God and Animals
Manuscript Only, Not Preached
Calvary Baptist Church, D.C. |:| June 19, 2011
Good morning. Today we’ve heard several accounts about God and animals. From the story of Moses the dog to the Gospel reading with all God’s creatures having a place in the choir, this morning has certainly founds its way to embrace the beauty of God and all of creation.
In preparation for this sermon I tried to think of examples of how God is revealed through creation. As the thoughts came forth I was reminded of the serenity I experience when I sit on my parents’ back porch at night listening to the frogs in the neighbors’ pod, our donkeys bray, the yips of coyotes communicating to each other by the creek, and the wind moving through the trees. There’s something magnificent about natures chores, when all those sounds of animals and nature come together and you are the unnoticed audience.
While these thoughts continued to roll I remembered the moments when I’ve been out in nature hiking, surfing, trekking and the vastness of nature and the realization of my vulnerability to the strength of nature and wildlife.
As I thought about our texts today and thought of the holiness of creation, the responsibility humankind has for being God’s stewards in creation, and the eloquent use of animal imagery in our Gospel parable I began to recall a movie I saw my senior year of college. Imagine with me a film made in 1972 that reflected the hippie frolic made famous in the 70’s, a journey of a well-to-do man’s faith, and a remarkable focus on creation. The movie was none other than Brother Sun, Sister Moon. The title alone foreshadows the brilliance of this communal life with all of creation. The movie’s strong focus on all of creation and humanities’ responsibility to be active caregivers to it made me think of our lectionary texts today.
The other reason Brother Sun, Sister Moon was brought to the forefront of my mind as I prepared for this sermon was that it tells the story of St. Francis of Assisi, the Patron Saint of Animals and Ecology. In thinking of today’s request for a topical sermon on God and animals I couldn’t help but think of St. Francis’ sermon to the birds.
I kid you not. It is said that St. Francis pondered whether to take to a life devoted entirely to prayer or continue traveling as a preacher of the gospel and when he found affirmation in continuing his preaching he immediately went off and came first to a large flock of birds and began to preach to them.
St. Bonaventure recalls St. Francis’ sermon like so, “Oh birds, my brothers and sisters, you have a great obligation to praise your Creator, who clothed you in feathers and gave you wings to fly with, provided you with pure air and cares for you without any worry on your part.”
I must say as much as I respect the life and work of the Patron Saint of Animals and Ecology I will not be following in his steps and preaching to the birds today. However, one could say I am preaching to the zoo today! While a good deal of my thoughts leading up to this sermon were on our lectionary readings, what our faith tradition says about animals and creation, and how I experience God through creation I couldn’t help but remember hearing people refer to Calvary as the zoo. The first time I heard Calvary referred to as the zoo was last fall when I came across a YouTube video of this congregation describing what Calvary was to them in two or three words. In the video a few of you referred to Calvary as the zoo because you never know what’s going to come next. So, as my thoughts came to rest on how God and animals pertains to our life here at Calvary I found it fitting to think that in some of your minds I am preaching to the zoo this morning.
To bring ourselves closer to the texts today let us look to the creation story found in our Hebrew lesson, Genesis 1:1 – 2:4, which can be found on page [###] of your pew Bibles. In the depiction of the seven day creation story we have the number seven signifying unity and comprehensiveness. We see a structure scheme of certain natural correspondences. For example, days one to three of creation are mirrored by days four to six, in that day one is the creation of light while day four is the creation of luminaries. This is followed by the creation of the waters and firmament on day two and fish to fill the water and birds to occupy the sky on day five. This structure scheme is completed with the creation of dry land and vegetation on the third day and land animals and people to roam the land and vegetation for food created on the sixth day [i]. The seven day creation story is completed with the blessing of the Sabbath.
In reading and rereading this story, which I have heard since childhood, I couldn’t help but realize the first time we see God bless anything is in verses 20 – 23 of chapter 1. It reads, “And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’ So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed the, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’ And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.”[ii]
As we continue with the story we see this blessing again in verses 26 – 28. The blessing this time is given to humankind, “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earthy and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” With these two portions of scripture we are given life and blessing. This is also the first time we see a connection between animal-kind and humankind.
This connection between animal- and human-kind does not end there. In following the rest of the creation story we see God create humankind in God’s image which brings humans into the creative process. In the blessing to humankind God says that humans are to have dominion over animals. A way to understand the command of dominion is that humans are to share the exercise of power of animals with God. We are invited, rather to state it more specifically; we are created to join God in the continual creative process. God actively chooses to not be the sole exerciser of creative power.
Scholars have described this connection between animal- and human-kind in this creation story in saying “God establishes a power-sharing relationship with humans. God [also] serves as the supreme delegator of responsibility. The command to be fruitful, to multiply, and to fill the earth immediately follows the word of blessing and involves a sharing of the divine creative capacities. A study of the verb have dominion reveals that it must be understood in terms of care-giving, even nurturing, not exploitation. As the image of God, human beings should relate to the nonhuman as God relates to them. … When God conveys blessing God gives power, strength, and potentiality to the creatures.”[iii]
To apply this understanding that human beings as the image of God and having dominion over animals are to be caring, nurturing, and treat with respect all living creatures. We are called forth to be good stewards of this creation. As life giving forces, animals and humans were given a blessing for their part in the continued creation process. Humans were given the invitation to join God in the exercise of creating by caring for all of creation by relating to it as God does.
During the process of examining these scriptures and thinking about the connectedness between animal- and human-kind I couldn’t help but think that this is part of why we experience God in nature and animals. I think when we see the painted sky of a sunset, hold the cuteness of a puppy, hear the birds chirp to mark the start of Spring, or taste the sweetness of berries and are reminded of the vast creativity of the God we worship we find in that reminder that we are called back to remember the blessing given to animals and humans as live-giving creatures and the responsibility given to humankind to join God in the creative process as the image of God as we nurture all of creation.
Perhaps St. Francis was on to something when he preached to the birds. Maybe he understood this connectedness between animal and human life in ways that I have not yet reached. It could even be that his referencing to nonhuman life as brothers and sisters captured his understanding of having dominion over animals. Even though I don’t find myself preaching to the birds today I can see the significance of including all of creation in the faith journeys we find here at Calvary … here at the zoo.
As active players in God’s continual creation we cannot sit by the wayside thinking we are separated from other aspects of creation. In the week to come I invite you to embrace this command to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Be care-givers to the animals you call pets, nurture your soul by pausing to take in the birds chirping, and find ways to respect creation so that this created world we have been given responsibility over continues to thrive. Find ways to include all of creation to better understand the vastness of God’s creativity … and your own.
As we go out finding ways to be care-givers, nurturing, and nondestructive to creation and in honor of today’s topical sermon I thought it might be fitting to close with a blessing of the animals used at Franciscan churches. “Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless [all animals]. By the power of your love, enable [them] to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.[iv]”