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St Francis

October 7, 2018

Cate Thorn

St Francis Day     Wisdom 11:24-12:1     Matthew 11:25-30

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There’s a famous saying attributed to St Francis doubtless familiar to many of you, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” It lends a certain irony to preaching on St Francis day. I was genuinely tempted to stop there and invite you to reflect in silence for a time on the ways that you preach the gospel without words and then speak, yes use words, to share your reflection with your neighbour. I thought it an interesting way to recall ourselves to the simplicity of the way of St Francis. However I’m not quite sure it would fulfil my brief.


St Francis day falls in the liturgical calendar just after September the month set aside to celebrate the season of creation. That time when we turned to face climate change, the effects of which are transforming the world from the one we know and love, to one we’ll hardly recognise – happening we speak. Climate change – the leading cause for concern for every social issue we as church have sought to address and relieve. The poor, the powerless, the disenfranchised are paying, with their lives and livelihoods, the price of a world we’re disfiguring, outcome of our misuse, our overuse of creation.


Into such context we step St Francis, a man who came to choose a life of radical simplicity and poverty. Obedient to a simple rule “To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps,” Francis soon had followers wanting to walk this way and early on he sought papal approval for what was to become a religious order. Francis’ way of life was not alluring, yet even today his person and way profoundly influences. People from all walks of life are still drawn to follow Francis’ example, to enact simplicity, to live more attuned to the life of creation.“Probably no one in history,” Encyclopaedia Britannica suggests, “has set out as seriously as did Francis to imitate the life of Christ and to carry out so literally Christ’s work in Christ’s own way. This is the key to the character and spirit of St. Francis, [it] helps explain his veneration for the Eucharistand respect for the priests who handled the elements of the communion sacrament.”


Radical poverty, simple living, obedience to the institution of the church, centrality of the Eucharist, a man who saw visions and was obedient to the divine directive perceived in them. Francis embodied simple dependence, trust in a creation construed in such a way that, as he aligned himself with the way of Jesus, would provide for him. Francis way brought life, he enlived a way of divine priority for creation. Accounts from Francis life especially remembered and loved, are those of his communing with nature, of his relational engagement with the natural world, as genuine to him as his human encounters. Perhaps Francis lived within the real world where humans understand their interdependence in the living and breathing organism that is this planet earth, delicately suspended, finely tuned to spin around a sun, part of a galaxy within galaxies. 


Did Francis know the science of this? Of course not, not in the way we might assert as superior now. But knowing more doesn’t mean we’re made wiser, more able to live aligned with the world as it is. Knowing more might rather lead us to isolate ourselves from the living world around us. Tempt us to create our own imaginary worlds with their own priorities. Then for us to sustain them we take what want, when we want, as we see we’ve need, even if it puts us at odds with, perhaps even threatens to destroy the world that gives us life. You see we forget we can’t continue to have and take at will without repercussion. 


Francis chose to emulate the way of Jesus. A way we know led inevitably and inexorably to death. To live aligned with divine priority, with intention to release life, to stand and speak against ways of being and doing that enact injustice, destroy potential for life and full personhood is dangerous. For such living reveals how powers and principalities retain their sway with vested interest in perpetuating systems that deny life flourishing. What’s more Francis’ life reveals that fullness of life is experienced in living simply and openly. Ignoble as the means of Jesus death may have been, the way the story is told, Jesus death was one of noble and, albeit written back, divine purpose. Through death comes life. Through this particular death, result of insisting with integrity for a life bringing way of living, comes trail and tale of abundant and ending of the power of death life.


I want to take a chance here and wonder whether this way of death-leading-to-life isactually the way and shape of creation. Divinely intended creation coming into being – this is the way things are. Each of us, an intended creation, is invited to step into our uniqueness, to align ourselves with the life of this world – to bring our life for the flourishing of life in this world. Death, dying, which is for us all, releases potentiality beyond what has been known for the life of the world. This pattern and way of regeneration is the DNA of this divinely being created world. 


