Hymn for the Feast of the Stigmata


I wrote this hymn for the Stigmata (17 September) 10 years ago in 2007, and I offer it again as a resource for you.

When singing this hymn, it really suits the tune ‘Kremser’ best. If you use ‘The Ash Grove’ you need to align the number of lines of music with the number of lines of text – not difficult!

Here it is for your meditation:

When Francis our father received the stigmata,
he climbed up Averna and prayed from the heart.
With all his believing, he now is receiving
the marks on his body of being in Christ.

So first there is Moses, who on our God closes
by opening his life to the power of the law.
He follows obeying, and does what God’s saying:
the marks on his body of being in Christ.

And next there is Jesus who brightness releases.
On Carmel he’s climbing and shines in the light.
The truth that he’s revealing, with serving we’re sealing
the marks on our body of being in Christ.

So when our Saint Francis on Averna dances,
He turns to the Lord and is won by the Cross.
Obeying and seeing, and turning and freeing
the marks on his body of being in Christ.

Now we who are living find joy in thanksgiving.
We seek out a place to pause and to pray.
The love that we’re gaining is expressed with pain in
the marks on our body of being in Christ.

  • Ted Witham © 2007

***

This hymn was inspired by Moses’ experience of the glory of God when he climbed Mount Sinai. This is described in Exodus 24:12-18 set for the Old Testament reading for the Stigmata (in the Australian Third Order Manual).

 

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Puncturing Trump’s Power


If the idea of the weakness of God in the world of Trump offends you, please read on. The President of the United States has vowed to ‘make America great again’, and logically America’s greatness must be at the expense of the rest of the world. He wants to use his power to decrease the life-chances of Mexicans, Syrian refugees and the environment.

It seems that this is a man using excessive power to accumulate more power. He can bully everyone from a Prime Minister to a girl in the backrooms of the White House. Be sure, the psychologists tell us, that a man like that who can use his power over others will display that power.

The response to Mr Trump portrayed in both traditional media and social media is often hysterical. ‘When will someone exterminate that man?’, one exasperated Facebook post asked. ‘This Crazy Man,’ writes another, ‘will provoke Iran into war.’ Or another typical reaction, ‘I’m terrified for the world.’

For those of us, white Western males in particular, who think we have power in this world, Mr Trump is a challenge. We want to use our power to change Mr Trump’s thoughts and actions., just as we use our power more locally. We are accustomed to our politicians responding to our emails, to bending the way of the people, and to honouring the democratic will every three or four years.

We tell ourselves that we can change things. We fantasise that we are staffers in the TV series The West Wing. We ‘speak truth to power’, and power listens.

But Mr Trump reminds us that we delude ourselves. I think we should take some care how we respond to him for fear of setting off damaging reactions. To bring power against Mr Trump, however great that power, will result in a reaction of more power. We threaten Mr Trump and the violence ratchets up. His Acting Attorney-General defied him on his Executive Order regarding immigration. He sacked her. His Generals advised him of the power of Al-Qaeda in Yemen. Mr Trump used a drone to kill 30 human beings.

It seems to me that we Franciscans have a contribution to make here. Particularly when a power-oriented President is breathing out fire.

We believe that the Divine way is the way of littleness, the path of humility.

Mr Trump, were he to encounter the concept of littleness, would not understand it. For him, being little is the worst kind of weakness.

The path of littleness eschews using all power over others. The path of littleness sees ourselves as fallible pilgrims seeking a way forward that will nurture those around us. The path of humility sees the other as the focus of my concern and not myself. If I have wealth it is at the disposal of others, not myself. If I have earthly power, it is to promote the needs and wants of the least in this world. (And as Australians, as whites, and as males, whatever we say we do have wealth and power).

This way of littleness was incarnated by Jesus. He ‘took the form of a servant and emptied himself’ (Phil. 2:7). He made no claims to overthrow the Roman yoke, or even to get stuck into reforming the Sadducean hierarchy. For us as for Jesus, the way of littleness leads to the greatest of power; but this kind of power is the power of love, not the power of violence.

My resolution – for myself – is to hold back from trying to use my little bit of power to change Mr Trump through outraged blog posts and emails to the White House and to pressing “LIKE” to affirm the violent language of my friends.

