Jesus said, Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh thee.
The first sermon I remember hearing was about those words, what we used to call the Comfortable Words. I was twelve years old stuck in church listening to a priest named Fr. Kennedy. He told us how he once served an urban parish, and how the chancel end of the church was backed up next to the bustling life of tenement housing. He said you could hear voices from the outside world breaking in now and then, and one day as he was reading aloud from the old prayer book, he came to the part where the priest says, Hear what comfortable words our Savior Christ saith, and at that very moment, an angry mother was heard to shout, Get the hell in here.
I’d never heard a priest talk that way in church. He sounded so free, like something fresh from the world outside. And when the congregation laughed, Fr. Kennedy did a little jig in the pulpit.
Whenever I dance alone — which is never in a pulpit — I feel unburdened like something fresh from the world, too. But get me dancing with other people, and I start worrying about whether I know the right steps and the whole trouble with stepping on other people’s toes.
Ask my children, and they’ll tell you I dance like a chicken. Maybe you do, too. Whenever my kids want to imitate me dancing, they flap their arms like this.
[Imagine your hands lifted before you, your elbows out flapping like wings]
Thing is, the first time they ever saw me dancing, and for a long time thereafter, I was behind the wheel of a car on our way to somewhere. Back then I didn’t know I’d come to look like a dancing chicken. In my mind I was still the independent co-ed who knew how to throw her arms up on a crowded dance floor. But here’s the thing: when my children saw me dancing in the car, elbows out flapping like wings, I was holding on to the steering wheel.
I was holding on to them — to my family. And very likely, most days you dance funny, too, because you’re holding on to burdens you care about.
Church is where you come with burdens to dance funny with other people who also have burdens.
Some say you can have church on your own terms, like dancing free and alone. Some say the best Sunday mornings are spent with a cup of coffee at home. In the privacy of your own house, you can surf the web for cathedral choirs singing your favorite hymns one after another, like listening to your own personal playlist. You can do it in your pajamas and it’ll cost you nothing but time. It’s freely given that way. No burden at all. An online gift you can receive without affiliation. No joining. No participation. No chance of an offering.
Once upon a time, a weary soldier full of burdens came home from war not sure what to do with the rest of his life. He knew his life for an offering, and knelt down and offered it to God. He didn’t offer his life in the woods. He offered it in a church: in what he hoped might be a house of belonging. And kneeling there, he heard God say, Go and repair my church. His name was Francis of Assisi, and he repaired God’s church by way of belonging to it.
It’s tempting to believe you might live closer to the life of Francis when you have church on the beach with the gulls and the wind. Francis, though, spent his life looking after sacred spaces constructed in the name of Christ, literally repairing the crumbling walls of busted churches. He believed those fragile places housed the hope of belonging to Jesus. And he knew weary people would seek them in search of hope.
His father was a merchant who’d hoped his son would also be a merchant. But Francis refused the burden of his father’s dream and gave up everything he owned or might one day inherit. It’s hard for us to imagine how painful that must have been, for father and son alike, because we live in an age that idolizes the Free Individual who stands on his own two feet, who leaves home to make his own way in the world depending on nothing or nobody. In the world of Francis’s day, though, belonging defined a life. You were what you served. You were your affiliations.
This week brought us terrible news from Las Vegas: one man killing 58 people. At some point I watched an interview with the man’s brother. He said he couldn’t make sense of what happened because the brother he knew had no affiliations to speak of. No religious or political affiliations. Said he had “no affiliation with anything.” It’s a word he repeated: affiliation, lifting up its absence in his brother’s life as if its absence in some way commended him as a man above suspicion.
The word affiliation means to belong to something, to connect and be a part of something, in some way adopting that particular something as your very own child. To affiliate with something is to move into kinship with it and thus to share its burdens and nurture its life. Affiliation can be dangerous. Affiliation can be gracious. Its absence in a life, though, is not a good and joyful thing.
Francis threw down affiliation to his father’s dream. Not to stand alone. Never to stand alone or be alone. He threw down his father’s dream in order to live into a deeper affiliation with God and with the Church: a kinship with the living and the dead, the broken-hearted and the whole-hearted; a kinship with birds, stars, fish, dogs, cats, people.
Medieval artist Giotto di Bondone famously painted Francis preaching to the birds with his finger raised as if scolding them, schooling them to get right with God. As if to say, Ah, mio Fratella — my Brother Redbird, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll quit trying to fly through glass windows, no? And you, mia Sorrella—my Sister Hawk, I don’t care how many mouths you gotta feed, you better keep away from the little puppies, sì?
In that same painting, Francis looks bent over, like a man bending over a sales counter, as if he still bears the dream of his merchant father, as if he came to understand something of his father’s burdens. Now you might want to imagine Francis in a freer posture, might want to correct the posture of burden and paint him with his arms flung overhead, hands empty and holding on to nothing as if dancing with the swirl of all creation, no mosquitoes, just pretty birds and sweet flowers.
But see: in and through Christ, Francis bore the burdens of everything and everyone he met. He carried other lives, great and small, and this weighed on him so thoroughly he received at the end of his life on his own body the wounds of Christ. It’s what love and affiliation do to you. They bend and break you toward others. They mark you with the love of Jesus.
Today our Lord means you to know you were made for belonging. To him, most of all. And through him, you were made to belong to his holy catholic and apostolic Church. To this parish and to each other. Together we are made and called to tend these walls, and to seek those who live outside them, fresh from the world in need of belonging.
Above image in public domain: Giotto, “St. Francis Preaching to the Birds,” 1297, Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, Assisi, Italy.