BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON
Last Sunday, in the parable of the man who had two sons, we reflected on the journey of what has traditionally been called the Prodigal Son.
St Francis of Assisi was a different kind of Prodigal Son. Initially, he left home on a journey to find himself as a man and returned in humiliation after being defeated, injured in battle and held prisoner. It was his journey of the expanding ego and Francis, much like the younger son in the parable, was crushed by the experience. But after some significant spiritual experiences, Francis left again, knowing himself to be a child of God and prepared to live in the light of that one reality – and to allow God alone to sustain and govern his life.
Initially, Francis set off into the world with specific goals and a hope for personal glory. Selfish and vain, he wanted to contrive a future in which he would be personally glorified. When he left the second time, stark naked, he had no more ambition than the flowers of the field or the birds of the air. His aim was simply to live, to be, to serve, and to glorify the Creator of all, and yet his impact on the future was enormous and still resonates today.
We have many prodigal sons and daughters in our time, young people who have walked away from their parents’ values and traditions, refusing to cooperate in the kind of community or personal goals that their parents and grand-parents did. But unlike St Francis, their worldview, their sense of the future, is often bleak and cynical – they seem to want to live just for the present moment, because they have given up on the future. In many ways, it’s hard to blame them.
For example, countless movies, going back to A Clockwork Orange, 1984, Planet of the Apes, Blade Runner, Children of Men, and, more recently, movies like Hunger Games and Mad Max, portray the future in dark and ugly terms – people fighting each other to the death against the backdrop of a sterile wasteland over the remaining limited resources. Some of these movies are attempting to be somewhat prophetic, but most are simply cynical, creating a deterministic narrative that is becoming fixed in the minds of many young people, making them hopeless and apathetic. That is not an inevitable direction and result. We may have hard choices about what the future will look like, but we do have choices. And for people of faith the essential element in what happens is God – call it the “X-factor of the universe” if you will.
These words: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” In other words, forget what has gone on in the past – it is not necessarily the sole predictor of the future. “Watch! I am about to do a new thing,” God says. And really, isn’t it only God who can do a completely novel, non-derivative thing?
And so the prophet Isaiah lays out a vision of rivers flowing in the wilderness, a whole new way of life emerging in places that had been written off as desert; the promise of new possibilities emerging for those who are prepared to listen. This same God, this same Spirit, needs to be allowed to speak to us and to be heard today. Francis heard God’s voice as he travelled about, and it is like his life became a kind of running dialogue with the divine.
Toward the end of his life, Francis created the beautiful song, Canticle of the Sun. Our first hymn this morning (All Creatures of Our God and King) is based on that Canticle.
But we have come a long way since then. We have gone from regarding the Sun as our brother, and the Moon as sister, to a very different orientation toward creation – a greedy, domineering, abusive, indifferent attitude that doesn’t care what animal species or waterway or eco-system is destroyed, because everything is co-opted to a systematized process that individuals feel they have no control over or responsibility for. But it’s killing OUR planet, it’s killing the place where WE live and where our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will try to find a place to live.
I love that line from our Eucharistic prayer today: “… this fragile earth, our island home …” Earth, this anomaly, this apparent fluke, floating about in endless space in which the norm is not life but deadness – planet after planet over billions of miles, even light years, with absolutely no sign of life – essentially huge masses of rock floating about in various orbits, related only by gravity.
Life is the anomaly in the universe, so you would think we would treat it as something sacred, yet we are already talking about the need to colonize and inhabit Mars! — a planet that is as dead as a doornail, that does not naturally support life of any kind, a planet that is 56 million km away at its closest orbit, because we have made such a mess of this planet – this gift – and because we have given up our hope and our faith not only in God but in ourselves and in each other.
In his powerful encyclical “Laudato Si”, Pope Francis writes: “’Praise be to you, my Lord (Laudato Si).’ In these words, taken from his beautiful Canticle of the Sun, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life, and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.”
700 years ago, the mystic Johannes Eckhart said “Every creature is a word of God.” We are just beginning to read the planet as a key aspect of God’s self-revelation, but First Nations people could help us to regain that perspective, since it remains an integral aspect of their spirituality. Through Isaiah the prophet, God speaks: “The wild animals will honour me, the jackals and the ostriches.” Francis developed a tremendous affinity with the creatures of the earth; he saw them in a personal way, not just as threats, or nuisances or as objects to be exploited. Francis used the term brother and sister for many things and creatures; he had no doubt they had things to “say” to us.
