St Francis’ Day – Season of Creation

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Matthew 21:33-46

The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

Today, the 4th of October, as our reflections during the Season of Creation draw to a close, we find ourselves celebrating the day dedicated to remembering St Francis of Assissi. St Francis, known from 1979 as the patron saint of ecology, saw God at work in creation, experienced God’s presence in the natural world, sensed that in that natural world God is speaking to us. His namesake Pope Francis wrote this: “he would call creatures, no matter how small, ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of St Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.” [1]

Over the past weeks in our cathedral we have explored our vocation to care for creation through poetry, preaching, photographs, music and liturgy. We have looked at practical things we can do. This evening, Lynn Arnold will be interviewing on the radio two members of the diocesan Creation Care Network. We have also pondered the idea that scripture can be viewed through the lens of ecology by imagining the earth as a character in the text, as having a voice in the bible. One way to do this would be to imagine St Francis himself reading the texts, reading this morning’s readings, perhaps, with his love of creation in mind.

What would St Francis notice, for example, in the Ten Commandments that we heard as our Old Testament reading this morning, that gift from God to the Israelite people given to Moses as they journeyed through the wilderness. The Ten Commandments divide into two groups, one dealing with our relationship with God, one with our relationship with one another. I wonder what St Francis might have noticed as he pondered the first set of commandments. I wonder if he would have pointed to the commandment about the Sabbath:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. (Exodus 20:8-11)

The Sabbath commandment points to the holiness of rest – rest for us and rest for the earth. It also reminds us of the seventh day of creation when God rested and God treasured, delighted in, all that God had made. The theme of this year’s Season of Creation is of Jubilee. The Jubilee is to take place every fifty years and according to biblical regulations, had a special impact on the ownership and management of land in Israel. According to the Book of Leviticus, Hebrew slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and the mercies of God would be particularly manifest. We are invited in our time and place to a time to consider the integral relationship between rest for the Earth and ecological, economic, social, and political ways of living. [2]

I wonder if St Francis would have found himself thinking in the commandments that deal with our relationships with one another about the commandments “You shall not steal” and “You shall not covet” as he read scripture with the earth he so loved in mind. Are we stealing from the resources of the earth, are we coveting in a way that causes damage? And what of the species that have become extinct? Would the grief of God at the loss of creatures God had imagined and brought to life seem almost to come under the commandment “You shall not murder”?

Let us imagine now St Francis pondering the parable that Jesus told in our reading from Matthew’s Gospel. When we spend time with a parable it often helps to sit with what puzzles us or annoys us. What would have caused St Francis to wonder if he took an earth perspective on the parable of the wicked tenants? The parable tells of a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower and leased it to tenants to care for as he went away to another country. The problem came when the landowner sent slaves and then more slaves and then his own son to collect the produce. The problem came when the landowner asked for the fruits of the vineyard to be given to him. Not only did these wicked tenants not hand over the produce, they took the lives of those who came on the landowner’s behalf.

We can only imagine St Francis watching with horror and disbelief at the tenants’ utter ruthlessness and, frankly, stupidity as they try frantically to cling to power over the vineyard and the fruits of that vineyard. St Francis might well have noticed that Jesus does not finish the parable himself but draws out of those listening the parable’s conclusion… ‘Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ Jesus asks them. They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’

Would St Francis place alongside this parable Archbishop Justin Welby’s words:

“The issues of climate change have been more and more clearly felt. They have a huge impact on economics, they generate conflict, they increase inequality to destabilizing levels. The outlook of climate change is not potentially bad, it is potentially fatal, for the most fragile countries and regions on earth and for the billions of people who live in them.”

Would St Francis see in this morning’s parable a resonance with humanity’s failure to care for the earth in our time and place? Would he watch with horror and disbelief at us as we struggle so terribly to treat this need seriously? And would he ask us the question that Jesus asked those listening to him …what will happen to those who fail to care for what has been given to them by God?

Finally as we look at those passages of scripture that have been given to us this morning, let us imagine St Francis chanting the psalm, Psalm 19.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”

The psalm begins.

St Francis would have sung this with all his heart. For this was the way he saw creation. All creation tells the glory of God, all creation proclaims his handiwork.

For five Sundays now we have worshipped in a liturgy designed to open our eyes a little more to God’s love for the earth. We have reflected on scripture with the earth, and the part we play in its care, in mind. We have engaged in our Cathedral with churches and denominations across the world in this Season of Creation. Today, St Francis’ Day, this season draws to a close and we will turn our focus to other ways in which God would have us worship, have us care. There is a confirmation to celebrate in a couple of weeks, at Choral evensong, and in a little more time the liturgical year will draw to a close and we will work together to prepare to celebrate Christmas in a way that gathers as many in to our Cathedral as Covid restrictions will permit. Dean Frank is already working closely with us on this.

But as we walk out of our Cathedral and as we leave the Season of Creation, we might remember. We walk out on the earth. We breathe the breath of life in company with the creatures of the earth. We treasure, with God who creates and loves and redeems, the earth.

[1] Laudato Si 11