“All things were made for Him”: A Sermon for the Blessing of the Animals, 2019

Genesis 9:8-16
Colossians 1:15-20
John 1:1-5

 

Each year on the first Sunday in October, we observe the Blessing of the Animals. It’s fun, chaotic, and a way for many of us to acknowledge ritually and religiously the important role our pets play in our lives, the blessings they are to us, and our responsibility to care for them.

We choose this day because it is on or close to October 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the popular, beloved saint who was known for his affection for animals. Stories about his care for animals abound. He preached to the birds, he tamed the wild wolf of Gubbio, turning a predator who had terrorized a town into a peaceful vegetarian. Among the few texts that are attributed to him is the Canticle of the Sun, a translation or paraphrase of which we sang as our opening hymn. In the original version, Francis sings of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.

It’s easy for us to over-sentimentalize both St. Francis and our love of animals, and easy for us, as in so many areas of our personal lives, to fail to see connections between the animals we love and care for, and the whole creation of which we are a part.

Today, rather than focusing on St. Francis, or on our relationships with our beloved animal companions, I want to reflect on the larger issue, and the great challenge we face as human beings on a planet in the midst of dramatic climate change. Our collect, lessons, prayers of the people and confession come from resources approved for use by General Convention 2018. These particular propers focus on the kinship of all created things in Christ and seemed especially appropriate for this day on which we also remember St. Francis, who praised Brother Fire, Sister Earth, even Sister death.

We’ve been confronted this year with imminence of climate change: the sight of fields left unplanted after the unprecedented wet spring we had, images of the Amazon rainforest burning; news of melting glaciers and ice sheets in Greenland, the Arctic and Antarctic. I realized that while many of us at Grace are concerned about the environment and probably even participate in advocacy efforts around climate change and similar issues, it’s not something we’ve talked much about over the years.

At the same time, it’s important to recognize that in a congregation our size there are limits to what we can do; and with our advocacy and work around racism and homelessness, creation care might seem to be something for others to take on—or perhaps if some among us are so inclined, they could pursue these issues as a group within Grace. The Episcopal Church has produced a wealth of resources around creation care, materials on education and advocacy that would be a good place to start.

Our current situation invites us to respond in the way that Jesus challenged his listeners in his preaching: Metanoia. It’s a word that has traditionally been translated as “repent” or “repentance.” And we have a great deal of that to do. But more than that the word literally means “change your mind” or rethink. We must reorient ourselves—reorient our understanding of what it means to have faith in God in Christ, reorient our understanding of scripture, and reorient our roles as human beings and as Christians in the world.

There is a longstanding assumption in Christian theology, and among ordinary Christians, that when God created the universe and human beings, God created us to have dominion over all creation. That has led to our rapacious exploitation of natural resources, or willingness to exploit everything in creation for our use and benefit, our presupposition that we as human beings are outside of, exterior to creation and have no part or role in it. All of this derives at least in part from that commandment in Genesis 1: Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and have dominion over it.

There is a second creation story, in Genesis 2, and it is rather different in its focus and meaning. In that version, God plants a garden and creates a man out of the dust of the earth to take care of it. God then creates all of the animals as possible helpers or partners for the man, and finally he creates the woman from the man. In this version then, human beings are literally part of the created order—made from the dust of the earth, connected with all living things, and participating with God in the ongoing work of creation as God’s stewards of creation.

It’s that story that I think offers us helpful ways of connecting our faith, our understanding of God and the created universe, with the urgent need for human beings to re-orient ourselves, to change our minds and take action to preserve the earth for future generations. As stewards of God’s creation, we are created and called to care for the created order, to tend it, to continue God’s work of creation.

Our lessons encourage us to think about our connection, even kinship with the created order. From God’s promise to Noah and his descendants that God would not destroy the earth, through the psalm, with its trust in God’s care for all of the created order, “you feed both man and beast, O Lord.” It also uses imagery from nature to describe God’s righteousness and God’s love toward living things, including humans.