According to Luke, as Jesus entered Jerusalem, he said if people were to refuse to respond, even the stones would cry out. If St Francis were here today he might tell us that even the stones are indeed crying out.
Perhaps the most influential and best-known Franciscan in the world is Fr Richard Rohr, who said:
“The early Franciscans said the first Bible was not the written Bible, but creation itself, the cosmos: ‘Ever since the creation of the world, God’s eternal power and divinity–however invisible–have become visible for the mind to see in all the things that God has made’ (Romans 1:20). This is surely true; but you have to sit still in it for a while, observe it, and love it without trying to rearrange it by thinking you can fully understand it.”
Pope Francis, again in Laudato Si, says: “[Our] sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail’ (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.
As the Psalm says, “The Earth is the Lord’s” which is a reminder, a principle, that tells us that what we have on this planet is a sacred gift, not our property to use or misuse. St Francis of Assisi was deeply conscious of that, savouring every aspect of natural life, trusting himself to its rhythms, aligning himself with every aspect of it as a fellow creature, as a brother, or a son, not as lord or master.
Again, according to “Laudato Si”: “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 Saint 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.”
As Rohr says: “In Francis we see the emergence of a very different worldview, a worldview that is not based on climbing, achieving, possessing, performing, or any idealization of order, but a life that enjoys and finds deep satisfaction on the level of naked being itself — much more than doing or having. He learned this from Jesus. It seems to me the Franciscan worldview is now desperately important if the 7.4 billion of us are going to exist happily together on this one limited planet” (in The Art of Letting Go).
I realize that the Church deals largely in intangibles, which makes it difficult for us to prove to people that they are getting any actual or concrete reward for their donations and support. Yet where would a person be – where would we be? – without those “intangible” qualities like hope, faith, love, generosity, sacrifice, kindness, awe and wonder? Judas was right, on one level such attitudes are worthless, in that you cannot place a monetary value on them, but is life worth anything without them?
In Isaiah we hear the voice of God: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” The witness of scripture over many centuries of human experience teaches us that unexpected things can happen when we put our trust in God in more than a token way.
The young figure of St Francis, turning his back and walking out of his community’s stale values and bourgeois mindset, provides a living example of someone prepared to abandon old ways and material security entirely and put his life on the line, trusting that God will provide as long as he is faithful. The Church used to call this Providence. I am not sure what we should call it in our time, but we need to encourage it wherever we encounter it. Of course, we can’t all just walk off into the countryside, but we can recognize and celebrate, in the remarkable life of St Francis, a summons to a greater gratitude and appreciation of the beautiful and fragile existence that we largely take for granted.
In today’s Gospel, Judas represents what happens to people when they become fixated on material things, so desperate, so afraid and insecure that they actually discourage, block and interfere with people who are prompted by the Spirit to do those illogical but beautiful and symbolic things like Mary does in today’s Gospel. Both her gesture and Judas’s are significant in their own way. It is up to us to choose which path we wish to take going forward, which kind of attitude creates the kind of future in which the life of God can be manifested.
40 years ago, Joni Mitchell sang to a generation that was already in danger of losing its idealism and optimism: “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden” but the solution is not in retrieving some past event or idealized reality but in moving into the future in faith, hope and love, determined to make life-giving and responsible choices as we go forward.
St Paul, speaking out of the profound confidence that comes from Christ, says: “this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
In “Laudato Si’”, Pope Francis writes, “In the heart of this world, the Lord of life, who loves us so much, is always present. [God] does not abandon us, [God] does not leave us alone, for [God] has united himself definitively to our earth, and [God’s] love constantly impels us to find new ways forward. Praise be to God!”
The poet Emily Dickinson once wrote: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.” Maybe that is why St Francis preached to the birds.
Like peace, hope is a gift that transcends our capacities to understand or control. It is only in part an ability, an act of the will, because in good part it is simply a willingness to stay open to possibilities (or should I say Impossibilities), to persist in some kind of ongoing dialogue with that mysterious “X-Factor” that is the soul of the universe itself – which we call God or Christ or the Spirit.
If we have any wisdom – any sense of faith or trust – we must let the Mary’s and the Francis’s of life speak to us, and we must be doing what we can to convince people, especially young people, not to give up, not to become negative or hopeless, but to persist in walking faithfully toward the future God is trying to create for us, rather than the one that people like Judas (in their very finite wisdom) would create instead.
Be grateful for the hope that is in you. It is a sign of God’s presence and a conduit between you and God and the future.
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
Isaiah 43:16-21 Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.
Psalm 126 When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced. Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
Philippians 3:4b-14 If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
John 12:1-8 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”