October 3, 2021
Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Northampton, MA
Celebrating St. Francis
“Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea-monsters and all deeps;
Fire and hail, snow and fog,
tempestuous wind, doing his will;
Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars;
Wild beasts and all cattle,
creeping things and winged birds…Let them praise the Name of the Lord.”
(Psalm 148: 7-10, 13)
Friends, it’s a joy to be with you this morning and to celebrate one last outdoor Eucharist at St. John’s as we mark the end of Creation Season. Today is Creation Season’s grand finale and we honor St. Francis, whose feast day is tomorrow, and bless all creatures, large and small.
I’m going to keep this short, for we gather in the company of some favorite animals and even the most eloquent of preachers will not impress them. Besides, the living world around us provides sermon enough.
Here we are, gathered at the foot of this big old sycamore tree, sheltered under its great canopy and breathing into our lungs the oxygen that this tree and all other trees and green-growing things are freely offering us. As we breathe out, the trees and plants in turn take up the carbon dioxide that we release. Simply by sitting here in the company of trees, we are giving and receiving the elements of life, praising God together.1
And here are our solid bodies, as solid as the earth beneath our feet. Can you feel the place where your body meets the body of Earth? Here she is, beneath our feet, holding us up, giving us support with every step. Every time we walk mindfully, paying attention, with every step we can bless the Earth. At the end of our lives, we will give our bodies back to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Earth and we Earthlings belong to each other, and together we praise God.
Let’s take a moment to be aware of the inner motions within our bodies. Maybe you are aware of gurgling in your belly or the throb of your beating heart. Maybe you sense the circulation of blood as it moves through your body. Most of the weight of our body comes from water, just as most of our planet’s surface is made of water. Our blood is mostly water, and the saltwater content of our blood’s plasma is the same as the saltwater content of the sea. It is as if within our bodies we are carrying rivers, lakes, and the ocean. Let’s celebrate our bodies’ kinship with all fresh waters, and with the sea. We are praising God together!
Everything around us is alive and relating to us. We are a part of everything, and everything is praising God. That’s what the psalmist conveys in those exuberant lines that we hear in Psalm 148.
Jesus knew all about this, too. He lived close to the Earth. He seems to have spent a lot of time outside. We see him climbing mountains, spending weeks in the wilderness, walking along the shore, crossing a lake, walking dusty roads. When he talks about God, his parables and stories are full of images of nature: seeds and sparrows, lilies, sheep, rivers, vines, branches, rocks. Jesus was deeply aware of the sacredness of the natural world.
Francis followed in the footsteps of Jesus, spending much of his time outdoors – he lived in such intimate relationship with the elements and creatures of the natural world that he spoke of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind and Air, Sister Water, Brother Fire, Sister Earth, our Mother. He experienced himself as kin with everything – he didn’t imagine that human beings were separate from the rest of the world that God created, much less that humans were “above” or “better than” the other creatures that God cherishes, or that we had any right to dominate or oppress them. Francis is known for his beautiful “Canticle of Creation,” which echoes today’s psalm.
It turns out that our identity doesn’t stop with our skin. We have porous and permeable boundaries. My body is part of the Earth. The Earth is part of my body. God is giving God’s self to us in and as the sun, the moon, the stars, the wind, the air, the trees, the bird, the pets we love. We live in a sacred world of interrelationship and interdependence. We belong to each other. We depend on each other. Nature is not just so-called “resources” supposedly put here only for human beings to extract and exploit.
It’s easy to romanticize and sentimentalize Francis, but in an increasingly degraded natural world, what would it mean to take our place as humans who experience this kind of intimate connection with wild creatures and plants and all the elements that together create a balanced and healthy eco-system? Now is the time to reclaim the ancient understanding (which was never lost by indigenous peoples or by so-called ‘pagans’) that the natural world is sacred, that it belongs to God and is filled with God. Now is the time to reclaim our partnership not just with our human fellows but also with all living creatures.
That’s the urgent task before us. The life-systems of the Earth are deeply compromised. The web of life is unraveling before our eyes and we risk ecological collapse. More than half the populations of all wild creatures have disappeared in the past 50 years. Human beings have wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970. Because of the relentless burning of fossil fuels, the global climate has become increasingly disrupted and unstable and we have only a short amount of time in which to avert climate chaos.
There is so much we can do, as individuals and as members of society, to heal and protect God’s Creation as we work together to keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong, and to push for a swift and just transition to an economy based on clean, renewable energy like sun and wind. I hope that in the next day or two you’ll visit our diocesan website and look at the web pages about Creation care, which are full of suggestions for how to pray, learn, act and advocate for this beautiful, aching, and God-drenched world. I hope you’ll sign up for my monthly newsletter.
For now, we praise God with Sister Sycamore, with Brother Wind and Air, with Sister Earth, Our Mother. We give thanks for Jesus, who is “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29) and whose Spirit we breathe in every breath. We give thanks for Holy Communion, in which Jesus comes to us in the blessed bread and wine, reminding us that the natural world is filled with his presence.
- This paragraph and the two that follow are based on a longer meditation, “Kinship with Creation,” in Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, ed. Leah Schade and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 76-77.