Saturday, October 24, 2009

Pentecost +21B

Back (I think) in the 1920s, the famous German playwright, Bertolt Brecht, invented a new approach to live theatre that he called the ‘alienation effect’.  At the time, this was radical stuff – course, if you’ve seen a play in the last 50 years or so you might not think Brecht’s approach was all that brilliant for the simple reason that ever since Brecht everybody has been doing it that way.  His invention was just that stunning.  The ‘alienation effect’ just means you use various tricks to make the familiar seem unfamiliar, to create a sort of psychological barrier to make it a bit harder for the audience to just slide uncritically into the illusory world of the narrative.  Brecht wanted his audiences to actually think about what was going on.  It might be as simple as a few abstract stage props or lighting techniques, or else an actor that all of a sudden steps out of the role and starts talking directly to you in the audience, but the idea is that when you’re watching the play, you have a little bit of emotional distance, a bit of objectivity so that you get to see familiar realities in a new light.

Mark’s Gospel, I think, does exactly that.

One of the reasons I just love this Gospel is that it is so compact and concise.  Not just because you can read it through in a spare hour or two – in fact quite the opposite.  You’ve got to slow down.  It’s like reading a telegram, you’ve got to slow down enough to really think about why the person who wrote it chose this word instead of that word.  Mark doesn’t dress it up with poetic bits or fine literary descriptions, there’s not a single piece of useless information.  Mark would also have agreed with the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov who used to say to his students, ‘pay attention!  If you see a shotgun hanging over the fireplace at the beginning of Scene One then you know it’s going to get used before the end of Act Two’.  With Mark you’ve got to pay attention to the details.  So, for example, in our story today, the name Bartimaeus literally means "son of Timaeus" but just we don’t already know that, Mark tells us.  Which means you’ve got to figure that the name has got some significance.  Son of Timaeus, literally, it means the son of worthiness.  Someone to emulate.

Mark tells us that Jesus was just on his way out of Jericho.  He’s come to Jericho for some reason that Mark doesn’t tell us, and now they’re off again.  They’re an in-between place; on the way somewhere else – which, when you think about it, when we least expect it, is often when the most significant things happen. Jesus has been trying to get the disciples to "see" what it was that he is about, but they’re not getting it. So this is the first significant thing, the irony that this man who physically is blind can actually see better than anyone else.  He can’t see, but he has insight. This blind man, this "son of worthiness" calls Jesus ‘son of David’ which we know is a code word for Messiah.  The one who is anointed to lead God’s people out of the darkness.  So this is the first thing, that there’s none so blind as those that won’t see.  Mark is playing with metaphors here, he is asking us, in effect, whether we have really got the point like Bartimaeus or whether like the disciples we can’t see the wood for the trees.  Are we so dogmatic about the Christ of faith, for example, that we fail to actually see that, in Jesus, God is revealed to us as the God who is actually with us all the time.  Are we so caught up in our own preconceptions, so wrapped up in ourselves, that we fail to see God’s splendour in creation, God’s image in one another, God’s beauty in ourselves.  Being blind means we don’t see clearly what’s all around us, we don’t see one another clearly and we have a distorted image of our own selves.  This is a very common form of blindness – not seeing ourselves as God sees us – in our competitive, throw-away society men and women learn to see themselves as commodities and judge themselves to be ugly, or useless or past it.  Instead of seeing themselves as God sees them, as beautiful, as capable of love, as open to the transformation of grace.  Blindness like this, of course, is the result of sin – sometimes our own sin, sometimes the sin of a whole society.