The reading from Colossians and the Gospel, those first few familiar and powerful words from the Gospel of John, introduce a uniquely Christian perspective to our understanding of the relationship between God and creation. Creation happened through the power and work of Jesus Christ, the Word. Colossians makes a bold point: all things were made in and through him, that is, Christ; indeed, all things were made “for Christ.” What would it be like to understand all of creation, all living things, from the smallest plant or microbe, to the majestic Rocky Mountains, the Amazon rainforest, as being made “for Christ.” I daresay we would think and act rather differently.

I know there are Christians who believe that if or when our planet becomes uninhabitable, Jesus will return on a rescue mission to save the faithful from destruction. It’s strange because every biblical description of future bliss is an extension or improvement of our current existence. Think of the great vision of the prophet Isaiah:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

 

One wonders what a vision of the kingdom of God, a vision of God’s reign, a vision of a created order restored and perfected when God’s righteousness and justice prevail, when Christ reigns in majesty, one wonders what such a vision would look like or would include if the earth, the planet given us by God to tend and nurture, can no longer sustain life.

We are called to metanoia—to conversion. To quote Pope Francis, who wrote in his encyclical on the environment, “Laudato si“:

This conversion calls for a number of attitudes which together foster a spirit of generous care, full of tenderness. First, it entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works …   It also entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion.

If and when we experience creation in that way, to discover God in the world around us as well as in our soul, we will be well on our way to becoming more fully human, more faithful to our calling as Christians, and become more completely shaped in the image of the one who created us. May God give us the grace to grow into that image and calling.

 

 

 

Creation, Relationship, Blessing: A sermon for Proper 22,Year B, 2018

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. Continue reading

Humility, Obedience, Self-Emptying, the mind of Christ, and puppies

Today at the 10:00 service we will be blessing animals, beloved pets, digital photos, even, I’m sure, some beloved stuffed pets. We do this every year on a Sunday near October 4, which is the Feast of St. Francis, the anniversary of his death in 1226. Some years, we turn the entire service into a focus and reflection on St. Francis. Other years, like today, we insert the blessing of the animals into our regular Sunday Eucharistic celebration, using the readings appointed for the Sunday. That’s what we’re doing today but after I made that decision and began working more closely on today’s worship, I found my reflections returning again and again to the poverello, the little poor one, St. Francis. Continue reading

A Homily for the Feast of St. Francis, 2015

 

Today is the Feast of St. Francis, marking the saint’s death 789 years ago. St. Francis is among the most beloved and most familiar of all the saints of western Christianity. He remains as popular today as he was in his lifetime. His love of animals and of God’s creation have made him an icon of the environmental movement. His joy, playfulness, and child-like faith offer an alternative to a Christianity that often seems to take itself too seriously. Continue reading

Living with a dying pet on the Feast of St. Francis

We celebrated Blessing of the Animals at Grace on September 29, for logistical reasons. It was especially poignant for me because for the first time, we didn’t bring any of our living cats with us. Instead, I brought the ashes of Maggie Pie, who died in 2003, and Margery Kempe, who died on New Year’s Day this year. My heart was heavy because back home Thomas Merton is sharing his last days with us. He was diagnosed with cancer two months ago.

We actually thought that Merton would probably be dead by now.  He’s lost weight; the tumor in his jaw has grown; but for the most part, he seems to be enjoying life. He’s become very affectionate and since he’s lost weight, he’s taken to lying between my legs which was a favorite spot of his predecessors.

Coincidentally, at night he has begun sleeping where both Maggie and Margery slept the last months of their lives, up at the top of the bed between our pillows. Maggie slept there because it was a place of safety away from Merton, who tended to beat up on her. Merton sleeps there because it’s where he seems to want to be.

This morning, he seemed to be in a very good mood and feeling well. He played with his ball, even carried it in his mouth, and ran around the house.

So we are facing that difficult decision so many people face. With the deep love we share for our animal companions, it is extremely difficult to watch them suffer, and as difficult to imagine life without them. But when we open our homes and our hearts to them, we also accept the responsibility of caring for them in life and in death. We accept the responsibility to release them from the pain they suffer and don’t understand.

