Today we honor the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis is one of the most popular and admired saints of all time. Most of us know the highlights of his story: born the son of a wealthy man in 1182; had a conversion experience and devoted his life to Lady Poverty; shaped monastic and lay devotion; was a friend to all God’s creatures – being known to have preached to the birds. But the story I like most is the story about St. Francis and the Wolf.
According to legend, there was a wolf that was terrorizing a nearby town, killing and eating animals and people. The villagers tried to fight back, but they too died at the jaws of the wolf. Francis had pity on the people and went out to meet the wolf. When Francis found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross, and said, “Come to me, Brother Wolf. In the name of Christ, I order you not to hurt anyone.” The wolf calmly laid down at Francis’ feet. Francis then went on to explain to the wolf how the wolf was terrorizing the people and other animals – all who were made in the image of God. The wolf and Francis then made a pact that the wolf would no longer harm the town and the town would no longer try to hurt the wolf. The two traveled into town to explain the pact they had formed. The people were amazed as Francis and the wolf walked side-by-side into town. Francis made the people pledge to feed the wolf and the wolf pledge not to harm anyone else. From that day on, the wolf went door to door for food. The wolf hurt no one and no one hurt the wolf; even the dogs did not bark at the wolf.[i]
What I love about this story of St. Francis is that the story is about reconciliation and relationship. At the beginning of the story the town and the wolf are at an impasse – the wolf is hungry and getting attacked; the people are afraid and are lashing out. What Francis does for both parties is shock them out of the comfortable. For the wolf, no one has addressed the wolf kindly – they have either shut the wolf out or actively tried to kill the wolf. For the people, the wolf has not asked for help – he has simply and violently taken what he needed and wanted. Francis manages to shock the wolf first – not through violence or force, but with the power of love and blessing. By giving a blessing in the name of God, Francis is then able to implore the wolf to reciprocate with love. Francis also manages to shock the village – not with a violent victory, but with a humble display of forgiveness and trust. By walking into town with a tamed wolf at his side, Francis is able to encourage the town to embrace, forgive, and care for the wolf. Francis’ actions remind both parties that unless their relationships are reconciled, unrest and division will be the norm.
The funny thing about this story is that the story is pretty ridiculous. I mean, how many of us go around talking to wild animals, blessing them with the sign of the cross, expecting anything other than being attacked? We will never really know whether the story is true. But like any good Biblical story, or even any good midrash, whether the story is true is hardly the point: the point is that the stories point toward “Truth” with a capital “T.” What this story teaches is that peace and reconciliation only happen through meeting others where they are. We cannot expect great change unless we are willing to get down in the trenches – to go out and meet that destructive wolf face-to-face. The other thing this story teaches is relationships are at the heart of reconciliation. Only when the wolf and the town began to get to know each other and began to form a relationship with one another could they move forward.
This is the way life is under Jesus Christ. In our gospel lesson today, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 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.” Jesus’ words have layered meaning. The first meaning we all catch is that Jesus offers us rest and refreshment. Jesus encourages us to come to him, to cast our burdens and cares upon him, and to take rest, to take Sabbath in Christ. Our souls will find peace in Christ Jesus. The second meaning is that peace in Christ Jesus is not without work. Jesus does not say come unto me and relax forever in happy retirement. Jesus says we will still have to take on a yoke – the burden of disciple living. But luckily, that burden of being Christ’s disciple will not be burdensome – it will be light. Finally, not only will Jesus make the workload “light,” as in not heavy: Jesus will also make us “light” – as in lights that shine into the darkness and refuse to allow the shadow to overwhelm[ii]; as in lights that shine on this very Holy Hill where Hickory Neck rests. We become the light when we work for reconciliation in our relationships with others.
That is why we do so many special things today. Today, we ask for prayers and then exchange signs of peace – that God might help us reconcile the relationships in our life that need healing. Today, at our 9:00 am service, we ask for blessing on our animals – that God might help our relationship with our pet be one of blessing and light. Today, we come to Jesus for Sabbath rest – that God might renew us on this Sabbath day, use the rest to fill us with light, and renew our commitment to be agents of reconciliation, gladly putting on Christ’s yoke. Amen.
[ii] Mel Williams, “Let it go…and rest” Faith and Leadership, July 6, 2014 as found at http://www.faithandleadership.com/sermons/mel-williams-let-it-go%E2%80%A6and-rest on October 18, 2018.