But here’s the second thing.  Bartimaeus really is blind.  He’s not just a convenient metaphor.  We don't know how he became blind but we’re told he wants to see ‘again’ so we can assume he wasn’t born that way.  Like people everywhere who live with disabilities, but even more so in the very, very non-PC 1st century, Bartimaeus is living on the edges of society.  Being blind meant being marginalised, pushed out, being told he must have been a particularly bad sinner to be in such a state.  Bartimaeus is (or at least he should be) the pin-up boy of anyone who has ever felt that their disabilities are what define them, because he is persistent.  He doesn’t give up.  A child of God who has faith that this other child of God can make a difference in his life, and so he doesn’t hesitate to make a nuisance of himself.  And Jesus shows us – as he does time and again – that God’s agenda is always to be interruptible, always to be available.

The action-words in this story tell us a lot about Bartimaeus.  When Jesus speaks to him, acknowledges his presence and calls him over, Bartimaeus "springs up” and "throws off" his cloak.  This is what he’s been waiting for, and he doesn’t hesitate – yet, strangely enough, Jesus stops and asks him what he wants – see, here’s an alienation effect, it gets us, the audience to pay attention because the gospel writer has in effect stepped up to the front of the stage and looked us in the eye and said ‘well, what about you?  What are you after?’

I think this is the crux of it.  What do you want?  What do you really want in your life?  What are your priorities?  This is what Mark is asking us here.  And this is where he is playing with his metaphor again because Bartimaeus says ‘I want to see again’ – but when Jesus tries to send him on his way with just the gift of physical sight he isn’t having a bar of it.  Instead, this guy is following Jesus on the Way – a word that in the 1st century was a code word for the Christian movement itself – in other words, if you really see, then you have to act on it.  Seeing means commitment.

Now you know, and I know, because by this stage we’re two-thirds of the way through the gospel, that where Jesus is headed next is Jerusalem, and an ignominious death on a Roman cross.  That’s what happens next in Mark’s story.  What Mark is saying is that to truly see who Jesus is, is to understand that his way isn’t the way of being smart, or cool or successful, it’s the way of the cross, what the world sees as powerlessness and vulnerability.  Is that what you really want?

It is no accident that the words we use for the physical senses of touch, taste, hearing and sight are also the words that the Gospels use to speak of deeper spiritual realities. The things that are the most real to us are those things which are tangible, touchable, taste-able, see-able, smell-able.  The point is that the spirituality of the cross is just as tangible, just as earthy as that.  You either get it or you don’t.

The way Mark tells it, Jesus’ disciples can’t see because they’re caught up in their preconceptions that Jesus’ agenda has to be other-worldly and triumphal.  The people who get the point are the blind and the lame, the oppressed and the downtrodden; the ones society has given up on.   And what they understand is that Jesus is showing them that God doesn’t identify with the powerful and the rich, God identifies with them.  So Bartimaeus not only gets the point, but he understands the next step which is to follow Jesus on the way that he’s actually going: the way to Jerusalem.

So, here’s the other point – that there’s a connection between being on the receiving end of Jesus’ healing touch, and being propelled on your own journey of costly love.  What we most desire also points us in the direction of how God wants us to change and what God wants us to give.  Bartimaeus wants to see, and what he sees is the way of the cross.  What he sees is that the way of the cross isn’t just a spectator sport, it’s a journey that we’re being asked to sign up for.

‘So what do you want?’  That’s Mark’s stage-whisper to us, the audience.  It’s the same stage-whisper we hear 16 centuries later, from St Ignatius who pads it out a bit for us.  ‘What’s your desolation?’, he asks us.  ‘What’s your unhealed wound or you secret shame that holds you back from giving and receiving the joy that God made you to share?’  ‘What do you, really, most want in the whole world?  Be honest!  What’s your secret hope that you wouldn’t dare speak aloud?  Because that’s where God is calling you to be whole, that’s where God is daring you to change and to grow, and to join in the dance of love that God calls the way of the cross.’



