St Francis, Terriers - 2 before Lent (19.02.2017)

Tony Dickinson

People used to say that if you spent enough time at Piccadilly Circus you would meet everyone you had ever known. One of the great things about taking a trip up to London (and not just Piccadilly) is that you never know who you will run across in the street, or on the tube, or in a railway station. Sometimes it’s a friend you haven’t seen for ages. Sometimes it’s somebody in he public eye; actors, politicians, writers, media people and the like. Last Wednesday, for instance, I’d just left Marylebone and was heading for Baker Street, when I realised that the man in the centre of a little knot of people walking toward me was the actor Mark Rylance.

I sometimes wonder what it feels like for them. The poet T.S. Eliot loved to recount how late one evening he stopped a taxi. As he got in, the driver said: ‘You're T.S. Eliot.’ When asked how he knew, he replied: ‘Ah, I've got an eye for a celebrity. Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him: “Well, Lord Russell, what’s it all about?” And, do you know, he couldn't tell me.’

“Do you know, he couldn't tell me.” No such inhibitions affect our first reading this morning. The opening chapter of the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures is very clear what it’s all about. It sets out the answer, from the creative spirit of God hovering over the turbulent waters of chaos, to the supreme moment at the beginning of chapter two when “the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.”

The whole of creation exists, in other words, so that there can be Sabbath. As the Swedish scholar-bishop Krister Stendahl used to say, the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis is perhaps the greatest Jewish joke ever.

It is also a very powerful story, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that so many people take it with deadly seriousness. The trouble is, that they take it with the wrong sort of seriousness. They misread spiritual truth as a scientific text-book, misinterpret its meaning, and our planet is paying a high, and possibly fatal, price. They take the words of God, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’ – they take those words as a free pass to treat this planet as if it were, at the same time, an inexhaustible warehouse of material and an infinitely expandable land-fill site. It is neither and the earth is certainly, in St Paul’s words, “groaning”, although climatologists and other environmental scientists are increasingly concerned that those groans may herald a death rather than a birth, as lethal plastics enter the food chain in the oceans, as alarming levels of pollution are found in the seas’ deepest depths, and as human beings keep on pumping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

With a climate-change sceptic in charge at the White House, there is wide-spread anxiety that the gains made in Paris fourteen months ago may be lost. Some are concerned at increasing signs that we may be facing a “sixth great extinction”, a loss of species comparable with the end of the dinosaurs. Others remind us that “there is no Planet B”. We need to revise, urgently, our ideas about “dominion” and to clarify its meaning before we consume ourselves to death.

Exercising “dominion” is about stewardship, not ownership. It is about managing creation, not pillaging and polluting. It is about working with the grain of creation, not trying to control it. The words of Jesus in today’s gospel are a salutary warning to our 24/7 culture and its priorities. The words “Do not worry” run through his teaching like a refrain, but those words are not about abdicating all responsibility. Rather they are about recognising and relaxing into our place in the scheme of things, walking lightly on the earth, giving thanks to God for all that he has given us, things which are indeed, as today’s first reading reminds us, “very good”.

To do that, we need to relearn our place in the order of creation. We need to discover what St Paul’s words about “the creation wait[ing] with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” mean in our generation. We need to reconnect, as St Francis did, with the reality that we are part of God’s creation and not somehow detached from it.

Three and a half centuries ago Thomas Traherne, an Anglican clergyman working in London, wrote a book for the guidance of Susannah Hopton, a friend back home in rural Herefordshire. It wasn’t meant for publication, which is just as well, because the manuscript was lost for more than two hundred years. Traherne wanted to share with Mrs Hopton the “profitable wonders” that he had discovered, or rather rediscovered. “Natural things”, he wrote to her “are glorious, and to know them glorious: but to call things preternatural “natural”, monstrous. Yet all they do it, who esteem gold, silver, houses, lands, clothes, etcetera, the riches of nature, which are indeed the riches of invention. Nature knows no such riches: but art and error makes them. Not the God of Nature, but Sin only was the parent of them.” We need, with increasing urgency, to detach ourselves, and the culture in which we live, from such misplaced priorities and to recover that original sense of the glory of natural things so that, unlike Bertrand Russell, we are not left speechless by the cabbie’s question “What’s it all about?”

“What it’s all about” in Thomas Traherne’s eyes is for all human beings to enjoy the world aright, in awareness and thankfulness. And, as he explains to his friend, “Your enjoyment of the world is never right, till you so esteem it, that everything in it, is more your treasure than a King’s exchequer, full of Gold and Silver. And that exchequer yours also in its place and service. Can you take too much joy in your Father’s works? He is Himself in everything.” As St Francis discovered four centuries earlier, that realisation is the beginning of what it means to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” To Him, Father, Son and Holy Spirit