It’s Not About the Tuna (mostly)

Last week Science Times had a piece about cats.  Now there are cat people and dog people.  You know the difference.  Dogs have masters and cats have servants.  At times we have been both.  Most recently we took care of our younger son’s two cats, Brian and Larry, while he was working on this dissertation in Spain and Morocco.  My wife gave me for Christmas a door mat with a snarky cat glaring at you.  The caption read, “It’s about TIME you got home.”  Such attitude.  Such impatience.  And there would be Brian and Larry waiting for me to get in the house and acknowledge their presence.  I looked forward to it.

If you’re wondering where this is going, just hang in there for a bit.  Anyway, the piece about cats brought forth recent research showing that cats actually do bond with their human companions.  It’s not just about the tuna.  Or whatever is for dinner on any given night.  Some cats even recognize their names.[1]  Brian did.  Larry did not.  But both cats quickly became affectionate.  When Christopher took them back to New Haven, I did indeed miss them.

One recent post by a woman pleaded for friends not to say, “It was just a pet,” when her beloved cat had died.  No, the woman was devastated.

I bring this up because, between humans and their pets, true bonds of affection develop – a mutuality, a relationship of gratitude, one for the other.  And that’s where this is going.  Life reaches out to life.  It’s the attitude of gratitude, even for stand-offish cats.   Their insouciance is part of what we celebrate when we bless the animals today.  Everything is connected.

My friend, Mike Kinman, rector at All Saints, explained how that community had changed the traditional greeting which begins community prayer in our tradition.  You know it.  “The Lord be with you.”  And the response, “And also with you.”  The radical change at All Saints is, “God dwells in you,” with the response, “And also in you.”  Why the change?  Mike says that it had happened at All Saints long before he had arrived.  But the affirmation in the words, “God dwells in you,” is a statement of radical inclusion.  It is the proclamation that God dwells in every human heart.  Each of us is a sacred vessel for divine goodness.  That is surely the heart of Franciscan spirituality.  God – whatever reality we mean by that word – the divine spark, dwells in all life.  Especially, in our furry companions waiting at the door to greet us.  Yes, Brian and Larry, God dwells in you.  (Though we didn’t appreciate how you scattered your cat sand all over the laundry room floor – definitely not pleasant for bare feet in the morning).

Luke, in this morning’s gospel, presents a story of ten lepers who have been cleansed by Jesus.  He meets them at the edge of a village he and his disciples are entering.  With upraised hands the ragged lepers beg, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”  Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests.  As they do, they are healed.  When one returns out of gratitude, Jesus asks, “Were not ten cleaned?”

Yes, ten were cleansed.  But the one who returned was the one who was truly healed.  He, through his thankfulness, was restored to community.  And that is what healing and wholeness is about.  The circle of blessing was closed.  In his gratitude he knew deep down that God dwelled in him, and in his healing.

The Lukan story parallels that of General Naaman, the Syrian.  Though a great general, Naaman has leprosy.  It is a little Hebrew servant girl, a slave, who implores her mistress to have her husband go to Israel, and ultimately to the prophet.  And yes, after being healed, Naaman does return to the prophet Elisha with his entire retinue.  God dwelled in this great general and gratitude welled up.  I hope he also thanked that servant girl.  Any life worth living is all about an attitude of gratitude.  That’s how folks are healed day in and day out in twelve-step meetings.  Twelve-steppers viscerally know that a Higher Power dwells in them.  And in all others.

Today at St. Francis we celebrate our patron saint, Francis.  Around this time, I dig out some of my material on Francis.  It is good for the soul.  And I usually come across a story for my sermon.

As I was perusing a large tome, Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, I came across a vignette of his life that exemplified his humanity and deep humility.[2]

The story of St. Francis hugging the leper is the better known of Francis’ exploits.  But the story I came across about a pious fraud might be more instructive for our time. 

Francis and his companions had heard of a most pious brother, a man of great renown, and set out to visit him.  This brother could explicate the scripture with such enthusiasm and his message was so pleasing to the ears.  “Everyone considered him holy three times over.”[3]  This was surely a man of “great and unmatched wisdom.”

Upon encountering this pious one, this man considered, at least by himself — if not all, a “very stable genius,” a brother with “all the best words” — Francis was not fooled.  Though his fame had spread across the land, upon encountering this pretender, Francis denounced him as a pious fraud.  “You should know the truth.  This is diabolical temptation, deception and fraud…And the fact that he won’t go to confession proves it.”  Francis’ companions were aghast.  “How can this be true?” they asked.  “How can lies and such deception be disguised under all these signs of perfection?”   After having been exposed, the man “left religion on his own, turned back to the world and returned to his vomit.”

His unwillingness to go to confession was the key to his unmasking.  No need of contrition.  No self-transcendence here.  Just get over yourself, fellow.  That would have been Francis’ guidance.  Settle down and know that God dwells in you.  It’s that simple.

We make it so difficult.  I’m reminded of Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler, who had famously remarked, “Contrition is bull___,” when Nixon contemplated acknowledging his responsibility for the entire, sorry Watergate mess.  Just how far might an attitude of gratitude have gone for Nixon and his cronies?  Poor old Tricky Dick, had he only known that God dwelled in him.  And believed it.

This brother’s piety was all an act.  Everything about him was pretend.  This pious fraud cared not a wit about others, and his story ends with a warning.  The leper in our gospel story displayed something this plastic saint would never know: gratitude.  The joy of being at peace with himself and with those around.  This little vignette in the life of St. Francis ends rather sadly, as such stories frequently do.  “Finally, after doing even worse things, he was deprived of both repentance and life.”  Had this brother’s life reflected the reality of an indwelling God, who knows?

