St. Francis lived centuries ago in Italy. The son of a wealthy merchant, he gave up his privilege and status in order to live and work with the poor. Francis soon attracted a large following of men and women who wanted to live like him in service to the poor.
Many legends surround St. Francis, including a number of tales about his association with animals. One day as he walked with some fellow monks, he stopped, saying, “Wait for me while I preach to my sisters, the birds.” A group of birds surrounded him as he spoke. Another time, a city where he lived was being terrorized by a wolf. Francis tracked down the wolf, made the sign of the cross, and spoke sternly to the wolf about his wrong-doings. Then he led the wolf into town to make a covenant between the villagers and the wolf: they would feed the wolf and he would stop killing their livestock. In such ways St. Francis approach animals and the natural world as his brothers and sisters.
What would such a commitment to solidarity with all life look like? As your preacher, I particularly wonder over St. Francis’ preaching to the animals. What would I say to brother dog and sister cat? Can the gospel be preached to a goldfish?
Apocryphal traditions suggest that St. Francis said, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” And perhaps that is what he would have us discuss with our dogs and cats and all the animals, to ask them, “Brother and sister, how does your life show forth the gospel.”
Job imagined just such a dialogue with the created world. In the midst of his famous suffering, Job declared, “Ask the beasts and they shall teach you.” And so we need you, brother dog and sister cat and mother hen to teach us so that will shall learn the gospel.
I often wonder, as I walk with my dog Duchess, what she smells so intently on the ground. I look up and around, but her face is buried in a patch of grass. “What happened there?” I wonder. “Did Dorsey,” her favorite friend on the block, “pass by on her walk? Or did one of those tempting bunnies pee there?”
Duchess sees a world through her nose that I can only imagine. Scientists say a dog’s nose is a million times more powerful than a human’s. And yet it’s odd: for all that great sense of smell, Brother Dog can’t figure out the water dish from the toilet bowl. To all the dogs here, we forgive you, but please learn the difference.
Still, we can learn from your amazing nose, Brother Dog. Duchess doesn’t care that I don’t look like Channing Tatum. All that matters to her is smell. And I don’t even have to smell nice; she just wants me to smell familiar, to smell like myself. What if we humans thought more like a dog? Instead of caring how someone looks, Brother Dog finds the greatest beauty in someone being themselves.
I often walk faster than Duchess wants too. I am busy going somewhere; I’m trying to make sure my Fitbit records the walk as “active minutes” and need to make my 10,000 steps a day. But Duchess is busy smelling something. I realize in those moments how much more attentive Duchess is to the world around her or underneath her. I’m about arriving somewhere in the future, even if it’s just a step goal, but Duchess is all about attentiveness to the present moment.
Brother Dog, you pay attention to things we human often don’t even notice, pay attention to the present while we race for the future. You dogs pay profound attention to what is there in front of you.
Humans can do this too. One of the most profound scientists of the last two hundred years brought a dog-like attention to what was right in front of him. People knew of the great diversity of life, had found fossilized remains, discovered unique variations, but Charles Darwin thought about all of what was in front of him.
Just one example from Darwin: walking out on the heath he noticed numerous healthy Scotch firs wherever a fence created an enclosure, but everywhere else there were no firs. As he wrote:
On looking closely between the stems of the heath, I found a multitude of seedlings and little trees, which had been perpetually browsed down by the cattle. In one square yard [of heath] I counted 32 little trees; and one of them, judging from the rings of growth, had during 26 years tried to raise its head above the stems of the heath, and had failed.
Charles Darwin’s insights sprang from looking at the world with dog-like attentiveness.
Amazing things happen when we pay attention. But, Brother Dog, let’s be realistic about what you smell: Duchess knows everything happening in the life of every dog on the blocks around us by carefully smelling the urine. While we will not take her example literally, we humans can still learn to be as attentive to the people and environment around us. Do we know who’s grieving? Do we know who holds a joy too delicate yet to share? Do we know the wounds and the blessings of our neighbors? Brother Dog does, and we could too if we practiced a dog-like attentiveness.
