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Saturday, 11 October 2014

Maggots in heaven


SERMON PREACHED AT THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL
OF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST
NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND
ORDINARY SUNDAY 23 (12th October) 2014
(family Eucharist: blessing of the animals)
    

Readings:   Psalm 148
                      Matthew 11:25-30

This time two years ago I was at St Francis’ Church in Batchelor, the former Rum Jungle, in the Northern Territory, conducting a similar but very different blessing of the animals. Amongst the animals I blessed that day was a wild tree snake, which I had enough composure to know was a harmless species, thwarting the young indigenous kids’ attempt to scare this white-fella priest, but nevertheless causing at the very least a double-take as this more or less snake sassy kiwi checked out the guest’s appearance against mental maps of danger. Meanwhile, up the road, my colleague the then Dean of Darwin, never shy of a little media publicity, was attracting lots of photographs from the notoriously crocodile obsessed Northern Territory News  as he blessed the carefully gaffer-taped snout of a local crocodile (albeit one small enough to hold).
 
The stories of St Francis are stories of a Garden of Eden revisited. Depictions of the great saints who communed with nature as Adam and Even mythologically once did were designed to evoke memories of pre-lapsarian Innocence, the same scene Blake captures in his whimsical Song of Innocence, “The Lamb.”

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek and he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child and thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
                Little Lamb God bless thee.

Blake memorably contrasted the innocent lamb with the destructive tiger, but we’ll leave Blake there. The point is that in the Francis mythology we are taken to a place where his sheer prayerful holiness restores the values of Eden, where the lion and the lamb lie down together in Isaiah’s futurific vision, where there is no bloodletting and where, I guess, tigers graze on clover.

Now I have a sack here, full of cute and cuddly and less cute and cuddly things. We may well bless the animals, and shortly we will, but as we take toys from the very animalian pillowcase I would ask you – unless you or your child are an arachnophobe or an ophidiophobLittle Lamb who made thee e (ask me later!) – to accept the first thing you touch, cute and cuddly or hairy and scary. Because ultimately, while Francis might remind us of an edenic existence, some of our cute and cuddly friends would happily eat some of our other cute and cuddly friends, and even if the lamentable group ironically called Savage Garden once sung about wanting to run like the animals, careless and free, I doubt we are yet in Past Eden or Future Heaven, and existence continues to have its dark risks, as every news bulletin reminds us.

So let me end with a story. Over a decade ago a small plane crashed in the mountainous terrain north of Newcastle in New South Wales. The occupants survived the impact, though the pilot died some 36 hours later. His passenger and girlfriend was found on the third day, dehydrated and an estimated 20 minutes away from death. She survived, despite massive burns following the crash. Amazingly, doctors reported, one element in her survival was that maggots infesting her burned body ate away the dying, infected skin – doctors refer to it as “maggot debridement therapy.” It’s not a pretty thought, but one of nature’s ugliest beasties saved the life of that crash victim in New South Wales.

Today we will bless our furry, finned and feathered friends. I won’t bless snakes, crocodiles or even maggots. It is worth remembering though that God created the good, the bad and the ugly, in a complex and not always pretty balance, a balance that we humans often make worse. But what Francis saw was that God is the God who walks before us, even when the crocodiles, snakes and maggots infest our path, that God gives us the beautiful and the ugly, sister sun, brother moon, cousin maggot, and that all are just a hint of the complexity of perfection that lies behind us in Eden and ahead of us in the complex we call heaven. In all this God remains the constant” God’s footsteps go ahead of us, and in them we however tentatively place our own.

TLBWY

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