Unfortunately, some of us have been so damaged that it’s hard to detect this divine essence.  It’s so deeply buried.  This past week I have been on jury duty.  I ended up getting tossed from the panel.  I suspect the reason had to do with the nature of the case.  There, across from me sat a sullen defendant in a spouse abuse case.  When the judge asked us if any of us had had any previous experience with such, I had to reveal that my wife and I had offered our house as a safe home in Alaska for women who needed to escape violence and abuse.  We would put them up until the ferry came into port and they could flee our small town for the safety and anonymity of Seattle.  I’m sure the defense attorney did not want me on the jury.  Besides, being clergy.  That, in some minds, equals being a “religious nut.”  So, I got the rest of my afternoon free. 

As I drove home, I reflected on this sad looking defendant.  Of course, I have no presumption as to his guilt or innocence.  I never heard any evidence.  My experience with abusers is that they are inevitably passing along the violence to which they had been subjected in their formative years.  While this is certainly no excuse, it helps me understand how violence is perpetrated from one generation to the next.  As the prophet Jeremiah says, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”  Because of the sins of the father, the children’s’ teeth are set on edge “even to the third and fourth generation.”  While we may reject this theology, the prophet knew that dysfunction and criminality are often transmitted from one generation to the next as surely as night follows day.  Passed right along like a winter head cold.

I wondered about this young fellow sitting in the dock of that courtroom.  What sort of household did he grow up in?  What abuse or neglect might he have suffered?  How often did he witness his father beat his mother?  Or beat him?  What anger did he bottle up?  From his demeanor, it seemed to be a most dark and dreary day.  I’m sure that it didn’t help that his lawyer was such a grandstander he had to be shut up several times by the judge, even in the brief time I was there in the courtroom.  Spare us all!  Would that all lawyers know deep in their hearts, God dwells in you.  No need for pompous puffery.

Those haunting questions stayed with me through my drive home on the 10 Freeway.  Those questions are at the root of our work to build the House of Hope, an opioid addiction recovery center.  Those questions are the nerve that connects our hope to action.  As we put together the final touches of our business plan, I felt a profound sense of gratitude washing over me.  Gratitude for all who have been part of this holy journey.  For those in San Bernardino and in West Virginia who have gotten us to this point.  Blessing filled my heart as I began to proofread our plan.

I’ve always figured that one is either part of the problem or part of the solution.  We who claim to follow Jesus will be known by what my friend Dick calls “engaged compassion.”  Francis alerted his followers to pious nonsense, what young climate activist Greta Thunberg called “empty words” as she excoriated the world’s leaders at the recent United Nations Climate Action Summit.  Inaction is betrayal.  To claim not to be informed is willful ignorance.  No excuses.  Read a science book!

Yes, God dwells in you, and in this young man awaiting his fate in a West Covina courthouse.  He probably was not feeling that reality at the moment.  And, if guilty, he sure had some accounting to do.  But, regardless of any transgression, we hold out potential redemptive possibility.  Yes, God dwells in him.  Even if he is not yet aware of that truth, God dwells in him.  I nurture the possibility that some day he will be able, in gratitude, to acknowledge the precious gift that he is.  Make restitution for any wrong and get on with his life – see it as a blessing.  Restoration is ever God’s will. 

I am profoundly grateful for those like St. Francis.  Francis is a window to God’s love for all creation.  If the stories and legends are even only halfway true, Francis is a most wholesome spiritual guide.  He got it right.  Everything is connected.  Let us delight in one another and give thanks for our animal companions. 

When we lived in Anchorage, we shared our lives with the most enthusiastic Dachshund, Nevada.  That is the name a previous owner had given him.  He slept in the garage at night so he could use his doggie door when nature called.  Most mornings Jai was up before me tending to our oldest.  She would open the door from the garage to the dining room.  I would hear her saying to Nevada, “Go get him.  Go get him, Nevada.”  And I would hear Nevada bounding through the hallway, his dog tags jingling.  Into the bedroom in a flash, and before I could pull up the covers, Nevada would be up on the bed licking my face and hands.  If I got the covers over my head, he would be burrowing under the sheet.  No escape.  And such tail-wagging enthusiasm!  “Get up! Get up!  Lick-lick-lick-lick-lick.  I’m here.  Aren’t you happy to see me?  Let’s go have fun.  I’m so happy, happy, happy to see you.  Get up.  Get up.  Come on, time’s a wasting.  Time to eat.”

Nevada was God’s summons to spring into a beautiful day.  Indeed, morning has broken like that first morning.  This is the memory I celebrate as we bless all the animals, great and small.  Jonathan would later bring his tarantula to the blessing of the animals.  Yes, God dwelled in it, too.

God dwells in all — Nevada, Brian and Larry.  My furry friends, God dwells in you.   The leprous man at the roadside so long ago —  God dwells in you and all we marginalize and shove to the side.  No matter the transgression that might have landed that young man in court, God does not judge any of us by our worst day ever.  You, in the dock of justice, God dwells in you. 

As we sing, “All creatures of our God and King.  Lift up your voice and with us sing.  O praise him, O praise him!  Alleluia.  Alleluia. Alleluia.”   Amen.

[1] Rachel Nuwer, “Aloof?  For Cats, It’s Just an Act,” New York Times, Science Times, October 1, 2019, p. 3

[2]Regis Armstrong et al, ed., Francis of Assisi:  Early Documents (New York: New City Press, 2000) 264.

[3] Ibid.

Preached at St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach, San Bernardino

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c); Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Proper 23, Year C, October 13, 2019

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

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