Friday, October 16, 2009

The doctor I go to – not so often, I hasten to add – is one of about 25 doctors working out of one of those mass-production mega-clinics.  My doctor is always run off his feet – surrounded by gizmos, he spends more of his time looking at his computer than at me, and every other time he forgets my name.  He gets right to the point, which is one of the things I like about him, and he doesn’t waste my time so I don’t waste his.  It’s an arrangement that seems to work for both of us.  But every now and then I find myself marvelling at how much the whole idea of a doctor has changed.

When I was a boy – living in Narrogin – that was when we had a real doctor.  This doctor always smelled of ether, and he gave us kids a lolly after every needle – of which if memory is anything to go by we seemed to be lining up for one every other week, and he told us stories.  Dr Francis also used to visit us at home when we were sick in bed with the mumps, which happened most weeks when we weren’t getting needles.  He was scary and reassuring and grave and friendly and sometimes cross, and clearly he knew everything there was to know.  No doctor ever since has come even close to measuring up.

The traditional view of St Luke, of course, is that he was a doctor, in fact the doctor St Paul describes in his letter to the Colossian Church as a beloved physician.  This actually comes down to us from Irenaeus, late in the second century, who also tells us St Luke was born in Antioch and died in Boeotia at the age of 84, without ever having married.  It’s Irenaeus who tells us that Luke wrote the Gospel that nowadays bears his name (even though it’s not actually in there anywhere), and the Acts of the Apostles.  We actually don’t know any of this for sure, and some Bible scholars find reason to doubt that the writer of Luke’s Gospel had ever even met St Paul, given that the portrait of St Paul we find in the Acts of the Apostles is pretty much the opposite of the St Paul we get to know in his own letters.  But if Irenaeus is right, and my New Testament professor is wrong, which is always a possibility, then St Luke would have been a proper doctor like Dr Francis, for sure. 

This image of Dr Luke is very attractive indeed.  Like Dr Francis, he is urbane and well-educated, writing in the very best literary Greek.  Dr Luke is equally at home in the Judaism of his day and the wider cosmopolitan world of the Roman Empire.  He is sensitive to the political dimensions of Jesus’ ministry, unique in presenting Jesus as good news to the poor and the oppressed, and in including as full partners in Jesus ministry and the life of the early Church the one-half of the population most Jewish writers of his time generally pretended didn’t exist – women.  Luke also presents the Good News of Jesus’ Gospel primarily in terms of healing. 

Next year – next Church year, that is, which begins in about six week’s time – we begin the year of Luke.  So it’s wonderful good fortune to have the feast day of St Luke, who for my money we might just continue to think of as a beloved physician, fall on a Sunday.  We get a sneak preview and an introduction.

What’s so special about Luke?  As a storyteller, Luke knows how to paint a picture in words that we want to hear over and over again, that we want to be surprised and delighted by, that we remember and understand as good news in a human context – where St John in his prologue tells us what the Incarnation of the Word of God means in profound and cosmic terms, St Luke gives us the story of a baby born in a town with a name that means “bread-basket”- a baby placed in an animal’s feed-trough as though to say “look! This is food!” – a story of faithful men and women that connects us with the stories of the Old Testament and so promises us that the faithfulness of God is both radically new and at the same time utterly continuous with what God has done for God’s people in the past.

Luke has got a copy of Mark’s Gospel in front of him, the earliest Gospel ever written.  We know this because like Matthew, he uses great big chunks of Mark.  And like Matthew, Luke has got access to a pre-existing collection of sayings that scholars call ‘Q’ – from the German word for ‘source’ – a collection of stuff that Mark doesn’t have but we read in both Luke and Matthew’s Gospels – and then Luke comes up with some other stuff that we don’t read anywhere else, and these are the best-loved stories of all - stories like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal son that we connect with at a deep level because we know they are deeply true – life, we know, is like that – and leave us asking ourselves uncomfortable questions like “which of the characters in that story is like me?  Am I like the selfish son?  Or am I like the self-righteous brother?”

