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St. Francis
Gal 6:14-18 Matt 11:25-30
HW in HI

In churches all over this country, and hopefully outside churches all over this country, today we will be blessing animals. The usual assortment of dogs and cats and goldfish and parakeets – but in some churches there are also horses and pigs, snakes and monkeys. We will bless them in memory of a man named Francis. Why do we do that?

Francis was born in Italy, in the town of Assisi. It was a very different time – the middle of the Middle Ages. A time of knights and lords and ladies, nobility. Most people owned just about nothing and worked the land. Wars were fought, mostly to increase land holdings. Few people were educated, in fact, fewer than in Jesus' time. Francis was among the fortunate. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant, and he was able to choose his life.

The city of Assisi was at war with a neighboring city when Francis was 20 years old, and Francis enlisted. Legend has it that he gave his armor and horse to a fellow soldier, and was easily captured in battle. He returned home a year later in a coma. While he was in a coma Francis had a vision, a vision where Jesus said to him, “I want you to be a knight for me.”

So Francis did what many of us might do. He went to the church to see about Holy Orders. What Francis found was a church that was opulent. While poverty claimed the lives of many, the church was furnished in gold and jewels. They were happy to have him – the son of a wealthy merchant would add to the status of the church. For most of us, this would have been fine. God calls, we answer. But Francis looked about him and saw a rich church and a poor world. He chose the poor world. And he chose God.

Francis left his family and the church, and began to slowly call people to a renewed understanding of God. We wanted to share with them what he had found. He called together a small group of people, mostly men. They found an old church in ruins, San Damiano, and Francis heard God saying, “Rebuild my church.” They rebuilt it stone by stone. Francis gave everything he owned to the priest there to pay for more repairs.

He devoted his life to prayer, rebuilding re-down churches, and helping the poor. Without knowing it, he began a Catholic order, known as the Franciscans.

Where do the animals come in, then? Francis was a great lover of nature. It is said that animals were attracted to him. He loved creation, and often prayed outdoors. Animals would come and sit with him, some of them quite wild. Birds were known to follow him and wait outside his door.

Francis represents an ideal. I consider his life, and I wonder whether what it means for us. Certainly he calls the church to remember that we are stewards of God’s creation. To care for the world God has given us, and to care for the creatures he created. Certainly he calls the church to remember the poor. To care for those in need of food, housing, and medical care.

But perhaps the life of St. Francis brings us to wonder about the call of God, “rebuild my church”. Was it just a command for San Damiano? Apparently not, for the Franciscans set about rebuilding the physical structure of many declining churches.

I want to suggest this morning that perhaps it is a call to go beyond that simple understanding, and consider rebuilding the church in a fuller, deeper way. When Jesus spoke of the cornerstone of the church, he was not talking about a big piece of rock, but rather he chose Peter to be the cornerstone. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul was clear: you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. The church is hardly mortar and stone (or in our case wood and nails) but rather it is composed of the faithful. Those who seek God and strive to do God’s work. Perhaps it is the rebuilding of this body that is the work of the church.

Today we have a rather small church. Some have left out of hurt or anger, some have moved away, some have just lost their faith. Perhaps rebuilding the church means reaching out to those and others and inviting them in as best we can. Or perhaps it means building up the faith of those who are here, encouraging each other in prayer and in reading of Scripture and in outreach efforts. Perhaps the answer is both: to build up the church by reaching out to those who have left and those who are without God, and by building up the faith of those who are here. That would be my choice.

This morning we heard the letter to the churches of Galatia. The churches are encouraged to boast only of Jesus. He goes on to say that it doesn’t matter or not one is circumcised. Which is to say, it doesn’t matter whether pr not one is Jewish, a follower of the law. That is nothing – what matters is a new creation. That new creation is you and that new creation is me. We are newly created in Christ Jesus. That is the promise of our baptism, and that is everything.

This is the best known prayer of St. Francis (although some say it was written in his memory):

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred let us sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is discord, union; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope,- Where there is darkness, light,- Where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that we may not so much seek To be consoled as to console; To be understood as to understand,- To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,- And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.