8th October, 2017
Over the last few weeks we have been using our season of creation liturgy. While the season of creation is not an official season of the church, many congregations now practice this tradition which leads up to the Feast of St Francis. Of course in a number of churches across the world today animals will be blessed, dogs will bark, cats will hiss and church cleaners will worry about the state of the carpet when all is said and done.
It was only ten days ago that I heard a story from our neighbouring parish of Royal Oak. One year their vicar had the clever thought of going to the animals instead of have the animals come to church. So it was that Reverend Mark Anderson closed the church on St Francis day and took the parish to Auckland Zoo instead. I did not have enough time to organise that this year, but maybe a parish trip to the zoo might be a fun thing to do next year!
St Francis has in many senses become a very secular saint. He is the patron saint of Animals, ecology, the environment. He is also the patron saint of Italy, San Francisco (which bears his name) and tapestry workers. But certainly the clear association is with animals, after all he is widely remembered for having preached to the birds.
I believe that the overall impact Francis had on the world is greatly underestimated. His story is an incredibly rich one, which is why it is a shame that we only associate him with preaching to the birds, which on the face of it seems like a fairly eccentric thing to be doing. What we underestimate is the way these activities of Francis changed the attitudes of people throughout the world, including us.
I wonder how many people here keep a garden? Who here loves fresh flowers? How many of you enjoy spending time at Cornwall park? Who here enjoys the feeling of sand between your toes and the smell of the ocean? How many of you appreciate the crunch of frozen grass beneath your feet on a frosty autumn morning?
We are so blessed to live in the part of the world at a time when the standard of living is higher than it has ever been before. And by that I mean that each day is not a struggle to simply find food for ourselves. Personal safety is something that most of us take for granted most of the time. I accept that crime does come into our lives at times, yet we are a long way from living in a war zone as many people throughout the world do. And we are blessed to have enough comfort that we can pursue hobbies, reaction and a range of different activities and interests. This is not how it has been for the majority of people throughout history.
In recent years there have been a large number of television programs that take people of various skill levels, send them out into a remote part of the world and then film them struggling to survive. It turns out that most modern people like you and me have a pretty rough time in these situations. We are not used to having to find shelter, build fires or locate our own food. Our ancestors would look on us with a strange mixture of wonder and pity I think.
What I am pointing out here is that modern living allows us to have a very positive attitude towards the environment. We are lucky enough to look at our gardens and to regard them as places of beauty rather than being something we are dependent upon to provide our next meal.
When each day is a struggle to simply survive, the human attitude towards the environment is very different. At times humanity has tended towards viewing creation as a wild force that was only useful when tamed through human struggle. This negative way of viewing the world has been supported by poor biblical teaching drawn from such texts as the creation stories in the book of Genesis. For example in one of these stories God tells Adam and Eve that only through difficult labour will they gain their daily bread. God is clear that creation has become humanities adversary, something to be fought with on a daily basis. This was not God’s intention for creation. Eden was very much an ideal state where humanity enjoyed a harmonious relationship with our environment.
Sadly these creation stories have shaped attitudes in the western world that see the earth as a resource given by God to humanity who are now free to exploit it for our own survival. That attitude still persists today and is clearly seen in the reluctance of many to reduce emissions, clean up waterways, or to prioritise care of creation over the need to produce greater financial returns.
The voice of Francis, reminding us of the beauty and fragility of creation has been a very quiet one in Christian history. His view of creation as a place in which we encounter God’s presence was an intellectual revolution. To put that more simply, Francis looked at a world that most people regarded as bad and dared to suggest that it is actually good.
For us in this time and place it is Francis’s understanding of creation that is our understanding. And yet, as much as we love our parks and beaches, our drinkable water our snow capped mountains, we continue to ignore the groans of a world in pain.
I can remember Michael Shepherd showing me a painting of a native New Zealand grasshopper. We have thousands of native insects in New Zealand that are utterly unique in the world. Some of them are found in very small and very remote areas. And yet many of them will fall into extinction in our lifetime. I can’t help but think that if Francis were among us today, he might be telling us about the grasshoppers. They never get the attention that our New Zealand Native birds do, and yet they are in greater trouble.
It is not enough to enjoy the beach, the trees, the flowers and the mountains. Francis taught us that loving creation is to encounter the divine. Love is more than a feeling. It also drives us to behave in ways that take into account the needs of that which we love. To love creation is to think deeply about how we live so that we cause as little harm to the environment as possible. Amen.
– Reverend Richard Bonifant