A homily offered at the Blessing of Animals on Sunday, October 2, 2016. The lectionary readings are those for the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Psalm 37:1-10, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, and Luke 17:5-10.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
Today’s Gospel is a little course. Jesus speaks casually about “slaves,” who were a given segment of his culture. It can be disturbing for us to hear Jesus this way, but it does remind us of his humanity along with his divinity, that as a human, he lived and moved in his own time, taking on the mindset, and even some of the un-examined assumptions of his culture, such as slavery.
The point of the Gospel today is, of course, not about slavery, but about humility. It begins as the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. Jesus then seems to suggest that their faith will be increased if they learn the way of humility. “Don’t go into something, looking for an engraved thank you note.” “Don’t look for special notice for doing what is simply expected.” Jesus is saying, “Try to be right-sized. Remember your place in creation.”
Today, creation and our place in it are themes that run through our worship. We celebrate St. Francis of Assisi today because it’s the closest Sunday to his feast day, October 4. And some of us who love Francis do everything possible to say that Francis is much more than Patron Saint of the Birdbath, I also know that a lot of you might be wanting a good Franciscan animal story.
And so I’ll tell one.
As St. Francis and his band of brother were preaching through the Umbrian countryside of what would become Italy, there was a report that an evil wolf was terrorizing the town of Gubbio. The wolf was fierce like no one had ever seen: it killed sheep and shepherd, alike. The mayor of the town sent for Francis, having heard that Francis was a kind of “animal whisperer.” He had a way with them, so maybe he could do something.
The people prayed. Francis’s brothers prayed. And Francis walked into the forest to look for the wolf. Murray Bodo tells the rest of the story:
Francis saw the wolf, who was frothing at the mouth and growling. The crowd stood motionless and silent. Francis stared at the wolf. Anger flashed in the wolf’s eyes and he was working his jaws, slobbering onto the ground. Francis dared not move, but he said in a simple, low, quiet voice, “Brother Wolf.” The wolf quieted down in an apparent response. “Brother Wolf,” Francis continued, “in the name of Jesus, our brother, I have come for you. We need you in the city. These people here have come with me to ask you, great ferocious one, to be the guardian and protector of Gubbio. In return we offer you respect and shelter for as long as you live. In pledge of this I offer you my hand.”
Francis stretched out his hand. The wolf seemed calm, but remained immobile, scanning the crowd. Then slowly he walked to Francis and lifted his paw into his warm, steady hand. The two remained in that position for a long time and what they said to one another Francis never told a living soul. (Murray Bodo, Francis: the Journey and the Dream (Cincinnati: St. Anthony’s Messenger Press, 1988), 53.
The story of Francis taming a wolf spread, and people still tell the story. But some have suggested that the story has another meaning.
You see, in 1219, in the middle of the Fifth Crusade, Francis wanted to go and meet the Sultan of Egypt, a Muslim—at first, with the idea of telling him about Jesus Christ and converting him Walking right through the battlefield, Francis went and was received by Malik al-Kamil. The sultan seems to have regarded Francis as a harmless holy man or a kind of Christian Sufi. After sharing conversation, and perhaps a meal, Francis left. Francis went straight to Cardinal Pelagius, the Christian commander in the crusades, and pleaded with him for peace, to stop fighting, to lay down arms. Francis also told his Franciscan brothers (who were preaching the Gospel life in all directions) that when they went to a Muslim place, they first should preach Jesus Christ, but if the Muslims are not interested in converting, then the Christians should live among them in peace.
Some have suggested that this story of Francis and the “wolf” is really a re-telling of Francis going to meet the Sultan and attempting to broker some kind of peace. But such a peace would have been bad for the business of the crusades, counter to the intentions of Rome at the time, and so (some believe) the real story of Francis’ mission of peace went underground in the form of a fairy tale about a wolf-taming.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus encourages us to remember our place in creation, to be right-sized, and to follow the way of humility into greater faith. Francis shows us what following Christ in the way of humility looks like: not taking others’ word for who is an enemy, befriending creation (whether it’s a reportedly deadly wolf, or a rumored murderous Muslim), and by doing what he can not only to work for peace, but to embody peace, looking for God’s blessing in every living creature.
Who in our world are we led to believe is a big, bad wolf? Are there ways we can move toward a perceived enemy in the spirit of peace? Are there modern “crusades” that try to get us all swept up in their fury but are quick to label the stranger or foreigner as the enemy (when sometimes the real enemy is closer to home)? What brings you deep peace, so that you can begin to be a person of peace for others?
Especially in these early October days when the Church honors and remembers St. Francis, may we certainly notice the animals around us and give thanks. May we befriend them and share peace with them. But may we also work harder to notice the people around us, giving thanks, doing our part to be people of peace.