Monday, January 24, 2011

Proper 22, 2010 Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

It was said that in the village of Gubbio that there was a wolf which consistently came into town and terrorized not only the livestock, but even injured and killed the people. Day after day the people of Gubbio would check to see that their flocks were safe in the morning, and at night, they would tuck their children into bed. whispering prayers that the wolf wouldn’t come. This wolf, it was said, was so fierce, that when people would go into the countryside, they armed themselves like soldiers going to war…but even then none of them were safe from this ferocious creature…
Well, one day while little brother Francis was passing by the village of Gubbio, he heard the reports of this wolf that held this village in the grip of fear. He talked with the villagers and confirmed all that had been said about the wolf, and in that instant, Francis decided that he would address this issue.
Francis said to the people, “I will go and talk to this wolf, and I will tell him in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that he must not behave in this way—especially as our brother…”
As you can imagine, the people’s reaction was a whole lot like yours—“Who is this guy that he plans to go off and confront the beast? I bet he doesn’t get a mile out of town before it eats him up! But, look at how he’s dressed, he’s just some silly fool and beggar…”
Well, along with these people who doubted, there were some who were very concerned about Francis. They had heard about his kindness, and how he had preached to the birds, and had shared the joy and love that God has for all of us with everyone he met… They also knew that the reason that Francis dressed like a beggar was because he wanted to live just like Jesus—a simple man.
As he headed out of the village, the doubters yelled and made jokes about Francis. Others kept asking Francis if he was certain that he should go and face this terrible wolf without a spear or a sword. Francis reminded them that he was going in the name of God and that would keep him safe.
Francis walked out of the village, beyond even the places where the people could still see him from the village. He walked for a little while longer when he heard a howl in the distance. It was the wolf. And if it had anyone else, they would have turned around and ran back to the village as fast as they could. But not Francis, instead he went right in the direction of the howl.
Francis walked for a while longer before he stopped in an open field, with only a few trees, and nowhere to hide. Suddenly Francis heard a low growl, and he saw the wolf coming toward him. This wolf was apparently pretty large, and as it walked toward Francis it snarled and drooled and licked its chops.
Francis wasn’t afraid. He made the Sign of the Cross toward the wolf, and he said, “Brother Wolf, you have done great harm in this region, and you have committed horrible crimes by destroying God’s creatures without any mercy. You have been destroying not only other animals, but in your arrogance, you’ve even eaten people who are made in the Image of God. Because you’ve been so horrible, you should be put to death. You act like a robber and a murderer.” He said, “The people of this village are right to despise you and fear you as an enemy. But, Brother Wolf, I want peace between you and them, so that they will not be harmed by you anymore. And, after they have forgiven you all your past crimes, no one will come after you.”
Well, while this was happening, some people from the town had gathered around. They wondered what might have happened to Francis after he’d left the village. After hearing the saint’s words to the wolf, all of them watched silently as the wolf lowered its head toward Francis.
Little Brother Francis then said, “Brother Wolf, I want you to show me that you promise to change your ways, so that I may believe you.” At this, the wolf raised his paw and placed it into Francis’ hand. Francis said, “Brother Wolf, I order you, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to come with me now to the town to make peace with the people there…”
In the end, the people made peace with the wolf, and St. Francis made the people promise that they would feed the wolf everyday, and the wolf was to keep his peace with the people. And, all of them lived happily together until the wolf finally died years later. Even today there is a bas relief commemorating this story, and it apparently is near a church a bit south of Brother Wolf Street.
St. Francis apparently wasn’t very tall. Thomas of Celano, his earliest biographer, and Franciscan writes that he was handsome, and of slight build with a sparse beard and dark eyes. We’re told that he was someone who preached to animals, and bowed to children. He lived simply, dressed in a brown habit tied with a rope cincture. While such clothing would have been common enough for a beggar in his time, to us the image is unmistakable as the saint from Assisi. What is so amazing is that for all of his simplicity, and all of the incredible stories of his life, St. Francis of Assisi still continues to confound us and capture our imaginations.
I suppose it’s not just one thing in particular about the man that attracts us. But what we do know is that when we hear the stories of Francis, or any of the saints, really, we are inspired by their lives of faith. This is because they remind us of what Christian life could look like, and how that can change the world around us forever.
Francis is a great example of this, because what we see and admire in St. Francis is not some idyllic and unattainable existence. Instead what we look for in Francis is our own need to be freed from our possessions and our reliance upon creature comforts which…as it turns out are fleeting anyway.
We see in him a strength and love of God that can only be the mark of true sainthood. But what we tend to miss is that his life and ministry is a call to the whole Church to come out—to no longer be ruled by the illusions of security and safety that we think we have, and instead to step into the real life of God’s love.
When the disciples asked Jesus to “increase their faith”, his response was ironic. He says if they had faith like a mustard seed, they could tell a tree to be uprooted… But he teaches them that to germinate even that kind of faith, one must do more than what is simply required…
When God called Francis, it was in a broken down chapel somewhere along the road to the Crusades. The call was simple, “Francis, Rebuild my House.” A thing he did almost immediately. After raising money from selling bolts of fabric from his father’s store, Francis fixed the little chapel. But Francis wasn’t finished, because his true ministry was only beginning, and he needed to do more than simply what was expected of him—which we know he did.
St. Francis, did this by confounding the conventions of this life. Like Jesus he refused to allow the social and economic rules of society define how he must live out his life of devotion to God. And following Jesus’ example, Francis laid aside all that his father’s wealth entitled him to and chose to live a life wholly devoted, with and for the greatest and the least. And it’s because of this humility, that we find Francis so very approachable, even loveable.
We remember him for these traits, but even more, we hold Francis up because his very life is a life radically shaped by the Gospel. St. Francis is an epitome of a life so powerfully remade and rearranged by the Holy Spirit that at times we may have trouble even believing the stories about him. But what we also find is that we still need to hear those stories just to be reminded that God still calls saints—in times of war, God still calls saints. In times of economic hardship, God still calls saints. When the cynicism of the world makes it hard to see where God is calling any of us, God still calls saints. And what it is that we need from the lives of the saints are not only examples of faithful lives and great stories, but also the challenge to live just a little less carefully when it comes to our faith. Not that I’m recommending that any of us go out and find wolves to tame, but maybe if we could learn to trust in God the way that the saints in light have, we might yet be surprised at what God may do through us as his saints on earth.

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