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1 October 2017, St. Francis (observed)

Lectionary 26 / Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chicago

Benjamin M. Stewart



St. Francis, Connection, and the Cosmos

The trees that make up the pews that are now holding our bodies had already grown to maturity before any of us in this room had been born.

The bark that we hear from the dogs today was first shaped — thousands of years ago — by their ancestors’ living in a pack and hunting in the wild. (Sometimes even the little ones seem like they can almost remember those days.)

When Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico 11 days ago, supercharged by warmer ocean temperatures, scientists tell us that within the earth’s warming layer of carbon dioxide still swirls carbon from right out here on Addison Street from the tailpipes of the Model Ts that people drove to celebrate the opening of Wrigley Field back in 1914. (It can take up to 200 years for carbon dioxide to be drawn out of the atmosphere.) So while the people who drove those Model Ts are no longer on the road, their actions continue generations later.

Whether it’s trees, or church pews, or pets, or hurricanes or fossil fuels, the question at the heart of the first reading today is how do past generations relate to future ones?

One part of our religious tradition emphasizes how the cost of injustice can get imposed on succeeding generations: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

Or, The parents drove a Model T (and then a Studebaker and then a Chrysler, etc.) ...and the children’s streets are flooded.

There is another part of our tradition that we heard today that pushes back against simply shrugging and accepting this as a foregone conclusion. Instead, the text today insists that God desires to interrupt these cycles: God wants to allow every generation to begin again, free from oppressive repercussions from previous generations. Ezekiel says that we should look for God intervening between generations to end these deadly cycles — whether it’s a cycle of domestic violence, or some form of enslavement or supremacy, or environmental degradation. Look for God, Ezekiel says, disrupting these cycles.

One of the earliest stories we have about St. Francis of Assisi is about what happened at the town of Gubbio.[1] After a wolf had made a number of kills outside the city walls, the village became consumed with fear, and obsessed with hunting the wolf down and killing it. Francis intervened and went out to the wolf. As the story goes, they had a conversation. As one does. The wolf explained its feelings of vulnerability around people. Francis explained the human fears of the villagers. And then Francis got the people and the wolf together and Francis translated the feelings of vulnerability on both sides, and this cross-species summit ended with the wolf agreeing not to harm humans, and humans agreeing not to harm the wolf and even to make sure that there was always enough food for the wolf to eat. The story goes that for the rest of the wolf’s life, the wolf and the villagers lived in proximity and peace, with the villagers coming to celebrate and cherish the wolf, their former enemy who was now their neighbor.

Sometimes you’ll see this wolf in icons of St. Francis — and sometimes in woodcuts there’s Francis and the wolf sealing the agreement by shaking hand and paw.

Hundreds of years later, in 1872, when the old church in Gubbio was being renovated, under a slab in the churchyard near the foundation, so the story goes, they discovered the skeleton of a large wolf. Now the skeleton rests inside a carved stone grave within the church.

We could easily see this as just one more cute-story-about-a-charming-animal-loving-eccentric. Those are nice stories too. But it is also a story that speaks to a central Christian theme: God hears the cries of all the vulnerable ones, and when we turn in reverence to the places that are fragile and vulnerable, we will encounter God’s power rising up to heal us and free us from the patterns that harm and enslave us. Even in animosities that seem to have been set in stone over generations — like humans versus wolves — reverence for the vulnerable ones changes history. Those who have said “no” change their mind and say “yes.” They go out to tend the vineyard.

For many of us, pets intervene in our own histories. You may know a painfully reserved person who in the presence of a pet breaks publicly into baby-talk. During a difficult time, it’s sometimes been one of these members of another species who has comforted us, welcomed us home, lowered our blood pressure (as studies have shown), brought us joy. If attending to one another when we are in places of vulnerability is a sacred task, then our pets (in addition to just cracking us up sometimes) may be teaching us holy wisdom: to attend to the vulnerable with compassion. We’ve experienced that from them, and maybe that’s part of why we bring them to church today. From outside the human family, they intervene in human generations.

Jesus himself was called the lamb of God. And while probably none of us have lambs for pets, we may be able to relate to one of the Bible’s images: that the world is being drawn into a great liturgy around a wounded lamb. The idea is that in Jesus we have met a God who will not abandon the vulnerable and marginalized bodies of the world, but welcomes them first into the reign of God. Because of that, in the bible’s imagery, in this great liturgy, “every knee will bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”  Because of God’s faithfulness to all the broken and despised bodies of the world, scripture imagines the whole cosmos eventually taking a knee in reverence.

The trees that make up our pews — trees that once held squirrels, owls, and raccoons before any of us were born — in our generation are holding animals again today along with their human friends, all of us barking and meowing and singing with the whole cosmos of the one who made us all, and who stoops in reverence to care for all of us wounded ones.

[1] Chapter 21 in Fioretti di San Francesco (“Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi”), 14th century,