Today is October 4th, the feast day of Saint Francis. And it is also our Harvest Festival. Francis is considered to be, by some at least, the patron saint of all things ecological and of the environment. The present Pope took his name –Francis – and wrote his first major encyclical on the care of creation. And so this is a happy co-incidence.
Saint Francis has actually shaped the way that many of us are Christians. He is known for his advocacy for and his living of a simple life. We wouldn’t have nativity scenes at Christmas if it wasn’t for him. And he teaches us to think of the created world in a way that challenges the domination and use of it that has characterized our world. That’s quite an impact for someone who lived at the end of the 12th century!
There are lots of stories that could be told about his life. He came from a very rich family. He was rather racy and rebellious as a young man – partying, feasting, drinking. But then he had a profound experience of God and gave all that up, every last bit of it (even apparently his clothes), to become a poor and penniless monk. He once had a vision in a ruined church in the countryside where he heard God say ‘Restore my church’. And so he set about a building project with stones and frescoes, but then realized that the church was more than the building and that God wanted him to restore the church of his time to be the church that God wants his people to be. He is known for preaching to the birds and the animals and is often shown surrounded by woodland creatures as though he was the patron saint of Farthing Wood. But there is much more to Francis and creation than talking to the birds. And it’s revealed in his famous canticle. And even if these are not his precise words, they reveal the distinctiveness and significance of what he brings us in the church and world today.
For Francis, the plants and the creatures, the stars and the sun, the moon and the seas, fire and the processes of life itself, these were not simply the background to our lives, not objects put there for our benefit, and not just things for us to use, but they are family; they are brother, sister and mother.
Maybe you have brothers or sisters, or maybe you don’t, but perhaps we can all take a moment just to take in the significance of that metaphor. What difference would it make to think of creation in those terms? I remember how my mother used to talk about nature as ‘scenery’, as though it was a kind of backcloth to our lives. I know that a poet once talked about nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’, as something for us to be different from as we create something more ‘civilised’. But to think of creation as somehow our brother or sister or mother is to say something very different. It is to say that it is not our property to use as we wish, that we do not own it or control it, and that it has a dignity of its own. It is to say that we are not over against it or set apart from it, but part of it, related to it, dependent upon it, and could be in communion with it. We are family.
I think that Francis had a deep wisdom, and a wisdom that we need now. It doesn’t mean that we don’t try to protect ourselves from brothers and sisters who might be dangerous to us (as brothers and sisters can be) – it doesn’t mean that we can’t compete with some of our brothers and sisters in nature (bindweed and Covid19 come to mind!) – it doesn’t mean that we accept whatever grows or bites, but it means that we live with the deepest respect for the world of which we are a part. Because we are family.
It’s fascinating and important that the Bible itself begins with a story of creation, a story in which the creation of human beings is just one little part and in which God declares all creation good. That first story of creation in Genesis is not told from our point of view but from a wider perspective, from God’s point of view. As God has it, we are part of one family, with brothers and sisters not only among the apes and the monkeys, but in all creation. We are family. And Jesus, the son of God, was, according to the Gospels, at home with the wild animals, at home and unharmed in even the wildest bit of the wilderness. For him even the wild beasts are brothers and sisters.
I know that we all thought Prince Charles crazy for talking to plants. And maybe he is a little. And perhaps you would think me a bit potty for casting the vegetables and flowers here on the dais as my brothers and sisters. But if I were to treat them with as much love and respect as do my own brother, if I were to fight for their wellbeing as I would for my beloved brother, if I were to want the best for them and to honour them and celebrate them – and if we could all do that for creation – then perhaps the world would be the more peaceful and just place that our God, the Creator, desires.
We all know now that we need to rethink the way we have lived as part of the created world. David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg, and many, many other voices tell us that a paradigm change of the deepest kind is needed. We can no longer keep chopping down the Amazon forests. We can no longer burn fossil fuels as though it doesn’t matter. We can no longer keep destroying species. Even the wonderful woman who teaches us songs at Pop-In tells us about all the wonderful breeds of apples (just within Somerset!) that we are in danger of losing. As brother and sister species become extinct we should grieve for them as we would do for our own flesh and blood. As climate change destroys habitats and lives we should be rebuilding and changing things – as we would if it were our own family being threatened. As the fires burn in California and the ice melts in the Antarctic and as the harvests are ruined in sub-Saharan Africa – these are our griefs and our regrets.
And of course the other side of this wonderful metaphor – brother Sun and sister Moon – is that we can celebrate the great gift of creation, of the vegetables that feed us, of the fish that nourish us, of the wind that blows to make energy to light us and the water that flows to quench our thirst. Creation loves us too – and is family for us. It is a wonderful family that we are part of. And that’s what Harvest Festival is about – celebrating the marvelous awesome gift of creation; celebrating the love of God that is expressed to us through a world that is so awesome that it includes the cocoa bean and the juniper berry, the potato and the vine, beef cattle and dairy cows, rennet for cheese and yeast for bread, chickens and eggs, the warmth of sunny days and the deep colour of rich and nourishing soil. These things too are our brothers and sisters. They are not tools for our use or resources for us to exploit, but part of the family of creation that feeds us.
At the communion table too, one of the very earliest communion prayers we have talks about the grain on the hills, and the grapes on the vine. Here too at this table we celebrate the Harvest, because we know that it reveals the love of God that was revealed also in the love of Jesus Christ. And we look forward to another Harvest, to a time when all creation will be fulfilled and renewed in God’s love. We eat and drink of bread and wine, harvested from the earth. And we draw into the deepest part of ourselves the very presence of Jesus Christ, the one who was with the wild animals, who was there at creation and who welcomes us into the family of God. As brothers and sisters, as friends of Francis, as part of God’s wonderful family, as part of the family of creation, today at Harvest Festival, we give thanks and rejoice. Amen.