St Margaret’s Church, Binsey Evensong on Sunday 14th October [Trinity 20]
Revd. Professor Martin Henig
Psalm 90:13-17; Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Mark 10: 13-31
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said,’ You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come ,follow me,’ When he heard this he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions [Mark 10:21-22]
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last weekend I was away in Portsmouth for a conference on the Marine Environment sponsored by the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals and for the Annual Eucharist also sponsored by ASWA. More on that shortly. That meant I was not able to preach myself on Environmental matters on the Sunday closest to the day of St Francis’ death on 3rd/4th October 1226. However, I did at least celebrate mass in St Mary Magdalen’s Church, Oxford on 4th and delivered a brief homily on the life and mission of this most remarkable of saints.
Francis was surely the very type of the rich young man, born in Assisi in 1181 or 1182, as Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, the son of a wealthy silk merchant Pietro and a Provencal mother , because of whom he was given the nickname Francesco by which he is remembered. In his youth he lived the extravagant life of many other young men of his class and culture, attracted to the romance of troubadour songs and serving as a soldier. In 1202 he was taken prisoner in a battle against Perugia and spent a year in confinement, though on his release he returned to his carefree life. However, a mystical vision in a ruined country chapel of San Damiano in which the icon still hanging on the wall, asked him to repair God’s house changed all that. He came to the realisation that he was being asked to follow Christ literally. Subsequently he gathered followers around him, went to Rome and was granted permission by Pope Innocent III to found an order of Friars. Inspired, led by God, he reaped no material reward. Not an administrator, he gave up leading his order, and the gift he received from Heaven in 1224 two years before his death was the stigmata, lesions in his hands and feet which mirrored the wounds of Jesus.
Francis took the words of Christ literally and put them into practice. Everyone was a brother or sister, the poor, those suffering from diseases such as leprosy , considered unclean by his contemporaries as they were in the time of Our Lord, foreigners and those of other faiths (he famously accompanied the Fourth Crusade to Egypt and in 1219 visited the Ayyubid sultan al-Kamil). For Francis the whole of Creation was holy, created by God, and his most famous statement of this is his famous Canticle of the Creatures. These are the physical elements which make up the earth and the universe in general, but they encompass not just humans but all other animals. Francis preached to the birds; one of his early followers St Antony of Padua (1195? -1231) is said to have preached to the fish.
Following Christ, who tells us that God cares for the birds of the air, and the flowers of the field, and living a life of humility and responsibility means that we have a duty of care for the environment. This has been emphasised recently by stark warnings from the scientists about the consequences of global warming which by the irresponsible use of fossil fuels and the consumption of meat on a vast scale we are bringing on ourselves. If we use creation as commodity how can we.as Amos tells us, truly be said to ‘hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate’ – that is in our communities. If we are blind to other creatures in the environment, if we are blind to the suffering of other creatures, why should we expect God to be good to us?
The ASWA conference was more narrowly focussed on one part of the environment, the sea. Human beings have lived in contact with the sea, with lakes and rivers from remote prehistory. One explanation of why we are hairless in comparison with other primates is that at one time we were semi-aquatic. In prehistoric and early historic times humans learned to fish and to navigate boats, but the human impact was relatively restrained, so in Psalm 104 the psalmist enthuses:
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
creeping things innumerable are there,
living things both small and great.
There go the ships,
and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.[verses 24-26]
The sea belonged to God. Human beings were of no greater significance to God than the great whales, creatures we now know as possessing remarkable cognitive powers and emotional sophistication in the same range as ours, and of course a like sensitivity to pain.
What is happening now? We continue to treat the creatures of the sea as mere commodity, fishing with drag nets on a damaging, industrial scale. We humans have long hunted the great whales almost to extinction, and even now the killing of whales has not ceased, while the noise we make with our ships, not to mention our obscene use of explosives in warfare, in mining and in drilling which also damages the marine environment, by filling it with noise so that whales and other creatures have difficulty in communication with each other. We use great nets to drag in fish by the ton, oblivious to the fact that we now know fish have emotions and feel pain, and many other creatures (dolphins, turtles, sea-birds) are caught in the nets; we pollute the seas with oil which kills birds and marine life over a wide area, and with plastic causing havoc for example to turtles and to sea-birds such as albatrosses and petrels which feed plastic bags discarded by humans to their young, mistaking them for jellyfish, and minute pieces of plastic ingested by fish and other marine creatures and which thus enter the food train. And, of course, we continue to test and use weapons of war on the oceans; Finally, our neglect in limiting carbon emissions has raised temperatures which among other dire effects threaten the coral reefs which play such a vital role in the fragile ecosystem.
Because the seas look deceptively pure, we often fail to see that human action is now every bit as damaging here as it is on the land. As on land, the motivation for all this goes far beyond securing our needs; it is in large part fuelled by human lust for power, and desire for domination (hence the long history of naval warfare now including nuclear weapons) and greed. When we exploit nature do we ever stop to think of the God who created all this wonder? Do we remember the words of the prophets of Ancient Israel, that we have sinner and will, in consequence, have to pay a heavy price?
The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt… [Isaiah 24;5-6]
Recent stark warnings from international agencies telling us that if we do not take note of our actions as a society we will seriously jeopardise future generations, are, I fear, likely to go as unheeded just as were the warnings of the prophets of old, for as long as people can get away with living to excess they will do so, even while it is clear that other people in distant parts of the world and even in our own Western nations are suffering, and the rights of other creatures hardly ever get much attention.
Nevertheless, each of us has some responsibility and we have to act as though each one of us holds the future in her or his hands. I was pleased to see that the last issue of the Church Times was devoted to the Environment and Climate Change, though the Church’s focus has been very much centred on getting away from reliance on fossil fuels rather than on wider issues. For anyone suffering the choking roads of Oxford, knows that we must rely less on cars; another major cause of climate change is the eating of meat, and here reduction and ideally total restraint also reduces the blatant cruelty involved in killing sentient creatures. If we follow the teachings of Christ, even making a personal commitment against the grain of an unfeeling world has merit in the sight of the Divine. And, after all, on a rational level what hope had Jesus and his followers to change the world, what hope had Francis when he set out to rebuild the church. Doing God’s will, living in total love to all, even against all the odds has to be right.
The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was a mystic who rebelled against Christianity and, indeed, was sent down from University College, Oxford in 1811 for publishing a tract on The Necessity of Atheism but these words from the end of his play Prometheus Unbound which he published in 1820, two years before the poet was drowned at sea off Lerici, are ones which we might all take to heart if we are truly tpset out to change both our own lives and those of others.
To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.