Monday, October 31, 2016

Zacchaeus and The Pilgrim, a sermon on Luke 19:1-10

A sermon on Luke 19:1-10

In the summer of 1987, I taught English for five weeks in China. While there, I had the chance to visit Mount Tai which, according to tradition, is the holiest mountain in China. It is a remarkable place. There is a wide staircase carved into the rock from the base of the mountain to its peak. For hundreds of years, pilgrims have been coming from all over China to climb those steps.

As you climb the steps, there is a growing sense of age and history. Along the way, there are places where poetry and quotations from Chinese classics have been carved into the faces of cliffs and even behind waterfalls. There is a plaque commemorating the visit of an emperor that dates back two thousand years. At the top of the mountain, there is a Buddhist monastery and shrines dedicated to various Taoist deities.

As you climb the stairs of Mount Tai, you see trees with rocks balanced on their branches. Each rock represents a prayer brought to the mountain. Sometimes there are two, three, or four rocks of different sizes lined up on like sparrows on a branch. Pilgrims place their prayer rocks on the branches of the trees of Mount Tai hoping that maybe here those prayers will be answered.

It was the first time I had ever been to anything like an official pilgrimage site. Of course, there are many such sites in the world: Mecca, The Ganges, Canterbury, Walsingham, Rome, Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Sometimes, a pilgrimage is not to a site, but to a person: the Pope, the Dali Lama, or someone like Desmond Tutu. In any event, these places and people are considered a little more transparent to the Holy Mystery. People visit them to make some kind of connection and be transformed by that Holy Mystery.

Zacchaeus went on a sort of pilgrimage. He didn't travel far. He didn't climb a mountain. He did climb a tree. He was an unlikely pilgrim. A tax collector, he was willing to sell out his own people to make a buck. He sided with the forces of occupation and oppression. Hardened and cynical, he knew the way things work. Words like goodness, love, and justice were only words. They had no currency in his line of work. You have to look out for number one. That's what Zacchaeus had done. And he had done it well, thank you very much. He was no petty tax collector. He had been employee of the month so often he was given his own franchise. If you could say "Bah! Humbug!" in Aramaic, it might have been his motto.

No, Zacchaeus was not a likely pilgrim – or a likely candidate for conversion and transformation. Certainly, his neighbors had written him off. Yet, somewhere in the back of his mind, or the bottom of his heart, there is a nagging, a sense that all is not right. There is brokenness and guilt behind the cynical mask. In spite of all his wealth, he feels bankrupt. Somewhere he has lost his way, if he ever had a way that was not already lost. He has grown weary of his life, but sees no way out. He is alone. He is lost.

Then, along comes this man, Jesus, a man with a reputation for changing lives, for healing, for forgiveness, and for restoration.

But, Zacchaeus is still unsure. It is as much a surprise to himself as to anyone that he finds himself perched in a sycamore tree. He is waiting expectantly – apprehensively wedged in the branches like a prayer. Can change happen here? Can this holy man do it? Zacchaeus has come seeking Jesus. He is on a pilgrimage.

But, Zacchaeus is not the only pilgrim in the story. He is not even the primary one. Jesus is also on a pilgrimage. "The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost." God, in the person of Jesus, came into this world on a pilgrimage. Like all pilgrims, Jesus was seeking to make a connection with what important to him, with what he loved. Unlike other pilgrims, he came not to seek the holy, but to bring holiness and wholeness to others.

Like a pilgrim visiting a series of shrines, Jesus came to the sisters Mary and Martha. He came to a bent and broken old woman. He came to the blind man and the leper. He came to the Samaritan woman. He came to the children. He came to a man whose wealth and comfort made him numb to the needs of the poor.

Jesus was on a pilgrimage. The destination of that pilgrimage was the broken and the lost, the possessed and the dispossessed, the outcast and the ones who cast out, the oppressed and the collaborator. The son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost. Zacchaeus has come seeking Jesus. But before Zacchaeus was seeking Jesus, Jesus was seeking Zacchaeus. And now, Zacchaeus is tree'd.

