The Gift of Joy and Wonder

A Sermon on the Feast of St. Francis

His name was Salvatore Terranova. A good husband and father, an active and faithful church member, a cellist in the local symphony, Sal was my dear friend. More than once Sal and Susie had me over for their special, heavenly mixture of pasta, music and laughter. Then, one day, Sal got cancer, the kind of cancer that does not kill softly. The last time I saw Sal, it was the end of summer. Sal was in his back yard, flat on his back, lying on top of their picnic table, in the middle of their simply gorgeous garden. When we saw each other, we started laughing. Then Sal pulled me close to him and, uttering a nickname I have permitted a mere handful of people to use, he whispered these words: “Tommy, all my life has been a gift.”

If I do not believe in the Giver who gives me all gifts, then I cannot receive all the gifts the Giver wants to give, even at my death. After birth, the first gift we receive is the gift of our original vision of God. For some children, their vision of God may not be so healthy or positive. For me, I believe God's first gift was, in the language of our Baptismal service, “the gift of joy and wonder in all (God's) works.” Have you received that gift? When did you receive the gift of joy and wonder? Do you feel joy or wonder when you take in the beauty of God's creation, especially in the riotous colors of the Fall? (Yesterday, at the annual Acolyte Festival at Washington National Cathedral, we had lots of wonderful, joyful color!) Perhaps you feel joy or wonder in the people who love you. Or in some other gift from God. Perhaps you've lost that gift somehow. Do you believe God wants to give you the gift of joy and wonder, every day of your life?

My friend Sal believed it. So did Francis of Assisi, our most popular and admired saint, whom we remember today. Like other churches we'll honor Francis at 5:45 this evening by blessing the wild, tame and stuffed animals people might bring. Francis did NOT practice that blessing ritual, but 1200 years ago, Friar Francis started a different tradition: the Christmas creche. To his fellow friars, when fasting, he said, “Even the walls should eat meat on Christmas Day!” Francis was poor, embracing what he called Lady Poverty, for him a “symbol of all the paradoxes of the Gospel: richness in poverty, life in death, strength in weakness, beauty in the sordid and shabby, peace in conflict and temptation, fullness in emptiness, and above all, love in detachment and deprivation. (Lady Poverty) made everything hard, soft, and everything difficult, easy” (Murray Bodo, St. Francis:The Journey & the Dream, p. 16).

Francis also believed that Mother Nature wrote the first Bible. Before Hebrew, Christian or Islamic scriptures, before any native peoples uttered words or told their stories, the God of all creation was revealed in all creatures, both great and small. Joy and wonder made Francis find God incarnate, all around him. In the Great Basilica in Assisi where Francis is buried, there is, I am told, a bronze statue of him honoring God's Holy Spirit. He's looking down into the earth, because Francis “got it” about the Incarnation, “God with flesh on.” As Richard Rohr puts it, “If God became flesh in Jesus, then it is in the world, the physical, the animal, in the natural elements, in human sexuality that God must be found. . ..Most of us keep looking up, when God in Jesus has. . .(in fact) come down” (“Franciscan Mysticism,” daily meditation, 10/3/12).

The Bible lesson we've just heard, the Gospel text for St. Francis Day, describes Jesus as a beloved son who is on intimate terms with his heavenly Father. When we recognize Jesus as God's beloved child, the One who came down to reveal divine Wisdom and Love, we receive that gift as well. To those who become like little children again, to those who try to be open, vulnerable, unpretentious, God's love has flesh on.

Who knows this better than a child, who goes to their beloved mother or father or another giver of great care, whenever they are tired or sad? When does a child actually “grow up”? Is it when they stop climbing into the arms of someone safe who loves them, simply collapsing? “Come to me,” Jesus told all those around him, “all you that are weary. . .” That's every one of us, at some time in our life, regardless of our age. “Come. . .all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” Jesus declares (Matthew 11:28). Traditional Episcopalians know these as “comfortable words.”

Indeed these words have had a long life in the Christian church as an invitation to any of us who grow weary, especially of pretension and hypocrisy, that special burden of all human religions. At their very best, it is said, all the world's major religions have one thing in common: people of faith want to be compassionate. We have a common human desire to have compassion for the least, the last and the lost of this world. And compassion – having someone who cares about you when you are down and out, when you are suffering – compassion is what Jesus offers us, always. No matter what you are dealing with, no matter how hard life becomes, whenever you need rest for your soul, Jesus says, Come to me. Come to me, says Jesus. I will help you. We never grow tired of the compassion of Jesus. But Jesus doesn't stop there.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me. . .for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (11:30). It's the yoke of Jesus that hooks us, that farming image of sharing the load, sharing our burdens, and then teaching us how to share in the burdens of others. It's HIS particular yoke that gets us, HIS unique way of loving others. St. Francis found this out one day, when he met a leper. “All his life long,” the story goes, “(Francis) had panicked when he met lepers. And then one day on the road below Assisi, he did one of those surprising things that only the power of Jesus' (love). . .could explain. (Francis) reached out and touched a leper, a man the very sight of whom nauseated him. . ..Tears began to slide down his cheeks because he thought he wouldn't be able to do it, and as he lost his composure, he had to literally leap at the man. . .Trembling, he threw his arms around the leper's neck and kissed his cheek. . ..He dropped his arms and smiled at the leper, and the man's eyes twinkled back their recognition that Francis had received more than he had given” (Bodo, op. cit., p. 17).

“The gift of joy and wonder in all God's works” yokes us to the compassion of Jesus, our gracious giver of help. Perhaps it's the childlike wonder of giving that will cause us to make a pledge to All Saints' during this Fall season, a pledge we make for all God's seasons of Stewardship in our lives. Perhaps it's childlike joy we need, in receiving the bread and wine, or in the healing prayers, or in those comforting words, or in the rest our souls so desperately need. Whatever we need, wherever we are, may we find today the joy, wonder and new life of Jesus. Like Sal. Like St. Francis. Amen.

—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
October 7, 2012