© Jeremy D. Nickel, 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
October 17, 2010

A guitar-playing long hair who wandered the planet with few if any possessions, inspiring many to a better way of life whose legacy to this world is interfaith dialog - it turns out that when the Roman Catholic Church decreed St. Francis of Assisi the patron Saint of Animals, it was a burying of the lede of historic proportions.

Unquestionably there are dozens of stories from St. Francis' life that illustrate a special relationship with the animal kingdom, but if you dig a little deeper it becomes quickly clear that they are far from what actually defined him. It is obviously no accident that he is best known and remembered for his relationship with animals. If these stories are to be believed, it was quite a unique relationship indeed. So, let us then start with the expected part of the story of St. Francis.

One of the most telling stories about his relationship with animals begins as Francis and his companions were making a trip through a valley in northern Italy. It was a beautiful sunny day and the monks all shuffled happily along the path, not thinking of their destination, but rather on how lucky they were to be walking through such a gorgeous piece of god's creation.

Suddenly the silent and meditative mood was broken as a huge gathering of birds caught Francis' eye and he excitedly ran towards them. Knowing the unique character of their beloved companion, they all paused by the side of the trail while their friend ran off after the birds. There were all sorts of birds: doves, and crows and gulls and jays and on and on. They watched as Francis reached the great and varied flock and greeted them with loud happy words which, rather than scaring the birds away, appeared to draw them closer still to him.

Even Francis himself appeared surprised by their calm and inquisitive demeanor, but barely losing a beat, he said to them: "My brother and sister birds, you should praise your Creator and always love him: He gave you feathers for clothes, wings to fly and all other things that you need. It is God who made you noble among all creatures, making your home in thin, pure air. Without sowing or reaping, you receive God's guidance and protection."

When he finished speaking, all of the birds began excitedly flapping their wings and craning their necks towards him in clear agreement with what he was saying. Francis then walked right into the middle of this giant gaggle of birds and touched upon the head of every single one of them, giving them his blessing and making the sign of the cross over them. When he had blessed the final bird, they all suddenly took to the air in what I can only imagine was an incredible cacophony of flapping wings and chirping beaks.

At this, Francis turned back to his friends and with a beatific smile made his way back to the front of the trail and began walking. After a few steps and a moment or two of reflection, he paused and turned back to his still slightly stunned fellow monks and wondered aloud, in a somewhat dreamy and childlike way, why he had never preached to the birds before?

Perhaps the most famous story of St. Francis is when he tamed the wolf that was terrorizing the people of a small Italian town named Gubbio. It happened that Francis was staying on spiritual retreat in this town when he learned from the villagers that they were being terrorized by a wolf so ravenous that it was not only attacking and killing their livestock, but also their children. And that when they had sent several search parties out to find and kill the wolf, they had all more than met their match. The few that made it home alive had all told horrible stories of red eyes in the night and razor sharp teeth. It had gotten so bad that the villagers themselves were too scared to leave the city walls for anything but the greatest of emergencies.

Francis, being the animal lover that he was, decided that he should go out and meet this wolf. He believed that he could talk some sense into him. All of the villagers begged and pleaded with him not to do this as they were certain that he would meet with the same grisly fate as the others. But Francis of course could not be swayed, and so a friar and a few others agreed to accompany him. Just a bit past the village gate, all but Francis and the friar became overcome with fear and ran back to the shelter of the village.

As Francis and the friar walked on into the woods they suddenly came upon the wolf, and he was every bit the beast he had been described to be. Giant in size, he had long, sharp fangs and frighteningly penetrating red eyes that seemed to glow even in the daylight. As the wolf saw the men it ran and lunged at them to attack, but at the last possible moment Francis made the sign of the cross in the air between them and as if grabbed out of the sky the wolf stopped in mid flight and closed its mouth.

Then Francis called out to the creature: "Come to me, Brother Wolf. In the name of Christ, I order you not to hurt anyone." At that moment the wolf lowered its head and lay down at St. Francis' feet, as obedient as a puppy dog.

Francis explained to the wolf that he had been terrorizing the people, killing not only animals, but humans. "Brother Wolf," said Francis, "I want to make peace between you and the people of Gubbio. They will harm you no more and you must no longer harm them. All past crimes are to be forgiven."

As this was taking place a crowd, which had been watching from the top of the town gate, began approaching and surrounding Francis, the friar, and the wolf that they had for so long lived in fear of.

They watched in awe as the wolf nodded its head in agreement with Francis' demands, and then in complete amazement as Francis offered his hand to the wolf to seal the deal with a handshake, and the wolf put forth its mighty paw and obliged. This small crowd then followed as Francis led them all, the wolf included, into the town square so as to make this pact known to all of the village.

When Francis and his eclectic group rolled into the town square it was already filled with all of the townspeople. Francis launched into a spontaneous and lengthy sermon about his love of God and then he offered the townspeople peace on behalf of the wolf. The village all loudly promised that if granted peace by the wolf that they would provide him with ample fine food. Francis then turned to the wolf and asked him if he was willing to agree to these terms. The wolf once again bowed his head down to Francis and then lifted his giant paw to once again shake on it.