To his surprise (and everyone else's dismay) he hears Jesus say, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down. For I must stay at your house today." There was something in that voice, something in the eyes that made the invitation impossible to refuse. Maybe it was the shock of being loved when he had become so unlovable. Maybe it was a sense of judgement in the presence of one so good. Maybe it was the realization that they are two sides of the same coin.

Whatever it was, Zacchaeus let Jesus into his home. He let Jesus into his heart. And transformation occurred. Zacchaeus was reconnected with God. He was reconnected with his neighbors. And the combination of those two connections disconnected him from his attachment to his wealth. He paid back those he had cheated at 400% interest. He gave half of the rest to the poor. Zacchaeus had been lost, but now he was found. He had been lost, but now he was saved.

Each of us has also come on a sort of pilgrimage this morning. Like Zacchaeus, we haven't come far. Like Zacchaeus, we have come to see Jesus. It is into his cross-shaped tree that we wedge our prayers. We bring our brokenness, our lost dreams, our lost innocence. We bring our hopes for transformation, for connection, for healing for forgiveness. Perhaps here change can happen. We bring our offering to the place of our pilgrimage.

But here also, the real pilgrim is still Jesus. The destination of his pilgrimage is each of us. Before we thought to seek him, he has come seeking us. He comes bringing holiness and wholeness. He looks to each of us and says, "Hurry and come down, for I must stay with you today." The risen Lord still comes to seek out and to save the lost. To seek out and to save you and me.

Will we welcome him into our homes? Will we welcome him into our hearts?

Friday, October 28, 2016

Mercy – What is more grievous than the sin of condemning one's neighbour?

“But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.” – Jesus (Matthew 5:22)

“With it [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” (James 3:9)

How we carry one another in our hearts and on our tongues is a fundamental indicator of whether we are serious about following Jesus and living in the way of his mercy.

In his Directions on Spiritual Training, Dorotheus of Gaza (6th century), wrote:

What is more grievous than the sin of condemning one's neighbour? What else is so hateful and alienating to God? And yet a person comes to this great evil through something seemingly unimportant - from allowing himself a small censure of his neighbour. For when this is allowed the mind begins to leave its own sins without attention and notice the sins of its neighbour. And this leads to gossip, reproaches, speaking evil and, finally, pernicious condemnation. Yet nothing angers God more, nothing despoils a person and leads so surely to perdition as fault-finding, speaking evil and condemning one's neighbour.  
– Paragraph 34

At times we not only condemn but bring our neighbor into contempt. For it is one thing to condemn, and another to bring into contempt. To bring into contempt means when a person not only condemns but also despises another, scorns him and turns away from him as from an abomination. This is worse than condemnation and much more pernicious.
Paragraph 38

Those who want to be saved pay no attention to the failings of their neighbours, but always look for their own and make progress.
– Paragraph 39

Christians concerned about "bad language" would do well to worry less about the usual four-letter words (about which Jesus says nothing and the rest of the New Testament, very little) and worry more about the way they talk about, and the names they call, other people.

Becoming a People of God's Mercy and Delight, Part 1

Monday, October 24, 2016

Delight – Dorothy Day and the Duty of Delight

Given the challenges of life and the difficulties we have with other people (and ourselves), the assertion that “delight” is at the heart of Christian faith might seem like sentimentality that ignores or denies too much that is hard or tragic in the world and humanity. I do not think so. Delight, like mercy, can be hard. There is much in life and creation that is obviously delightful, but much that seems anything but. We love and delight in friends, family, and other loved ones, but we find others difficult to love, let alone see as delightful. On occasion, by God’s grace, some might have epiphanies like Thomas Merton had in Louisville. But, more often, it takes prayer, practice and discipline to open ourselves to seeing others as bearing the image of God and engaging them accordingly.

