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.