Following St. Francis in Following Christ

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

The first reading today, from the Book of Job, is more poetry than preaching—until we remember its context. If you recall the story of Job, his whole dilemma asks the question, “Why bad things happen to good people?”  “If Job, who is faithful and loyal to God, loses his family, his livelihood, and eventually even his health—what good is faith in God?”  What we hear in today’s scriptures is a part of God’s answer, or really, God’s non-answer.

These words of God can sound intimidating and almost threatening, as though God is really trying to put Job in his place, to force Job into a kind of submission. 

But instead, I think God sings this symphony of creation as an invitation to Job. Get out of yourself and be a part of life. Step into the world. Look around. Smell. Taste. Feel. Get involved. The world is far more complicated and beautiful than you have imagined. Yes, it’s painful (and the reasons for that will have to wait for another time). But for now, move into the beauty of creation.

If you looked up the scripture readings appointed for today, you will be surprised at what we’re reading in church. That’s because I’m bending the rules for what scriptures are read on which Sundays by replacing the regular Sunday readings with the readings appointed for October 4, the day for remembering St. Francis of Assisi. Like many churches, we celebrate the day with the blessing of animals, but I also think it’s important, when thinking about Francis, to notice how Francis showed reverence towards all of creation—not just the animals. And in some ways, Francis allowed creation to preach to HIM, showing him to learn humility and follow Jesus more closely. 

Francis is famous for rescuing turtledoves that were on their way to being sold in the market, for preaching among birds and having them listen with attention. But my favorite St. Francis story is about Francis and the wolf in the little town of Gubbio.

As St. Francis and his band of brothers 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.

Francis followed Jesus in many ways, but chief among them was in the way of humility.  Recall that humility is related to hummus– of the earth. To be humble is to be down to earth– not high and might, floating ABOVE the earth. But also, not hiding in a hole, or allowed dust to be kicked in your face, or stationing yourself BELOW the earth.  Down to earth. Right-sized. Understanding one’s place in creation.

That’s what God is trying to get Job to understand in today’s first reading. The story of Job is complicated and raises huge questions about why bad things happen to good people, about what use being faithful is, if calamity still comes… but God’s answer to Job is that if Job will simply be JOB and allow God to be God, Job will find that he is taken care of and that things will work out all right. God’s words to Job are also an invitation for Job to notice a little more the creation all around him, to find in creation beauty, majesty, awe… and somehow, some way, this regard for creation will center Job in the presence of God.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus prays to God and gives thanks that God has hidden certain things from the wise and intelligent, but reveals them to infants.  This is another place where Jesus says that we need to be childlike in order to understand the Christian message. 

The second part of the Gospel sounds comforting and soothing, but let’s really hear those words of Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  Ok, so far, so good. Who of us doesn’t want help carrying whatever burden we might be under… but look what comes next: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”   Taking a yoke upon myself doesn’t sound all that appealing. I’m not a farm animal. After all, doesn’t God give me the intelligence I need to make good decisions, and aren’t I equipped with tools for the journey… and off I can go, rationalizing why I don’t want to “take his yoke upon me.”  I’m my own person. I can think for myself. etc, etc….

Jesus is calling us to humility. The yoke is not something rough and difficult like would be used for a farm animal. He promises it’s light. It’s invisible, in fact. But it’s strong and sure and never fades, because it’s made of love. If we allow Jesus to love us fully— every part of ourselves (the good, the bad, the embarrassing, the parts we might think are irredeemable…) … if we accept his love and try to return it, the yoke is in place, and we’re taking care of.

Jesus is inviting us to be childlike in our faith. In prayer and meditation, we sometimes lament what we call “monkey mind,” or “puppy mind,” as though out thoughts are so scattered, they’re like a puppy running in every direction. But rather than try to restrain the puppy, Jesus is inviting us to be a little more like a child who grows through exploration and play, until both he child and the puppy find calm and peace.

The life of St. Francis invites us to befriend creation, learn, and grow together. This has obvious implications for our care for the environment—not only in practical, energy and waste-saving ways, but also in deeper ways that make for lasting change. The life of Francis also reminds us of Jesus’s love of the poor—those poor in material wealth, but also those poor in body, mind, spirit, and soul. Even as we are befriended, we are to befriend. Even as Christ comes to serve us, he empowers us to serve one another.

I close with a favorite prayer of St. Francis:

May the power of your love, Lord Christ,
Fiery and sweet as honey,
So absorb our hearts
As to withdraw them from all that is under heaven.
Grant that we may be ready
To die for love of your love,
As you died for love of our love. Amen 

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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