Dorothy Day knew a thing or two about prayer, practice, and discipline. She thus knew a thing or two about seeking to love those who seemed unlovable and seeing in them the presence of Christ. She was also committed to finding delight even in the context of life’s difficult realities. Because her commitment to this shows up frequently in her diaries, when a selection of them was published, the editor of those diaries chose the title, “The Duty of Delight.” 

In one of her essays, Day reflected that, "It would be foolish to pretend that it is easy always to remember this. If everyone were holy and handsome, with “alter Christus” [Latin for “another Christ”] shining in neon lighting from them, it would be easy to see Christ in everyone. But that [is] not Christ’s way for Himself now when He is disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth."
– Dorothy Day, Room for Christ (I recommend the whole essay)

Here is something from her diaries that captures the essence of Christian discipline and the sometimes difficult duty of delight:

Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up. If we love each other enough, we will bear with each other’s faults and burdens. If we love enough, we are going to light that fire in the hearts of others. And it is love that will burn out the sins and hatred that sadden us. It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other. No sacrifice and no suffering will then seem too much.

Yes, I see only too clearly how bad people are. I wish I did not see it so. It is my own sins that give me such clarity. If I did not bear the scars of so many sins to dim my sight and dull my capacity for love and joy, then I would see Christ more clearly in you all.

I cannot worry much about your sins and miseries when I have so many of my own. I can only love you all, poor fellow travelers, fellow sufferers. I do not want to add one least straw to the burden you already carry. My prayer from day to day is that God will so enlarge my heart that I will see you all, and live with you all, in His love.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Mercy – Making Spiritual Progress

We have seen in previous posts that the radical mercy Jesus embodies and demands of his followers is hard. Love your enemies (here and here), be about forgiveness (here), care for the poor (here), bear the burden of those who persecute you (here), risk hospitality to the stranger (here).

But, to paraphrase a question posed in response to one of those previous posts, what if one just doesn't have the fortitude to live this kind of mercy? Are we failures?

Jesus does call us to a radical, vulnerable, self-sacrificial love that is as completely merciful to all as the mercy of the One Jesus called Father. That is part of what it means to take up the way of the cross. That said, the harm some people inflict is real, some wounds inflicted are profound, and some people are more burdensome than others. The weight of the cross can seem too much to bear. To be merciful is to be vulnerable and to be vulnerable is to risk pain and loss.

Only God is fully able to be fully merciful. Only God is infinitely vulnerable and able to bear the burden of all the pain and hate and violence and fear of the world. We are not God and not infinitely vulnerable. Most of us need to step back sometimes lest we be overwhelmed. That is not necessarily failure. God knows that “we are but dust.” It is good to remember that even our pursuit to become more like Jesus is lived under the Mercy. But, the goal has still been set before us. Sometimes we take two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes we just inch along. The Saints are those who have gone further toward that goal. That is why they stand out.That is why they provoke and inspire us.

Jesus promises that we do not bear the burden alone. He gives the Holy Spirit to bear the cross with us. And we are called into the community of the Church where others can help bear the load.

Our progress in the way of Jesus is likely to be a herky-jerky affair. The healing of our hearts is a frustratingly slow process. But, we still hope for progress and transformation  under the Mercy.

Here is some wisdom from Bono of the rock band, U2:

I have heard of people having life-changing, miraculous turn-arounds, people set free from addiction after a single prayer, relationships saved when both parties "let go, and let God". But it was not like that for me. For all that "I was lost, I am found," it is probably more accurate to say, "I was really lost, I’m a little less so at the moment." And then a little less and a little less again. That to me is the spiritual life. The slow reworking and rebooting of a computer at regular intervals, reading the small print of the service manual. It has slowly rebuilt me in a better image. It has taken years though, and it is not over yet.
U2 BY U2, p. 6

And here are a couple of pertinent quotes from John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace:

I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.

Although my memory's fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a mighty Savior.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Mercy – The Risk of Hospitality

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2)

And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” – Jesus (Matthew 25:38-40)

Mercy is hard. Mercy can be dangerous.

