St Lawrence’s Church, North Hinksey – Mattins on Sunday 21st May 2023 [Easter 7] – Revd. Professor Martin Henig | Photo © Steve Daniels

St Lawrence’s Church, North Hinksey
Mattins on Sunday 21st  May 2023 [Easter 7]
Revd. Professor Martin Henig
Numbers 22:20-35

Behold,I have come forth to withstand you, because your way is perverse before me; and the ass saw me,and turned aside before me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just bow I would have slain you, and let her live. [Numbers 22:32-33]

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

On most weekdays walk into the centre of Oxford quite early in order to attend morning prayer at St Mary Magdalen’s church. It is not, I fear, a very exciting excursion, marred as it is by ugly buildings augmented by the present mayhem caused by works at the station and the roadway under it. Even so, there are reflections of another more beautiful, more natural world represented by the stream running beside Osney Island and the two river crossings of the Thames, one over the main navigation channel and the other at Hythe Bridge. And there are in addition a few elegant trees and also birds flying overhead or around the watercourses. Here is a space, a time, in which to reflect on our human interaction between God’s created world and our own, our short sighted speciesism, and flagrant disregard of our fellow creatures.

  One day I watched a heron preening itself, on another a pair of swans with five very young cygnets. I noted how many other walkers saw neither as they passed by intent on their mobile phones, a mechanical drug to which  most of the world seems to be addicted. T.S. Eliot in The Burial of the Dead from The Waste Land exclaims :’I had not thought death had undone so many’.That was my thought too.


I noted also how much litter,how many cans and plastic bottles are constantly discarded in the street or thrown into the water, a symptom of the manner in which we humans continue to pollute the world. I see the same in Willow Walk and Binsey Lane. Every year vast swathes of countryside are consumed by more and more building, without regard for other creatures or for ecological balance.

 And this local observation is surely replicated elsewhere in this country, in continental Europe and throughout  the world, where in many places pollution and environmental degradation is worse. Meanwhile, at increasing rate temperatures rise at an alarming rate as though there was no tomorrow as it is very likely for our species there will not be! I am bemused by the arrogance of those who hope that they will be able to establish colonies in other planets as though despoiling one was not enough. What is man, that thou art mindful of him?’(Psalm 8:4)

  In most of the world’s literature including most of the Hebrew Bible mankind is central, if only because these works were written by men. Occasionally in the Hebrew Bible the realisation that only God is central and our species is but one of myriads breaks through. I chose for our reading today a favourite passage in the book of Numbers in which an ass realises the imminence of the Holy Spirit and Balaam does not. This catholic impartiality of the Divine  is apparent in some of the psalms and is implicit in the prophetic writings. Jesus. who proclaimed God’s care for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, suggested a way of  living with Creation that challenges  the power structures of the world  and, in consequence, the world rejected and killed him. Others like St Francis saw God, the Divine Trinity incarnate all creatures, but much of his teaching was subverted as though the animals to which he preached were purely symbolic, but even if they were they stood for creation as a whole.

  I  look out from the vestry of St Mary Magdalene’s church at the supermarket opposite which is packed with people, there are perhaps three people at mass. Is the church dying amidst rampant consumerism? I do not know whether physical attendances will improve or not, though I am comforted by the presence of the saints, a multitude without number. I know that the world is finite, as I have said so many times, and I know God who can both create and recreate is Eternal.


  What might we do about it? At least we can think about our own lifestyles. How do we respond in love to the rest of the created world? I  think that as Christians or perhaps as Catholics (having been asked in the street recently whether I was a Christian or a Catholic) we need to decrease our reliance on consumer goods, which means not being reliant all the time on mobile phones or indeed computers, and probably not being reliant at all. The same goes for other mechanical devices and most certainly for the motor car. We should remember that the prophets, John the Baptiser, Jesus himself  and his great followers especially St Francis were peripatetic. If he were here today, and Francis’s father was a tycoon in charge of a hedge fund, Francis would have thrown all such stuff out of the window as distractions from the Creation and from God. Hedges with their bird and insect life not hedge funds please! Drugging ourselves with the internet is after all not so different from drugging ourselves with narcotics and the fact that the Church has fallen for it is rather dispiriting. In place of what we see on a screen explore the intricacies of the leaves, the profusion of insects,, the chatter of sparrows and other birds. We may ponder too and lament the loss of so many species, lost at our hands for arrogating so much of God’s earth for our often too selfish purposes, remembering that too many humans  in Africa, Asia and South America are marginalised. A wise fellow priest, also a scientist, spoke of population growth in the face of diminishing resources and climate change and showed a graph  of alarming steepness which he called an ‘extinction graph’.

 Do we truly aspire to the Heavenly Jerusalem, to the New Heaven and the New Earth foretold in Revelation? Or is that an idea which  we forget or merely relegate to the back of our minds. Genesis begins with the words: ‘In the beginning, God…’ God is the end of all things too, and he is the sole reason for our existence, our very temporary existence on earth before our species joins the dinosaurs and the many species of creature we have exterminated in our folly . Our lives only have true meaning on this planet if we praise him. Do we fulfil his purposes alongside other creatures (as enjoined in Psalm 148), or are we the one who disobeyed him and nailed him to the cross?  I leave you with that open question…but also with that one spark of hope, that second chance.

Christ has risen. He has risen indeed!


+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Photo credit: Photo © Steve Daniels (cc-by-sa/2.0)