+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Much of my life has included one or more dogs. My first dog was Star, a black male miniature poodle. He came to me when I was eleven years of age, and I soon bonded with him. Star was the person at the center of my life for the next four years. I loved him more than the people in my birth family, who were not very nice to me most of the time. But Star always was. I was absolutely heartbroken when he was killed by a speeding car, more so than by the death of anyone else.
God, who confers gifts on all living things, has often used the service of animals, or made them reminders of salvation. Nowhere is that more true than with dogs.On the next to last page of your booklet, you’ll see a cartoon showing someone arriving in heaven and finding a dog sitting on the divine throne and a description of the kind of love we receive from dogs: unconditional love. Just like God created me, God created Star and all the other dogs who have been part of my life. All of them loved me unconditionally, just as God loves all of us. Always remember that the word “dog” is God spelled backwards. Dogs embody what God is like in a very unique way.
The question, “who is God for you,” is the first question I was asked by the first priest with whom I shared my call to ordained ministry about 12 years ago. It is not just a question for those called to ordained ministry, but for all of us. Who God is, and our relationship to God, is at the heart of anyone’s religious identity, or lack of it. Many Christians imagine an other-worldly, stern judgmental God who judges people at time of death and sends them to heaven or hell depending on whether they’ve followed what some church has determined to be “God’s laws.”
I emphatically reject that idea of God. Those who see God as a merciless judge are usually themselves merciless judges of other people. As the First Epistle of John tells us, God is love, and love is from God. In more than one place in the Psalms, God is described as “is compassionate and gracious,slow to anger, abounding in love.” That definition of God is what I see in God’s manifestation among us, not only in Jesus, but in all the rest of creation. Animals have no idea what a judgmental God is. Animals, however, are not capable of condemning someone. Wild animals simply go about the business of being what they are, being born, surviving, reproducing, and dying, without value judgments about themselves or other creatures. They don’t think of themselves or other animals as good or bad. As explained in today’s second reading, all animals are clean in God’s sight. While it is true that animals are not human, they nonetheless receive God’s grace, receiving and responding to God’s love, each in their own way. God cares for their needs without them asking, as illustrated in today’s Gospel.
Just as God created humanity out of love, God also created all other living creatures, not only dogs, but cats, rabbits, rodents, fish, cattle, elephants, monkeys, and everything else that walks, crawls, swims or flies. The majestic story of God’s creation set out in the book of Job manifests ravens hunting, mountain goats giving birth, wild donkeys ranging over mountains, horses snorting and eagles nesting on cliffs. No community of creation exists in which God the creator is not intimately involved. In Psalm 50, we read, “For all the beasts of the forest are mine, the herds in their thousands upon the hills. I know every bird in the sky, and the creatures of the fields are in my sight.” Animals, like people, experience pain and death, and need God’s loving care. As Psalm 36 tells us, “God, you save both humans and animals alike.” Psalm 148, which we sang this morning, appears in the Roman Lectionary in several places in the cycle of readings, but it omits the verses we sang this morning, so I had to compose music for it to properly recognize God’s solicitude for animals.
Our conservative protestant sisters and brothers don’t accept the idea of evolution. In their literal interpretation of scripture, they think God created the world in a week just as described in the first chapter of Genesis, a portion of which we read this morning. Evolution, however, does not negate God’s existence and the notion that God created the universe and all that is in it. Whatever matter started the evolutionary process, and the way in which evolution has proceeded, and continues to occur, originate from no source other than God. Without God, there would be no evolution. It is through the God-created pattern of evolution that we share so much with other creatures. We have a brain, eyes, ears, a heart, lungs, and numerous other physical characteristics of many animals. Just like humanity, animals share in God’s divinity. They have a divine spark in them. It may not be the same exact spark we have, but it is there.
Animals share in the fortunes of human existence and have a part in human life. The redemption offered by God through Jesus extends to all creation. In the Book of Isaiah which foretells what life will be like when the Jews are freed from Babylonian captivity, the prophet proclaims a peaceable kingdom where wolves and lambs, leopards and baby goats, lions and cattle, and human children and snakes will all lie down with each other, proclaiming shalom for humanity and the entire natural world altogether. God is good to all, and all that God made.
Humanity must descend from its privileged pinnacle to join the entire circle of life. When we ask God’s blessings on us, that “us” must include all living things. This Christmas, when we hear about Jesus as “God with us,” we should see that phrase applying to the entire planetary community. In conceiving this more inclusive way about God, we recognize the intrinsic value of other creatures and their interaction with God. In His encyclical “Laudato Si”, Pope Francis implores us to remember that “our indifference or cruelty towards the animals of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is ‘contrary to human dignity.’”
The connections between our relationships with animals and our relationship with other people challenges us how heretofore, we have commonly defined the inclusivity to which God calls us, stretching our souls to move beyond including people of all genders, orientations, races, nationalities, and even all political and theological opinions. In remembering the life and example of Saint Francis, God calls us to push the boundaries of inclusivity even further. The notion of animals at home in God’s house is nothing new, and in fact, quite ancient. Psalm 84 tells us in that the amiable dwellings of God, the sparrow has found herself a house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young, even on God’s Altar. We carry on that tradition here at Saint Cecilia’s. We have always been a dog-friendly church, welcoming many dogs over the past few years, including four at a funeral this past May, and of course, #Me-too and Andy, the dog-children of our distinguished parishioners, Richard and George, as well as the many dog-children who were in vacation care with Jeanna, our former music director.
The stories about Saint Francis and animals illustrate the oneness of creation shared by all creatures. He cared for the poor and sick, he preached sermons to animals, and praised all creatures as brothers and sisters under God. Saint Francis invited all creation—animals, plants, natural forces, even Brother Sun and Sister Moon—to give honor and praise to God, each in their own way. Saint Francis saw animals as his sisters and brothers. He prayed that God would work through him to help them. Saint Francis presents to us an integrated ethic of care for our earth that takes us to the heart of what human values should be. His strong and constant connection with the natural world led him to be proclaimed the patron saint of ecology as well as of animals.
Some of you may not know this, but Saint Francis was not a Bishop or Priest. He was a Deacon! Who he was exemplified the essence of diaconal ministry – service, not only to other people, but to all of creation. He was born to riches, but devoted his wealth his ministry to care for the poor and vulnerable rather than continue a self-indulgent lifestyle. Just like when we fall in love with someone, whenever Saint Francis would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he would burst into song, drawing all other creatures into praising God.
Saint Francis invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. To quote the Book of Wisdom, “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker.”
We cannot truly appreciate the greatness and beauty of all creation if we continue to want to control it and set its boundaries. When we track the concept of creation throughout scripture, we do not find a domination model. Biblical authors consistently place humanity within, and not on top of, an interdependent community encompassing all of creation with God at its center. While it is true that scripture tells us that God gave humanity dominion over all living things, any dominion humanity may have is secondary to that of God. The dominion God intended us to have is to act as God’s representatives to act such that God’s will is effectuated. Far from giving humanity carte blanche to exploit the natural world, dominion in the name of God as creator makes humanity responsible to see that creation thrives. Taking care animals, both our companions and those in the wild, plants that grow, and the air, soil and water, moves us beyond our own concerns and pleasures and instead caring about the entire community of all living things. We bask in God’s glory if we are good stewards of the riches of creation. We do so out of our love for God, made possible by God’s infinite love for us. AMEN.