I see only two responses I can make: one is satire (but I have no doubt that satire is a form of power), and the other is modelling the humility that seeks to put others first. I think of certain pupils at Christ Church Grammar School, I think of Jews in Auschwitz modestly trying to create a mini-world of care and kindness in the harshness of their surrounds. That’s what will change the world.

 

Gift in love: Saint Francis


Our joy in fervent prayer and stately dances,
In full-sung hymns and full-heart confession,
in earnest emotional expression,
all diverse ways to celebrate St Francis.

Liturgical wealth but poverty deep,
In all, radical Godward dependence,
Tangled in matter we find transcendence;
The sole way integrity to keep.

More in story than godly abstraction:
The Pope gives the Order’s permission,
The lepers’ care and pairs for mission,
In mutual prize and always loving action.

Thank God for blessings and seeing all in joy,
Our gifting for love we hurry to employ.

 

 

Christian bird song?


Sermon preached at

St Mary’s Busselton on

October 2, 2016, for the Feast of St Francis,

at the Blessing of the Pets.

Scripture readings: 

Colossians 3:12-17
Matthew 10:8-15
**********
In the name of + the living God, Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
**********

You are very welcome to this service. Thanks for bringing your owners with you. I hope you enjoy being here with other animals, and you don’t find that Labrador too big, or that cat too smelly!

There’s a wild story about Saint Francis of Assisi, preaching and birds. Today we mark St Francis’ day, technically on October 4, and this saint, who lived 800 years ago, has a large part in our hearts. We like him partly because he seemed to have a special rapport with you animals.

The story starts with Saint Francis preaching. Saint Francis had a beautiful voice. In fact, one of the brothers, who used to be known for his elegant, resonant beautiful speaking voice, thought he was the best speaker in Italy, until he heard Saint Francis and was so spell-bound he joined the Brothers.

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St Francis preaching to the birds. Bardi Chapel – Italian School, (13th century) – Santa Croce, Florence, Italy

But on this occasion Francis was having trouble. A group a swallows was making a racket. ‘Little Sisters,’ St Francis said, ‘no-one can hear the words of the Gospel because of your noise. Please be quiet until I have finished my sermon.’ And they were. And so were the people. They were so moved that they wanted to follow him, leave their town, and become wandering preachers like him.

‘Don’t be in a hurry,’ St Francis, ‘and don’t leave, and I’ll arrange everything for your life with God.’ So St Francis set up the Third Order, which consists of Christians who want St Francis as their guide in Christian living, but who, unlike the Brothers, live in their own homes and get married. This Third Order still exists. My wife Rae and I are members of it.

But after this sermon, St Francis set out on the road again. He saw ahead of him a vast throng of birds. There were thousands of birds, maybe tens of thousands, more than you could count, maybe more that you could make with computer graphics. In any case Francis was impressed with such a mob of birds.

He told his companions to stop while he went ahead to preach, this time to the birds. He told this huge crowd of birds how much God loved them, because God had created them. He told them how thankful they should be for being able to fly and for being well insulated with two or three layers of feathers. They also should thank God for the air to fly in, and for the fact that they didn’t need crops to live. ‘You don’t sow or reap, and God feeds you and gives you the rivers and springs to drink, and trees and high mountains to make safe nests.’

The birds then opened their beaks and stretched their necks and reverently bent their heads to the ground. Their singing and movement showed St Francis how much they’d understood.

St Francis then made the sign of the Cross and let them leave. They followed the Cross Francis had signed. Some went to the north, some to the south, others to the west, the rest to the east. They sang magnificent songs, marvellous songs, as they flew off.

The birds set an example to us, to live according to the Cross of Christ, and to go in every direction, thanking God that we depend only on him, like the birds, trusting God to provide enough for each day, and singing our beautiful song, the song that tells the story of Jesus.

Our beautiful song is our song, our own song. There’s a legend about an African tribe that african-art-street-a-eececce-130355-2says a pregnant woman listens to the child in the womb and learns a song that is unique to that child. She teaches the father-to-be the song, then she teaches the midwives who sing it as the child is born. As the child grows up, each time the child falls and hurts herself, the village gathers around and sings her song. When she does something wrong as an adult, she is brought face to face with those she has wronged, the villagers form a circle around her and sing her song. The song is sung at the person’s funeral, and then is never heard again.

