Sermon for 19th Pentecost -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
Today is the day of Francesco Bernardone, better known as St. Francis of Assisi. Francis lived from 1181 to 1226 and is known as the patron saint of animals and the poor. Many churches celebrate the blessing of the animals on this day or a day close to this date in St. Francis’ honor.
In Francis’ time, many thought him to be crazy – he preached to the birds, calling them his “little sisters” and saying that they paid better attention to the gospel than people did! Francis appeared naked in the town square to renounce his inheritance in front of his parents and the bishop and everyone in Assisi. He kissed and hugged lepers. Francis later founded a religious order based on poverty, trusting God to provide for its members as God provides for the birds, the fish and the lilies of the field. Francis’ love of animals was only exceeded by his love for the poor. And Francis did not distinguish between “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. He gave to everyone who begged from him. However, even with his preference for the poor, Francis would not condemn the rich – instead he called on his wealthy friends to simply open their hearts to the Holy Spirit and respond to God’s call to care for the poor. And legend has it that he was the first to put up a Nativity Scene at Christmas! In Francis’ time, some called him a saint and others called him crazy. Crazy like Jesus, I guess.
I found a wonderful St. Francis story on Facebook this week, a parable of St. Francis’ time. The story is set in the little town of Gubbio, Italy, a village in the Italian hills. At the time of St. Francis this village was being ravaged by a ferocious wolf which was eating livestock and people alike. The townspeople were terrified and huddled behind the safety of the town walls.
Then Francis of Assisi arrived. He heard what was happening and took pity on the people and the wolf. Francis decided to go out and talk to the wolf. “No! No!” the people shouted. “He’ll destroy you!” But Francis went anyway.
Francis had not been out long, when this enormous wolf charged out of the bushes – growling and snapping his teeth. But Francis, eyes filled with pity and determination, made the sign of the cross over the charging wolf and said, "Come to me brother Wolf. I wish you no harm."
And what happened? The story goes that the wolf knelt at Francis’ feet, meek as a lamb. Then Francis spoke again to the wolf, and got a little upset: "Brother Wolf, what you’ve been doing is sin. You shouldn’t be killing people. So stop it. I want to make peace between you and the people of Gubbio. They’re not going to hurt you. But you can’t hurt them either. Do you understand?"
The wolf looked up at Francis with sorrowful eyes and nodded his head with understanding and remorse. And he lifted up his paw and put it in Francis’ hands. "Good,” said St. Francis to the wolf, “All your past sins are forgiven." "Come with me. We’ve got some work to do." And the wolf followed Francis into the town.
As you might imagine, seeing Francis and the wolf walking together, the townspeople were amazed. Francis spoke to the people on behalf of the wolf. He explained what had happened and that the wolf was repentant, but then said. Will you forgive the wolf? And will you promise to feed him? And the whole town agreed and made peace with him. And, just to show that the wolf understood, the wolf again lifted his paw and placed it in Francis’ hand as a sign of his pledge.
From then on, the story goes, the wolf lived in the village and walked from house to house and the people gave him food. Not even the dogs barked at him. He was just another member of the town of Gubbio. And he lived amongst them for another two years, until he died in peace.
That’s a wonderful story. Did anything close to this story really happen? Did a wolf really understand Francis and make a pact with the whole village? It sounds ridiculous – like Dr. Doolittle meets Jesus.
Well, the story I read on Facebook goes on to say that while workers were making renovations to the centuries-old church in Gubbio, they pulled up some of the stone pavers inside the church where people had been laid to rest. And there – amongst the other dead – were the remains of a very large wolf.
Who knows if there is any truth in this, but it is a grand story!
When Francis saw the animals, when he saw the poor, they were for him living symbols of God himself. And he saw in them not just symbols of God, but fellow creatures of God who, like him, were called to love God. So, yes, he preached to the birds, and tamed the wolf because all of creation was made to live in the love and adoration of the God who made them. Francis knew himself to be brother to all of creation, because all of creation is born of one Father.
Centuries before Francis, there lived a prophet – Isaiah – who envisioned the day when God’s salvation would be complete, when the violence of this world would be banished. "The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, he wrote….They shall not hurt or destroy on my holy mountain, says the Lord" (Isaiah 65:25).
Amidst a world wracked by enmity and death, the wolf of Gubbio is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God where former enemies may live side-by-side in peace. This is God’s desire for us. And when we catch glimpses of this kingdom, we know it to be our desire as well.
I suspect that for many of us, these glimpses of the Kingdom of God come through our pets. Our families may be estranged. We still may be haunted by our parents’ disapproval, even if they’ve been dead for years. We may not be convinced that our co-workers and neighbors like us.
But when we come home and our pets welcome us, our hearts soften and we believe through them that we are lovable and desirable – just as we are. Our pets unflagging loyalty, following us from room to room, speaks a truth to our hearts that we are worth following. When we get down on our knees and bury our faces in their faces and speak ridiculous words of devotion and affection [Who’s the good dog? Yes, you’re a good dog. Yes you are…], these pets recover in us our belief that we, too, can love freely and without shame. They release in us the freedom to be who we want to be.
Our pets reveal what we hope and long to be true, for us and for the world around us. It’s not just the existential longing of poets and philosophers; it’s a longing made real and tangible through flesh and fur; slobbering tongue and contented cat’s purr.
May the freedom and love and acceptance we know through our pets be living sacraments for us, giving life and pulse to that longing we have for God and the Kingdom of God.
When we don’t want to stand up and dislodge the cat who’s asleep in our lap, may we perceive what it means to be at rest in the lap of God who wants us to remain in the peace of his love.
When we’ve said cruel and unspeakable things to the people we love, and are still greeted with unbounded joy by our dogs, may we perceive what it means to be received by the God who has forgiven our sins and only knows us as his beloved.
May our pets help us to become like St. Francis, that we may hope and live into the Kingdom of God where all are at peace, where all are loved, and none are hurt or destroyed.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Where None Are Hurt or Destroyed
Sermon for 19th Pentecost
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
October 3/4, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California