“Ask the Animals”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
February 28, 2016
University Baptist Church
If you haven’t figured it out yet, this is our animal service. When we recognize the fact that we are intimately connected with the other creatures of the earth. In Pope Francis’ encyclical, he makes a point of saying that we need to dispel the image that we are better than the animals. He says there is a trinity that we need to realize, God, our neighbors, and the earth. Each needs its place and has its power. We are to live in balance with the other animals of the world. It’s how God made this world. We can’t know God or be fully human if we are not connected to the earth. We sing each Sunday, “Nature, human and divine all around us lies, source of all to thee we raise grateful hymns of praise.” So in this sermon, I want to pay homage to the animals, and see what they can teach us.
My first shout out is to dogs. Dogs are wonderful and forgiving beasts. No matter how bad your day is, or how crazy people make you, or how much people have told you by words or actions that they don’t have the time and energy for you, dogs are always happy to see you. And if you have a day like we did yesterday, your dog drags you outside and you start having conversations with others who have dogs and are also emerging from their winter hibernation. Dogs are kid magnets, or at least our dog is. We keep her on her leash and she knows that if she dares act out, then she will lose her privileges.
I know some of you have similar feelings about your cats, and I can respect that. I even married into a cat family. It was a package deal, even though Kim’s cat made me sneeze. I was fine with Taji the cat as long as I didn’t touch my face after petting her. We adapted to each other and loved each other.
When I was in San Francisco, our church shared space with an organization called Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS). At the height of the AIDS crisis, PAWS provided support for animals and their caregivers so that they could benefit from the wonderful healing endorphins that pets brought about in the patients.
Many of you have met Iliad, Kevin Branting’s service dog. Iliad is Kevin’s eyes and sometimes his other senses. When she is in her harness, she is working and we have learned not to interact with her, not petting, no paying attention to her, no looking her in the eyes. Occasionally, Kevin will let her out of her harness and she will be a playful puppy, sharing that puppy love that makes so many people happy.
Way back when I was in Seminary, I attended the performance of the Missa Gaia, the earth mass that we will perform in its entirety on April 17th. The piece was commissioned and performed at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in Manhattan, just about 10 blocks away from Union seminary. The performance was during the worship service on the morning of the Feast of St. Francis, the first Sunday in October. I wanted to hear and experience the avant-garde music of the Paul Winter Consort, including the recorded sound of whales, wolves, loons and birds, many of which were echoed by Paul Winter’s soprano saxophone. Well, since I only got there 45 minutes early, I had to sit about 3/4th of the way back. The church, is immense, more than a block long. I could not see the singers, the choirs or the musicians. I could concentrate on some of the instruments, but what I really heard was the cats and dogs and birds that were in the seats around me and the chatter or their owners. You see, after the service was the annual blessing of the animals. By the way, one of the composers of the Missa Gaia, Jim Scott will be coming to UBC in April to help us perform the work. He’ll do a Roots Cellar concert the night before just for fun.
I’m reminded of Bill Staines’ song “All God’s critters got a place in the choir, some sing low, some sing higher, some sing out loud on the telephone wire. Some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they got now…”
Animals play a major role in our Biblical narrative. Jesus was born among animals, on purpose. He could have been born in the halls of power but God chose to connect the divine offspring with the friendly beasts of the world. At my home church in Cleveland, the Christmas Eve service features a live nativity, complete with goats and sheep and llamas and even camels. Sometimes the critters sing along with the choir. And at least one soprano soloist has been upstaged by an insistent goat.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on a donkey. The Bible takes great pains to tell about this animal. It’s not a stallion that Jesus rides in on, it’s a beast of burden, a farmer’s workhorse. The Messiah of God is going to be connected with those who toil in the fields.
Ask of the beasts says Job. Ask of the beasts says St. Francis of Assisi. What wisdom do they hold? What inner knowledge do they have that the rest of us have lost?
Animals can sense out a storm. Our dog doesn’t like thunder, fireworks or the smoke detector. But she also reacts to our emotional storms. When we raise our voices, Berry tries to intervene. And when we are crying, our dog will come and place her head on our laps.
The book of Job seeks to address the sovereignty and justice of God. Job is having an awful time. He has lost his family, his wealth and his health. His so-called friends try to explain his predicament. But none of their answers are helpful. Job must have done something wrong. Maybe he was too arrogant, too proud, too talkative. Maybe his faith wasn’t strong enough---all evidence to the contrary. There must be something wrong with old Job. It couldn’t be just circumstance and it certainly couldn’t be God.
I hope your friends are better than Job’s.
Job encourages us to remember the animals. Ask of the beast and they will teach you. Ask of the birds of the air and they will tell you. As of the plants of the earth and they will teach you. And the fish of the sea will declare to you. In God’s hands is the breath of all of us. Even the animals know this.
At the end of the book of Job, God appears in a whirlwind and declares the divine presence at the creation of the world.
Ask the Animals. When all else seems to be at a loss, when pundits spew fabrications about the state of our world and all but ignore the reality of climate change, we long for a being with sense. Ask the animals, said Job when he was confronted with unhelpful friends. They at least can tell you what to do when a storm is coming. They can protect themselves. They are in touch with the rhythms of the seasons.
