Creation, Slavery and Ecology: Why love matters

Sermon for Creationtide 2019.

I have an article out this week on the C19th French- although technically Basque- missionary priest, explorer and naturalist Pere Armand David.

You might not have heard of him, but if you have marvelled at the antics of the Giant Panda or have a butterfly bush, a buddleia, in your garden he has already had impact on your life.

He brought knowledge of both of these to the west.

During an intense decade of exploration in China he made an immense amount of discoveries but also suffered great hardship.

He travelled, sometimes on donkey, at others on foot, up to 30 miles a day, had to contend with brigands and bandits and cope with a series of dire diseases, including typhus. It might owe something to his Basque origins in the French Pyrenees that he was hardy enough to survive all this and live 74 years.

The seeds of what he achieved were clearly sown in his childhood. His father was the town doctor in Espelette and a keen naturalist, and he passed on to his son a fascination with local wildlife, so before he even left school young Armand was already roaming miles to observe and collect flowers and insects.

The last animal companion he is known to have had was a pet spider, who apparently was with him when he died.

A couple of other coincidences of timing. Pere David was born on the 7th September 1826. The famous giant panda Chi Chi, who can probably be called the first celebrity panda arrived at London Zoo on the 5th of September 1958.

Pere David’s life was an example of great love bearing great suffering.

We have two readings today which have often been seen as problematic. We heard the entirety of St Paul’s letter to Philemon, which has been seen by those who like to judge the past by the values of the present as an embarrassment because St Paul does not urge Philemon to free the escaped slave Onesimus, but simply to take him back.

And the passage from St Luke seems another of those really hard sayings of Jesus- to be a disciple means to hate your family and carry your own cross. At first glance this seems incredibly harsh, and even inhuman.

And it would remain so if we took it in isolation from the rest of St Luke’s Gospel, where love, family reconciliation, generosity of spirit, and self- sacrifice on behalf of others are recommended.

Jesus, as elsewhere is using exaggeration and rhetoric to make a point.

To love, to be selfless and self- giving, after the nature of God, is costly.

Which brings me back to that letter to Philemon. Some people home in on the fact that St Paul, who self describes as an old man, is in prison. They would see that as a perfect example of the cost of discipleship. St Paul like Pere David endured because of his faith and convictions; he refers to shipwrecks and beatings as well as imprisonment, but I am more interested in what is asked of Philemon.

From what we know from the letter itself Onesimus is not only a runaway slave but a thief. Roman law was severe for such cases. And yet St Paul urges him not only to receive him back into his household but to cherish him and treat him no longer as a slave, but as a beloved brother.

St Paul expresses this request in intensely emotional language .

He refers to Onesimus as ‘my own heart that I am sending back to you.’

And writes that if Philemon would do as he asks, it would ‘ refresh my heart.’

Although that is how the translation we use on a Sunday puts it. The Greek is literally more visceral- using the word for guts and innards. The same word that is used in the gospels for Jesus’ reaction to suffering or something unjust- wrenching anguish leading to compassion and action.

Here again is that link between love and suffering. We sometimes forget that compassion means to suffer alongside.

The Church of England has very recently introduced a creation season beginning on the 1st September and extending to the feast of St Francis on October 4th. Which was in turn inspired by Pope Francis when he wrote his encyclical ‘On care for our common home’ in 2015.

It is not compulsory, but is an aid during what is, traditionally, the time that harvest festivals are celebrated, to connect faith with concern for the environment.

Part of the intention is to draw on our religious traditions to move us deeper than pragmatism and panic.

Appreciation and wonder at creation, which might compel us to protect and treasure it, and an awareness of the human spiritual malaise which so often drives destruction are just some elements that Pope Francis has drawn attention too.

Also, he has reminded us that such attitudes are not novel but deeply imbedded. He pointed out that St Francis instituted a wild garden in his friary, nearly a thousand years ago.

When Christians joined the campaign for the abolition of slavery in the C18th century it was as a consequence of the penny  finally dropping that people can not be property, because they are worthy of love and respect, of brother and sister hood- as St Paul wrote to Philemon all those years ago. Philemon lost his property but gained a friend.

It was love that led Pere David into his pursuit of science and nature- and the arduous challenges that followed. His journals show how much he missed his family when in China. But the satisfaction and joy his researches brought him and us were immense- he also discovered the pocket handkerchief tree, and the remarkable deer which bears his name.

Ignoring what is happening to the environment, washing our hands of it, panicking etc,will have far less effect and reward than loving it enough to change and act differently. Love does hurt but loss can be rich gain.

The household of the early church was called the home- the oikos. Ecology comes from the same root. When we consider the travails of our fellow inhabitants, human or animal, and grieve because of them we are looking after and loving our shared home.

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