What does our custom of blessing the animals around the Feast of St Francis have to do with the great social, political, and international challenges of our age? I was delighted when I was asked a few days ago to join you once again for your celebration of St Francis this morning. I can’t remember if I have preached here on this feast before, but I do know that my preaching for Francistide elsewhere in recent years has taken up a theme of Francis’s dreams of chivalry and knighthood and how those dreams were shattered and transformed. Well, it is time for me to explore something new, but I want to begin today with the story of another soldier, Lee Rigby, of the British Regiment of Fusiliers. Fusilier Rigby was the 25-year-old father of a young son who had fulfilled a childhood dream, and risked his life, to serve his country on at least one tour in Afghanistan during the wars in the aftermath of 9-11. On 22 May 2013 however, he was off duty and walking back to barracks in what he believed to be the relative safety of South-East London when he was suddenly knocked down by a car, the two occupants of which then leaped out and hacked him to death with a knife and a cleaver. After apparently attempting to decapitate him, one of the attackers was calmly recorded on video by a passerby as they waited for the police to arrive, justifying their attack as retribution for innocent deaths in Islamic countries. The backlash, acts of hate and retribution in response to this terrible act of hate and retribution, were predictable, the not-for-profit Hope Not Hate reporting at least 193 Islamophobic incidents within the next five days, including coordinated fire attacks on mosques, and abuse, some of it physical, of women wearing headscarves. As with the reaction to 9-11 here, there was more than one example of Sikh men – followers of a completely different faith to Islam – being attacked in revenge for the killing of Fusilier Rigby. But amidst all this fear and hate, there was, too, at least one example of the kind of good news story that so often fails to find its way to our media news feeds. It was, again, during those first few days, when around 100 worshippers gathered at a mosque in the Northern English city of York in response to what they thought might be an imminent threat. It was the extreme right-wing English Defence League who had stirred up their supporters to mount a protest but, in the end, only six of them turned up. After nailing their Flag of St George to the fence of the mosque they found themselves in conversation with some of the worshippers for half an hour or so – and ended up being invited inside where they shared tea and cookies and played soccer together! ‘Typical Yorkshire!’ was the response of the then Archbishop of York. ‘Who knows,’ University of York lecturer Mohammed el-Gomati was quoted as saying, ‘perhaps the [English Defence League] will invite us to an event and the Muslim community will be generous in accepting that invitation?’ There were, of course, many Muslim groups who unequivocally condemned the original attack on Lee Rigby – though such condemnations didn’t merit news headlines – as well as one or two public figures who refused to condemn the attack. and whose comments were widely reported and criticized.
In the year 1218, ordinary European Christians could be easily forgiven for regarding the inhabitants of Islamic countries with fear and loathing, indeed perhaps as hardly human in the fullest sense at all. The First Crusade had been proclaimed by Pope Urban II more than 120 years earlier, and the Fifth Crusade was now raging, stirred up by propaganda that played on the fear of those who don’t worship God as we do. The sacking by Crusaders of the world’s largest Christian city, Constantinople, in April 1204, had already begun to raise questions about whether the Christian armies could really be said to be engaging in ‘holy war’. St Francis was one – despite his own earlier military ambitions – who could begin to see through the madness. It was in that year, 1218, that Francis traveled to the Crusader camp in Damietta, not to encourage the fighting but rather to risk his life to cross enemy lines and successfully seek a dialogue with the Sultan Al-Kamil. I used to suspect that this meeting between ‘The Sultan and the Saint’ was just one of those pious legends that get told about holy people. But in a remarkable documentary film of that name, made in 2016, Islamic and Christian Scholars cooperated in setting out the evidence for this encounter and its significance. Now I also used to give most of the credit in the story to Francis but have since learned that Al-Kamil offered a whole series of peace initiatives to the Crusaders, – being nearly overthrown by more hothead figures on his side as a result – peace initiatives that only finally failed because of the influence of a Christian hothead, the papal legate Pelagius. But it is Francis’ motivation that I want to focus on today.