I think it’s as a storyteller that Luke presents the Gospel in a way that most challenges us today.  Stories are how we tell ourselves, consciously or sub-consciously, who we are and what we stand for.  What we are about.  The stories that float around within families connect us to one another and give us a sense of continuity.  The loss of stories leads to social dislocation – we know this because we live in an age, and in a culture, that has lost contact with the stories of its own past.  Luke’s stories reconnect us, re-situating us in the context of family life and human frailty and goodness, challenging us to recognise the possibility of holiness in our own lives and our own society.

Luke sets out his agenda at the beginning of his Gospel, like a good ancient historian.  He makes no claim to being an eyewitness, he’s not one of the original disciples and he’s writing to a generation to whom all this has already receded into tradition.  Maybe to many Jewish Christians towards the end of the first century it was no longer quite clear how or even if their own brand of Judaism could claim to be the authentic strand  And so Luke writes in verse four of the first chapter that he decided to write the definitive account of all these things so that his readers might have the truth, and here he uses the Greek word, aspháleia, the same Greek word that gives us asphalt, in other words, Luke’s agenda is to give us something firm to walk on.  Because Luke is addressing an identity crisis in the early Church, he connects the radical good news of Jesus with the solid faith of Old Testament figures, through characters like Elizabeth and Zechariah, Anna and Simeon whose lives are focused on the temple.

But Luke doesn’t just show us a picture of Jesus as the fulfilment of Israel’s ancient yearning for wholeness – Luke’s special agenda is to show us Jesus as the compassion of God for the weakest and the poorest and the least powerful.  Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is subtly different in Luke’s Gospel – in his beatitudes he has Jesus pronouncing God’s blessing not on those who are poor in spirit but on the literally poor – not on those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, but on those who are literally hungry – not on the merciful but on those who weep.  If Luke is a physician, then he observes Jesus’ ministry with an physician’s eye attuned to human suffering and a theology that says God’s promise in Jesus is the transformation of suffering into joy.

In celebrating Luke, physician, companion of Paul or maybe not – we need to remember his Gospel has a sequel.  That’s another thing that makes this Gospel writer unique.  He doesn’t just write about Jesus, he also writes about the Church.  Why?  Because according to St Luke the Church itself is also a part of God’s action in history, it’s being led by God, and the same pattern of healing and transformation we saw in Jesus is also being enacted in the Church.  That was good news for the tired and dispirited Church of the late first century, and it’s good news for us.

Luke has a schema, a theory of history that he says is being fulfilled in the Church – in his Gospel everything moves towards Jerusalem as the centre, and in the Acts of the Apostles the action moves outwards again, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.  The Church as St Luke describes it is not just grounded in the past, it is also on the move, encountering new cultures and new contexts for the Gospel.  And it’s the Holy Spirit who speaks a fresh word at every turn not just to reassure but to reignite, to inspire with fresh perspectives, new insight and rekindled passion.  St Luke, in other words, encourages us to reflect on where we’ve been, as a template for where we’re going.

In our culture, medical doctors are women and men with great power, possessors of knowledge and technology that can make the difference between life and death.  We go to the doctor, sometimes, acutely aware of our own powerlessness and dependence.  What difference does it make, then, if we reflect that St Luke, of all the Evangelists, might have been a doctor?

I think, for a start, it reminds us that the everyday world of human physical existence, food and shelter, families and work, are the context in which we experience the holy mysteries of transformation and grace.  It’s a reminder of the holiness of the physical, the sacramentality of bone and corpuscles and nerve-fibres.  It’s a reminder that the Jesus of the Gospels challenges us to live lives of healing and hope - not just in the promise of heaven, but in the particular contexts of our lives on earth, where the hope of heaven makes sense - to confront injustice just as we confront disease, and to declare that God’s intention for creation is for flourishing and wholeness.

