Some of us remember Bishop Nedi Rivera, who was our bishop suffragan for several years, and one of my mentors in my formation as a vocational deacon. (She is shepherding the lucky Episcopalians in Eastern Oregon now.) It was Bishop Nedi who reminded me that, as a deacon, my day job is my primary ministry. I work by day as a psychotherapist in private practice, mostly with couples, and I operate my one-man enterprise from the lower level of our home halfway up Queen Anne hill.
It’s that job—my primary ministry—that pays for my groceries, so that I can serve you here without wages and share with you the Christian call to go out into our ‘worlds’ of workplace and home and neighborhood to proclaim the Good News out there.
And yet…I’m an extravert, and I miss having co-workers in my solo workplace. With only my clients to talk to, and with all the appropriate safeguards on client-therapist conversation, I hunger for company. And so I have found social media, as some of you are already well aware. One upside of working at home is that I spend lots of time with our two dogs, but what do you get when you combine a lonesome extravert, two dogs, and social media?
You get a whole lot of puppy dog photos, complete with over-the-top captions.
I admit that it’s hard not to ascribe to these dogs a number of human qualities. Stella—our first ‘star’—now ten years old, has a noble bearing, introverting her sweet self behind the quietude of a mature dog. Hokuala—whose Hawaiian name means ‘star rising’—is a rambunctious five-year-old guy’s guy. I admit I sometimes attribute human quotations to them… and even (just stay with me here) royal titles.
Stella’s personality is so regal, I confess I sometimes style her as Her Royal Majesty, Stella Papagena, Sovereign of the Orders of Ballard and Queen Anne Hill. I suppose I could choose not to be this silly, but… have you met Stella?
Deacon Francis of Assisi would no doubt be mystified—maybe mortified, I hope just amused—by all of this, but then again, he is given credit for preaching to the birds of the air, and his life and witness raises up the animals, green and growing things, rivers and seas, and the earth herself to places of honor in his vision of God’s dominion, his understanding of what it means to live as God creates us to live.
I’d like to think he would be initially puzzled by my decision to crown a dog with royalty, but quickly grasp the political and spiritual power of the symbolism.
After all, Francis loved colorful images and dramatic symbolic gestures. He was an eccentric and an extremist, a deeply odd, utterly uncompromising fundamentalist, dead serious about the radical flattening of hierarchy that Jesus preached in the Gospels. But he was not humorless, and he was never a bore.
He renounced his father—a wealthy cloth merchant—by appearing publicly before him in the splendid garments of his prominent family, then disrobing completely and announcing to the astonished crowd that God in heaven is his only Father.
He brought farm animals into the church at Christmas and dramatized the nativity with a live-action sermon on the humility of the Holy Family.
He wore dirty old sacks tied off with a rope, and kissed filthy, infected lepers with warm, long embraces, falling ill and frail long before his time, yet happy to the end.
And so, while Francis took the Good News of Jesus Christ more seriously than perhaps any other Christian in the history of the West, he was not tedious. He is not my inspiration for the distinctly American way I fawn on my dogs, but he might appreciate my reverence for living beings who have no power, no station in this world, and have only me to protect them.
Deacon Francis teaches us to take that idea very seriously.
Imagine someone in your life who is not in power, who does not enjoy the ease and privilege of a high position or reputation, someone who lives on the brink. An immigrant working as a housekeeper in a motel; a teenager on the run who doesn’t have a home to run from (so you can’t really even call him a runaway); a sex worker who suffers assault by a client only to be blamed for the act and shamed for doing a job her client paid her to do.
Francis would recognize these neighbors of ours, and then do two more things: he would show us hundreds—thousands—more, and he would demand that we not help them, but instead become one of them. Francis became the housekeeper without a green card; he became the teenage runaway; he became the sex worker Jesus befriends in the Gospels.
“Take my yoke upon you,”1 Francis would read in today’s Gospel, and he would understand the metaphor immediately, and apply it to his life as radically as possible. A yoke: a farm implement for two oxen, a device that a pair of beasts wears in tandem while they help till the rocky soil. In the yoke image, Jesus is himself a beast of burden, helping work the soil. This is not about charity. Christianity is not about helping the poor. Christianity is about being poor, because that’s how far Jesus went.
As a proper, educated male in Judea, Jesus could easily have enjoyed his privilege, as I confess I readily do. But Francis grasped the uncomfortable truth that Jesus of Nazareth was a radical, an extremist. And Francis took seriously what that implied in his own day.
And he found God’s beloved poor everywhere. It wasn’t hard in such a stratified society of insiders and outsiders … not as different from our own society as we might like. But Francis finally, near the end of his life, found God’s beloved poor in all of creation: he flattened that hierarchy of hierarchies, the human tendency to elevate our species above everyone else in this world of diversity and delight.
We sing his canticle of creation in our hymnody, and we recognize Francis in our gardens and alongside our animal companions as the patron of animals and all forms of vulnerable life. But it would be wrong to miss the deeper prophetic implications here. This is Francis, after all. He was energetic and charismatic, but he didn’t fool around.
To take Jesus Christ seriously, to take the Gospel seriously, to ask and respond to the question, “What does God want us to do in this world?”—as sisters and brothers of Deacon Francis, it is our task to join the company of the most vulnerable among us. And today, the most vulnerable among us are the animals and plants and waters of this scarred and warming planet, and the human beings who live on sinking islands, disappearing coastlines, flood plains, and hurricane and drought zones.
Let me try to put it another way, as an homage to Francis the playful lover of symbols, and as a cheeky way to invert the human impulse to elevate ourselves above our neighbors.
Remember my royal dogs, Queen Stella and her crown prince, His Royal Highness, Prince Hoku ala Papageno, Aide-de-camp to Her Majesty? Well, Queen Stella directs our attention to her subjects who live in shelters and suffer abuse, but she also wants us to notice the wretched irony that we revere animals whom we call pets, while disregarding the welfare of animals we call food, and the immense resources required to produce that food.
His Majesty the Monarch Butterfly urgently calls us to notice the collapse of his population due to radical loss of habitat and shifting climate patterns.
Her Majesty the Queen Honeybee desperately seeks our assistance as her subjects die in droves, not only threatening our precious crops that depend on pollenization, but threatening the bees’ own existence as free beings who do not live on this planet for our benefit alone.
When Rome recognized the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor—the ‘order of little brothers’—Francis himself was compelled to be ordained. There was no way around it: the head of a religious order needed to be a cleric. Francis reluctantly agreed, but demanded he be ordained to the lowest possible clerical order, that of a lowly deacon. And yet I want to assert that Deacon Francis would love nothing more than for us to bend our knee as subjects of the Sovereign Earth Herself, robed in majestic beauty, and threatened by our own shortsightedness. We should hush our chatter and remember that we are in the Presence, that is to say, we are in Her Majesty’s company.
As your deacon, I would like to share your yoke as a farmer in God’s field, to bend my knee alongside yours as a subject of God’s most vulnerable creatures, and to bow my head with yours before God, who lovingly created and ordained this earth as the sovereign mother of all created life.
Jesus and Francis ask nothing less of us.