Let me illustrate with a story from real life. Once, not so long ago, in a land far away, yet no so far from us, a revolution took place. It wasn’t a revolution with war. It was a revolution of change, it became known as the Industrial Revolution.


Its’ success required more energy than that produced by fossil fuels, it required electricity. And electricity needs, or did back then, wires, copper wires and miles of it. For 50 years, Jim Antal tells us, one mine produced a third of the copper the US needed and a sixth of the copper the rest of the world needed. However in the 1940s the price of copper plummeted and traditional mining became unprofitable.


Come 1955, though, a new form of mining, open-pit mining, emerged when the top of a mountain was blown off just outside Butte in Montana. The Berkeley Pit was formed in this place. It soon became the largest mine of its type until it was closed on Earth Day in 1982 – it was no longer profitable. 


Closed for mining it may have been but there was a problem with the pit. It was filling with rain, snow and groundwater. No one was paying for the operation of the pumps so a lake began to form. Not just any old lake but a lake that was a dangerous brew of acid and metals from the ore that had been mined: copper, cadmium, arsenic, among others. Nothing could grow there. Life wasn’t possible. The lake kept growing until its volume made it one of the largest lakes in the US.


Then one stormy, wintry night in 1992 a flock of snow geese, over 300 of them, landed on the lake. For snow geese in a snowstorm it was an obvious place to land, to slake their thirst, to rest so to find food in the morning. But there was nothing normal about this lake and morning never came. During the night locals heard lots of honking but by dawn the geese were silent. The first to arrive at the edge of the pit saw acres of floating lifeless bodies. You see long before the geese landed, the lake had been deemed a Superfund site – land in the US contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment. 


Then one day, a man carrying a stick with some green slime on it, came into the lab of two biochemists at the University of Montana. He’d retrieved the stick from the lake. The professors were shocked. The slime was alive, having adapted to the life-cancelling conditions of the lake. They called it an extremophile – a kind of life no had ever seen before.


Not long after that, these same biochemists came across a small pile of black slime – yeast actually – with some very special properties. You see, previously few organisms had been found that actually consumed metals. By way of example say you put algae in a beaker of pit water … algae consumes 10-15 percent of the metals in the water. But put this new, black, slimy yeast in and 85–95 percent of the metals are absorbed!


The professors knew of nothing like this so they contacted their colleagues around the world to find out if this yeast was known to exist anywhere else. Finally a vet got back to them. The one place they could find the yeast, he told them, was in the gastrointestinal track of the snow geese.


The 342 snow geese that had died … had left a gift behind. A common yeast from their intestines had not only defied death in the acid bath – the yeast had actually thrived! Using the snow geese’s gift, the scientists could help life return to one of the most lifeless places on Earth. These … geese, Jim Antal writes, had taken into themselves the very worst that humanity had to offer and in dying had returned to humanity something that might actually restore the most forsaken and wounded corner of God’s creation.” [1]


Does such rationalisation make this story any easier to bear? Perhaps not, but might it suggest the DNA of creation is for life. The biochemists became famous for uncovering an extremophile and revealing the life restoring properties of this yeast. Even as the life forms they uncovered and revealed were already present in creation. Is it too far a step to imagine from such discovery, of the miraculous restoration of life from lifelessness, that it is of the nature of creation, inherent to creation to heal, to evolve so to restore wholeness and regenerate life. I wonder, if we’ve eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts and minds open to receive, that solutions to restore that which we’re destroying may already exist. Unbeknown as yet to us regeneration may already be happening, may even be realisable but not if we insist on imposing unsustainable expectations for life on the life of this planet. Francis lived simply, present to his world, openhearted in his care and concern for all of life in creation, aware of his interdependent place within God’s good, life bringing and evolving creation. Now is the time for us to relearn we have place, yes, we do have a place, as interdependent beings in, as part of this divinely breathed into life organism of creation and we need to take our part for its’ flourishing, for us to have future.



[1] Jim Antal Climate Church, Climate World: how people of faith must work for change Lanham: Rowland & Littlefield 2018, 37-39

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