On an August morning in 1942, three buses rumbled up the road to the French mountain village of Le Chambon. The buses were accompanied by police cars, police of the Vichy government which, in league with the Nazis had sent them to gather up Jews and take them back to concentration camps. The officials knew that the village of Le Chambon was a major hiding place and way station for Jews seeking to escape the Holocaust. When they arrived, the police captain confronted Pastor André Trocmé (1901-1971), the spiritual leader of the village.

The policeman went to Pastor Trocmé and asked, “Are you hiding Jews in this village?”

Pastor Trocmé, committed to truth-telling responded, “Yes.”

The policeman ordered, “Give us their names.”

Pastor Trocmé replied, “To be honest, I don’t know their names.”

“Show me where they are,” the policeman insisted.

Pastor Trocmé said, “No, I won’t do that. They are my brothers and I am commanded by my Lord to love my neighbor.”

The police then searched the village. They were unable to find any Jews or anyone who would identify a Jew. They left in frustration, warning Pastor Trocmé and the others that they would be watching and they would be back. Indeed, the villagers were hiding Jews. They hid the refugees in private homes, on farms in the area, as well as in public institutions. Whenever the Nazi patrols came searching, the Jews were hidden in the mountainous countryside.

Refugeee children in Le Chambon

The story of Pastor Trocmé and the villagers of Le Chambon is inspiring. You can read about it in the book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed by Philip Hallie or watch a documentary, Weapons of the Spirit: The Astonishing Story of a Unique Conspiracy of Goodness. You can watch a shorter video here.

In the midst of a world gone mad, in the midst of the darkness of the Nazi terror engulfing Europe, these villagers chose to be light in the darkness. Because they were committed to following Jesus, these common people risked much to extend the mercy of hospitality to strangers. They knew what they were risking. To be caught harboring Jews, or helping them escape, not only put your own life or livelihood at risk but the lives and livelihood of all your family. Even children of rescuers were often sent to concentration camps. As far as the Nazis were concerned, if you wanted to be the friend of Jews, you could share their fate. It was all the same to the Nazis. In fact, some of the residents were arrested by the Gestapo including Pastor Trocmé's cousin, Daniel Trocmé, who was sent to a concentration camp, where he was murdered.

One of the enduring scandals for the Church is that so many Christians in Europe chose to play it safe. And some even collaborated with the Nazis.

The villagers of Le Chambon believed extending hospitality to refugees was a risk worth taking. They risked their lives and the lives of their children because they would rather take that risk than play it safe.

The mercy of hospitality is always risky, even in contexts less dangerous than the example of Le Chambon. If you invite strangers – or family or friends for that matter – into your home, you cannot guarantee that your home will be the same afterward. Perhaps something will go missing. Perhaps some mud will get tracked in, something will get spilled or broken. Welcoming the stranger into out congregations is similarly risky. At the very least strangers can be inconvenient. And their presence changes things. And allowing strangers into our own lives, our own hearts is risky. Perhaps they will not be what we want them to be. Perhaps our hearts will get broken. At the very least, they will mess with the way we understand ourselves and the world.

It would be easier – and safer – to keep the stranger at a distance. But, that is not the way of mercy. That is not the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus sees in the face of the stranger the face of Jesus himself. To ignore or turn away the stranger is to ignore or turn away Jesus. Because Christians love Jesus and desire to welcome Jesus more and more into their lives, they have no choice but to show hospitality to strangers. Even at the risk of their own comfort or safety. Pastor Trocmé and the people of Le Chambon understood that. I am grateful for their faithful witness. I pray the Church today might follow their example and be a conspiracy of goodness extending the mercy of hospitality to the stranger, however risky that may be.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Delight – Laughter is Eternity if Joy is Real

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
then were we like those who dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy.
(Psalm 126:1-2)

The beginning of the Psalm 126 reminds me of this advertisement for Volkswagon:

Psalm 126 also reminds me of the U2 song, Get on Your Boots, which contains these lines:
Free me from the dark dream
Candy bars, ice cream
All the kids are screaming but the ghosts aren't real
Here's what you gotta be
Love and community
Laughter is eternity if the joy is real

Is joy real? Or is life just a dark dream? Is joy real or is it just a pleasurable experience of an infusion of dopamine into our system, ultimately signifying nothing? Which is more real  joy or the ghosts of our worst fears?