Now if only I could find a doctor like that.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Pentecost +19

In one way at least, I think I must be a profound disappointment to my wife.  I can't dance to save my life.  Alison on the other hand can boogie with the best of them.  A couple of times we have even taken dancing lessons together, and once I thought I had the hang of it.  We had a very patient teacher, who assumed we were all absolute beginners.  Every dance was carefully demonstrated, every step, every twist and turn carefully described, and she got us to step through the dance in slow motion while she carefully observed and check that we all ended up facing the right direction.  We learned each movement separately, and I carefully memorised every sequence, trying not to stare at my feet but counting furiously, mentally picturing my feet going exactly where they were supposed to go.  Alison, I have to say, was very patient with me considering all she wanted to do was let loose and dance.  Finally, after five weeks of lessons, came the dinner dance.  We arrived on the night, the lights were down low, everybody dressed to the nines and the music was just right.  Let's dance, she said.  No problem, I said, this one's easy, we've been practising it for weeks.  So we walked out onto the dance floor, the music started, I stepped on Alison's feet, zigged when I should have zagged, mentally froze and realised I'd forgotten everything I'd learned over the last five weeks.

I think I over-analyse.  I think my problem is that I think about it too much, that I worry so much about putting my feet in the right place that I forget to have a good time.  I think my problem might be that I'm so hung up about whether or not I'm getting the dance steps right, that I can’t relax enough to let the music get inside me.

And I think today’s reading from Mark's gospel demonstrates that there’s also a religious version of the same problem, the problem of knowing it all in theory but not being able to make the final step of putting it into practice.

The rich man who approaches Jesus has every right to feel proud of himself.  Addressing a wandering rabbi with respect indicates that he recognises Jesus as someone who, like himself, has made a deep study of the Law.  And the question he asks – what must I do to inherit eternal life? – shows that he has some understanding.  He understands, for example, that eternal life is not a commodity to be earned but a birthright to be realised.  What the rich man wants is what God promises and what God also wants.  It’s not a bad start.

So maybe it comes as a bit of a surprise that Jesus is not particularly encouraging.  After all, here’s this educated, serious person taking him seriously as a teacher, wanting a deep answer to a deep question.  This is a very flattering approach – it feels good to be able questions, it feels good to be looked up to.  But the first thing Jesus does is to deflect attention away from himself.  He won’t even accept the compliment of being called ‘good teacher’.  ‘No’, he says, ‘only God is good’.  In itself, that’s something for us as Christians to reflect on – Jesus doesn’t accept the focus on himself that we have turned into a whole religion.  Instead, he replies to his questioner with what religious Jews understood to be the first half of the ten Commandments, the half of the Law summed up in the Shema, the great formula that says God alone is God: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one’.  This is not actually just Jesus being modest, it’s the first half of his answer to the rich man – goodness is of God, so it can’t be divided.  We can’t break goodness down into steps, we have to take it all together as an undivided whole.

And then the second half of his answer, which is to summarise the ethical teaching of the Law, the commandments that on another occasion Jesus will summarise by quoting Leviticus: ‘you shall love you neighbour as yourself’.  And he chooses to frame it as a series of ‘don’ts’: ‘don’t murder, don’t steal or lie’.  Don’t be fraudulent.  Honour those who have nurtured and taught you.  If he had left it at that, the two of them could have had a mutually approving conversation.  The rich man would have approved Jesus’ teaching, and clearly Jesus does approve the man’s obvious sincerity when he says, ‘teacher, I’ve always done those things’.

Like me on the dance floor, this man has been paying attention.  He has learned the moves, he has worked hard at following the rules, you can almost hear him counting out the rhythm under his breath.  But like me, he can’t dance, and he knows it.  Teacher, he says, I’ve always done those things.  But he knows there’s something missing.

Well, says Jesus, now you have to give it all away.  Everything that you’ve carefully built up, everything that gives your life meaning, everything that underpins your self-respect and your social status, everything that makes you religiously upright, let it go and follow me.

