Have you ever noticed that congregations usually hold their Blessing of the Animals services around this time of year? This is because October 4th is the day that celebrates St. Francis of Assisi... a man who had a deep love for animals and nature. During this service we will not only celebrate Franciscan spirituality, but will also examine how it informs our UU faith.
Lori Kyle is the UUCD’s recently hired spiritual leader. In May 2014 Lori completed her Master of Divinity degree. She hopes to be ordained in 2015 following her meeting with the Unitarian Universalist Association Ministerial Fellowship Committee in April.
The complete sermon can be read below:
A couple of weeks ago we explored bringing Unitarian Universalism out into the world, and in doing so I hoped that we could explore our aspirations for our congregation and our faith on a more external plane.
As we continue to get to know each other, today I thought I’d give you more of a glimpse into what fuels the external by having the focus of our service revolve around a topic, or a person, actually, that deeply impacts my internal spiritual journey…that being St. Francis of Assisi.
It just so happens that his “feast day” (as they call it in Roman Catholic circles) was yesterday, October 4th. As soon as I learned that I would get to do the October 5th service, my first thought was, “I’ll do the service on Francis!”
It gives me joy to have the theme of my first official service be centered on someone deeply inspiring to me, and I hope, inspiring in some measure to you as well.
We should begin with a bit of background information. Young Francis has been born into a wealthy family, the son of a cloth merchant. He was outgoing, friendly, well-dressed, vain, and quite a spendthrift…the “prince of the Assisi youth brigade’. He loved poetry and chivalry, and was a troubadour singing love songs throughout the streets of Assisi.
He also coveted the idea of being a glorious knight in the Crusades, and actually was a soldier in some local battles with neighbouring towns.
During this period of adolescence and young adulthood, like our reading this morning stated, as he drifted from room to room, battle to battle, through friends and lovers, none of it was ever quite as real as advertised.
I chose the poem “Half Life” for our reading today because it is quite reflective of Francis’ experience, and perhaps speaks to some of our own transitions and conversions as well.
In the case of Francis - who lived to be 46 years old – each of his half lives were very different from the other.
It wasn’t until his mid twenties when he became quite ill and feverish after being a released prisoner of war from one of these battles did his first life end and his second begin. Perhaps Levine’s poem could be reworked to be called…
“The Half Life of Francis,” and would go like this….
He walked through half his life
as if it were a dream, a fairy tale,
barely touching true ground…
his eyes half open
his heart half closed.
Not half knowing who he was,
his ghost drifting
from party to party
through friends, song, and wine
never quite as real as advertised.
Not saying half of what he meant
or meaning half of what he said
seeking his true self.
Until his fever broke,
and his heart could not abide
a moment longer
the rest of him awakened,
summoned from the dream,
not half caring for anything but love.
My overall impression of Francis is that he figured out this gig we call life…life as we know it. And at the heart of his breaking the Code of Life is captured in the last line of this poem…Francis’s turned the entirety of his being toward figuring out what it meant to love.
Love can mean a lot of things, it’s a very used word. In the case of Francis, It is widely known that he loved animals…the blessing of the animals that we hear about this time of year are based on his legacy.
Francis loved creatures, not because he had an uncanny ability to liken them to humans, but because they reminded him of holiness.
His unqualified love of all creatures and creation allowed him to be so open to reality that he was at home everywhere he was.
The gift of simplicity, which we admire so much in children, resides in this, and is a natural state of being; to see things as they truly are.
Franics embodied love in many other ways as well…such as in his joyful spirit. Francis loved to sing. His conversion experience didn’t root merriment out of him, but this merriment was the real thing. He would often grab two sticks and pretend to be playing the violin as he sang sweet songs of praise.
My partner Margaret said, “I thought St. Francis was kind of serious, all into austerity and everything.” It’s true that there was that side to him.
He did once said, “Riches prick us with a thousand troubles in getting them, as many cares in preserving them, yet more anxiety in spending them, and with grief in losing them.”
And so, while he never lost a sense of whimsy, he was also steadfast in his commitment to simplicity.
Certainly another way that he loved was through his embracing the disenfranchised.
We heard and example of this in the children’s story about when Francis embraced the man with leprosy.
There aren’t a lot of lepers around these days, so the lesson of this story might seem a bit inaccessible. Sweet, but not so applicable now.
But if we look again, even for a moment, we can see the many ways that stigma, like for lepers in medieval times, is manifested — in those with mental illness or those who don’t fit in because of poverty, orientation, or religion.
And we can ask ourselves - what are we doing to kiss them and wash their wounds?
Two women from very different backgrounds, inspired by the same Franciscan spirituality, joined forces to figure that out.
The setting was the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, which can be intimidating because of its high concentration of homeless people, poverty, prostitution, and drug abuse. Tourists are cautioned to avoid the area.
