the knowledge that his existence was in the hands of God.

One of the legends we hear about Francis was his affinity for the natural world around him. It has been said that he could be found preaching to the birds and animals, which is why in many depictions we see him, a scrawny monk with tonsured hair and birds and beasts around him. And indeed, when we look at creation, we can well understand that the good work of God is all around us. 

We choose this day out of the year to look at our faithful friends and remember them with a blessing from God. My own companion, Banjo, has been with me longer than my spouse.  For thirteen years, he has seen me through some hard times and many good times. And I have found relief, at times when there was nobody to come home to, when I was caught in emotional turmoil, that Banjo was there waiting for me. We have faith that Jesus is there to relieve our spiritual burdens, and yet it gives me strength that knowing at my worst times, the unconditional love I have from my savior is also reflected in the unconditional love that my companion has for me. No matter what mood I'm in, no matter how I look, feel, or smell, my faithful four footed friend is there to give me affection and attention, even when I feel the world is falling apart. 

And at thirteen years of life, I also realize that while all of us have a temporary journey on this realm, our faithful companions, be they furry or feathered, are inevitably more temporary than ours. Banjo is in decline. The arthritis in his hind legs makes him unsteady walking.  His eyes have begun to glaze over. And although he's gotten a clean bill of health from the vet's the last few times we've been there, at his age, any illness can come on strongly and quickly.  And I know that this wonderful animal companion, that I declared nearly thirteen years ago that I had never had a connection to any beast like I did with him, who has been with me on both coasts, who has bathed in the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific, who has traveled cross-country with me, who has been with me in hurricane and earthquake, in snowstorm and flood, will some day, sooner than I will be ready, be in a condition where I have to make a decision to end his suffering. 

And my heart will break a little bit, and I'll be left with pictures and memories of the meaning that he has given me in my life, along with Coco, Oji, Joplin, B.J., Jennie, Morris, Caesar and all the dogs, cats and birds that have been members of my families in my life.

Our companions bless us and we bless them. We share our lives with them, and sometimes bear our souls to them. We take them from shelters, and rescue them from decimation, and we feed them, and clean them, and pick up after them, and walk them and clean their litterboxes, and we expect nothing in return from them except their unconditional love and companionship.

And unlike our fellow human beings, animals, who really cannot know the depths of our hearts and judge us and make moral determinations about our behavior, seem, at least those that we have bonded with, to love us unconditionally. So while they don't have the capacity to understand what kind of people we are, because of who we are to them, they become bonded to us and dependent on us and give us by virtue of the centeredness of attention the support we can often need in life.  

Because I know that to allow people to get to know us, sometimes means they know all about us, warts and all, and sometimes we may wonder how can we possibly be lovable? But you will never find that with a pet. 

But here is the miracle, my sisters and brothers, because even knowing the depths of our heart, and knowing our compulsion to moralize against one another and make determinations of the value of one another's character. Knowing that we judge each other and bear false witness against one another and that we sometimes hurt each other, whether intentionally or not, Christ Jesus nevertheless also unconditionally loves us. 

When there is nothing else for us. When even our animal companions have left us, Jesus Christ calls us to him to lay down the worst of our burdens. 

This morning I was sitting upstairs in our loft and I listened to my spouse trying to rationalize with our dog why needs to stop making his nose bleed. And Banjo has to wear a cone to prevent himself from gnawing at a hotspot on his flank.  And at thirteen and a half years old, we know even when these things improve, his health is just going to get worse, and it's sad, because my poor dog doesn't understand.  

And one day, probably not this year, maybe not next year, but sooner than I want, I'm going to have to let my latest furry companion go, one that I have bonded to like no other.  And it won't be easy. It will require me to let go of a lot. And I'll need the love and support of my spouse who will be going through his own loss and our friends, who can sometimes be imperfect and not be there when I need them. But most of all, I have the one I can always rely on. 

Even from the cross, Jesus carries our burdens. And that is good news.  Amen.   

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This page contains a single entry by Cary Bass-Deschenes published on October 4, 2015 2:40 PM.

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