The Very Rev. Tom Callard, October 7, 2018
Do you know the story of St. Francis and the wolf? There was a wolf terrorizing the Umbrian city of Gubbio. It started by eating the livestock, and then went on to eating humans which are probably way better than livestock. It would wait outside the city walls for anyone foolish enough to go out by themselves. And there was nothing the people of the town could do. Their weapons were of no use against the wolf. And so the community was at a loss, and they became trapped within the walls of their town, living in fear.
And so, St. Francis, who was there, announced that he would go and help, and see what he could about this wolf. And so he walked out of the gates of Gubbio with a group of townspeople behind him. And they walked until they drew near the lair of the wolf, and the townspeople dropped back.
And the wolf came out. It was huge and ferocious, and it saw Francis and started to rush at him with its jaws wide open. And Francis just stood there, and put his hand up and made the sign of the cross and commanded that, in the name of God, the wolf cease its attack. And the wolf stopped. It walked up to him, humbly, its head low, and lay down at Francis’s feet, and put its head into Francis’s hands.
And Francis said to the wolf, “Brother wolf, listen, you’ve done so much damage here. You’ve destroyed animals, you’ve taken human life, you’ve terrorized these people. Brother wolf, it’s time to let go of all that. It’s time to live in peace.” And the wolf agreed. It put out its paw and Francis took it into his hands. And peace was made. And the wolf was tamed. And the community agreed that from that day on they would take care of the wolf and feed the wolf. And from then on, they lived in peace.
Who is this story about? Well, of course it’s a story about Francis, Francis and the Wolf. But really isn’t it a story about God, and the way that God worked with Francis and by Francis and through Francis to do something very important for these people when they were in need?
In fact, I would suggest that all stories of the saints are stories of God, not about the saints themselves, but of how God working with and by and through holy and men and women, can do something important for people in a time of need. That’s the story of Saints. God’s power working within us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
If you remember a few years ago, there was news about a dentist from Minnesota who shot and killed a lion while he was safari in Africa, and the lion had a name, Cecil. And of course the Dentist, when his pictures were posted on the internet, received a lot of negative press, because it turns out people don’t want to see pictures of a man standing over a lion he killed, especially if that lion has a name.
And as we reflect on it, I wonder – what are these pictures like this really about? They are pictures of this man demonstrating his power. A picture like the dentist and the dead lion is an image of how, through this man’s power, with his gun and bow, he could overcome and subdue this part of the world of the Kingdom of God. Which is, in a sense, a lot of the story of the history of the world. The story of how we subdue and overcome and conquer things. Isn’t this what history is?
But the stories of the saints are different, and the story of Francis is different. For it is not a story about a powerful man who subdues and tames a wolf. If it were only a story of a powerful man, it would have forgotten to the ages. Or simply passed down by the people of Gubbio to their children, told at bedtime, of how this man came and saved them from a wolf.
But instead, it is a story about the power of God. I think it is so easy to confuse our power with the power of God, and to lose track of that divine power flowing through us, flowing through the saints, emanating from the living presence of Jesus Christ in the hearts of the believers, coming out of this place, this temple, this altar, this church. For so much in the world is not about the power of God. So much in the world is just about the power of man, the power of humanity, and the way we like to stand over all the lions we have killed and show just exactly how mighty we are.
What is power? What is God’s power? What is our power? At the heart of the Gospel this morning there’s this whole question of power. It begins with the Pharisees asking Jesus: is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? And Jesus responds, Of course it’s lawful. The law of Moses says that a man can divorce his wife. The husband has that power. The wife doesn’t have that power. Only the men could ask for a divorce.
What happened when a man divorced his wife back in the time of Jesus was that the woman would suddenly lose everything. She would lose her status in society. She would lose her source of income and her connection to the community. And she would be publicly shamed and set adrift like a leper to fend for her own. It was devastating. But does a man have the power to do that? Yes, he has the power.
But should he do it? That’s another question, and that’s what Jesus invites the Pharisees (and us) to consider. Not what the law permits, but what God requests. What is the power of God in this situation? What is the Godly thing to do in every situation, as we sit thee wondering what to do?
And Jesus says this about marriage: God brings us together. God unites us in love. God makes us for each other. This is the power of God, to unite. It is the power to bind, to join into one, to form into a greater community. Look around us, this is the power of God. And follow that, Jesus directs here. Not only what you are legally able to do, but what you are morally and spiritually bound to do. For in doing so, you follow and help make live the presence of God.
I think we normally know the difference between what we are able to do, on the one hand, and what we really should do, on the other. I think we do. We may not always follow it, but we know it. Francis, as a rich young man of Assisi, would have been able to become one of the merchant rulers of the city. His father was loaded, and he was certainly able to live the life of the rich, locked in a high tower, collecting money from the world below.
What Francis was able to do is forget the poor, never think of them outside of the walls of his palace, and pass them by on the street as they put their hands out to beg for change. What Francis was able to do is abandon the Church, for the young don’t need church, and certainly he could have walked away from God.
But what Francis did do, and that’s what makes him a Saint, is give up all his wealth. Is dedicate his life to serving the poor. Is dedicate himself to building the church. That’s what makes men and women saints. It is not doing what is in their ability to do but following the power of God, and doing it consistently so that it makes a difference in the world.
How do we make a difference in the world? Is it, as the world will tell us, by asserting our strength and power over other things, over other people we don’t like, by mocking and degrading certain people and beating our enemies into the ground? Is that how we tame the wolf? Or do we tame the wolf and make peace by turning to it, by getting on its level, by loving the wolf, and talking to it and saying: brother wolf, what’s going on? Brother wolf – let’s talk.
Once when I was a child, I remember I had been having nightmares that this thing was chasing me and getting closer, and every night I barely managed to escape it. And so, after about a week I went to my father and told him. And I still remember what he said. He said, when that thing is running after you, don’t fear it. Don’t try and run away. Just turn around, face it and embrace it. Because there’s something about it that is talking to you and calling you, and the only way to tame it is to get to know it. And that works.
For Saint Francis, the world was all known; Brother Son and Sister moon. Brothers Wind and Air, Sister Water, Brother Fire, Mother Earth, and even Sister Death. All of you my friends, because I’ve gotten to know each of you- not to have power over you or subdue or conquer you, but because this is the power of God that I carry, to unite us. This is the power of God that I bring, to share, to unify us and find that bond that exists.
Today as we follow this strange custom of blessing pets in church, I think we do so really celebrating our unity with these beasts. They are not like us. They are different from us. They can’t really talk. I don’t know if you notice that. I keep waiting for my dog to talk. I’d love to dress him up and take him out and have a conversation with him over a cup of coffee. Talk about squirrels. But they don’t talk, they don’t really listen to us much. They are not our size. They are like strange little guests in our house. But we connect with them. That is the power and presence of God, the gift we receive from Francis and those saints before him, through the love of Jesus Christ.
May that power be present to us always.