This of course is one of the hard teachings of the gospel, especially if you’ve got a few dollars.  For those of us who feel that we’re just making ends meet, it’s hard to resist a smirk of self-satisfaction.  And of course for centuries Christians have argued over what exactly Jesus means.  Is he just talking metaphorically?  Surely there’s nothing wrong with wealth so long as it’s used wisely?  The Church, of course, wouldn’t be here today of it weren’t for the generosity of wealthy Christians.  In the ancient world wealth was regarded as a sign of God’s special favour, a sign that the man kneeling in front of Jesus was righteous and so had been blessed by God.  Is Jesus just trying to teach him and us a new way of looking at the world?  And Bible scholars have analysed the cryptic saying Jesus comes out with next – it’s harder, says Jesus, for a rich person to be right before God than for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle.  And Bible scholars have fussed over this – did he mean an actual needle or was it a name of a specially low gate in the walled city of Jerusalem where the camel traders had to take the packs off their animals so they could squeeze through?  Did Jesus mean an actual camel, or did the ancient copiests get it wrong – should it actually have been kámilos, which means rope, not kámelos, which means camel?  So maybe Jesus meant it would a bit of a tight squeeze for rich people, they might have to wriggle a bit or find a really big needle, but they could get through.  Or maybe Jesus really means it - but it only applies to merchant bankers and whoever was responsible for my shares crashing last year!

Somebody pointed out to me a while ago how strange it is that some Christians invest a huge amount of energy in trying to prove that absolutely everything the Bible says is literally true – except for this passage.  Liberals and fundamentalists alike, we all want a bit of room to manoeuvre on this one.

So what if Jesus does mean it literally?  And what if we also reflect, that, if you lined everybody in the world up in order of wealth and comfort and quality of life, with the poorest of the world’s poor at number one and Bill Gates at number ten – then every one of us here at St Michaels this morning would be sitting around about number nine.  If you ate yesterday, and you expect to eat today, if you slept in a bed last night, if you can read, if you have access to clean water and medical attention, then you’re amongst the world’s wealthiest who find it hard to wriggle through the eye of a needle.  That’s fairly sobering, and it means we have something to give up.  It means we need to put into practice what we think we know in theory.  That to dance the dance Jesus wants to teach us, it means we can’t just listen and approve of what Jesus says and we can’t just agree that Jesus has the words of life - we have to let them get past our defences, to sink into us and change us, and the only way we can actually do that is by letting go of some of the other stuff that we have been holding onto a bit too tightly.

We need to be in no doubt that Jesus is teaching us here about giving.  About giving of ourselves and about giving our money.  About noticing the needs of others and learning to let go of what we thought we needed for ourselves.  The sort of giving Jesus is talking about is not the giving of whatever is left over at the end of the week but the sort of giving that ensures we ourselves need to go without something.  The teaching on tithing that we encounter in the Old Testament is not watered down but confirmed by Jesus own practice and teaching.

But we should also notice that Jesus is teaching here about giving for the sake not only of those in need, but for the sake of those who give.  Hope, for those who have nothing, is the promise that hunger and sickness and poverty will not have the last word.  Hope, for those who have enough, is also the promise that hunger and sickness and poverty will not have the last word.  And so we need to learn to give ourselves away. 

It’s about money, but it’s about more than money, it’s about learning to let go and trust in the rhythm of the dance.  There’s a basic teaching here, I think, about our spirituality.  Yes, Jesus is saying to the rich man, and to us as well – you’ve learned the steps, but can you dance?  The do’s and don’ts of faith are not enough – if you want to get it, at the deepest level, you just need to let go and dance.  What we’re holding on too tightly to might be different for each one of us – politeness, social inhibitions, fear of failure, fear of standing out, fear of looking silly, fear of getting involved – fear of what it might cost were we just to give it away and go where Jesus leads us.  Just – what might it cost us if we don’t?