We have a basic choice:

To live rooted in fear
To live rooted in delight.

Which is more real? Why one over the other? Given the tragedy, terror, and torture of this world? Given disease, decay, and death? Given injustice and oppression? Political disillusion? Why choose delight over fear or disillusion or despair?


Jesus said, "I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete." (John 15:11)

If what the Church has understood about Jesus is true – who he is and what he accomplished – then our mouths should be filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy. There is more to reality than can be weighed and measured. The world is not, finally, a meaningless accident that ends only in death. Love and Community are written into the very fabric of reality. No degree of death and darkness can ultimately unravel that reality. Sorrow and suffering are also real. But, from the heart of reality One has come enfleshing the Love and Community, Joy and Delight that is God. Jesus entered into the depths of human darkness and death – the way of the cross – and overwhelmed them with the promise of forgiveness, healing, and hope. If what the Church has claimed about Jesus is true, the “dark dreams” of this world are real, but Joy is more real. Jesus has come to set us free.

Laughter is eternity because Joy is real

Friday, October 7, 2016

Mercy – Seraphim of Sarov & the burden of one another

“Acquire a peaceful spirit, and thousands around you will be saved.”
– Seraphim of Sarov 

Seraphim of Sarov is not widely known in the West. But, he is an intriguing and inspiring saint. He has sometimes been referred to as the Russian St. Francis given his humble way of life and unusual relationship with wild animals. For years, he lived in an isolated hermitage where

Only the birds and the wild beasts visited him, and he dwelt with them as Adam did in Paradise. They came at midnight and waited for him to complete his Rule of prayer. Then he would feed bears, lynxes, foxes, rabbits, and even wolves with bread from his hand. St Seraphim also had a bear which would obey him and run errands for him.

Here is another story from his life that I find particularly interesting and edifying:

One day, three robbers in search of money or valuables once came upon him while he was working in his garden. The robbers demanded money from him. Though he had an axe in his hands, and could have put up a fight, but he did not want to do this, recalling the words of the Lord: "Those who take up the sword will perish by the sword" (Mt. 26: 52). Dropping his axe to the ground, he said, "Do what you intend." The robbers beat him severely and left him for dead. They wanted to throw him in the river, but first they searched the cell for money. They tore the place apart, but found nothing but icons and a few potatoes, so they left. The monk, regained consciousness, crawled to his cell, and lay there all night.

In the morning he reached the monastery with great difficulty. The brethren were horrified, seeing the ascetic with several wounds to his head, chest, ribs and back. For eight days he lay there suffering from his wounds. Doctors called to treat him were amazed that he was still alive after such a beating. For the rest of his life Seraphim walked hunched over and in pain.
(This and the quote above are borrowed from here.)

Years passed and Serapim’s reputation as a holy man grew. Eventually, he began to receive visitors offering them spiritual counsel as well as physical and emotional healing. One morning,

Seraphim’s three aggressors [the three who had beaten him so badly years ago] appeared on his clearing. They were led by a huge one with a red face, who sobbed like a child. When Seraphim ran forward to greet them, they fell on their knees and touched the ground at his feet with their foreheads.

“Forgive us, man of God, forgive us and tell us what penance we must do. Lord have mercy upon us! Shall we leave our families, journey to the Holy Land, chasten our sinful flesh under the monk’s habit?

Seraphim raised them up from their knees. “Go back to your families and your work; strive to be loving to your wives, children, parents, and to each other, to all. You’ll find it hard enough. Try to be of good cheer and sin no more. I’ll do penance for you, I’ll carry your load on my back. Go in peace.”
Flame in the Snow by Julia de Beausobre, P. 104

For the rest of his life, Serphim carried a bag of rocks slung over his hunched-over back. When he returned to life in community he substituted a large, heavy iron cross around his neck. He thus bore the burden of his attackers.

