A long time ago, the town of Gubbio in Italy had a major problem. A wolf had been eating their livestock and attacking, and even killing, those who had been sent to kill him. Understandably therefore the people of Gubbio grew very afraid, and even frozen in their fear, quarreling together about what was to be done and inflicting their anger and anxiety on one another. What could be done? In the end, they realised, perhaps only God could save them, so they asked the holiest person they knew, St Francis of Assisi, to help.
St Francis did not take the task lightly. He knew that the wolf was indeed capable of great violence. Yet, as someone who was particularly close to the ways of animals, he sensed that there might be another way. So he took courage and walked out into the woods where the wolf scarily lay. Then, in the depths of the forest, making the sign of the cross as the wolf came upon him, he spoke softly ‘Brother Wolf, I will not hurt you. Let us talk in peace.’ The wolf was caught in uncertainty. This man did not approach him with weapons and violence. He had no anger or fear. Instead, Francis’ powerful spirit of peace and compassion unnerved him, touching his own pain and fear. So the wolf sat down on his haunches and listened. Francis told the wolf what the people of Gubbio were experiencing, all about their pain and fear and anger, and he asked the wolf ‘why are you attacking the livestock and the people? Why did you kill?’
The story goes on that the wolf then told Francis his story: how he had been left behind by his own pack when he was injured: how he preferred deer and rabbits but he could not run fast enough to catch them, so had had to settle for the people’ sheep and goats; how he only attacked when he was really desperate and hungry; and how he had only killed people when they had seemed to threaten him. Hours passed as Francis and the wolf pondered together. Then Francis, understanding that the wolf had genuine remorse for what he had done, asked the wolf to accompany him to Gubbio, to ask forgiveness, that all might be reconciled. Slowly the wolf put his paw in Francis’ hand and they walked into the town.
In Gubbio, the people were amazed and powerfully moved by the wolf’s repentance. For those who had lost loved ones or livelihoods, it was particularly challenging. Could they too let go of their own pain and fear and violence, share in God’s forgiveness and begin again together in peace? Time passed with much reflection. However, in the spirit of Christ, anguish turned to healing and even expectation. The wolf was turned from enemy into friend, and the town’s greatest help and protector. How then might we too respond, in our fear and struggles, to those who seem to threaten us in our own day?...
Firstly, like Jesus in our Gospel, Francis encourages us to move with God’s Spirit and not be frozen. I don’t know about you, but when I run into across certain kinds of change, I don’t like it. I can even get anxious and fearful, even angry that the changes are taking place at all. So I become stuck. That is, Jesus says, how his people were behaving when God was calling them to move into new things in his own day. It is natural. It is very human. It is not however the way of Jesus.
Today, in both our larger cities and in the country, God is calling us to dance in God’s love in new ways, with new and sometimes strange partners. All across the western world, Christians now live alongside people of all kinds of different faith, and none, and different cultures and lifestyles. So we have a choice. Like the people of Gubbio and the wolf, we can learn to live and dance together or simply fear and fight one another. Everyone, even those who seem like scary wolves among us, have hearts and need feeding with love and care, and opportunities to share their gifts for the benefit of all. So can we learn to love our neighbours, as Jesus and Francis showed us?
Secondly, again like Jesus in our Gospel, Francis encourages us to avoid the paths of destruction. For, let us be quite honest, not all wolves do repent, do they? Not all those who feel understandable fear or pain also learn to find healing and peace through forgiveness and renewed hearts of compassion. So it is today with growing peace and harmony between people of different faiths and cultures. Like learning to dance, there are times when we will step on each others’ toes or fail to understand what we or others are doing. Not everyone may even join in, or at least join in straight away. We could end up like the cities Jesus condemned: communities which preferred to remain fearful and frozen. Or we can enter into God’s dance of love afresh, enjoying wonderful times, fresh gifts and new loving relationships together. That has been my experience, particularly in my involvement with the amazing multifaith and multicultural life and work in Toowoomba. To be honest, I don’t recall much stepping on toes, but I do remember lots and lots of love and joyful surprises. So let us indeed, as Jesus says, try another step or two.
For thirdly, like Jesus in our Gospel, Francis encourages us to know again that God’s burden is light. We do not need to feel unduly burdened by our fears and worries. Rather we need to rest in God’s peace, just as Francis did, and as the both the wolf and the people of Gubbio learned to do. ‘Come to me’, says Jesus, ‘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 of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.’ That is the key, isn’t it? Today, we are often bombarded by terrible stories of horrendous wolf behaviour across our world. Indeed, I was in the UK recently, and London itself, as people there tried to come to terms with terrorist attacks. Yet what struck me most was the positive way in which so many people responded. Across all differences – of race, or faith, or age, or other background – there was an almost universal commitment to love and learn together more deeply. That is the work of God in our midst today and we are invited to join in.
So what we might do today and in the next few days to take a few steps in God’s invitation to dance and to fresh joy? Well, we might not all feel as courageous and strong as St Francis, who not only made friends with a wolf, but friends with one of the most powerful Muslim of his day. Sneaking over the battle lines of the Crusades, Francis met with the Sultan of Egypt, Malik-al-Kamil, not seeking to force their religion on either but to learn and grow together. That fruitful encounter was astonishing in those days and in the midst of terrible war. Surely we can take heart in our own peaceful circumstances here? We do not need to cross actual battle-lines. All we might do is to take up the opportunities to meet some of those who are different to us in some ways but so like us in their own need for love and joy. We might share a cup of tea, or a meal, tell our stories and talk about our families, or simply offer each other a smile and a greeting on the street. In that way we will calm the fears and help heal the pain in all our hearts, feeding the wolves of our many cultures. In the name of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, Amen.
by Jo Inkpin, for Pentecost 5 Year A, 9 July 2017