Our own song: one that our loved ones sing when we need healing or restoring. Wouldn’t it be wonderful?

The song each bird sang as it flew in one of the directions of the Cross was its own individual song. At the same time, each song fitted in with the songs of all the other birds. It was in close harmony with the song of the community.

In the same way, our own song with its individual story of God with us, with each of us, harmonises with the song of the community with its story of Jesus who came among us to share love.

So when we sing ‘All Creatures of our God and King’, we are singing the song that was originally St Francis’ own song. It’s now the community’s song, and we sing it along with the whole community. But we also make it our song. We remember the times we have been awed by the night sky and we sing,

‘Thou silver moon with softer gleam, O praise him. …

Thou rising moon, in praise rejoice,

Ye lights of evening, find a voice. O praise him.’

 

When we get to,

‘And all those of tender heart,

Forgiving others, take your part, O sing ye Alleluia’,

we can remember a time in particular when we forgave another, or when we were forgiven even though we were filled with shame and remorse.

I’m now going to make the sign of the Cross over you, and your owners can watch. When you leave, at the end of the service, you can go in the direction of the Cross that is your path, thanking God for God’s provision for you, and continue loving and forgiving your humans. As you go, go singing your wonderful song.

+  As you go to the north, or to the south, or to the west, or to the east, do not be guilty of the sin of ingratitude, but travel with God’s love and with your song. Amen.

Blessed be God for the animals!


Sermon for St Francis’ Day

October 4, A.D. 2015 St Mary’s, Busselton

Readings: Genesis 2:4-20a            Mark 11:1-11

In the + Name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer, Amen.

This story about Jesus and a mule comes from one of the apocryphal Gospels, one of the writings that didn’t make it into the New Testament. But I’d like to imagine it tells us about how Jesus thought and felt about animals. Here’s the story:

They came across a man with a pack-mule. But the animal had fallen because its load was too heavy, and the owner beat it so much it started bleeding. So Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, why are you beating your animal? Can’t you see that it is not strong enough for its load, and don’t you know that it feels pain?’

But the man replied, ‘What is that to you? I can beat it as much as I want to, because it is my property and I paid a lot of money for it.’ …

But the Lord said, ‘Can’t you see it bleeding? Can’t you hear its cries of pain? ‘

But he said, ‘No. Can’t hear a thing.’

And the Lord was sad and exclaimed, ‘That’s bad news, that you can’t hear it complaining to its Creator in heaven, and crying to you for mercy. Very bad news for those it complains about in its distress.’ And the Lord touched the animal. It got up – its wounds healed!

Jesus then said to its owner, ‘Now carry on your way and don’t beat the animal anymore, so that you too will find mercy.’

No one here would treat their pet like that mule owner.

I’ve been impressed by those dogs which have earned a medal in the war in Afghanistan for their bravery in sniffing out hidden explosive devices, bombs and mines, before they blow up and maim and kill people. I think the Army awards the medals because they know that the dogs are brave. The dogs understand the danger, and the dogs do their dangerous job to protect their humans. It’s quite wonderful.

War is a strange place to start on St Francis’ Day. St Francis thought that trying to get peace by going to war was a bizarre idea, like hammering stones to turn them into water: wrong tool, wrong method, wrong materials. Yet St Francis spent at least three months with the Crusaders in the Nile Delta, nursing the wounded and the soldiers who had succumbed to mosquito-borne diseases. He caught malaria himself during this time. He looked war straight in the face. War is part of the human experience. St Francis cared about soldiers because he knew that God cared about them.

I don’t think, though, that there were dogs helping the soldiers in the Fifth Crusade in Egypt. To have dogs helping in war, you need to know how intelligent they are and how people can bond with them, so that man and dog become a team to accomplish a task. Of all the thousands of knights and soldiers at Damietta, Christian and Muslim, I guess St Francis was the only one who really knew that it was possible for animals and humans to have such a strong bond. We’ve learned a lot from St Francis.