But where some people saw danger, Sister Carmen Barsody, a Franciscan nun, and Reverend Kay Jorgensen, a UU minister, saw an opportunity for ministry.
Sister Carmen had spent several years living among the poor in the barrios of Nicaragua. Rev. Kay Jorgensen worked among the residents of this Tenderloin district as a community minister.
The two met in 1997 and found that, although they came from very different religious backgrounds, their theology about working with the poor and homeless was very similar. Together, they founded the Faithful Fools street ministry.
The "Fools" in their name refers to the "fool" of medieval times who, like St. Francis, was the one on the edge of society who assists others in crossing the boundaries a society creates. In fact, Francis is often is referred to as a "Fool of God," one who challenged and changed the church and society.
The "Faithful" part of their name refers to their belief that, in order to dismantle oppression, we need to break through separateness—whether based on identity, belief, or economics—and focus on what connects us.
They exercise the ideal in Francis’ quote that you’ll see at the top of today’s order of service.
You might have noticed that it says, “Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible, and suddenly you’re doing the impossible.”
As soon as I saw this I thought of us, of our congregation. One of the primary messages that I’ve received from you, in your aspirations for this congregation, is that you want to grow, and I share in that aspiration.
When I apply this quotation to our growth aspirations, I wonder what our starting point should be – “start by doing what’s necessary.”
What’s necessary seems to be our being well grounded in our existing community, who we are now, what we stand for…to kindle and make primary our connections to each other, and to our faith, as individuals and as a community.
So that when we move out into the world to exercise and create possibilities for growth (doing what’s possible - the second part of the formula) people will see that we’ve taken care of job one well, the necessary foundational stuff, the stuff that makes us who we are, stuff that inspires others.
And after we’ve done what’s necessary within our individual and collective selves, we can then extend to do what’s possible by having a presence in the wider community, who knows where it can go from there…the unseen impossible awaits.
Francis exercised this in his own life. Except he had no aspirations for founding or growing a religious community. He did start, though, by doing what was necessary for him…he gave up a life of opulence in order to find his truest self, and to find the truth and holiness that exists in creation, in creatures and people.
And then he did what was possible, by becoming humble and poor in order to find the deepest kinds of riches…the kind of richness that comes with overcoming one’s fears and embracing someone who has revolted you, as we heard in the children’s story.
And as he lived this way, people couldn’t help but see his joy, to see that he had something that they longed for - riches of the spirit.
And then the impossible happened.
One by one people came to him, saying, “I want what you have. I want that joy and peace and spiritual freedom that allows me to recognize and really feel that every single part of creation lives and breathes sacredness.”
For nearly 800 years now, people, millions of us, still celebrate his life, and work to emulate what he stood for.
This includes Unitarians. I was a Catholic when I got to know Francis, during the time that I entered a convent in my early 20’s that happened to be a Franciscan one.
And now, as a full fledged, through and through Unitarian Universalist for nearly 20 years, I think I relate to his theology now more than I did back then.
That’s because Francis’ spirituality beautifully embodies UU theology.
Francis knew about our first principle - the inherent worth and dignity of every person - as he loved the sick and downtrodden, and felt so akin to poor and marginalized that he took on that cloak himself.
As UU’s uphold justice and compassion in human relations in our second and sixth principles, so did Francis as he strove to honour all people, especially the marginalized.
He embodied our fourth principle because his was a free search for truth and meaning, so free and revolutionary that early on many people literally thought he had become mentally challenged.
And I save the best for last…our seventh principle, because it most beautifully represents how Francis lived, the depth to which he understood and respected the interdependent web of all creation, of which we are a part. We heard this in his Canticle of the Sun.
Francis is one of the patron saints of Italy, and of the environment and of animals. He could also be the patron of our Principles.
I claim his as a UU because I love our faith, and I love the manner in which he, with somewhat reckless abandon, lived our faith.
We’re not unique in claiming him, though. He is one of the most universally loved people in history because so many of us identify with him…he touches something within us, a knowing and longing that we’re wired for inclusion/connection, simplicity of spirit.
So, I’ve given you a bit of a biography today. But the takeaway of a biographical story falls far short when there’s nothing to take away from it to enrich our lives.
Instead of a rags to riches story, I’ve given you a riches to rags story. Interesting enough.
But as Unitarian Universalists, as people who hunger for connection, and work for justice, and stand on the side of love and inclusion time and time again,
the story of Francis is much more than a just a story.
It’s a beckoning, it’s an inspriation and a rallying call, and an acknowledgement that our principles are alive and well, far beyond what we know to be the height and breadth of our particular faith.
On this weekend when droves of animals will be blessed, when Brother Sun will shine above us and Sister Water will clean and nourish us,
may we be evermore aware of our connection to,
and the sacredness of,
all of creation.
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