Sermon for a Service where we bless animals

I am trying to catch up on a back-log of unblogged material-– this is from September 29, 2013

My wife and I were out for a walk this week, and met a neighbor out training his English bulldog puppy. He’s 6 months old, and already about as wide and heavy as a lawn mower. Our neighbor was trying to get him to walk with him. Morris is quite cute, but either very bright, or not very bright. No amount of talking seems to get him going. He just looks up with those sad puppy eyes, and waits for his next training treat, and doesn’t take a step. When we met our neighbor on the sidewalk, Morris, the dog, not the neighbor, turned toward us. We petted him and fussed over him, but when he realized we had no treats, he turned his pleading eyes to his owner, and plopped his rear-end back on the sidewalk.

I say Morris realized we had no treats. I have no idea what was going on in his puppy mind. I spoke a couple of weeks ago about the tendency to attach human qualities to non-human creatures. I think we do that because we are trying to understand- we are trying in our own way to make connection with another creature. There is built in to all, or most of us, the desire to connect. When those puppy eyes look up at you, it is easier to believe such a connection is possible, that the love that lives in us, and flows through us, can also flow through all of God’s creatures.

We began our service with words from a sermon preached to birds, by Francesco Bernardone.

“My brother and sister birds, you should greatly praise your Creator and love God always. God gave you feathers to wear, and wings to fly, and whatever you need.  God made you noble among the creatures and gave you a home in the purity of the air, so that, though you do not sow nor reap, God nevertheless protects and governs you without your least care.”

Bernardone is better known as Saint Francis of Asissi. He lived in Italy during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The new Pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina chose his new name in honour of the saint. He is the first pope to be called Francis. There is a famous photo taken of the Pope in May, in St. Peter’s Square, looking joyful as a dove lights on his hand.

The story of Saint Francis preaching to the birds is often linked to the Gospel lesson we heard this morning. Jesus said,

“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?  Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

Jesus pointed to the birds of the air, including doves, as creatures who receive what they need from the bounty of God’s world. They are not trying to get ahead, or put away wealth for the future- their present, and their future are in God’s hands.

Perhaps part of the reason no previous Pope picked the name Francis is that Saint Francis represents a Christ-like reliance, and trust in, God’s providence, rather than on the human tendency to gather and hoard wealth and power. Saint Francis believed it was best to live in total dependence upon God. For Saint Francis, and the members of the religious order he founded, that meant embracing poverty. If he and his religious brothers had no wealth, no possessions to rely upon, or to protect, there would be nothing to distract them from sense of loving connection to God.

In a 14th century account of his life called “The little flowers of St. Francis”, it says when he finished his sermon to the birds, the Saint made the sign of the cross as a signal it was okay for them to fly away. The legend says the birds divided themselves into four companies, that flew off in the four directions, so the message of Jesus could be carried to the four corners of the earth, and so that the “humble friars, like little birds, should possess nothing in this world, but should cast all the care of their lives on the providence of God.”

Saint Francis seemed to understand that in his utter dependence upon God for all things, he was also deeply connected to all the other creatures who share that dependence. In our reliance upon God, and the whole of creation for what we need to live, we are humbled to realize and embrace our poverty, and also to change the way we think about our relationship with the world.

I read some good words from a rabbi named Arthur Green, who was commenting on how Jews in today’s “modern” world read the story of Creation as found in Genesis. He said,

“The most urgent item on our collective human agenda in this century is changing the way we relate to the natural world of which we are a part. Unless we transform our rapacious patterns of interacting with the environment, we humans will simply not survive.“

We are not separate from, or free to use or misuse, or abuse at will, the gifts of life that are all around us. Today, as we have made prayers asking God to bless the animals closest to us in our lives, we can also give thanks for the blessing they offer us. Like the birds that gathered around Saint Francis, the animals in our lives are living reminders of our deep connection and dependence upon God’s creation. Amen


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