God Will Provide
The Rev. Sara Warfield
Scripture: Matthew 11:25-30
I bet that when we picture St. Francis, we most often imagine him the way he is depicted in garden statues, murals, and paintings: a man arms out in welcome or in prayer, surrounded by birds and deer and a wolf—the wolf of Gubbio, of course. And this is certainly one side of him, but I don’t think these images quite capture just how intense this guy was.
Born to a wealthy textile merchant, Francis was expected by his father to continue in the family business. Instead, and this is the short story, he ended up having a conversion experience. He heard God say to him, “Francis, repair my church.” He took this to mean that he was supposed to repair the church building that he was praying in, so he took—and by took I mean stole—some cloth from his father’s store and sold it to help repair the church. His father, of course, was not happy about this, so Francis fled and hid from him.
Finally, he came back, and when he did, his father brought him before the Bishop of Assisi to answer for his crime. As the story goes, the bishop told Francis to return the money to his father and that God would provide.
God would provide.
Right then and there, something clicked for Francis. He renounced his father and his birthright, and then, the legend goes, right there in the church he stripped off his clothes as a sign of his renunciation and his commitment to God. The bishop gave him some rags to wear, and Francis went off into the freezing forest singing. When robbers attacked him, beat him, and stole his rags, he pulled himself out of the ditch and went along, once again singing.
God would provide.
From then on, he lived as a beggar, wearing and eating only what people gave him, sleeping wherever he was offered shelter or, if not, outside under the moon with the animals. He walked barefoot through the countryside and kissed the hands of lepers, never afraid and always trusting that God would provide.
During Bible Study on Tuesday, we had a little friendly debate going about St. Francis. His story is all well and good, some said, but when you really think about it, isn’t he a bit, well, unhinged? If one of our friends, who had previously lived fairly comfortably, stripped in public and renounced all their money and property and then made their way downtown to live on whatever people gave them to wear and eat, wouldn’t we be a bit concerned? Wouldn’t we be thinking about maybe getting our friend some psychiatric help?
Also, should self-denial to the point of putting ourselves in harm’s way really be a model for our belief? Does God need us to renounce all comfort, to intentionally put ourselves in potentially dangerous situations for the sake of our faith?
And yet, the story of St. Francis is so compelling. It was so compelling that people did indeed follow him, even when he didn’t want them to. They voluntarily gave up worldly comfort to live as beggars and to help build the church. Francis didn’t want to found a Holy Order. It’s just that so many people were inspired by his faithfulness and his way of being that he had to organize them somehow.
And now, 800 hundred years later, there are tens of thousands of professed Franciscans. I’m pretty sure we have one or two among us today.
The thing is, we are inspired by radical acts. Because radical acts are inspiring. By definition, radical acts are those things which most of us seek to avoid as they usually risk our reputation or our comfort or our very life. While we avoid them, we are also inspired by people who don’t. Gandhi was a radical who nearly starved himself to death. In his day, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was considered a radical, and he was clear that he understood that he would die for his cause, but he continued to put himself on the line for what he believed. Jesus was a radical who walked willingly to the cross.
We’re inspired by their courage. We’re inspired by the confidence in their belief. We’re inspired by their trust.
St. Francis had a radical trust that God would provide. No matter how little he had, how hard things got, God would provide.
So what does this have to do with animals? Why are we blessing animals today? Well, first of all, Francis’s faith was deeply incarnational. He was so moved and inspired by God’s radical willingness to come into this material world through Jesus, and he saw that act in the created world around him: the birds, the deer, the wolf. “Francis,” one source says, “really felt that nature, all God's creations, were part of his brotherhood. The sparrow was as much his brother as the pope.”
I also think that maybe Francis was inspired by the radicalness of God’s natural world. The sparrow and the worm don’t fret about their death. The grass and trees don’t fear for their survival. There’s a trust inherent to their existence that God will provide.
They truly embody our gospel today:
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
I think Francis saw that he had to work so hard for something that came so easy in animals: trust that God would provide.
Look at these pet friends around us this morning. Think about your pet friends at home. They are utterly reliant on you for their survival. Can you imagine? What if you were never able to eat until someone else thought to feed you? What if you couldn’t go to the bathroom until someone else noticed you standing at the closed bathroom door and opened it for you. What if when you were sick or hurt, you couldn’t say so but had to rely on someone to notice that you aren’t quite yourself and then hope they would take you to a doctor?
Many of us like having pets partly because we get to be their caregiver, their nurturer—also because we love their cuddles and their company—but what if they’re also here to teach us something about trusting that God will provide? To admit that we are vulnerable, that we have needs that we can’t meet ourselves, and to trust that God, through the Body of Christ, will provide.
That, yes, we can subsist when we go through something hard—a death, a divorce, the decline of a spouse—but that without reaching for support we live a shadow life, a life stuck like a truck in the mud of our grief, our frustration, our pain. We need people willing to stand in the mud and to push, to be willing to expend a little energy and get a little dirty so that we can get unstuck.
That is what our pets teach us: that it’s okay to rely on someone, that it is in fact joyful to exist in an interdependent way, Because of course they give to us, too. Cuddles. Laughs. Or just their presence when we’re feeling lonely.
And of course, just like we need folks to push our truck out of the mud, sometimes we’re the ones volunteering to get dirty, to help someone get unstuck.
So the question that St. Francis asks us, that our pets model for us, is: Are we brave enough to let ourselves be reliant on others, to be cared for? Are we faithful enough to trust that God will provide?