There’s a legend that St Francis tamed a wolf that was terrorising the village of Gubbio. Now, that may have been only a legend, or the baddie in the legend may have been a human bandit or terrorist nicknamed Il Lupo, ‘the Wolf’, but it is possible that it was a real wolf. There are people who have such a connection with animals, like St Francis, that simply by his calm presence, the wolf sensed that Francis was friend, not out to chase and kill him.

The idea back in Genesis where Adam names the animals is that in the beginning we had that close rapport with animals. We are supposed to feel a connection with them. When a pet comes into our home, we give it a name. That’s what we’re supposed to do. It’s more than a childish game.

I grew up with animals on a farm, and our parents emphasised on the one hand that we shouldn’t make pets of our sheep and cows, but on the other hand, they treated the animals with care. They knew that they felt pain. Dad knew that if the sheep were spooked in the shearing shed one year, they would remember and be frightened the next year. It simply made good sense to treat them well.

Montage of wedge tailed eagles in full flight on blue sky with copy space

And when we meet a wild animal, a lizard or a kangaroo, say, our first instinct should be to acknowledge it. The way St Francis did this was by calling every creature his sister or brother. The pair of wedge-tail eagles we sometimes see over our back fence at Novacare are magnificent, and they come from God. They are our brother and sister.

The more we learn about animals, the more we should respect their complexity. We know that dogs and cats communicate, and they learn more ways of communication to fit in with their human companions. But ‘chooks’, hens, also communicate. When they are out foraging and scratching, one always stands guard, and she has a different squawk to indicate a predator over-head or good food underfoot. And it’s vital that her mates understand her straightaway. Scientists have done experiments to show that fishes feel pain, and they give sophisticated intelligence tests to octopuses!

Animals are not dumb. They share our planet as our sisters and brothers, so we bring our pets for blessing, thanking God for all they give to us, whether they are domesticated pets like cats or dogs, working animals like the donkeys Jesus borrowed to ride into Jerusalem, or whether they are wild animals with no human contact. We thank God for them all – and welcome pet rocks, cart-horses and orcas, and everything in between, for a blessing today..

But St Francis went a step further. In his Canticle of the Sun, he calls the sun and moon, the earth and wind and weather, all the inanimate things that make up the environment, that support life, he calls all those things brother and sister too. Because we are all connected. Our bodies are made up of mud and oxygen – water, earth and wind. The trace elements that make the subtle difference and bring us really alive come from Brother Sun and the other stars.

One place to read more about this is in Pope Francis’s latest encyclical Laudato Si’. The Pope even takes the name from The Canticle of the Sun, ‘Laudato Si’’ means ‘Praise be’ and is the first two words of every verse of the Canticle.

The writer of Genesis saw the garden, the river, the trees and the animals, and the humans, as a whole, a gift from God, to be cared for and nurtured. Blessing pets is not just something nice to do: it’s a commitment to care for each other, for every living thing, and for everything that supports life, to the glory of the Creator.

Dying and Rising – Sermon for St Francistide


Galatians 6:16-18

In the name of the One who died and has risen – Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Saint Paul boasts that on his body he bore the marks of Christ. In the Greek, he speaks of the stigmata of Christ. The idea is that somehow the marks made by the nails and the spear when Jesus died were on Paul’s body.  He doesn’t describe these marks, these death marks, in any detail, but it was the only thing he allowed himself to boast about. ‘Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast / save in the death of Christ my God,’ to use Isaac Watts’ wonderful words.

I assume that the reason St Paul does not describe these marks in any more detail is that he does not want us to spend our time speculating about what they were like. What he wants us to pay attention to is the death of Christ – where the marks came from.

1300 years later in central Italy, Francis of Assisi was praying and fasting on lonely and wild Mt Alverna. Brother Leo was bringing him water and food and checking on Francis daily, but apart from that he was as alone with God as he could be. He was praying that he could be as like Jesus as possible. He had probably fasted too long and been on his own too long, but on one day he had a vision of Jesus on the cross. There seemed to be light coming from the wounds of Christ’s wrists and feet and side, and they seemed to come right into the body of Francis.

When the vision was gone, St Francis had on his body open wounds which never healed; on his hands and feet and side. He was embarrassed by these wounds and kept them covered. During his lifetime only Leo and the other two or three others that nursed him when he was ill had any idea about these stigmata. On the night Francis died, he asked to be laid naked on the bare earth in his beloved Portiuncula, down the hill from Assisi. Then, and only then, quite a number of Brothers saw wounds.

