|ScriptureGenesis 1:20-2520 And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” 21 So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.” 23 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fifth day.24 And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.
|We have just read Genesis creation stories about God populating the earth with animals and declaring that God’s work was good. So, we ask the question: where did pets come from? Some humorous thoughts. And Adam said, “Lord when I was in the garden, you walked with me every day. Now I do not see you anymore. I am lonesome here and it is difficult for me to remember how much you love me.” And God said, “No problem! I will create a companion for you that will be with you forever and who will be a reflection of my love for you, so that you will know I love you, even when you cannot see me. Regardless of how selfish and childish and unlovable you may be, this new companion will accept you as you are and will love you as I do, despite yourself.” And God created a new animal to be a companion for Adam. And it was a good animal. And God was pleased. And the new animal was pleased to be with Adam, and he wagged his tail. And Adam said, “But Lord, I have already named all the animals in the Kingdom and all the good names are taken and I cannot think of a name for this new animal.” And God said, “No problem! Because I have created this new animal to be a reflection of my love for you, his name will be a reflection of my own name, and you will call him DOG.” And Dog lived with Adam and was a companion to him and loved him. And Adam was comforted. And God was pleased. And Dog was content and wagged his tail. After a while, it came to pass that Adam’s guardian angel came to the Lord and said, “Lord, Adam has become filled with pride. He struts and preens like a peacock and he believes he is worthy of adoration. Dog has indeed taught him that he is loved, but no one has taught him humility.” And the Lord said, “No problem! I will create for him a companion who will be with him forever and who will see him as he is. The companion will remind him of his limitations, so he will know that he is not worthy of adoration.” And God created CAT to be a companion to Adam. And Cat would not obey Adam. And when Adam gazed into Cat’s eyes, he was reminded that he was not the Supreme Being. And Adam learned humility. And God was pleased. And Adam was greatly improved.
For our Catholic sisters and brothers, today October 4th is the Feast of St. Francis. The Feast of St. Francis, marking the saint’s death 794 years ago. St. Francis is among the most familiar of all the saints of western Christianity. 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. Today the Franciscan monks at the Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia live by the Rule of St. Francis.
This morning offers us the opportunity to reflect on Francis, on his legacy, his faith, and his significance for today. It is 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. This is interesting 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 did not 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 our lives. If you don’t have, 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 is not an exaggeration to say that some people have closer and deeper relationships with their pets than they have with other humans.
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.
St. Francis’ 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.
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.
Centuries before Francis, there lived a prophet – Isaiah – who envisioned the day when God’s salvation would be complete, when the violence of this world would be banished. “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, he wrote…. They shall not hurt or destroy on my holy mountain, says the Lord” (Isaiah 65:25). This is God’s desire for us. And when we catch glimpses of this kingdom, we know it to be our desire as well.
I suspect that for many of us, these glimpses of the Kingdom of God come through our pets. Many of us have pets and we know the power that they give to us. But when we come home and our pets welcome us, our hearts soften, and we believe through them that we are lovable and desirable – just as we are. Their unflagging loyalty, following us from room to room, speaks a truth to our hearts that we are worth following. When we get down on our knees and bury our faces in their faces and speak ridiculous words of devotion and affection [Who’s the good dog? Yes, you’re a good dog. Yes you are…], these pets recover in us our belief that we, too, can love freely and without shame. They release in us the freedom to be who we want to be. Our pets reveal what we hope and long to be true, for us and for the world around us. It’s not just the existential longing of poets and philosophers; it’s a longing made real and tangible through flesh and fur; slobbering tongue a wet noise and contented cat’s purr.
May the freedom and love and acceptance we know through our pets be living sacraments for us, giving life and pulse to that longing we have for God and the Kingdom of God. When we don’t want to stand up and dislodge the cat who’s asleep in our lap, may we perceive what it means to be at rest in the lap of God who wants us to remain in the peace of his love.
When we’ve said cruel and unspeakable things to the people we love, and are still greeted with unbounded joy by our dogs, may we perceive what it means to be received by the God who has forgiven our sins and only knows us as his beloved.May our pets help us to become like St. Francis, that we may hope and live into the Kingdom of God where all are at peace, where all are loved, and none are hurt or destroyed.