Beyond his simple life and communion with animals, there is a Franciscan intensity to Seraphim. That is to say, he took the radical mercy of Jesus more seriously than most. I am moved by the tenderness with which Seraphim treats his former attackers and the gentle charge he lays on them which he admits they will find hard enough. But, more, I wonder at his offering to do penance for them.

I am not sure what it might mean to do penance for someone else’s sins. But, I do appreciate what I take to be Seraphim's recognition that we belong more intimately to one another than we are often inclined to admit. If indeed we are "the body of Christ and individually members of it" (1 Corinthians 12:27), I wonder if bearing one another's burdens (Galatians 6:2) might also mean bearing the burden of one another. How often do we distance ourselves from the "burden" of others who we find burdensome? How different would disagreements in church (at any level) – or, for that matter, family and political disagreements – look if we understood those with whom we disagree as members of ourselves whose burden we are to bear? Even when bearing with them weighs on our hearts like a bag of rocks over our shoulder? Would we be as quick to relish exposing the latest outrage or foible of our foes? Would we speak of them with derision and disdain? Would we dismiss their questions and concerns with contempt? What if we, like Seraphim, attempted penance on behalf of those with whom we disagree or who we find most disagreeable? Or at the very least what if we practiced bearing the load that is the other for the sake of our own souls?

Here are a couple more quotes from Seraphim of Sarov

You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of one who gives and kindles joy in the heart of one who receives.

God is a fire that warms and kindles the heart and inward parts. Hence, if we feel in our hearts the cold which comes from the devil  for the devil is cold  let us call on the Lord. He will come to warm our hearts with perfect love, not only for Him but also for our neighbor, and the cold of him who hates the good will flee before the heat of His countenance.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Delight – St. Francis and the Restoration of Creation

October 4 is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). Francis is well-known for preaching to birds and other creatures. He famously ‘converted’ a wolf that was terrorizing a community. There are stories of his tender regard for lambs, rabbits, and even carp. According to the stories, that tenderness and respect was returned. At the time of his death, larks flew into his room to sing their praises and laments.

St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) proclaimed,
The meekness which is necessary, we should learn from St. Francis. For his was an extraordinary meekness, not only toward other people, but also toward animals. He called all animals ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ and we read in the story of his life how even wild animals came running to him as their friend and companion.

And Francis’ attention went beyond animals. According to another legend:
One day Francis was filled with joy because he was beginning to enjoy God in all creatures. He went through the streets singing and inviting everyone to sing along with him. Then he came upon an almond tree, and he said, ‘Brother Almond, speak to me of God,’ And the almond tree blossomed.

These are wonderful stories. But we need to be careful not to romanticize or sentimentalize Francis. His message and his life were shaped by a joyous devotion to Jesus Christ, but it was also an austere devotion based on the way of the cross. His regard for all God’s creation was rooted in the hope found in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

Further, the stories of Francis’ appreciation for creation are not just quaint embroidery. They are theologically significant. Nor are they unique in the Christian tradition. There are similar stories through the Church’s history.

Here are some examples from the Desert Fathers:
Abba Theon ate vegetables, but only those that did not need to be cooked. They say that he used to go out of his cell at night and stay in the company of the wild animals, giving them drink from the water he had. Certainly one could see the tracks of antelopes and wild asses and gazelles and other animals near his hermitage. These creatures always gave him pleasure.

Another account from the desert:
We came near to a tree, led by our kindly host, and there we stumbled upon a lion. At the sight of him my guide and I quaked, but the saintly old man went unfaltering on and we followed him. The wild beast – you would say it was at the command of God – modestly withdrew a little way and sat down, while the old man plucked the fruit from the lower branches. He held out his hand, full of dates; and up the creature ran and took them as frankly as any tame animal about the house; and when it had finished eating, it went away. We stood watching and trembling; reflecting as well we might what valor of faith was in him and what poverty of spirit in us.

