Every year on October 4th, the church celebrates the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, that late 12th/ early 13th century friar, deacon, and preacher from Italy who is remembered for his encompassing embrace of all living creatures.
From the birds of the air to whom he preached the gospel to the wolf that he reconciled with the townspeople it had terrorized, he invited all of creation—human, animal, plant, sun and moon—to come together in unity and to praise God. So, as is a common practice on or around St. Francis’ feast day, churches celebrate his witness with a Blessing of the Animals liturgy, which we’ll be having today at 4 PM. So, I invite you to bring your furry (or feathery or scaly) loved ones for this special service this afternoon.
St. Francis’ witness to the church includes more than his status as the patron saint of parakeets and puppies. One day, early in Francis’ life, he was walking in town and being consumed in his thoughts passed a poor man who asked him for money. Francis simply kept walking, ignoring the man and his request. But, not too much further on his journey he realized what he had done and he ran back to find the man and gave him money. Francis pledged from that day forward to never refuse anyone who asked him for a gift. Francis made it a habit to seek and serve those in need, particularly lepers, often given them the clothes off his own back and kissing their wounds as a sign of compassion. Francis also gave himself to following Jesus in simplicity, and embraced a life of voluntary poverty so that he could have the freedom to live more deeply into the poverty and suffering of Christ and so that he could bear witness to God’s generosity while calling God’s people to live primarily in an economy of Gift. As you can imagine, there are reasons why we like to ask St. Francis to bless our animals but hesitate to ask him to lead our Stewardship campaigns.
One day as Francis was praying in a field, he noticed St. Damian’s, an old, run down church. He went in to pray and as he was prayerfully meditating on the crucifix he heard a voice say, “Francis, go and build up my house, which, as you see, is falling into ruin.” Francis immediately got up and began the work of rebuilding the church. He went home, got some possessions, and sold them for money that could be used to repair St. Damian’s. Needless to say, his successful cloth-merchant father was not too happy about his son’s new direction in life and he did everything he could to stop it. After much persecution, Francis—in public and in front of the Bishop of Assisi—gave his father back all of his inheritance, and he even went so far as to remove the rich robes he was wearing and quite literally stripped himself completely of his father’s wealth. Moved by Francis’ humility, vulnerability, and faith, the Bishop of Assisi approached the naked Francis and wrapped his own cloak around him.
Vested in the rich robes of his father, Francis could have certainly built a beautiful building, but he came to realize he could not faithfully rebuild the church of Jesus Christ vested as such. So, he di-vested himself from what was a barrier to his call to rebuild the church. God had called him to not just rebuild the church physically but to rebuild it spiritually. In order to live most faithfully into this call, he had to remove that which would be a barrier to his following with abandon. It didn’t seem like it would be enough, but Francis stepped out in faith, trusting that he could do all God had called him to with the enough that God had given him.
This episode from the life of St. Francis reminds me of one of my favorite scenes in the bible. It’s found in the story of David and Goliath, but it’s not the famous battle scene that has captured the minds of underdogs, from athletes to politicians. No, it’s the scene where David is preparing to go and face Goliath and King Saul gets David ready by putting his own helmet, armor, and sword on David. David tries, in vain, to walk and simply says “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So, he takes off all of Saul’s armor and then picks up what he’s used to; grabbing his staff, his sling, and five smooth stones, he goes courageously to face the giant. Similar to Francis, David had to remove that which would hinder him from completing God’s task, and he had to go with the seemingly little he had trusting that with God it would be enough to fulfill that to which he had been called.
A common theme in all of our readings for today is an encouragement toward faith, particularly a call to trust God even in spite of current evidence to the contrary. Our reading from Habakkuk says “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” Our Psalm says: “Trust in the Lord, and do good...Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act...Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him.” And in our gospel we hear the disciples struggle with their perceived need for more faith as they cry out to Jesus: “Increase our faith!”
But it’s Jesus’ response to the disciples’ request in our Luke passage that gives me pause. He says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you...” The disciples’ request is true in that it captures how faith is a gift from God and is something that has the capacity to grow. But Jesus’ response is as if he’s saying “You don’t need much,” as if to say “you have everything you need, in regards to faith...The little that is there is enough.” It is enough, that tiniest of mustard seeds of faith; it is enough to do all that God invites us to do.
The disciples’ request “Increase our faith!” conveys our propensity to think that what we have isn’t enough. Where God sees abundance, we tend to see scarcity. We don’t think we can rebuild the church unless we hang on to our robes of riches; we don’t think we can go into battle against Goliath unless we put on a king’s armor. But our gentle reminder, throughout scripture, and in Jesus’ response to his disciples is that it doesn’t take much; what you have is enough, now take that enough, that tiniest of mustard seeds and step out into God’s vision for the world and see what happens.
And the life of faithfulness is just that, it’s a stepping out with the tiniest of mustards seeds and saying “yes” to God in a million, everyday kind of ways. Again and again I come back to a quote by another saint who also gave herself to care for lepers, Mother Teresa. She said: “God does not call us all to great things, but calls us to do small things with great love.” When you look back on a life of faithfulness, you find a string of little “yes”es to God done with great love and the tiniest of mustard seeds of faith; sometimes something as simple as running back and giving the beggar one ignored a gift can launch a person into an unimaginable life of faith.
But the good news for today isn’t just that what you have is enough; its that what we have together is enough. We get this piece of good news in our epistle lesson when Paul writes to Timothy: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” The gift of faith, even the tiniest mustard seed of faith, is one that we receive and embody together.
I was reminded of this gift of faith we share together this week when I was given a gift: an alb and cross that belonged to Ladd Fields, whose life we celebrated yesterday. His wife, Ellen, told me a week ago about his sincere faith, his deep desire for the Lord, and how he really sought first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness everyday of his life. As I tried on his alb this week and put that cross over my neck, I was reminded of St. Francis and his willingness to remove the garments that were a barrier to his faithfulness, and his willingness to trust the “enough” that God had given him. And in that moment of stepping out in faith, he was lovingly wrapped in the cloak of the whole Church, wrapped up by its faithfulness throughout the generations. When I tried on Ladd’s alb and was wrapped in the cloak of one who had lived a life of faithfulness before me, I was reminded of how the tiniest mustard seed of faith we have isn’t held in isolation but is held together and is surrounded by a cloud of witnesses that have faithfully lived into God’s vision for this world.
What we have is enough; it’s enough to step out and live into the everyday, small ways of God’s kingdom; it’s enough to rebuild Christ’s church that is in need of repair, and it’s enough to do so in a way that embraces all of creation.