Ask the animals what is most important.
Two weeks ago, while we were rehearsing the Missa Gaia, especially the movement we just sang when we ask of the beast and they shall teach you’re the beauty of the earth. Ask of the birds. Well right on cue, a bat started flying around the Assembly Room. Of course, the choir just kept singing, although some did with their music on their heads.
Now before you get freaked out, bats will almost never hit you, since they fly around guided by sonar. Perhaps she was awakened by our heavenly sound waves. One of our zoo volunteer Sacred Harp singers said, when we told her about the bat, that bats hibernate in the winter, and this is way too early for them to be waking up. There are not enough bugs around for them to eat. They eat 600 mosquitos an hour. So we like bats. So, two weeks ago, the bat was telling us that it’s getting warmer earlier than it ought to.
Job says ask of the trees and they will teach you. We tapped our trees last weekend and we now have enough sap to make a batch of maple syrup—in February! A couple years ago, we had another early spring. The trees budded out and blossomed, only to be followed by an April frost that destroyed the apple crop. What are our trees telling us about global warming and climate change?
Ask the animals. I think about the honeybees. Not only do we enjoy the fruits of their labor, but they pollinate the plants that we rely on too. Well, a lot of the genetically modified crops contain pesticides now, which is killing off the bees. So not only do we not have as much honey, but the plants we rely on are not properly fed. So when you plan out your spring garden, look for pollinator-friendly plants. While you’re at it, make sure there’s some milkweed growing in your neighborhood to feed the hungry monarchs as they migrate back from Mexico. As the animals and they will teach us to be in balance with the earth and preserve its beauty.
Animals bring out something in us, the best of us. My colleague Laurel Hayes in St. Louis tells about what could be termed as a Maalox moment in ministry. She writes:
Adult education this past Sunday was about contextual theology. During worship later that morning, the Gospel reading was interrupted by an agitated voice in the back of the sanctuary. I couldn’t understand what it was saying – but I recognized the voice, so I went to investigate, along with several other grown-ups who had heard the word “dog.”
Gavin (her son) had been walking home after Sunday school when he was greeted and followed by a standard poodle with an “electric fence” collar but no tags. This new canine friend did not seem to understand the words, “Go home.” Trusting that God cares for the lost poodle – and so, of course, would friends and followers of Jesus – Gavin brought the poodle to church.
The poodle seemed reluctant to meet its welcoming committee until one grown-up said, “Let’s get down to his level.” When we were all sitting or crouching on the ground, the poodle greeted us enthusiastically. One grown-up went off to improvise a leash out of an extension cord. Another grown-up took a photo of the poodle and posted it on social media. The third grown-up called the non-emergency police number.
The amused police officer was willing to deliver the poodle to the community animal hospital to have him checked for an identifying chip. The officer told us, though, that he would have to bring the poodle to the pound if the animal hospital couldn’t take responsibility for him.
Stricken, our impromptu sub-committee looked at each other and, after a significant pause, one grown-up said, “I will take Gavin and the poodle to the animal hospital, but don’t tell my family what I’m doing.” Gavin asked me, “Are you coming, too?” I replied, “Gavin, darling, I’d like to return to worship.” And I did, along with the other grown-up, where we prayed in due course for the poodle’s safe return home. Our prayers were heard (and social media was efficacious): The poodle’s human saw the posting about him and met the rescuers at the animal hospital before the staff had time to see him.
Those who have ears to hear, let them hear!
Jon and Lindsay Hartman have been searching for their dog Letti who chased after another animal while out on a run in November. Her picture has been on social media ever since and there have been sightings of her across the metro. Jon and Lindsay pray for her safe return and trust that her instincts and her fur have kept her alive and well even in the cold winter.
Ask the animals, says Job. They know who is in charge. They already have a sense of the sovereignty of God. Unlike humans, they don’t think that they are God. They know their place in the cosmos, in the world. They know not to take too many resources, for if they do, they will die out. They know that we are in this world thing together.
Ask the animals. They will tell us and teach us what we have forgotten. They will remind us of our responsibility for each other. They will reveal to us the beauty of the earth. For they will hold up a mirror to us and show us who we are and whose we are.
What are the animals telling us? What actions would the animals have us take this Lenten season?
Let me close with the 12th century Canticle written by St. Francis of Assisi that has stood the test of time and continues to inspire generations of humans:
The Canticle of Brother Sun
“Most High, all powerful, good God, Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor, and all blessing.
To You alone, Most High, do they belong, and no one is worthy to mention Your name.
Be praised, my God, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praise be You, my God, through Sister Moon and the stars, in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my God, through Brother Wind, and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.
Praised be You, my God, through Sister Water, which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be You, my God, through Brother Fire, through whom you light the night and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You, my God, through Sister Mother Earth, who sustains us and governs us and who produces varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Praised be You, my God, through those who give pardon for Your love, and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned…
Praise and bless my God, and give thanks and serve God with great humility.”
Job would approve, and so would the animals. Just ask them.
So with them all, may we say. AMEN