And another:
While Abba Macarius (295-392) was praying in his cave in the desert, a hyena suddenly appeared and began to lick his feet and taking him gently by the hem of his tunic, she drew him towards her own cave. He followed her, saying, "I wonder what this animal wants me to do?" When she had led him to her cave, she went in and brought her cubs which had been born blind. He prayed over them and returned them to the hyena with their sight healed. She in turn, by way of thank offering, brought the man the huge skin of a ram and laid it at his feet. He smiled at her as if at a kind person and taking the skin spread it under him.

There are similar stories from some of the Celtic saints.

Kevin of Glendulough (d. 618):
St. Kevin had a vision in which an angel appeared to him, telling him to build a large monastery. The angel said that, to prepare the way, he was going to level a nearby small mountain. Kevin thought about it and told the angel, "No, thank you. There are creatures who live on that mountain. That is the habitat and the home of many of God’s creatures and to destroy it – even for something as good and noble as a monastery – would be to make them homeless."

Cuthbert (634-687):
St. Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne, was said to have gone out at night to pray on the shore of the ocean. As you can imagine, it is cold on the shore at night in north-eastern England. The story goes that as Cuthbert prayed otters would come out of the water and wrap themselves around his naked feet to keep them warm.

And of a Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov (1754-1833):
St. Seraphim has sometimes been referred to as the Russian St. Francis, given his humble way of life and unusual relationship with wild animals. For years, he lived in an isolated hermitage where only the birds and the wild beasts visited him, and he dwelt with them as Adam did in Paradise. They came at midnight and waited for him to complete his Rule of prayer. Then he would feed bears, lynxes, foxes, rabbits, and even wolves with bread from his hand. There was also a bear which would obey Seraphim and run errands for the saint.

Fanciful as these stories sound, they have important theological meaning:

1. They remind us that the idea that humans are somehow fundamentally separate from the rest of creation is not a Christian idea. Classically, Christians have understood themselves to be part of a co-inherent web of relations with the rest of creation.

It is really only in the modern era that Christians, shaped by secular ways of thinking, have accepted the reduction of creation to mere objects more or less useful for our own selfish ends. Along with this we have allowed our imaginations to be diminished such that we have come to see creation as mere background, more or less unimportant to God’s ultimate plan.

2. These stories about Francis and others point to a hope and a desire that was deep in the Church and is deep in the gospel. That desire, that hope, is for a creation healed and restored in harmony. Certainly, we desire harmony among people. God’s vision is for each of us to be reconciled to him. His vision is for humans to be reconciled to one another. But God’s vision is bigger than that. God’s vision and God’s intention is for all creation to be caught up in the divine love and peace. Our hope is not to escape this world, bur that this world, and we in, it will be healed and transformed. Thus, the Church has imagined that holiness should mirror the harmony of Eden and anticipate the harmony of its restoration in the kingdom of God.

A classic mark of sanctity is the holy person’s harmony – friendship – with creation. Francis and these these saints believed that Jesus Christ was the first fruits of the new creation, the first fruits of that peace and harmony that is God’s desire. Their stories point to the hope that one can begin now to live a holy life of anticipation of the peaceable kingdom that Isaiah envisioned – the promise of creation in total harmony:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

Infants will play near the hole of the cobra;
young children will put their hands into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea”
(Isaiah 11:6-9).

Apparently, Francis and others took that seriously, or at least the stories about them take it seriously. And perhaps we should as well. They wanted to begin living into it now. Christians need to allow the Holy Spirit to transform our imaginations to see again that we are part of an enchanted web of relation and that God’s splendor is present in it all. Thus all creation is worthy of reverence. And we need to reclaim the comprehensive hope that all creation will be healed, restored, and transformed by God’s resurrection power. And as those who live that hope, Christians might just reclaim the holy task of beginning now to participate in the healing of all that harms or destroys God’s holy creation and the creatures in whom God delights. There is nothing sentimental about that. But, there is much joy.

Collect for the Feast of St. Francis:

Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.