Every year the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York celebrates St. Francis Day with an amazing service. In many churches animals are blessed on that day, remembering Francis’ remarkable care for all parts of God’s creation – animals, plants, human beings poor and rich, even brother sun and sister moon. I was there two weeks ago, and it was a glorious service, with Paul Winter directing music he wrote for it 30 years ago, a choir of several hundred, incense, and two liturgical dance groups. One was quiet and graceful, the other energetic and athletic, accompanied by African drums. The service ended with a procession of creatures from an animal sanctuary. A camel came first, and then there were a yak, goat, sheep, geese, chickens, a tiny box of bees, a several-hundred pound tortoise on a trolley, a pony, a llama and an alpaca, two falcons, an owl, a brightly colored macaw, a burro, kangaroo, orangutan, ducklings, and more. Each animal had one or more human companions, each vested in a white surplice. At the very end of the procession were two more human beings, one with a wheelbarrow with some sand and the other with a shovel. I saw no evidence of need for their services over the length of that immensely long concrete aisle, but they were ready. Sometimes I tell people that bishops go at the end of the parade for the same reason.
This diocese has seen some cleanup work here in the last few years. It hasn’t been as easy as shovel and broom – it’s required the rather harder work of reconciliation and inviting people back to the table and building trust.
There were some other people in that cathedral doing that sort of work as well. At the end of communion and the hymn and final prayer, the congregation was asked to sit down and to refrain from taking flash pictures, so the animals in that procession wouldn’t be startled or frightened. Nobody wants a pony or a camel running down their row of seats. Vergers and ushers stood quietly along the aisle the animals would come down, watching for camera flashes, and quietly reminded people to refrain. They were there to keep and build as much trust as possible. It worked.
Every creature in that cathedral was gathered to give glory to God for the wonder of creation. The animals in their diversity called the human animals to attend with amazement at what God has done. Every creature present and participating, including the human ones, was a servant of the whole body at worship – praying, reading, guarding the easily frightened, singing, dancing, and cleaning up.
Jesus’ words about, “whoever wishes to become great must become a servant,” have something to do with that outpouring of praise and glory – and with this outpouring of praise and glory. Being a servant does not mean rolling over in response to the ambition or command of other human beings. This kind of a servant is not about the job you do; it is about how and why you do it. It means responding with care to the image of God in our neighbors and the reflection of divine creativity in everything that is. God serves creation in pouring out divine life to send Jesus among us in human form. Jesus’ life is a continual ministry (it means service) to the hungry, sick, abandoned, possessed, lost, and disconnected. Jesus’ death restores all creation to the hope of healed existence for which we were created. God sends an accompanying holy spirit to serve that dream of reconciled creation. To become fully human is to echo that serving image of God.
Yesterday your new bishop affirmed that he was called to be a servant, in response to this: “your joy will be to follow him who came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” The surprise to some of us may be that that’s what we all promise in baptism:
Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
Those of you who were there yesterday heard us ask Dorsey if he would “encourage and support all baptized people in their gifts and ministries…” We are all invited, encouraged, and dedicated in baptism to be joyful servants. Remember that marvelous prayer after the baptism? “Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”
Joy is essential, and it helps us discover just where we’re supposed to be serving. People often assume that servants engage in drudgery, because they’re forced to do something. This godly service is not all about suffering, although that may be part of it. It’s not about long faces and groaning, though we may find ourselves groaning in the labor pains that Paul talks about. True joy comes from living in harmony with the way we were created. What gifts has God created in us? When we’re using them well, we begin to discover joy.
Are you gifted at teaching? Then teach, and teach in ways that bring joy to you and the world around you.
Is there a song in your heart? Share it with a discouraged and downcast world.
Is peacemaking your joy? Setting a beautiful table for all God’s people – here, or at home, or in the community?
Last Sunday morning I was in a park in Atlanta with a congregation who gathers there every week. The song leaders are in various states of what the world calls homelessness; they led us in a call and response of joy. The reader of the lesson has quite literally been beaten and crushed, but she reads with such expression that she brings joy to all who hear her. One of the community’s greatest joys seems to be what they call “Common Soles” – a weekly clinic for washing, massage, and care of feet.
Where is your joy? Sometimes it’s easier to talk about passion – the places where you feel most alive, living in the fullest way for which you were created. Passion is one of those remarkably helpful two-edged words, because it can mean both joy and suffering. The gospel is steeped in the awareness that Jesus the suffering servant becomes the gift of resurrection joy. The suffering in our lives may not be torture and death, yet the labor to direct and hone our passions takes work and sacrifice. We can’t be effective servants until we begin to get out of our own way and discover that serving others is the source of the greatest joy, for it is in loving our neighbors that we begin to know the source of joy more deeply. As St. Francis put it, ‘it is in giving that we receive… it is in dying that we are reborn to eternal life.’
Jesus challenges James and John about being baptized in the same way he has been, being reborn to abundant life through offering our lives and the gifts we know for the world around us. That is where true joy is to be found.
Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies…
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us…
That reading from Isaiah is called a servant song – or the song of the suffering servant. Servants know what passion is. Do you have passion? Then sing! Sing and deliver!
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
 Book of Common Prayer p 517
 Ibid. pp 302-303
 Ibid. p 518
 Ibid. p 308
 Church of the Common Ground https://commonground.episcopalatlanta.org/Content/Church_of_the_Common_Ground.asp
 Cf. sanction or cleave, which can have virtually opposite meanings
 Lift Every Heart and Sing, James Weldon Johnson