Saturday, October 03, 2009

St Francis of Assisi (a Creation Eucharist)

When I was a lad, I used to read Phantom comics.  It was my Dad, actually, who introduced me to the Phantom.  Dad had many sayings that came from the Ghost Who Walks, and held that a close reading of the Phantom revealed many theological truths.  I’m not entirely sure about that, but was reminded this week that the Phantom had a secret holiday spot in the jungle, an island in the middle of a great river which he had named Eden.  Clearly the Phantom knew his Bible, because on Eden were all the animals he had ever rescued, great lions and tigers as well as antelopes and zebras and monkeys, all living peacefully together.  The island, as I recall, was guarded by fierce piranha fish who knew better than to have a bite of the Phantom whenever he swam over on his horse Hero, and all the inhabitants of the island were vegetarians except that the great cats had been trained by the Phantom to catch the occasional fish.  Whenever the Phantom came to Eden for a bit of time out he would talk to the animals, and naturally the animals talked back.

Clearly the Phantom, as well as being the nemesis of evil-doers and pirates, was also a closet Franciscan.  Francis, come to that, also bore a passing resemblance to the Phantom, at least according to his official biographer, St Bonaventure.  In one famous episode Francis saves the day in fine Phantom style, when a fierce wolf has been terrorising the little Italian village of Gubbio, stealing sheep and attacking humans.  Real actual wolves, as no doubt you know, are exceedingly scary.  But Francis walks out into the forest to have a little chat with the offender, who when Francis addresses him as ‘brother’, instantly makes friends.  The wolf nods his head to show he understands when Francis tells him his behaviour has been unacceptable, looks contrite by rolling over and playing dead, and agrees to a deal whereby he will stop eating both sheep and villagers so long as the humans agree to feed him.  The wolf shakes paws to cement the deal and all sides live happily ever after. 

Only problem with all this is that the picture most of us have of St Francis today, is a fairytale image of this otherworldly saint, a hippie seven hundred years before hippies were invented, making daisy chains and talking to the birds.  Charming, but not very useful for 21st century Christians trying to live in the real world.

The real Francis was less romantic.  He’s also a lot more helpful to 21st century Christians who wonder what all this stuff about climate change and ecology has got to do with God.

Certainly Francis talked to the animals – and the grass and the flowers and the earthworm – addressing them as brother and sister and exhorting them to praise God by running and jumping, and stretching and flying, and growing and chewing towards the Sun, praising God in their own way as we human beings do in ours.  Francis also practised a fairly extreme version of voluntary poverty, living amongst lepers and the poorest of the poor, and seeing a connection between going without in his own life and the practise of compassion towards others.  The spirituality of Francis is not a spirituality of withdrawal or renunciation, but a spirituality of relationship, not a spirituality of solitary contemplation, but a spirituality of joyful immersion in the everyday, of celebrating creation as a kaleidoscope of possibilities, or a stained glass window that refracts the light of God into a myriad of images.

Francis died young, and in considerable pain from the multiple illnesses that plagued the lower classes of his day.  He lost control of the Order he had founded, and even before he died his friars started the great squabble over his legacy that would eventually lead to that strange medieval device for solving disputes, the burning of those you don’t agree with at the stake.  But in the last year of his life, virtually blind and in pain, Francis composed the great poem that more than anything sums up his theology, the Canticle of Creation.  The poem expresses Francis’ awareness of kinship, of experiencing a family relationship with all things, because all things, all living things and even matter itself, are expressions of the overflowing love of God.

The great Franciscan theologian, Bonaventure, gives theological structure to what Francis saw intuitively – the Word of God, God’s self-expression, is both what creates something out of nothing and what takes on human flesh in the form of Jesus Christ.  The Word as God’s self-communication is literally God giving Godself away in the act of creation, which means the material universe is not something separate from God, but the external expression of God – not just a bewildering array of stars and planets, rocks and mud and bacteria that have the good or bad fortune to evolve – but an expanding, evolving expression of the infinitely self-expressive Word of God.  If our understanding of God as a Trinity means that God’s own life is a flow of creative love and self-giving communication, then it stands to reason that creation itself must also be dynamic, evolving and growing in complexity - and that created things must also be designed to find their true identity in self-giving relationships of love.

