Wednesday, October 05, 2016

What we can learn from the animals...a sermon on Matthew 6:25-33

Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the God of all Creation. Amen.
There was an internet meme floating around this summer about “What God was thinking when creating the animals.”  Some of these are too good not to share. 

When creating parrots: How about a tie-dye chicken who screams actual words at you.
When creating snakes: how about a sock that is angry all of the time.
When creating kittens: Make them fluffy and cuddly. And put razor blades on their feet.
When creating spiders: Make it a land octopus, that can walk on walls.
When creating dogs: These turned out great, I am going to need all of these back someday.
I am so thrilled to be preaching in worship this morning, as we celebrate the life of St Francis and bless the beloved animals with whom we share our lives. I have always had dogs in my life. From my childhood pets, to the dogs that my parents and sisters have now, to the dogs that compose my family here in Minneapolis, I have always believed that the love that we give and receive from animals can teach us about God and being God’s kingdom in the world.
We too are beautiful creatures created in the image of God. We hear in our Psalm that God created all of the world and all of the living things in it. All animals that walk, swim, and fly upon the earth were created by God, all of humanity included.  We want to sometimes distance ourselves from being creatures, being animals, because we want to ascribe some of our instinctual qualities to our animal selves. Like competition for resources or the desire to procreate.  We want to harness our instincts into self-control and being polite. I think one of the defining characteristics of being human is the tendency to worry. This is one of the things that sets us apart from the animals with whom we share this earthly home. And there are many things about which to worry.
We worry about paying bills and meeting deadlines. We worry about making friends and fitting in at school and work and even church. We worry about climate change and systemic racism and diminishing resources for an exponentially growing population. We worry about being happy and fulfilled in our vocation.  Sometimes we even worry because we aren’t worrying enough or don’t seem to be worrying about the things that other people are worried about.
The Gospel that we heard today from Matthew gets right to the heart of this matter. Jesus is teaching to the crowds while he moves about the countryside. He was speaking to people who really didn’t have anything to lose by dropping everything and coming to hear this desert prophet speak. He wasn’t speaking to people who were influential in their communities or local government or who really had any power or privilege. There was legitimate concern for where their next meal would be coming from or whether or not they would have clothing.
While many of us here may not have these survival worries, we do have deep concerns for our own lives and wellbeing. For coping with mental illness, physical limitations, raising well-adjusted children or helping aging parents into the next phase of life. Look inward…what are you most worried about?  What wakes you in the night or occupies your daytime thinking? What is the one thing, or multiple things, that give you a lump in your throat and makes you feel as if you might never be free?
With that in mind, hear this summary of the Gospel…
Therefore, listen to what I am telling you: don’t worry about staying alive or about what you will eat or drink, or about your body or what you will wear. Isn’t living life more than looking towards your next meal or your clothing? Look at the birds? They don’t plant crops or harvest them, and yet, your heavenly parent feeds them! Don’t you think that you are of more value in God’s eyes? And can any of you make your life any longer by worrying?  Why are you worrying about what you will wear?  Think about the lilies of the field, how they live. They neither sew or weave fabric, yet they are clothed like royalty. But if God provides beauty to the grasses of the field, which is alive for such a short time, will God not care for you even more? Therefore, do not worry, asking, “what will we eat or drink? Or what will we wear? For it is those among you that do not have faith who think about these things, and indeed your heavenly parent knows your needs. Strive first for the kingdom of God, and all these things will be given to you.
I have always loved this text. That is why I picked it for this Sunday where we bless the animals with whom we share our lives and our homes. I love the imagery of a tiny sparrow, fragile, vulnerable and how God provides for that sparrow. I love the imagery of a lily of the valley being clothed in royal finery by God. I love the message of “Do not worry, because it is not going to add any years to your life.” Because I believe that it is something that we need to hear constantly.
Do not worry. Because it is not going to do anything to benefit you or provide you with what you need. Strive to be close to God and God’s people, by ever seeking out the kingdom of God.  Your needs will be met in this way. What does it look like to seek after the kingdom of God?
It looks like a group of God’s beloved gathered in a sanctuary with their dogs, cats, snakes, geckos, stuffed animals and pictures of dear pets. Gathered together to sing praise to God through song, barking, meowing and whatever noise rodents make.
It looks like the beauty that we create together for beauty’s sake. The music that Andrea and our choir create each week. The flowers and gardens that are lovingly tended on our block.
Striving after the kingdom of God looks like this congregation coming together to provide a warm wall tent for the community gathered at Standing Rock so that they might survive the winter.
Seeking God’s kingdom looks like the faithful food shelf volunteers greeting our south Minneapolis neighbors with care and hospitality each week.
The kingdom of God is all of us gathered here today, in this space, craving the Word and the Body of Christ, that we might go out and be of service in our schools, work, and homes.
We are going to worry, because we are human. It is what we do. But God wants us to be free from those worries and to rest comfortably in God’s presence. This is what we can learn from the furry, feathered and four legged friends here today.

Animals teach us about joy. Those of you that have dogs will know that there is some variation of “Let’s go for a walk” or “Want to go for a ride?” or at my house, “Do you want to go bye bye?” that will make your dog lose their mind with happiness. Or with cats, the sound of a can opener or a shaking of treats will bring your cat running from anywhere in the house, purring and weaving between your feet. We can learn something about the “drop everything and be happy” approach to life that our animals show us.
Animals teach us about being present in the moment.  My dogs aren’t worried about finding success at work or paying bills, they simply want to be with the people they love and find joy in this being together. When we go for a walk, they are smelling flowers and trees and observing squirrels and birds. They aren’t distracted by what is back at home. When I think about living live intentionally, I think about how animals interact with what is around them.  They are present in this time, enjoying and engaging what right now has to offer.
Animals teach us about freedom from worry. They see that their immediate needs are met and then they simply live. They aren’t concerned with building up their resume or retirement accounts.  They aren’t striving to find happiness, because happiness is wherever they are at that time.  
Today we celebrate the feast day of St Francis of Assisi, who exemplifies seeking the kingdom of God by showing kindness to all of God’s creatures. He is the patron saint of animals and the natural world. In the Lutheran tradition, we do not have much of a history of celebrating saints, certainly not as much as our Roman Catholic siblings. But St Francis is a fascinating person, both saint and sinner. He is the founder of the religious order known as Franciscans, the largest order in the Catholic church. Franciscans, generally men, although there is one subset of Franciscan nuns, are known for wearing brown robes, and devoting themselves to contemplation, preaching, and service. St Francis of Assisi, named for the town in which he resided, has a complicated and interesting history. In his youth, he was known for debauchery. After a religious conversion experience, he was said to have devoted himself to repairing rundown churches, using money made from selling goods he stole from his father. He was known for brokering peace settlements, particularly for a visit to North Africa in an attempt to stop the Crusades. He is remembered for a great many acts of kindness and mercy and is often depicted while holding a small bird in his hands.  St Francis was a preacher and prolific writer, known especially for a song called the Canticle of Brother Sun, which was used at the time as a shared expression for people of different faiths, but a shared experience of care for one another.  I leave you with the Canticle of Brother Sun today:

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.
To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility