The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:

s229e10    St Francis    Church of the Epiphany  Hanmer    3/10/2010

In the name of God, Life-giver, Pain-bearer and Love-maker.   (Fr Jim Cotter

‘the cross .. by which .. I .. have been crucified .. to the world’   Galatians 6.14 (rearranged)

It is lovely to be here in New Zealand.   You will have already realised that I am from elsewhere! :-)  New Zealand is a lovely country, were one is close to nature in all it’s glory, most everywhere one might live.   From the vicarage in Mt Pleasant, we enjoy views of the Pacific Ocean as we eat our breakfast, and on our drive to anywhere else we see the snow covered mountains in the distance soon after we get on the road.   So it is particularly appropriate to celebrate this closeness, which is especially tangible here in NZ, and perhaps so tangible that we might on occasion take it for granted.

St Francis is arguably one of the most popular saints in the world at large, putting aside St Nicholas, who has so morphed into Santa Claus that his christian origins have been entirely lost.   There would be many an atheist and agnostic who would aspire to emulate the simplicity of Francis, and his renunciation of wealth and of this we should be glad.   Francis is particularly noted for his communion with nature and the animal kingdom, and this reminds us of the first and second Genesis stories, where in the one humanity is given dominion over the animal kingdom, and in the second the animal kingdom is created in order to provide a suitable companion for the first human.   Immediately we see two different attitudes to animals - creatures to tame and use - and creatures who bring us companionship and love.

Some years ago, I took up the practice of Yoga, and it often took me back to the creation accounts.   In Yoga, it is breathing, the Pranayama, that really brings health and strength to the physical body and this, of course, has much resonance with God breathing the breath of life into the first creature of clay.

But it is also interesting, that for me, the Genesis accounts point also to another vital part of life - our relationships, yes with the creation and the other creatures - but also to our relationships, our intimate relationships with other people.   No one is meant to be alone; neither man or woman, divorced or gay.

And this is why I have chosen the text from Galatians, and adapted it to make St Paul’s words plain.   The cross means that he is crucified to the world.   And, of course in this, he only seeks to emulate Jesus.   Jesus was crucified, not because he claimed to be anyone special, but because he associated with ‘tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners’.   He was crucified because he had a relationship with people other than the biblically orthodox, the religious and the devout.

St Francis is loved by many people other than those who call themselves christians, as well as those who do, for his simplicity and for his love for animals and nature.   He points us to the importance of relationship, and the relationship we all have with everything and everyone around us.   For me, this is the essence of the cross of Jesus.

So often the church has seen itself as in opposition to the world around us.  So the Pope recently urged Britains to beware of "aggressive secularism."   And of course, it is not just the Pope or the Roman Catholic Church; a goodly number of Anglicans and ‘christians’ would believe likewise.   Somehow we have lost that unconditional acceptance of the other  - that Jesus practised.   We talk about unconditional love, yet we define what people believe, how people worship, and when and with whom others might be intimate with extraordinary narrowness.   We have lost that conspicuous love for others, no matter who they are.

Recently I attended a neighbouring parish when a newly ordained priest was celebrating her first eucharist.   And the preacher spoke about the fourfold actions at a celebration, the taking, the blessing, the breaking and the giving.   And while this is entirely true of the bread and the wine, it is also true of the priest, him or herself.   The priest is taken and blessed, that part is immediately obvious.   But then the priest is broken and distributed to others.   I haven’t strayed too far from my text really.   St Paul says: ‘the cross .. by which .. I .. have been crucified .. to the world’ really expresses precisely the same sentiments.  

And I do not mean the universal experience of parish clergy being at the beck and call of everyone from the Bishop to the caller at the door wanting money for ‘nappies for the baby’.   I mean that we need to have our biblical, moral, theological, spiritual, devotional or whatever sanctuaries broken open, so that we are ordinary humans giving ourselves to other ordinary human.  

St Paul had to let go of all the prejudices towards others which led him to set out on that road to Damascus.   The Lord met him and told him that in persecuting others he was persecuting the Lord.

The feast of St Francis calls us to a conspicuous love for all around us, nature, the animal kingdom and humanity too.   There is so much to wonder at, to embrace.   Let us appreciate the amazing discoveries of science, who bring us pictures of the universe beyond the sight of the naked eye through the Hubble telescope, right through to pictures of the atomic world otherwise completely invisible.

There is so much in which to delight, there is so much to love, there is so much to embrace, and most wonderfully, a God who encourages us to do so.

(I am sorry to my internet readers, for this oft repeated mantra, but this is a new ‘real’ congregation to whom I am preaching) ‘We are called to be born again – into society – not out of it.   We are to be incarnated into the world, fully as Jesus was – not into a holy huddle.  We are to repent, to rejoice that others are found, that others are included – not challenged, marginalised and alienated.   A theology, whether it be biblical, traditional or whatever that removes us from the masses of people with whom Jesus associated has gone seriously awry. 

To return to the Genesis stories that set before us those two different attitudes to animals - creatures to tame and use - and creatures who bring us companionship and love.   I point out that there are two different attitudes to the animal kingdom.   One does not treat a rampant lion the same as one’s pet dog!   Common sense tells us to at least get out of the way of the rampant lion, lest we become its breakfast!   So I can understand the words about having dominion over the animal kingdom - but they are not the whole story.   Indeed, because the Bible gives us another account of creation, the Bible itself tells us that having dominion is not the whole story.  

I guess I am not the only one astonished to read in Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ a number of stories like that of the little Bachman’s warbler which ‘by the 1930’s .. had vanished altogether and went unseen for many years.   Then, in 1939, by happy coincidence two separate birding enthusiasts, in widely separate locations came across lone survivors just two days apart.   They both shot the birds.” (p572),     Bryson writes: ‘It is a truly astounding fact that for a very long time the people who were the most intensely interested in the world’s living things were the ones most likely to extinguish it.’ (p569)   How easy it is to delude oneself into believing that we are loving another when we are in fact killing the other, and I am now thinking about our human relationships.

When we do not accept another for who they are, we are killing their individuality.   When we do not accept another for who they are, we are precluding any possibility that they might have something of benefit to offer us, even if they are not ‘christian’ or believers in anything.

God invites us into a real relationship with all that is around us.   A real relationship of equality and mutual benefit.   And this is a vision that is nothing new, nor the idealistic musings of a ‘new age, long haired, groupie’.   From somewhere around 740 BCE, the prophet Isaiah speaks of a time quite different from one where humanity has dominion over the animal kingdom, when: ‘The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.   The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.   The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.   They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.  (11.6-9)  Amen, so may it be!

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