Francis, I think, got that.  He got that the only real way to perceive the world we live in is through the filter of the Word of God – and that the only way to know the Word of God is through reading the Book of Creation.  He got that, and he also understood that because creation, the material world of human and animal bodies, bread and wine and wood and rock – all substances, incidentally, that have a common origin in the cast-off rubble of exploding stars – because Jesus the Word of God takes on our flesh, our common inheritance of stardust, then we are physically related to God, to one another and to every living and non-living created thing.  As a more contemporary theologian puts it, the physical substance of our lives – our bodies, but also the physical things we need to stay alive, the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the houses we live in – all that physicality is a kind of shared space, a space in which our lives get intermingled and swapped around with everybody and everything else.  Whether we like it or not we can’t keep ourselves separate from one another – and so in the Eucharist we acknowledge that by sharing a piece of bread and a cup of wine just as, for example, we constantly breathe and re-breathe the same air, and in doing that we recognise that our lives are interconnected.  By being re-connected to our divine origin in Christ, we find ourselves connected to all of creation as brothers and sisters, and at the same time start to tune in to the fact that creation is speaking to us of Christ.  Bonaventure said all this in fancy theological language; Francis got it at a kind of gut-level.  Because he sees creation as a sacramental expression of God’s self-giving love, then he understands that he himself is connected in a family relationship to everything that is.  Nothing exists separately; everything is interconnected and derives its identity from its relationship to everything else.  At the most fundamental level, what we call our “self” is made up of the sum of our relationships.

That last bit, of course, isn’t just theology, it’s also science.  It’s certainly how ecologists see reality, and it’s also what the impenetrable language of quantum physics tells us.  It’s also what psychology and Christian spirituality tell us – when human beings try to live without recognising or attending to our relationships with others, or our connection to our physical environment, we make ourselves deeply unhappy and generally sick.  Bonaventure uses the word piety to describe Francis’ sense of relatedness to all of creation.  Literally, the Latin word pietas means “blood-related” – the word piety means literally an attitude of respect towards those for whom we have a family obligation.  People who live in piety live lives that are intentionally interconnected with others, consciously attending to their relationships because they understand the source of all inter-relationship.

Well, so what?  If we do start seeing ourselves, not as spending time down here on earth waiting to meet God in heaven, but as interwoven and inextricably connected with a creation that in every breath exudes the Spirit of God, then so what?  What difference does it make to how we live?

It makes a difference because our attitude towards creation becomes one of piety.  We begin to realise that it’s not just short-sighted to pump greenhouse gases into the air, to fail to take action while waterways die and species are driven to extinction, it’s not just that failing to take action to prevent rising global temperatures and sea-levels puts future generations at risk – all the true things that climate change scientists are telling us – but that to live in a way that imperils God’s creation is impious.  To allow species to become extinct at a faster rate than ever before in the life of our planet is an act of impiety, because every created thing is a unique self-expression of God.  For every species that vanishes there is a loss of divine possibility, forever.

It makes a difference because if we follow the theology of St Francis we see the value of ecosystems, rivers and wetlands, forests and wilderness areas and all living things not just in terms of how useful they are to human industry, tourism, or even medical science – not as resources on which we can place a dollar value, but as unique moments of the creative self-expression of God.  Our attitude becomes one of piety, of seeing ourselves as fundamentally related to all created things, a physical connection that in the Old Testament is the basis for raham, the compassion that God feels for God’s people, literally, ‘in the womb’.  And we begin to see ourselves as a bridge, as a connection between creation and God – as catalysts for what St Paul sees as the great work of the whole universe, growing and yearning towards its fulfilment in Christ.