Last year, when we celebrated this day I recalled for you a little of the story of St Francis – when he lived, where he lived and what values he placed at the heart of what was to become the Franciscan Orders of Friars, Nuns and Tertiaries.
There is something about St Francis that resonates wonderfully with people today – I am sure that is why Pope Francis, who seems to be trying to embody the same values, is such a hit with people compared with his predecessor.
I think the two big issues of our time that are causing great angst for people is the environment and war/conflict. And on these two issues I think St Francis has a lot to say.
It is interesting when you consider the huge disconnect in humans in their consideration of Creatures and Creation.
On the one hand we marvel with David Attenborough in his nature documentaries at the extraordinary creatures of our world, and at least those of us in the wealthy first world heap adoration on our pets of various kinds – sometimes to an obscene extent in the face of poverty in the rest of the world, or even just a few suburbs away.
We love our animals. Many of us love growing food in our gardens. On one level creation is tops.
But on the other hand we have plundered creation with scant regard for the consequences for future generations. Global trade these days means, for example, that Chinese traditional medicines – which many of us think are marvellous compared with the chemically engineered trugs we get from a Pharmacist – could be responsible for the extinction of a large number of exotic creatures because they kill a whole rhino just to get its horns, they kill a whole tiger just to get their genitals, and more.
The combination of our capitalist economy which seeks to drive demand beyond the capacity of earth’s resources to meet in the quest for always and ever increasing returns to shareholders, and the Military Industrial complex which rapes one part of the environment for resources and then destroys another part of environment in the cause of exerting political power and influence has meant that in almost every corner of the world the habitats of beautiful animals has been depleted to such an extent that we have an ever-growing register of endangered species.
St Francis offers two key insights into how we might remedy this. He loved creatures and creation because they were each the handiwork of God, just as we are, and to not care for them is to not care for ourselves. He also demonstrated a humility in his relationship with creatures. Rather than seeing himself as superior to them – the pinnacle of Creation, made just a little lower than the angels – and lauding his power over the creatures, he prefers to adopt a stance of equality with animals. We stand together. We live in solidarity with each other. We serve the least – as Jesus said so clearly to James and John in our Gospel today.
The Gospel Way always seems to be radically different from the way of the world. What amazes me about St Francis is that in his own way in the small part of the world he lived in he could see the Gospel challenge to the powers that be and the wisdom of the world.
The other great gift he made in this area was taking seriously the call to simplicity. Today we would say “Live simply, so that all may simply live.” And there are powerful counter-cultural movements working towards simplicity in our western world today – many working without a religious framework. The Edible Garden Movement. Recycling Movement. The Tiny House Movement. All the movements towards renewable energy.
But Francis was onto that long ago. He required his monks to live simply. They took a vow of poverty. They could not be caught up in anything like the consumerism we worship in our day. They took seriously Jesus’ aphorism about not worrying today about what you will do tomorrow – because God will give you all you need. We should live with this much more in our mind than we do – and thus make our life on this planet capsule more sustainable.
When he was making his farewell speech as President of the United State, General Eisenhower said:
A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction...
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.
We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.
Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex.
The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.
It’s a bit longer than one of Jesus aphorisms, but I thought in its entirety it gives an insight into why we live in such a troubled world.
The military/industrial complex has hijacked public policy in the fields of foreign and national affairs. Arms manufacturers and their financiers make a lot of money out of war – just consider how much it is worth to them to keep alive the conflict between the State of Israel and the Palestinians.
“We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence” the President said, yet almost every year since his departure from office the American military has been deployed in places as an expression of the desire of subsequent presidents to secure unwarranted influence in affairs they should leave to others to settle.
And look at the place now. Huge areas of South East Asia a desolation from degrading defoliants and land mines. The Middle East awash with misguided religionists wanting to impose their power and influence in places they have no right to.
In St Francis’ day there was conflict between Muslims and Christians. Paul Moses, in his 2009 book “The Saint and the Sultan,” says:
In 1219, in the midst of disastrous Fifth Crusade, Francis crossed enemy lines to gain an audience with al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt and a nephew of the great Muslim warrior Saladin, in his camp on the banks of the Nile. Francis, who opposed the warfare, hoped to bring about peace by converting the sultan to Christianity. He didn’t succeed, but came away from the peaceful encounter with revolutionary ideas that called for Christians to live harmoniously with Muslims.
There are Muslims today who share that vision – indeed live it out where they live. I know that many Christians struggle with the idea of living harmoniously together rather than seeking conversion. It is also especially hard for Christians who have suffered at the hands of Muslim oppressors because of their Christianity – like our Nuba friends. But the truth is, there are many grounds by which Jesus is honoured within Islam, and friendship with Christians is commended in the Quran, despite the things claimed by those who have distorted Islam for their own purposes.
So, I am not proposing any answers to life’s problems or solutions for global calamities. I am simply saying how interesting it is that one of the Saints of God who lived 700 years ago in a far less complex world than we do had some insights about life, inspired by the teachings of Jesus that could show us all how to live better in this place.
The Lord Be With You!