A sermon in celebration of St. Francis, transferring his feast day from October 4 for our Blessing of the Animals event on October 7, 2018. Click here to read the scriptures for today. You can listen to the sermon by clicking the play button below.
Today we celebrate St. Francis as we join him after worship today in our Reflection Garden to bless our pets and honor the lives of our furry friends who have shared this earthly walk with us. St. Francis is known as the patron saint of animals. A person who still teaches us the importance of uncovering the divine spark in every part of creation.
One of the more famous stories of Francis is called the Wolf of Gubbio.
When Saint Francis was living in the town of Gubbio in the Italian region of Umbria, a large wolf appeared in the town, so terrible and so fierce, that he not only devoured other animals, but also preyed on people.
Like with any menace, all the people were in great alarm and would carry weapons with them, as if going to battle. They sought ways to kill the wolf and lived in fear, failing to take care of one another, allowing friends and neighbors to be devoured, proud that they themselves weren’t killed.
Francis, feeling great compassion for the people of Gubbio, resolved to go and meet the wolf, though all advised him not to. So, he went out to the margins of the town, taking some of the townspeople with him. But they became scared at the edge of town and refused to continue so Francis went on alone toward the spot where the wolf was known to be. People followed at a distance, however, curious to see what might happen.
Suddenly, the wolf ran towards Francis with his jaws wide open. But Francis, standing peaceful and with serenity spoke calmly to the charging wolf: “Come hither, Brother Wolf; do not harm me nor anybody else.”
And a miracle occurred. The wolf closed his jaws and stopped running. He slowly walked up to Francis and lay down at meekly at his feet. Francis spoke to the wolf:
“Brother wolf, you have done much evil in this town, destroying and killing the creatures of God; the people cry out against you, and all the inhabitants of have become your enemies. But I will make peace between you, my Brother Wolf, if you would promise never to torment them again, and they shall forgive you all your past offences so that they shall not pursue you any more.”
Having listened to these words, the wolf bowed his head, and, by the movements of his body, his tail, and his eyes, made signs that he agreed to what Francis said.
Francis made a further promise: “Because you are willing to make this peace, I promise you that these people shall feed you every day as long as you shall live among them. No longer shall you suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made you so vicious. If I do this for you, Brother Wolf, do I have your word that you will never attack these people again?”
And putting out his hand Francis received the pledge of the wolf who lifted up his paw and placed it familiarly in his hand.
Francis said to him: “Brother wolf, come with me now so that we can confirm this peace and show these people your pledge.” And the wolf walked by his side to the great astonishment of all who were witnessing. Now, the news of this miraculous incident spread quickly through the town. All the inhabitants flocked to the market-place to see Francis and the wolf.
When all the people had gathered, Francis got up to preach words of compassion – teaching those commandments that Jesus taught about loving God and loving our neighbor as ourself. And he reminded the townspeople that we are all our brothers’ keepers. That even when it seems our brothers and sisters aren’t keeping us, we are still their keepers.
And he paused and looked slowly at each person saying, “Listen my friends: our Brother Wolf has promised and pledged his faith and desires to make peace with you and terrorize you no more. And so I ask that you demonstrate faith as well, by promising to feed him every day. For it was his hunger that drove him mad.”
Then all the people promised with one voice to feed the wolf to the end of his days.
Francis, turned to Brother Wolf and said again: “And you, Brother Wolf, do you promise to keep the peace, and never again to offend God’s creatures?” The wolf bowed his head and lifting up his paw, placed it in the hand of Francis.
The people of the town, relieved and joyful, became devoted to Francis, both because of the novelty of the miracle, and because of the peace that had been achieved with Brother Wolf. They lifted up their voices to heaven, praising and blessing God, who had sent them Francis and restored to them their friendship with Brother Wolf.
Brother Wolf lived on in Gubbio, visiting from door to door without harming anyone. And all the people received him as a friend, feeding him with great pleasure. No more did they carry their weapons as if they were going into battle. No more did they live in fear.
At last, after many years, Brother Wolf died of old age, and the people of Gubbio mourned his loss greatly, burying him as they would any of their beloved. For when they saw Brother Wolf going about so gently amongst them all, it reminded them of their own gentleness and of their God-given call to love one another and be keepers of all our brothers and sisters.
This story may, in fact, be a legend or a metaphor. But it’s hard to find a more compelling tale that so swiftly helps us understand forgiveness, mercy, and redemption. In short, it’s a story of restorative justice.
Every human being has a story of hurt. Every one of us. We’ve all been terrorized by the wolves at the edge of town, sometimes devoured by them in some way. But what we don’t often pay attention to is how that story ends up turning us into fearful people, carrying weapons, failing to take care of one another. Our personal stories of grievance and pain keep us locked in our own prisons of fear.
The real miracle of the story, you see, is not that Francis tamed the wolf. The real miracle was that the town was transformed, reconciled to God and reconciled to one another. Through mercy. Through forgiveness.
Redemption is about healing and restoring God’s peace to all. And for this to happen, all must examine their actions and come to terms with all the ways in which we are not acting as peacemakers, all the ways in which we are not being one another’s keepers.
But it it’s always the light of Christ that helps us to see. And Francis carried with him the light of Christ, that opened up the way for mercy and forgiveness. Francis followed Christ and stepped into the places the townspeople weren’t willing to go. Instead of creating a scapegoat out of the wolf by killing him, Francis reconciled the townspeople with the wolf.
And this enabled the people to remember and live into God’s peace, to become better caretakers of one another and, ultimately, of themselves. Even though we often think its foolish to do so.
Today’s passage from Matthew has Jesus saying, “I thank you, Father, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and revealed them to infants.”
We often think it’s foolish to offer mercy, to forgive. We become enamored of the methods we develop for protection and safety… the ways in which we ensure that we will not be seen as the fool.
But, in the end, they are prisons for us. They are the burdens we carry. And it is mercy and forgiveness that releases our own hearts from the prison we’ve created.
This is the meaning of Jesus’ invitation in today’s Gospel: “Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
This rest comes in laying down our stories of fear.
This rest comes in offering mercy and forgiveness.
This rest comes as we remember our task to be our brothers’ keeper.
This rest is the peace of Christ.
May we all live into this peace. May we all remember our call to be one another’s keepers.