As you would guess, from that time on the village and the wolf lived in harmony with each other. The wolf even lived for two years amongst them, traveling door to door and being generously fed by all. He became such a fine member of the community that when he finally died of old age the entire village mourned his passing.

These animal stories about St. Francis are truly remarkable, so its not hard to understand why they have stuck around and taken over his legacy to such a degree. But when these animal stories are seen in the context of the man's entire life, rather than solely defining him, they suddenly become merely pieces to the larger puzzle of just who was St. Francis of Assisi. Here are another few essential stories about this man:

Born to a wealthy family involved in the Italian and French cloth trade, his biographers like to stress that as a child and young man he was surrounded by the finest things in life; nice clothing, good food, perfumes, music. But there were also early signs that something more was stirring within.

One such story begins as Francis is in the local marketplace running his father's cloth-selling stall for the day. As he was overseeing a transaction, a beggar approached Francis and asked him for alms, any little pittance that he could spare. Wrapped up in his business dealings, initially Francis paid the beggar little mind. But upon concluding the deal, he felt horrible for the way he had treated a fellow human being and, abandoning the stall and all of his fathers goods, he dashed out of the market to find the beggar. When he finally located the man, he gave him all that he had in his pockets. When his friends learned of this act of mercy and kindness he was roundly mocked for being a sucker and a fool. Things only grew worse for Francis when his father learned what he had done.

Shortly after this incident he was shipped off by his family to fight in a military campaign, and he was captured and held prisoner for over a year. Through this experience of isolation and deprivation, his true spiritual awakening began and culminated in a vision he had at a small church near his home town shortly after his release from captivity.

From this moment on, Francis dedicated his life to living the way he felt Jesus had. He renounced all connections to his family, gave away all of his material possessions and began traveling by foot to preach the gospel. His authentic and enthusiastic embrace of this new lifestyle quickly attracted the attention of others and his following and notoriety quickly grew. Much of the next chapter of his life was spent organizing and growing this grass roots movement that he had created of people from all levels of society giving up their material possessions and joining his order.

Eventually this group was given official recognition by the Pope, and shortly thereafter Francis decided he needed to take an adventure and truly have his mind stretched. So, he lead a small group on a pilgrimage to Egypt, which at this point was an Islamic state ruled by Sultan Kamal. Kamal recognized the risk Francis took in crossing beyond the safety of the line of the crusades between Europe and Africa and, with his curiosity piqued, he welcomed Francis and his group to meet with him.

Over the next several days Francis dialogued with the most brilliant Islamic scholars, at first challenging their faith, but quickly moving into a place of mutual respect and sharing, so that when he departed his name was synonymous with respect across faith differences in the Muslim world. This legacy was so enduring that when the holy lands finally and completely fell to Muslim control, the only Christian group allowed to stay and protect Christian holy sites was the Francsicans.

And now we are truly starting to see the bigger picture of the life of St. Francis of Assisi. What truly defined him was not merely his relationship with animals, but his desire to live in a manner respecting the entire interconnected web of life and talking across chasms of perceived differences. Differences of power, faith, or even species did not change the fact that if you were a part of creation, you were recognized by St. Francis to have inherent worth and dignity. And possibly more important even still, if you were a created being, St. Francis held open the possibility that you might have something to teach him.

The words of today's opening hymn "All Creature of the Earth and Sky" were written by St. Francis and do an incredible job of summing up his true legacy. It is not addressed to men, or to those in power; but it's also not addressed to women or the poor. Its not specifically aimed at animals or humans; it does not mention a political or religious group, but rather all creatures, and that is truly who St. Francis was concerned with.

The final verse, which we did not sing today, proclaims:

All you of understanding heart,
forgiving others take your part,
let all things now the holy bless
and worship god in humbleness.
This is a true challenge from the past. We of progressive liberal religious minds think we are doing this, think we are meeting the others in our lives with an understanding heart. But I am here to remind you that all too often we are falling far short of this challenge.

Like the story of St. Francis and the wolf, for a true breakthrough to happen across lines of difference, something must be offered from both sides. When was the last time you entered a conversation with someone who you disagreed with about something you held near and dear to your heart with an attitude of openness? So often now we talk to win, and we listen merely to respond and not to hear. We listen for the flaw in the argument, the weak point where we can launch our attack. But this merely ensures that we will make no progress. No learning has ever resulted from two people yelling at each other.

We must find a way to wear the eyes of St. Francis, to see all creatures of the earth and sky as having inherent worth and dignity, and not only that but just maybe something to teach you. Because I want to leave you with one final thought, and that is: that you are wrong. I guarantee you that some of the beliefs you hold as irrefutable are simply not correct. And the only way to grow is to allow that possibility to be real; that what you believe may not be the whole picture, and that someone outside of your comfort zone just might have an idea that you need to hear.

May we all continue to strive towards this goal of ears that truly hear, of eyes that truly see and of a mind that is truly open to all creatures of the earth and sky.

May it be so, ashe.

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