The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi
The Very Rev’d Bertrand Oliver, Dean and Rector
Twenty five years ago, on St Francis day, I and a group of sixteen deacons left the Southwark Diocese retreat house, in the hilly countryside of south London, England, near Gatwick airport. We had been there on retreat before our ordination to the priesthood, and were being picked up that morning by a coach to take us straight to Southwark Cathedral, in time for the start of the ordination service.
As you can imagine, our whole group was buzzing with excitement, anxiety, fear, and in awe at this next step after our ordination as deacons a year previously. We had already been working in parishes for a year, and so had already faced some radical changes in our lives. The tasks and responsibility of priesthood were yet another step to take for which we felt mostly unprepared and unworthy, even though the church had decided otherwise, Bishops were lined up to lay hands on us, congregations had gathered at the cathedral and families had converged in order to witness this next event on our journey of faith. Quite a day ahead of us.
As we were stepping out into a bright English autumnal morning, something felt somewhat wrong. As we surveyed the rolling fields around us, we noticed that one sheep from a nearby flock had fallen and was on its back. Once in that position, sheep are unable to bring themselves upright, and they are in some danger to themselves.
What to do, as our coach was waiting, and we were in our best newly pressed clerical shirts and suits, full of ideas of Kingdom and Eucharist, sacraments and cathedral music, and no uncertain amount of stage fright in front of it all?
There was nothing to it in the end, we had to do the right thing by that sheep. And so a group of us ventured into the field, and after a few heave ho, we managed to get the poor animal in the upright position, and back to its life of not so safe grazing and contemplation. And we departed towards the cathedral, wondering whether there had been a sign, there had been a metaphor for ordained ministry, and whether that event would sometimes make a good story for a sermon.
And so today, as I celebrate the twenty fifth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, I remembered this event as I was pondering the many strands that are coming together at this time, in this place, the many things that have fallen that need to be righted, be brought back upright, a never ending task. Yet, when I reflect back on twenty five years, I am grateful for the adventure on which I was propelled when I answered yes to God’s and thankful for the extraordinary privilege of being able to be there for people in the heights of their joys, and in the lows of their distress and sorrow, to point out where blessings already existed, and to try and bring out more blessings when they were few and far between.
That call, like the call that St Francis answered, and the ones that many of us answer too, was unexpected, inconvenient, and led to the shedding of many assumptions and expectations in order to try and be faithful and follow where I, where we, are lead.
The set of readings appointed for today are quite different to those I preached on a few weeks ago as we started this Season of Creation, yet somehow they point in the same direction.
Our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah is stark and reminds those in authority, and all of us, that to know God is not to benefit from injustice and unrighteousness in order to grow our power base or amass a wealth to which we have no right in the first place.
To build palaces and cash reserves on the back of workers who are not paid proper wages for their work is anathema to God, and an abuse of power.
This was true for old testament Kings, and continues to be true for those who today would seek to rule the world through authoritarian regimes or transnational corporations which exploit workers and pay them as little as possible while destroying our environment for profit.
Taking into account the cause of the poor and needy is paramount in the eyes of God – this is the only way in which we can know God, says the prophet. This is the way in which St Francis understood his calling, by giving up everything and embracing a life of utter poverty.
Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, reminds us that the cross of Christ has brought redemption to the world, by creating a new relationship for us with God and the world. It is not our background which matters – religious or otherwise – but the marks of Christ – visible or invisible – which set us apart from the world. Paul carried them, deep in his soul and shining through his post-conversion life. And St Francis literally received them as stigmata, the wounds of Christ in his hands and feet.
For us, often less intense and visible perhaps, but shown every time we stand on the side of the poor and marginalised, every time we speak truth to power, every time we put our own lives on the line in order to witness to our God of justice, peace and love.
And in case we would think that the task is reserved for brilliant academic theologians, for a separate caste of the illuminati, Jesus – in the passage reported by Matthew – reminds us that in fact the plain truth of God’s plan can be seen much more easily by children, those who are able to see the world as it is, without preconception.
They have the ability to bask with awe at the shear beauty around, to delight with joy at the bug and the flower and the sun and the moon, and all that makes God’s creation still a paradise – despite mankind’s continued wilful destruction of it. And they can also immediately recognise injustice, inequality and abuse, which they know cannot be explained away no matter what.
God’s hand is in everything that we see – and if we choose to look and let go of our adult presumptions, we might just recognise its work again, instead of presuming it is ours. Celtic Christians might call this looking at the big book of creation, as opposed to the little book of scripture. We might call it humility and awe, mindfulness, contemplation or simply attentiveness to our baptismal call.
A call which, through the work of the Holy Spirit in us individually and corporately as a church community, moves us to reject all that is evil as we seek to follow Christ better.
As the Season of Creation comes to a close, we know of course that this does not mean that our attention moves away from the many evils which continue to bring our beautiful planet nearer to catastrophic destruction. In this past year, we have seen an increase in unexpected major climate events affecting peoples lives – most recently hurricane Fiona in the Maritimes, hurricane Ian in Florida and typhoon Noru in south-east Asia.
Lives are being lost, land is being submerged by rising sea levels and islands are disappearing. Natural resources – such as drinking water – will become scarcer.
It is scary, and urgent, yet we must not also lose hope. There are actions we can take, individually, and collectively. And we must take our politicians to task on their failings in this area and their continued collusion with big business. For those who can vote tomorrow, please vote wisely, and monitor your elected representatives.
Climate anxiety is becoming too much to bear for some, but Jesus’ message remains true: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
We are called to trust that Jesus is here with us, providing respite and comfort, and helping us to go forward when everything feels to great for us to carry.
If only we had faith as small as a mustard seed, we would be able to move mountains, we heard recently. But we also know that for the one in whom we have faith, everything is possible.
And so we must also trust in God through Jesus Christ, because we know that without God, nothing will be possible.
We must be driven by our Faith, the Faith which transformed the life of Francis of Assisi, from a rich heir to a wandering pauper, having given up everything yet having gained everything. And a faith which reminds us that in the end we are not in control, but God is.
Our faith in Jesus Christ is not a promise that we will be given comfortable lives in the shadow of a beautiful crucifix, but instead that we may be called to a very uncomfortable place including the place of torture of the cross, and yet still be called to witness to our faith in him in the ways in which we act with others.
As we bring to a close the season of Creation which the Church around the world set aside for prayer and action on the environment, as we remember St Francis and his particular take on a consecrated life well lived, some of us have today brought pets to be blessed.
These animals play an important role in our lives by showing us facets of God of which we might be unaware, and remind us that the planet is not simply for us to submit to our will, but instead for us to maintain as a place of living for all of God’s creatures, for all of God’s creation.
As we celebrate St Francis, let us remember not only his love for nature, but also that he eschewed all worldly wealth that he might fully live the life of the one who wandered around Galilee with his twelve friends, preaching the Gospel of God’s love and wholeness for all.
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