Sister Cat, you can teach us too. While I’ve never lived with a cat, I’ve known a number of them. Can we talk about your habit of killing birds and mice and presenting them triumphantly?
Cousin Mouse wanted me to included this in the prayer of confession. I leave it to you to make amends.
As gross as such offering may be, I realize the generosity in your presents Sister Cat. You’ve used your skill and gotten something very special to you. Instead of keeping it just for yourself, you give it away.
What if we humans made a gift of our greatest skills? Using them not for our own enjoyment or our own success but rather making a present of what we do? Sister Cat offers her best catch; do we make a gift of our best?
This isn’t a stewardship pitch. It’s a relational question. In our families and in our friendships, in our congregation and in our community, in all the web of relationships which shape our lives: what do we offer and give to one another? Our best moments, our greatest skills, or our extra time and our leftover efforts? Sister Cat catches many things, but I’ve never seen one yet offer a half-eaten mouse. And so Sister Cat, I want to be more like you, offering my best in my relationships.
Mother Hen, I’ve saved you for last, in part because of the awkwardness of our relationship. If Cousin Mouse is angry at Sister Cat, how must you feel about me? I do love the taste of chicken. And eggs! At least I promise to only use you in the best of concoctions.
But isn’t that just one of our odd relationships with the rest of creation: we love animals, and eat them; destroy their habitat, and preserve them in zoos; fear them, and adore them.
Mother Hen, you have your own special place in the Gospel. As Jesus approached Jerusalem, as he came closer to the death he feared at the hands of people he loved, he cried over the city. As we heard today, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” In that moment, the natural instinct of the hen became the metaphor of God’s protective love.
Barbara Brown Taylor once reflected on what she saw Mother Hens doing on her farm. Taylor raised guinea fowl. One chick became orphaned. To raise it, Taylor purchased a Silkie, a kind of hen that will often raise chicks regardless of parentage.
Taylor described the way she introduced the hen and the orphan chick:
First, I lay on the grass while she and the baby watched each other through the mesh of the cage. Then I place her inside. Both she and baby froze. The baby cheeped. The hen did not move a feather. The baby cheeped again. The hen stayed right where she was. The baby took a few steps towards her. I held my breath. The gray hen lifted her wings. The baby scooted right into that open door. When I checked on them an hour later, all I could see was a little guinea chick head poking out from under that gray hen’s wing.
Mother Hen, Jesus wanted to scoop people under the shelter of his wing in just the same manner that you scooped up an orphan guinea fowl.
What if we humans took Mother Hen as our model, scooping up children and whoever was vulnerable into the shelter of our love and care? Who could find safety and healing through the open doors of our hearts?
“Ask the beasts,” Job told us. We do ask you Brother Dog, Sister Cat, and Mother Hen to teach us what you know of the Gospel. Through the example of your discipleship we see models of attentiveness, generosity, and embracing care of the vulnerable.
St. Francis lived those values in his life, retold in countless stories about him. One I remember, undoubtedly because it concerned food, involved St. Francis’ care for another monk. All the monks in the monastery ate very simply and often fasted as a way to share in the scarcity faced by the poor. One brother grew increasingly weak, to the point that he could barely get out of bed; still he tried to maintain a fast with the other monks. St. Francis came with soup while the brother slept and waited until he awoke. He stayed with him to eat so that the monk would not feel self-conscious of breaking the fast alone. St. Francis nursed him back to strength. Attentive to the needs of his fellow monk, generous with what he had, embracing with his care: St. Francis lived out all the values he saw in Brother Dog, Sister Cat, and Mother Hen.
What would our lives look like if we practiced the same kind of discipleship? Whose needs would we attend to? What gifts would we give? How would we lift our wing to shelter the vulnerable?
Alleluia and Amen.