What can we say about a man who preached to the birds, who picked worms out of the road so they wouldn’t be trampled by traffic, and who, when he was dying, insisted on being stripped naked and laid directly on the ground so that he could be at one with his beloved Mother Earth? We can say he was a saint. We can say that he was perhaps not quite sane. And perhaps we can say that Francis of Assisi was the first Christian environmentalist. Francis regarded the whole of creation as his family, and 800 years later, we are learning more and more about the intimate connections between all living things; we are learning just how perceptive our crazy saint was.
In Genesis, God commissioned human beings to subdue the earth and have dominion over all the creatures.
In Francis’ day it was safe to speak without qualification of dominion over the earth because humankind didn’t have the technology to do real damage. Major environmental change was caused only by natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, volcanoes or tsunamis.
Not until the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries did human beings start to get the idea that we could actually override nature, that we could tame the earth and force it to do our bidding. We started to believe that dominion meant totalitarian control and the freedom to do anything, no matter how abusive, to Mother Earth. This kind of power, this kind of hubris would have had no place in Francis’s world.
God placed us in charge of the creation, a sacred trust, and how have we repaid that trust?
We have hunted species to extinction.
We have created chemicals that kill indiscriminately, whether insects or plants, human beings or microbes.
We have irrevocably altered ecosystems with dams, with mountaintop removal mining, with carbon emissions, with nuclear explosions.
We have created designer animals for food and as pets; we have even started to create designer human beings.
And all this manipulation of the environment is coming back to haunt us, in allergies, in lethally resistant strains of bacteria, in climate change, desertification, and rising sea levels.
But God lovingly created human beings with an incredible capacity for learning and for inventiveness. In our unending quest to understand our world, we are now learning more and more about the checks and balances built into our world, and we are starting to appreciate what Francis meant when he sang of our mother earth, of our brothers sun, wind, and fire, our sisters moon and water. All of creation is intricately connected, and just as we care for our human families and our furbabies, we must also care for our nature family.
We are coming to understand that we need to change our attitude to dirt. My mother used to talk about “good, clean dirt”, meaning natural dirt, the kind of dirt that nurtures life, as opposed to something like motor oil. It sounds like an oxymoron, but there is wisdom in the saying.
Take the humble germ, for instance. We’re just starting to learn about the microbiome, the amazing multitude of microbes that live in our bodies: millions of non-human organisms that actually make up part of who we are. We are discovering that without the proper population of those microbes we fall prey to all kinds of ailments whose origins have been a mystery. Those ailments may include autoimmune diseases such as lupus, and ulcers. In other words, we actually need germs in order to be healthy. So it’s OK if your dog licks your plate, or if your toddler eats a cookie she found under the sofa. Too much hygiene is bad for your health.
We’ve learned from the experiment over half a century in Yellowstone National Park, where, in response to ranchers’ complaints, wolves were eradicated, which led to overpopulation of elk who ate all the young trees, which caused erosion and damaged the landscape. When wolves were reintroduced in recent years the balance shifted again and the landscape started to recover, benefiting the humans who live there.
The natural world, on every scale, is indeed part of our family. And living in harmony with that family is a faithful way to live, because the whole creation belongs to God, who entrusted it to us in love. All the earth is sacred ground and reverence towards it gives honor to the creator.
As people of faith, God’s people, we revere the products of the earth that are central to our sacramental life. Jesus took bread and broke it; he took wine and shared it. When we follow his example, opening the table to all who come, we are acknowledging our connection to all living things, and we are renewing our covenant with the earth, the ancient covenant that God made with Adam and Eve in the beginning.
When we welcome new members into the church, our baptism service asks us to make several promises, including a promise to honor the dignity of every human being. At the last General Convention of the Episcopal Church, an additional promise was approved, one that expands our previous covenant to include the wolves, the microbes, and our mother earth: “Will you cherish the wondrous works of God and protect the beauty and integrity of all creation?”
The response of course is “I will, with God’s help.”
I think Francis would have approved of that promise.
Our care and protection of all creation must begin with the way we respect the dignity of other human beings.
The suffering of the world’s poorest people – whether through hunger, disease, or oppression – has a direct relationship to the greed and luxury practiced in the developed world. As long as we pursue a way of life that demands ever-increasing production and consumption, we will continue to perpetuate the tragic inequities of our world. Francis of Assisi was uncompromising in his commitment to simplicity of life, one of the things that make him a saint.
In a time when public rhetoric encourages us to fear difference and to withdraw into homogenous enclaves, an inspiring story comes out of Omaha, Nebraska, where people of the three Abrahamic faiths have come together in something called the Tri-Faith Initiative. Christians, Muslims, and Jews pooled resources in 2011 to buy a 35-acre parcel of land, a former country club. Members of Temple Israel completed their synagogue on the property and opened their doors in 2013. The American Muslim Institute will complete its mosque next year, and Countryside Christian Church is currently raising funds for its new building. A shared community center will be the final component. The land is already being used for interfaith gatherings, and the three congregations are developing a network of relationships and shared ministries.
Last week I attended an interfaith meeting at the San Diego Islamic Center. We aren’t at a point of planning a shared worship space, but I did have a conversation with the Imam about a joint book study to read Michael Kinnamon’s forthcoming book on fear and faith.
This week the shooting of a distraught African man by an El Cajon police officer brought an ongoing national crisis into our own community. We grieve the death of Alfred Olango even as we grieve the climate of fear that causes police officers to literally shoot from the hip and that causes us to lock our doors against those who seem different. But our faith demands that we acknowledge our connection to one another, that we open our doors and our hearts to hear different voices, to learn new ways to care for our community, to use our God-given intelligence and creativity to build a more peaceful and abundant world for all of creation.
Bringing our pets to church is one symbol of our connection to all other creatures, an acknowledgment that without them our lives are impoverished.
And so we echo the beloved saint today as we offer praise to God for the earth and all her creatures, for all whom we call family, human and non-human alike. All praise and thanks be to God: creator, redeemer, and sustainer of all.
October 2, 2016 St Francis (transferred)
The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges