In the gospel of Luke, a scripture scholar asks Jesus what he has to do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus asks what he thinks, he quotes the great commandment: “Love God with all you are, and love your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus agrees with him, but that’s not enough for the scholar. He asks, “So who is my neighbour?”
In response, Jesus tells him a story. A man is beaten and left for dead in the ditch. Two religious leaders pass by without stopping. An outcast passes by, stops to help the man and pays for his care. Jesus ends, “Who was the neighbour?”
The scholar answers correctly, “The one who showed compassion.”
The heart of Christian faith has to do with how we relate to others who share this fragile planet with us. Let me suggest that our neighbours are not only those who have two legs, but those who have four or six or eight, or those who have no legs at all.
On Oct. 4, we mark the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Born into a very rich family, this saint gave it all up in order to live gently, humbly, and gratefully with all the creatures of the world.
Even before our modern environmental consciousness, St. Francis knew the deep interconnectedness among all who inhabit the earth. We share the earth with all other creatures, and we need each other in order to make life whole and good.
So who is my neighbour? St. Francis taught us that our neighbours include the four–legged and the more–legged, the winged ones, and the ones with fins and fur. God’s compassion embraces every creature in need of help, especially those with no voice of their own to cry out for help. With God, we care for the wounded tree frog, mountain laurel, emperor penguin and trout.
The witness of Christian scripture is that God loves all creatures with a deep and abiding love. Not even a sparrow falls to the ground without causing a shudder in the divine heart.
We know that human beings are the late comers in creation. Carl Sagan’s famous example was that if we could squeeze the whole cosmos into a single year, the Big Bang happened on January 1, the sun and planets came into existence on September 10, and human beings … well, we didn’t get here until about 10 seconds to midnight on December 31. Seconds ago, really, compared to algae and bats, salamanders and great whales.
Evolutionary science tells us this is true. Pre–modern people knew it too. If you read Genesis 1 carefully, you’ll see that we come at the end of the story, right after cows who stand around chewing their cud and mooing.
Genesis, of course, is not a science text. It doesn’t explain how the world came into existence. The purpose of Genesis is to help us see that God is somehow deeply involved in creation. The world does not belong to us. We are caretakers and stewards of creation. We tend it carefully, as a manager would tend a property for an owner.
One of the problems with moderns is that we have seen the natural world as a commodity to be bought and sold, strip–mined and denuded. But we dare not treat it that way.
St. Francis suggested another way of seeing creation. We are kin. Brother Sun brings the day and gives us light. Sister Moon bejewels the night, along with the stars, bright, precious and fair. Brothers Wind and Air, Sister Water, Brother Fire, and Mother Earth, all are kin to us and we live together in a wondrous synergy that is meant for the good of all.
Looking at the world this way is a healing thing. It leads to wholeness. The animals are sisters and brothers to us. Wind and water are our family. All of us together in the bosom of Mother Earth, grateful for the gift of life which we are intended to share with one another.
On Sept. 30 at 2 pm, Christ Church will celebrate this more life–giving vision of Genesis and St. Francis with our annual “Blessing of the Animals” service. Bring your animal companions to church with you that afternoon. Bring Sister Poodle and Brother Budgie. Join with us to celebrate the fragile web of life in which we live together in ways that are whole and just for all creatures.
For it is true: we are joined together in the mutual dance of life. Join us Sept. 30 for a moment to give thanks for the world.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook