October 4, 2015
St. Francis, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
Years ago, I went to a retreat on creation spirituality. The presenter told that she could talk to trees by simply laying her hands on the bark. I remember thinking, “That’s weird.” But later that afternoon, on a walk in the woods when no one could see me, I thought I would try a conversation with a tree. I think I wanted the tree to be like an Ent from “The Lord of the Rings,” suddenly speaking in some deep, slow, ancient language, “Good Morning, Bradley, I’ve been waiting for you.”
But I got nothing. The tree didn’t tell me anything about its deep mystery; nothing about its rings; nothing about its wild days as a sapling; nothing about social policy on climate change. Nothing.
All I heard was the sound of the wind in its branches. I pressed a little harder thinking that maybe you can force a tree to release its wisdom. That’s when I really started to notice the bark. How it twisted around the trunk. How it gave a record of its growth and its wounds. You could see where bugs bore holes or laid their eggs. You could see the stump of a branch, broken away in some storm.
Clearly, my life isn’t pure enough to be a tree whisperer. But my hands on the bark of the tree made me notice it; see it; consider it; dare I say, “Relate to it.”
Today is the commemoration of St. Francis of Assisi. Much of what we know of him is probably mythology. He may not always have had a little bird on his shoulder like he does in our gardens. He may not have marched into the center of town to strip off his clothes and become a beggar. But likely, he did leave behind great privilege and wealth to live with the poor, to dedicate his life to preaching God’s love for the least. In the Catholic church, he is the patron saint for animals and the environment. In the church’s memory, he is a witness to the gentle love of God for the lives that are most thrown-away by cultures of wealth and power. He called animals his brothers and sisters and is said to have preached to the birds.
So, on his day, we bless animals and we put our hands on trees, and we notice the birds of the air the lilies of the field. We notice that God’s creation was made to co-exist; that the littlest things are sacramental; they connect us to divine life.
Jesus says, “Don’t be anxious. Look at the birds.” Lately, however, we’re anxious precisely because we’re watching the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. We can imagine their extinction; their loss of their habitat. We see them being tossed away as refuse.
Perhaps our evolutionary shortfall is our ability to notice; our ability to be aware; to be self-conscious; to know that we have a hand in all this. We see the glaciers shrinking; landfills becoming the highest points in so many counties; creatures disappearing daily. We can imagine the world we are leaving to our children’s children.
In so many ways, it’s easier to simply look the other way. It was another week with another school shooting, a prime example of how we can collectively not see the truth that’s right in front of us.
But Jesus says, “Look. You have to look.” But not at all the things that you’re afraid of. That’s not the starting point for the day. Job says, “Ask the beasts.” What you need to see is that God watches over them. In fact, God arrays them in splendor beyond even Solomon’s glory. God watches over us.
Most days, we live out of our worry. We make policy out of fear. We treat our neighbor as if she is a threat. We imagine the things our children might do. Jesus urges his disciples to live out of the future that God promises, rather than the one they imagine. God holds all things. God cares for the least little thing. Jesus even says in another place, “God notices even the sparrow that falls to the ground.” St Francis wasn’t even afraid of death. He called it his brother. That’s the perspective that comes from Easter. Death itself is not more powerful than God’s life.
So much of our talk of climate change comes in doomsday language. And it’s probably true that if we don’t make changes now, human life as we know it will come to an end. That would be tragic because we will also take many beautiful things with us. But would the death of human life be the end of the world? Elizabeth Johnson says that the evolutionary principle, which always moves forward, despite death and extinction, is God’s life moving into the future. The simplest creatures that survive our holocaust are the forbearers of beauty that is more than Solomon’s. Creation, or evolution if you will, is an ongoing stream that flows out of God’s great and abundant love. God will array the future with splendor, with or without us.
That frees us to consider living with hope, rather than anxiety. We watch the birds of the air, consider them, know them, trust them, care for them, and we have hope to invest in life today, to live with meaning and consequence and gentleness, to seek the kingdom of God and all God’s righteousness. Martin Luther’s famous quote: If I knew the world was ending tomorrow, I would plant a tree today.” Our courage to change, to stop consuming more than we need, to nurture life will come from God’s life flowing within us.
The future always turns on love. Love was mixed into the creation, whether you imagine it getting started with a bang or a word from the beginning. Love is stronger than death. There is love in all things.
Would it be weird for us to trust that love is in everything we touch? Love in the bark of a tree; or the bark of a dog. Love in our pets. Love in black-eyed Susans and blue asters. Love in porcupines and porpoises. Love in Jesus. In his promises. In water. In bread. In wine. In you. In me. In all things: Love.
Oh, if we could just lay our hands on that.