The Leash of Christ
May I speak in the name of our creative, redemptive, challenging God. Amen.
I’ve learned a lot about God from my dog Annie.
Joel and I adopted in Annie in 2015. And naturally, she’s perfect. Annie’s a hound, which means she’s very intelligent, very stubborn, and very food motivated. And I was surprised at how quickly I fell in love with her when we brought her home. Annie teaches me about God in two big, very different ways.
On the one hand, she teaches me about God through her enthusiastic, unconditional love. Annie does that thing that dogs are so well-known for: when one of us comes home, there she is: running down the stairs, jumping up to greet us, tail wagging. Once she settles down, she does what we call the “standing hug” which is to say she leans against my leg. It’s a dog’s way of saying: “You’re mine. I’m glad you’re here.”
On the other hand, she teaches me about God through her complete and utter reliance on me. She is totally dependent. She needs me for food, and shelter, and love, and bathroom breaks.
Like I said, Annie is a hound. So she was bred to hunt. To track. To sniff things out. When we first got her, we took her to a dog park to let her play. We took her leash off and she started sniffing. And she’d walk a little ways off, and sniff. And walk a little farther and sniff. And so on and so on until, suddenly, she was a good distance from us and she looked up - and you could see the panic in her eyes as she realized we weren’t right there with her. And then the utter relief when she realized we weren’t far off. That’s kind of how I relate to God a lot of the time. That’s also why Annie’s leash is so important.
I’ve learned a lot about God from my relationship with Annie. God created her, just like God created me. I see God in Annie’s relationship with me forces me to see God in myself.
This morning, we’re commemorating St. Francis of Assisi. Frances is the most widely recognized and venerated saint in Christianity - and the least widely emulated.
We remember Francis most for his deep love of Creation. That’s why we’re celebrating the
blessing of the animals today. There are many stories that demonstrate Francis’ love for animals. Once, while he and his friars were walking he noticed some birds in the trees a little way off the road. And he said “Excused me, brothers. I need to go speak with my brother and sister birds.” And he walked off the path. A little while later, the found him sitting by the trees, preaching to the birds. That’s why we often see St. Francis depicted with a bird in his hand.
Francis recognized God’s fingerprint in the world God had created. He understood that we were created by God, in God’s image. And that we were redeemed by God taking on mortal flesh. And that we are therefore called to care for the rest of God’s creation. We are called to honor God’s presence in the world around us: in Sun and Moon and Stars. In birds and beasts and fellow humans.
That last bit is the part that gives us the most trouble. That’s where our veneration of Francis tends to stop.
Francis was indeed a deeply challenging figure, because he, like Jesus, insisted on a radical message of love for other people. Especially the poor and the sick.
Francis was born in 1181 to a wealthy silk merchant. During Francis’ lifetime, the Church was nearing the height of its power and influence in Medieval Europe. The Church had amassed massive wealth. The Monasteries owned huge tracts of land and the Pope wielded unrivaled political power. Young Francis was born into a life of privilege - and he enjoyed it. He went to parties, traveled, spent lavishly on clothes and food.
Unlike many other medieval Saints, Francis’ conversion wasn’t terribly dramatic. His drama came later in life. His was a long, slow conversion. More like a gradual awakening to the movement of God in his life.
Sometime after this conversion had begun, Francis was walking through a field on his way to pray. And he noticed the small, ruined chapel of San Damiano. He felt compelled to enter it. And he said in this dilapidated church praying for some time. Suddenly, he heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him: “Francis, Francis. Repair my church.”
So, he set about rebuilding San Damiano. He brought gold and silk and all kinds of things to rebuild this chapel. Not long after, no doubt enraged by his son’s change of character as well as his new habit of “wasting” money rebuilding churches, Francis’ father hauled him before the bishop of Assisi to demand retribution. This episode ends with Francis, in the middle of the town square, removing the fine clothes from his back and standing naked before all the people - renouncing his father’s wealth and declaring his allegiance to Christ.
Gradually, Francis realized that Jesus’ call to rebuild the Church wasn’t just about San Damiano. Jesus was calling him to reform the Church universal. He started wearing his characteristic roughspun robes and wandering the countryside, preaching. Calling rich and poor alike to repent the sins of greed, vanity, and violence. To take on the simple life of Christ.
As he attracted followers, Francis wound up going to the Vatican to request permission to found a monastic order. Stories say that when he got there and saw the extravagant wealth on display, he had another, very public outburst. Eventually, the Pope granted him permission to found his order, which had a very simple rule of life: “To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to follow in his footsteps.” Francis and his brothers took vows of personal and corporate poverty.
This wasn’t easy. Francis was calling for a counter-cultural adherence to the Gospel. A call his own order would eventually fail to live into. But he persisted. He listened to Jesus. He trusted his call.
“My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
At this point in the Gospel of Matthew, the disciples feel like they’ve failed.
Jesus sent them out to minister in his name. They went out two by two to heal the sick, cast out demons, proclaim the Good News of God’s love...and nobody seemed to care.
Jesus has his moment of frustration. But then he says:
"Look. I’ve been with God from the foundation of the world. Trust me. The weight of the world is real, but the Love of God endures forever.Come to me and I will restore you for the work we have to do. Let me carry the weight of the world. You just need to take on the Gospel."
The word we translate as “is easy” could be better translated as “it fits.” “Come to me, for my yoke fits.” God knows us so intimately, God knows the weight of the world so fully, that the call to follow Jesus is natural. It fits. It’s what we were made for. The yoke of Christ is like Annie’s leash - it’s good and comforting. It brings safety and stability and love.
The weight of the world is feeling very heavy for me this morning. The world is the same today as it was during Francis’ lifetime and at the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. In many ways, corruption, injustice, racism, misogyny, homophobia, death, sin seem to hold sway.
But Jesus says: they look like they have the final word, but they don’t. I do. Learn to love God. Take up my yoke and follow me. And I will give you rest.
Our call as followers of Jesus is to love. Even if the world doesn’t understand. Even if the world rejects us for it. We are called to persist and resist the evil powers of this world. To respect the dignity of every human being. To love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. And to love your neighbor as your self.
That’s it. It’s that simple.
Francis understood that.
In her own way, I think Annie understands that, too.