Sermon Archives

Sunday, October 1, 2017
Feast of St. Francis (Year A)
The Reverend Areeta Bridgemohan, Curate
Feast of St. Francis

Lord, make us instruments of your peace, where there is hatred, let us sow love, where there is injury, pardon, where there is doubt, faith. Amen.

Today many churches across the world celebrate the feast of St Francis.

St. Francis is one of the most beloved saints in the Christian tradition. He is the patron saint of animals, ecologists and the environment. He was also the founder of one of the most popular religious orders in the Middle Ages.

One well-known story about his life is the legend of St Francis and the wolf of Gubbio.

Gubbio was a wealthy Italian city in the region of Umbria, not far from Assisi. The city was afflicted by a wolf that was preying on both livestock and the people. Gubbio was besieged by fear, and the people dared not venture outside the city walls.

Francis heard about this and felt compassion for the people of Gubbio. He decided to go and find the wolf. His fellow companions and a crowd of people followed him at a distance. The wolf, seeing the crowd began running towards Francis, his jaws open ready to attack.

Francis made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf not to harm anyone in the name of Christ. The wolf closed his jaws, stopped running and lay down at Francis’ feet as meekly as a lamb.

Francis told the wolf that he had done much evil, and because of this he had many enemies. But Francis promised that he would make peace between the wolf and the city. The wolf bowed his head in response.

Francis proposed a solution to the wolf. Francis acknowledged that the wolf was attacking out of hunger, so he would ask the people to arrange to feed the wolf, in exchange for the wolf’s promise not to attack any animal or human again. Francis held out his hand, and the wolf placed his paw in his hand, as a sign of its agreement to this promise.

Then Francis invited the wolf to follow him into the city to ratify the agreement they had made. The wolf meekly followed by his side. Francis shared with the city what had been agreeable to the wolf and the people agreed. The wolf lived near Gubbio for the next two years, not harming anyone, and the people grew to love the creature and mourned its loss greatly when it died.[1]

This story captures in a nutshell some of the qualities that make St. Francis so beloved.

He is known for being able to relate to all of God’s creatures – humans and wild animals alike. He is also known for his ability to mediate and bring peace to conflict. And I think the two qualities are related.

Francis possessed a poverty of heart and mind which allowed him to relate to all the parties in the story. He simply heard the people’s side of the story and then went directly to the wolf, knowing that each had their own experience, open to hearing both sides, never doubting that both parties were beloved creatures of God.

Francis is well-known for his embrace of a life of material poverty. He was born in about 1181 C.E., at a time when cities, trade and the monetary economy were growing in Europe. Bartering was becoming less common, and European societies saw a growing chasm of inequality between rich and poor. The growth of cities meant that people began migrating to cities from rural areas. Against the backdrop of these societal shifts, monastic orders began to both question the values of monetary economy and sought solidarity with the populations on the move.[2] These orders were called ‘mendicant’ orders – meaning those who lived by begging.

There are stories about Francis’ early life, including his conflict with his father, a prosperous textile merchant. As the conflict increased, it is clear how Francis found the expectations of his father and the expectation to be faithful to the bottom line, stifling. Francis found liberation in giving up his life of wealth and refusing to live by the social standards of his class.

Just as he found freedom in that material poverty, he also discovered the (inner) freedom of the poverty of mind and heart.

Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and spiritual author, speaks of the value of this internal poverty. While we might have negative associations with the condition of material poverty, and as Christians, we are called to find solidarity with the poor, Nouwen follows Jesus’ lead in looking at poverty through a lens of blessedness.

Nouwen describes poverty of mind using the example of mental health professionals who are open to constantly receive new knowledge and insight from those who ask their help. They possess an internal spaciousness allowing them to hold both their training and the reality of the person before them together.

Likewise, poverty of heart is key in creating room for the other. Nouwen says: “when our heart is filled with prejudices, worries, jealousies, there is little room for a stranger… poverty of heart creates community since it is not in self-sufficiency but in a creative interdependency that the mystery of life unfolds itself to us.”[3]

Francis’ outward embrace of material poverty, reflected his inward embrace of the poverty of his heart and mind. This poverty freed him from the yokes of expectation, preconceived notions, past bitterness and injury.

His inner poverty allowed him to see every creature as God’s beloved, reflecting the way God sees all of creation. This poverty enabled him to encounter every part of creation – whether it was the wolf, the birds he preached to, the sun and the moon who he saw as brother and sister – as uniquely loveable in themselves.

The freedom of his inner poverty allowed Francis to see the wolf as a fellow creature with needs, not primarily as a predator out to destroy others. It allowed him to see the city of Gubbio as fellow humans cowering in fear for their survival and well-being.

And that spaciousness fostered peace, in the discovery of common ground, allowing them to find their true calling to live in creative interdependency in faithfulness to the sacredness of all life, and brought to life God’s dream for God’s beloved creation.

[1] from The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, Chapter XXI

[2] Justo Gonzalez, The Golden Age of Medieval Christianity, p. 357.

[3] Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life, pp 105-7.