Today is our Annual Blessing of the Animals. We do this on a Sunday close to October 4, which is the Feast of St. Francis, the anniversary of his death in 1226. Francis is of course among the most beloved and popular saints in the Christian tradition, as popular today as he was in his own lifetime. He is famous for his life of poverty, his simplicity, and his desire to imitate Christ. His imitation of Christ was so complete that he received the stigmata. For the last year or so of his life, he bore on his body the wounds Christ suffered on the cross, bleeding from his hands and feet.
Among the most beloved stories about St. Francis are those that involve his interactions with animals—preaching to the birds, taming the wolf of Gubbio, and the like. It is because of his love of animals that we observe the Blessing of the Animals in connection with his feast day. In the twentieth century, Francis also came to be regarded as the Christian saint most associated with the modern environmental movement—his canticle of the sun which praises creation is an example of his love of nature.
Our readings today connect with the themes of St. Francis and the Blessing of the Animals at least obliquely. The Reading from Genesis, Psalm 8, and the reading from Hebrews all reflect on God’s work in creation and on the place of human beings in that creation and our relationship with God. In the reading from Genesis 2, we hear part of the second of the two accounts of creation in Genesis. In this version, God is depicted in very human-like terms. We are told that God planted a garden in Eden and made the human (Heb adam) out of the dust of the earth (adamah). God the created the man to till the garden, to take care of the plants within. When God saw that the man was alone, God created all of the animals in an effort to create a companion for the man and finally God created the woman.
There are a couple of important points here. First, the purpose of the creation of humans—to tend the garden. As we face climate catastrophe and consider all the ways that human beings have contributed to the destruction of our planet and caused the extinction of species, it’s worth remembering that for all that, the biblical witness calls us to care for the environment to see to its preservation and flourishing.
The second thing worth pointing out is that we are created to be in relationship. This story suggests, and I don’t think it’s sacrilegious to say this, that God immediately recognized that the man God made from the dust of the earth was alone and needed companionship. The creation of the animals is God’s attempt to provide such companionship for the man, perhaps companionship that God could not provide. So finally, God created the woman out of the man, and the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,(Ishshah)
for out of Man(Ish) this one was taken.’
So human beings were created to be in relationship with each other as well as with God, created by God to tend for, to care for, to co-create with God. We all know how we as human beings have fallen short of God’s intent for us and for creation, both in our exploitation and abuse of the created world, and by the broken-ness of our relationships.
And so the intent of these words have also been abused to cause lasting harm to people who experience relationships as broken and destructive, and those who have experienced the joys of love and companionship in ways other than that described here.
In the gospel reading, Jesus quotes these same words, as part of a response both to a question posed to him by the Pharisees and to a follow-up question from his disciples. So it’s important to remember that Mark places these sayings in the context of questions others have asked Jesus, not isolated pronouncements of Jesus about marriage. And remember, too, that elsewhere Jesus says some different things about marriage and family life, relativizing the importance of family ties in relationship to discipleship.
In the first case, Pharisees pose a question to Jesus. Again, this is a matter of interpretation of the Torah—what constitutes a valid divorce. The text in question comes from Deuteronomy, which suggests a man may simply divorce his wife by issuing a certificate of divorce. Jesus asserts this law was provided because of human weakness or hardness of heart, and then insists that the prohibition on divorce derives from creation itself. Such a blanket condemnation of divorce troubled the disciples, who asked their follow up question. Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus, or perhaps the gospel writers, offered an out, adultery,. Here, Jesus extends to women the right to divorce their husbands for the same cause—this was in keeping with Roman law, which gave women as well as men the right to divorce.
These words often come to us as challenge and burden, especially when we ourselves or our loved ones have experienced the pain of broken relationships. They have been weaponized by many Christians, so that not only is there pain caused by the broken relationship, there is the added pain of moral or social condemnation. Furthermore, it’s important to acknowledge that some relationships are not just broken, they are downright dangerous. No one should remain in an abusive relationship, either to preserve a marriage, or for the sake of the children. If you find yourself in such a place, please get help. Come talk to me.
These are hard things to talk about, hard things to think about, especially on a day when we are also blessing our animal friends and companions. While relationships can be broken, they can often be, should be, blessings to those in them and blessings to world. Jesus takes children, who probably ran in and disrupted the meal he was having with his disciples and friends, and instead of shooing them out, he picked them up and blessed them.
We at Grace are blessed with children whose presence among us remind us of the joys of life, the beauty and love of God for us. And today, we are further disrupted by the presence of other loved ones, dogs and cats, a chicken or two, and a miniature horse. For many of us, the relationships we have with our pets are blessings to us, giving us joy and love, companionship in a world where many of our other relationships may be fleeting or problematic. The unconditional love of a dog for their persons reminds us that we are worthy of love, beloved of God.
On this day when we acknowledge and bless the animals in our lives, may we also remember that the God who created us and them, desires our flourishing and joy. May we find such joy and flourishing in our relationships with our companion animals, and with our fellow humans, and may this congregation be a place where such relationships flourish and are strengthened, and where the courage and commitment to support and help those who are struggling in relationship is also present.