Here he is this morning, resting after his bout of play:

photo(2)

 

 

A Homily for the Blessing of the Animals, 2013

Today is our annual Blessing of the Animals, a day when we remember the witness of St. Francis of Assisi and remember to the goodness of God’s creation. For some, the Blessing of the Animals may be little more than a gimmick. For others of us, it is a way of acknowledging the relationships we have with our pets, the reality that these relationships can be deep, long-lasting, and fulfilling, and that through them, we can experience the love of God.
When we bless our pets, as is the case when we take the time to bless or give thanks for the fruit of the earth, the beauty and bounty of God’s creation, we remind ourselves that our relationship with God is not merely an inward, spiritual thing. It is also bound up with the material world, the creation that God made and gave us to be stewards and caretakers of. Continue reading

Blessing Relationships: A Sermon for Proper 22, Year B (and the Blessing of the Animals)

October 7, 2012

There are those who look forward to this Sunday each year with great excitement. We are blessing the animals today, on this closest Sunday to October 4, which is the Feast Day of St. Francis. We bless the animals in conjunction with the commemoration of St. Francis because among so many other things, Francis was known for his love of the animals—among the stories his followers and devotees told about him were his preaching to the birds, taming the wolf of Gubbio, and more. Francis’ love of the animals was part of his delight in all of creation, as we sang in our processional hymn words attributed to him in praise of creation. Continue reading

Blessing of the Animals–Photos

On Sunday, October 3, we had a Blessing of the Animals as part of our 10:00 service. Here are some pictures:

 

Figaro wanting to join the procession

 

 

That's "Prada" in the cage

 

 

The full gallery is available here:

To be honest, I decided to do the Blessing at the main Sunday service on the spur of the moment. I’ve usually done it on Saturdays or on the weekday, wherever the Feast of St. Francis falls. And I was regretting my decision when I woke up at 3:00 am on Sunday morning catastrophizing all of the possible things that could go wrong–from no one bringing their pets to the prospect of total chaos breaking out.

In the end, it went very well. The pets were very well behaved as were the people who accompanied them. We had a great time. Several people remarked on how wonderful the service was, so I suppose we’ll be doing this regularly from here on out.

Homily for the Blessing of the Animals

Francis in the 21st Century

October 3, 2010

Tomorrow is the Feast of St. Francis, marking the saint’s death 784 years ago. St. Francis is among the most beloved and most familiar of all the saints of western Christianity. He is beloved today as he has been for nearly 800 years, In the contemporary world, St. Francis remains among the most beloved figures in the Christian tradition. His love of animals and of God’s creation have made him an icon of the environmental movement. His joy, playfulness, and child-like faith offer an alternative to a Christianity that often seems to take itself too seriously.

There was much more to St. Francis, though. He preached to human beings as well as to birds and he showed in his lifestyle a serious and radical commitment to the imitation of Christ. For him, following Christ meant trying to live exactly as Jesus and his disciples did. He demanded of his followers that they own no property whatsoever. One of his slogans was: “naked to follow the naked Christ.” He took that quite literally. One of the key moments in his story is that when he renounced his share of his family’s wealth and threw himself on the mercy of the church, he stripped nude in the city square of Assisi in front of his parents and the bishop.

Equally dramatic was his identification with Christ. Francis is attributed with setting up the first crèche (nativity scene). Near the end of his life, after he had given up control of the religious order he had founded and retreated into a life of solitude, he is believed to have received the stigmata—he bore on his hands and feet the wounds Jesus Christ received on the cross. It is the first recorded example of that phenomenon in the history of Christianity. His reception of the stigmata is evidence of his total identification with his Lord. It is also an example of another trend to which Francis gave impetus. Although the suffering of Christ was already an important focus of Christian piety by the time Francis came on the scene, his devotion to it helped make it wildly popular in the later Middle Ages.

