Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message at the funeral for LeOtia Edna “Lee” Flage on Saturday, March 19, 2022. The Scripture lesson was Matthew 6:25-34.
On one of the bulletin boards in the hallway between our sanctuary and our fellowship hall hangs a display titled “Many Gifts, Simple Giving.”
It exhibits a number of thank you cards that we’ve received here at the church from people whose lives have been touched by the ministries of this congregation. And one of those cards is from LeOtia.
Grateful for the spiritual nourishment she received in a handmade greeting card from our children and youth, LeOtia wrote back to express her thanks. She then went on to share this tidbit of her days: “I have a squirrel that comes nearly every morning to eat the birdseed that falls to the ground when the birds are eating,” LeOtia wrote. “God truly does care and feeds all creatures.”
Her simple words surely speak to the truth of God’s lavish bounty. And she’s also being quite charitable. For it’s no secret that LeOtia detested the presence of squirrels and rabbits in her yard. But the compassionate, caring spirit that God so carefully and lovingly wove into the fabric of LeOtia’s being overcame whatever ill-will she bore for those pesky critters. She perhaps even shed a tear or two for the raccoon she found dead in her yard one morning. The coon apparently met its demise when a concrete birdbath in her yard fell over and crushed the hapless animal during the night. Oh well, easy come, easy go!
The mortal danger of tipsy yard ornaments notwithstanding, I’d like to think that LeOtia gazed out upon her always-well-manicured yard, and upon the animals who found shelter and nourishment there, and saw something that many of us miss. What she reckoned in her yard was the reality that all creatures – not just humans – are part of God’s family. God’s plans for salvation, made known to us in Christ Jesus, include not just humans but all of Creation. Strange as it might sound, Jesus comes as much to birds, squirrels, rabbits, and raccoons as much as he does to you and me. Thus, that varied menagerie of God’s creation deserves more respect, care, and love than we sometimes give it. Because that whole family of God’s creation is under God’s loving care, and oftentimes that provision comes through the generosity of you, and me, and the likes of LeOtia.
That puts LeOtia in league with at least one other saint, Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals.
Francis built bonds of love with all of the kinds of creatures in the animal kingdom. And, like LeOtia, Saint Francis enjoyed a special relationship with birds, who often followed him around and rested on his shoulders, arms, or hands as he prayed or walked outside. Francis even preached a sermon to a flock of birds!
As the story goes, one day Francis and some companions were traveling through an Italian valley, and Francis noticed that a huge flock of birds had gathered in some trees beside a field. Francis felt that the birds were watching him, as if they were expecting something from him. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Francis decided to preach a sermon about God’s love for those birds. Francis walked over to a spot beside the trees and began an impromptu homily. According to the monks who were traveling with him, here’s what Francis had to say:
“My sweet little sisters, birds of the sky,” he began. “You are bound to heaven, to God, your Creator. In every beat of your wings and every note of your songs, praise him. He has given you the greatest of gifts, the freedom of the air. You neither sow, nor reap, yet God provides for you the most delicious food, rivers and lakes to quench your thirst, mountains and valleys for your home, tall trees to build your nests, and the most beautiful clothing: a change of feathers with every season. You and your kind were preserved in Noah’s Ark. Clearly, our Creator loves you dearly, since he gives you gifts so abundantly. So please beware, my little sisters, of the sin of ingratitude, and always sing praise to God.”
The monks who recorded Francis’ sermon to the birds wrote that the birds listened intently to everything he had to say. “All those birds began to open their beaks, stretch their necks, spread their wings, and bend their heads reverently toward the earth,” the monks wrote. “And with acts and songs, they showed that Francis gave them great pleasure.”
Francis rejoiced in the birds’ response, the monks wrote, and “wondered much at such a multitude of birds, and at their beauty, and at their attention and tameness, and he devoutly thanked God for them.”
The birds remained attentively gathered around Francis, the story goes, until he blessed them, and they flew away — some heading north, some south, some east, and some west — going out in all directions as if on their way to pass along to other creatures the good news of God’s love for everyone and everything.
St. Francis loved animals because they taught him how deep and thorough his commitment to following the Lord’s path needed to be. Francis preached to those birds not because they could somehow grasp the subtleties of theology, but because it was his way of articulating the lessons they had taught him about living authentically.
Somewhere along the line, LeOtia learned how to live authentically, too.
Though she didn’t preach to birds – at least that we know of, LeOtia’s life preached of God’s love – through the hospitality she extended during the holidays and throughout the year, through the nourishment of homemade treats served up on her kitchen’s island counter, through the care and comfort she provided as a CNA at Good Sam and a deacon of this congregation. The ways that LeOtia lived her life and conducted herself manifested and honored the image of God in which she was made through the simple giving of her many gifts.
Perhaps the best way we can honor her memory is to carry on her ways of authentic living, striving first and foremost, as Jesus himself urges in Matthew’s Gospel, to reveal the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness through the kind words of our mouths, the helpful movements of our hands and feet, and the care and concern we extend to one another, and to every creature that the Lord counts as a cherished member in his teeming family – like LeOtia, bound to God on earth, and now bound to God in heaven.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, may it be so. Amen, and amen!