I’m not sure whether I am completely convinced of the literal truth of the stigmata of St Francis; I am perhaps about 80% sure. There is certainly no requirement of anyone to believe in them. To get hung up on whether they were true or not, or exactly what form they took, is to miss the point. Like Saint Paul, St Francis bore on his body the marks of Christ. Being personally marked by the death of Christ – that’s the point.

St Paul and St Francis believed they were personally marked by the death of Christ because they were baptised: ‘Do you not know,’ Paul asks the Christians in Rome, ‘that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?’ (Romans 6:3)

‘All of us’ includes you and me. We were baptised into his death. Archbishop Rowan Williams uses the word ‘swamped’. As Christians, we are swamped by the death of Jesus. That’s why we come into a church-building dominated by a font – where we were drowned – and a cross, where Jesus died. To be a Christian is to be overwhelmed by the death of Jesus.

Our death; and the death of Christ. The two come together in Christian faith to bring life.

Most of us are in the third third of our lives; closer to our death than to our birth. Being a Christian is about being personally marked with death. The death of Jesus, and the experience of St Paul and of St Francis urge us to reflect on our own death. While that may sound morbid, I believe that reflecting on our death actually leads us to life, to deeper life in Christ.

What does it mean to be personally and individually marked with death? For one thing, it means that our psyches, our souls, if you like, have the scars from the particular bereavements we have suffered, the marks from the struggles we have had when death has come to visit us closely. How we deal with the death of loved ones makes a difference. How we allow the grace of God to open us to new growth, to new life, when we suffer the loss of those who are dear shapes us to be the people we are. It matters how we respond to death.

And we get more practice the older we get. It’s not our grandparents who are dying now. It is our parents, and sisters and brothers, and spouses, and lifelong friends. It is easy to build a tough shell and hide from Sister Death, but that way, though it might be easy, leads to us shrivelling up. Let us resolve not to become hard and cynical, but to value deeply the love of each as they pass.

Our bereavements as we grow older can lead us into a deeper experience of the love of God as we open ourselves to all the love given and received in our friends and lovers, living and gone before us.

Secondly, in this third third of life, we are marked with the experience of our own dying. Thankfully, we don’t know exactly what that will be. It may well be that we will die in our sleep, and not be aware of the actually moment of dying.

There used to be many books called something like ‘The Art of Holy Living and Holy Dying’.  How we die matters to God and to us. I have a home communion set given to me by Fr John Wardman as a gift when he was dying. It was wonderful to spend time with that priest in the weeks before he died, as he recollected himself before God, and as he reaffirmed how he believed that his being in God was permanent. He radiated a peace and stillness that was appropriate for him. He died well.

The challenge for me is, What will it mean for me to die well? What outstanding matters of loving relationship must I attend to?  How should I deepen my relationship with God? Do I identify any fears within myself about dying?

Sometimes, when I worked as a parish priest, people would ask me not to visit their relative in hospital. ‘They’ll associate you with dying,’ they would explain. And it’s true. A couple of times I wasn’t warned and people were quite angry with me for visiting someone. I suspect that they were angry because they, the relatives, didn’t want to think about death and dying, and they knew that it is part of a priest’s job to raise the subject.

It’s never too early, really, to start thinking about how our lives are marked with death; how we are to identify with Christ in his death. We live such sheltered lives here in Busselton. We don’t have to face Ebola outbreaks or the massacres of religious fanatics. But maybe we can take a lesson from Ebola and ISIS: many people on the planet face death on a daily basis.

The more urgently we face our coming dying the more we can thank God for each day we live. Each day now is a wonderful gift, even if it is marked with sickness and pain, or if it is spoiled with disappointments in love. One of the things I have learned with a body that doesn’t always work well is how wonderfully it does work.  Our prayer is thank you. We come to this church to make Eucharist. Evcharisto, simply the Greek word for ‘Thank you, God.’