Today offers us the opportunity to reflect on Francis, on his legacy, his faith, and his significance for today. It’s a curious thing that with all of what Francis meant, that the way we honor him most often in the twenty-first century is with the blessing of the animals. It’s curious because there’s little evidence that Francis related to animals in quite the way we tend to relate to our pets. Oh, he loved them, preached to them, and in the case of the wolf of Gubbio, he turned him into a pacifist and a vegetarian. But he certainly didn’t treat animals like family members, which is the way many of us treat our pets.

Indeed, one of the reasons I like the blessing of the animals is because it is one small way to acknowledge the important role our pets play in many of our lives. If you don’t have no, or never have had a pet, this may be hard to imagine, but for those of us who include animals among our household, they truly are often like members of the family. Indeed, it’s not an exaggeration to say that some people have closer and deeper relationships with their pets than they have with other humans.

That may sound shocking, but it shouldn’t be. Our pets are utterly dependent on us, –yes, that’s true even of cats, no matter what they might think, and whatever attitude they might have at the moment. And they share love and devotion with us. Now, I’m not about to say that all dogs go to heaven; that’s not my call, but I do know that for many of us, our spiritual lives are also experienced and deepened through our relationships with animals.

So it’s appropriate to bring our pets with us to church at least once a year, and on that day, to ask God’s blessing on them and on our relationships with them. Yes, it may be a little disruptive, and perhaps even a little unseemly. Nonetheless, to acknowledge the role our pets play in our lives is also to acknowledge our full humanity, in all of its messiness and unseemliness.

And if there’s anything that St. Francis was about, it was that. His ministry was among the poor and the downtrodden. He and his followers sought to help those who were sick and dying and he brought the gospel to places it was rarely heard or experienced. His life was preaching the gospel. As is often attributed to him, he said, preach the gospel, if you have to, use words.

Our culture, indeed, our religious sensibilities, often lead us to disparage the concrete and the real. We want our spiritual lives to exist in some nebulous ether up there, far from the down and dirty of daily life. But Francis was just the opposite. He sought to lead others, through the concrete and real to know Jesus Christ. That’s what led him to create the first nativity scene, for it is in the incarnation, when Jesus became human, that we see God most clearly.

Francis sought to embody the love of Christ. Following Christ for him did not mean the abstract, either, but the literal. Some of what Francis did we may find humorous, silly, or even offensive. But when he gathered a group of men around himself, and organized them, he took his model from Jesus’ sending his disciples out into the world two by two. So as Jesus said in Matthew, they were dressed in tunic and sandals with a rope for a belt. They had no money or possessions.

In the end, Francis’ identification with Christ became so complete that he received the stigmata—his body bore on it the wounds of the crucified Christ. If nothing more, that identification should remind us of what it means to follow Christ, to seek to form ourselves and our lives in the image of Christ.

We have been hearing a great deal about discipleship as we have been reading from the Gospel of Luke. The call to discipleship, to follow Jesus is clear. What Jesus means by following him also seems clear—hard sayings like “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” What doesn’t see clear is how to follow Jesus in the twenty-first century, in our world which is so very different than first-century Palestine, and in our lives, which are so very different from the lives of first-century peasants.

That’s one way the saints can be of help. In the Anglican tradition, we regard the saints primarily as models of faith. Their lives and their faith should inspire and challenge us to deepen our own faith and discipleship. They were human beings like us, with shortcomings and faults like ours, who received the grace to follow Christ more closely and to experience God more deeply than most of us. Francis followed Jesus in a way that was completely consistent with the gospel, and perfectly suited to the early twelfth century. It is our job as faithful Christians, to shape our lives similarly, consistent with the Gospel, adapted to the present.

In this present day, there may be no more urgent message we need to hear than the one carried by the presence of animals in our worship. For they remind us that our relationship with God is not just about us and God. It includes all of creation. Creation proclaims the glory and love of God and in an age of climate change and environmental degradation, to see our responsibility to the earth as part of what it means to follow Jesus, may be the most important thing of all.