The late Brother Richard Jonathan of the Society of Saint Francis used to like to say that ‘Brothering is a verb.’ I take it that he meant that we must carry out the hard work of building community together, of working out what it means to treat as brothers the men we did not choose, and would not have chosen, as our friends but who end up living together with us. Sadly, we are only human, and I have seen how this can break down. I have seen gifted and talented brothers, sometimes with a remarkable and well-deserved reputation in public ministry, or who, at times, have exercised wonderful gifts of encouragement to other brothers, for whom something has broken and gone wrong: blaming ‘others’ for breakdowns in a relationship, and especially through the psychological trap of projecting on to others the very traits and failings that are their own very particular challenges. In such situations, miracles of grace do occur and those previously at loggerheads can find a new future together as brothers. At times though, in a situation that I suppose is analogous to a failing marriage, the kindest thing is for an individual and the community to accept, despite the vows that were made, that our healthiest futures will lie along separate paths. And I am aware of the sober need to apply the parable of the mote and beam in one’s eye…
It is that blaming of ‘others’ that particularly strikes me today though. With apologies to any ardent defenders of English Grammar, I want to acknowledge that ‘othering’, too, can be very much a verb. The current polarization of the political life of this nation – and of my own country recently too, especially in the aftermath of the Brexit debate – is one of the greatest tragedies and dangers of our time. ‘Othering’ is the act of dismissing and diminishing, sometimes indeed of treating as less than human, those who for whatever reason are different to ourselves. We do it to people who don’t belong to our own race, our own gender, our own sexuality, our own political party, our own Church or religion, or who have no religion at all, our own age group, our own educational or social background, our own philosophical instincts as conservatives or progressives. We ‘other’ refugees and asylum-seekers. The occupants of the US coastal regions can look with disdain on the inhabitants of the so-called ‘flyover’ states, and Californian city-dwellers and country people can look on one another with similar distrust.
Francis, on the other hand, I am convinced, looked on every human being as the wonderful and unique creation of the one God who is the Father of us all. He could see the Christ in all. Indeed, Francis saw Christ, too, as his ‘brother’ and so all his activity, from the intimacy of solitary prayer to encounters with lepers, Popes and Muslim Emperors was a constant outworking of brothering or sistering as a verb! Indeed, he did not stop at seeing humans as his brothers and sisters.
The reason we bless animals on St Francis Day is not simply because of some cute stories of Francis’ encounters with wolves, cicadas, or birds, or even just to remind ourselves in our religious ceremonies that God’s concerns are wider than our narrow human ones. Francis saw the whole of creation as his sisters and brothers. Indeed, Genesis tells us that human beings became human beings when God breathed his own breath, his own Spirit, into us. The Sultan has a share in the Spirit, as do all human beings, reflecting, however obscured, the image of God which is in fact the image of Christ. But that wonderful psalm of creation, Psalm 104, expands this further, declaring that animal life, too, is animated in the same way, ‘When you send forth your Spirit they are created, you renew the face of the Earth.’ I believe that Francis would have delighted in our current understanding of Evolution, seeing it, not as a threat to faith, but rather as a wonderful confirmation of the way that we are all related in one great web of life – with Brother Dog and Sister Cat, but even Brother Cockroach and Sister Amoeba! I was reminded by something I read only this morning that our English word Animal comes from the Latin, Anima for soul! I was fairly confident that our worship today would include Francis’ very own ‘Canticle of the Creatures’ in at least one form, ‘All Creatures of our God and King’- and we’ll hear that as our anthem later. But Francis doesn’t stop at animal life. Plants are included, but also inanimate life, Brother Fire, Sister Water, Sister Moon and the Stars. Indeed, he doesn’t even include animals as such!
In just four weeks’ time world leaders will be gathering in the Scottish City of Glasgow for COP 26, a vital meeting to work towards genuine and vital action on climate change before we do further irreparable damage to the one that Saint Francis called ‘our Sister Mother Earth’. We must stop regarding the Earth as somehow separate, unconnected to our human life and culture, with all its building and making and buying and selling. I was distressed to hear a few days ago that the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was seriously pondering not bothering to attend as there are apparently other priorities more worthy of his time – priorities like the COVID crisis – even though that crisis itself is not something unconnected, but rather intimately tied up with our abuse of creation. I was more encouraged to hear that Pope Francis is considering travelling to speak in Glasgow, to do what little he can to ‘put his finger on the scale’ and influence world leaders towards action. He did of course take his papal name from St Francis, and his encyclical on the care of the earth, Laudate Si, took its name from that Canticle of St Francis. You may not be surprised to hear that I am no great fan of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson but I was fortunate to catch his remarkable speech last week to the United Nations in which he called on humanity – who in evolutionary terms might be regarded as having reached roughly the age of 16 in the life span of typical mammal species – to emerge from our adolescent attitudes and finally take adult responsibility for what we are doing to the earth. Greta Thunberg reminded us that such political speeches must not be allowed to be merely ‘Blah, blah, blah!’
Hope for the future thriving of this nation depends on us getting over that attitude of ‘othering’ those who differ from ourselves. Hope for our survival, by the grace of God, depends on us extending that sense of mutual relationship to the whole created order on this planet. It turns out that Francis, and the simple blessing of animals, has a lot to do with the pressing political issues of our day!
Sermon given by Desmond Alban at Saint Francis Church, Novato, Sunday October 3, 2021