The more we look at death in the face, the more we see it as not a full stop, but more like a bus stop. It’s a staging point. We may not understand what comes after, but we believe with full hearts that we are marked not just with the death of Christ, but also with his resurrection. ‘If we have died with Him, we believe we shall also live with Him.’ St Paul again. (Romans 6:8)

All that love – the love of brothers and sisters; the love of parents, the love of spouse, the love of childhood friends – is not lost. Somehow we know that we will find those loves again after death. St Paul tells us, and it’s one of my favourite verses, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart imagined, God has prepared for those who love him.’ (I Corinthians 2:9)  In other words, for what happens after death, we imagine the best possible outcomes, and God makes sure that it will be better, far better, than we can imagine.

So for the future, when we look death in the face, the death which marks us in a personal and individual way, as Christians we are filled joyful anticipation. To bear in our bodies the marks of the death of Christ is no bad thing. It leads to the fullness of life.

Bishop Brian Macdonald: subito Santo?


Bishop Macdonald at the Citizenship Convention, Canberra, 1965. Photo: Courtesy National Library of Australia

If John Paul 2 can be made a saint, then I reckon Brian Macdonald can be made a saint too. Bishop Brian Macdonald was one of my heroes in the early years of my priesthood. I was fortunate to be in the same Deanery as the bishop in my eight years at Christ Church Grammar School and so we met up most months at Deanery meetings.

Bishop Macdonald had a quietly radiant and prayerful presence. He was not a man to use his rank to dominate. I remember his purple bishop’s shirt was blue rather than the usual scarlet, and I retain a strong positive regard for bishops with blue-purple shirts.

Like most spiritual leaders, he had something subversive about him. One day at a Deanery meeting, we were discussing something vitally important – legislation for Synod perhaps – when I heard him whispering to me, “St Francis didn’t write ‘The Prayer of St Francis’, you know.” When I eventually realised he was talking to me, I paid attention to what he was saying. Knowing my interest in all things Franciscan, he was having a gentle dig. “St Francis didn’t write ‘The Prayer of St Francis, you know.” I replied, “What do you mean, Bishop?” With a wicked smile, he repeated, “He didn’t write it, you know.”

I went home and researched the Peace Prayer and found that indeed, St Francis cannot have written the prayer that begins, “Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace.” It was written in only about 1912. I wondered why a Christian gentleman would take such pleasure in disillusioning me. Perhaps it was his delight in taking an interest in my spiritual journey.

Bishop Macdonald was in many ways a radical. At the Summer School of Perth Diocese one year, he claimed that Jesus had completely developed his feminine as well as his masculine nature. I know now that Bonaventure and other medieval theologians had taught similar ideas six centuries earlier, but to expound this notion for lay-people in the 1970s was a gentle shock. I learned that Jesus was a strong leader, willing to take the initiative, and to take his stand against evil. But equally, Jesus was nurturing, caring and intuitive, not afraid to express emotion and be vulnerable. Something like Bishop Macdonald himself. Masculine and feminine: a rounded human being.

Today, decades after the death of Bishop Macdonald, I was again reminded of the blue-shirted bishop when our diocesan bishop visited our parish. Bishop Allan Ewing wears a scarlet-purple shirt, so that’s not the point of connection.

Today is Easter V, and the Gospel is from John 14 with Jesus telling us, “In my Father’s house are many places.” Bishop Allan interpreted this to mean that there are for each of us places of safety and feeding for us now in the Kingdom as we live it out. It is not a promise for the future, but a statement for today.

Back in those Deanery meetings, Bishop Macdonald told us about trading caravans travelling back and forth across the Middle East, making 15 – 20 miles a day. Each night they needed a stopping place where there would be shelter, feed and water for the camels; a place to stop and sleep. The Greek word Jesus uses is “manoi” which does translate as “stopping places”. Jesus is stating, “In my Father’s caravan are many stopping places.” This is good news. And one man from those caravans rode ahead each day. He was called the dragoman. His role was to go ahead of the caravan and to make sure everything was ready at the stopping place. “I go ahead of you to prepare a place.” Jesus is the dragoman for us each day on our journey.

So I am grateful to Bishop Allan for recalling Bishop Macdonald for me, reminding me of his gentle humanity, his humour and his care for young priests. In a way, he continues to sit just out of view whispering encouragement and preparing the way for his fellow servants of the Kingdom. Thank God for him!