“The Blessing of Animals” Reflections given by The Rev. Joe Summers at The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on October 1st, 2017. (Readings for 21A: Exodus 17:1-7, A Song of Creation, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32)
A Sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. As our Book of Common Prayer says, this means that there are millions of sacraments, millions of ways that through the material world, through creation, we experience and know the love of God.
This is something Francis of Assisi, whose feast day we’re celebrating today, experienced and expressed when he wrote about our being in relationship to all things. He called the sun, moon, rain, snow, and different animals his mother, brothers, and sisters. Francis apparently walked around with a wolf he had befriended. He preached to birds. My sense is that part of why poverty was a joy for Francis was the way it kept materialism from keeping him from experiencing life in its essence. When he was dying he asked his brothers to strip naked and lay him down on the earth so he could feel the earth touching his skin.
Today, I want to make a few brief connections between those animals we have developed relationships with and our scriptures today. Then I’m hoping that we can reflect on what the particular animals in our lives mean to us or have meant to us. Have we experienced them as a means of grace? If so– how? If is easy for us to be sentimental about our pets, but I hope we will resist that urge and instead honor them by talking about them as truthfully and concretely as possible so that we might hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to us about them and through them.
First, in our lesson from Exodus today we hear the story of how, when the people of Israel were thirsty, Moses struck the rock and waters came flowing out. It’s a powerful image. I would say that many of us have again and again experienced how our pets can touch us such that when our hearts are feeling like nothing but hard rock-suddenly we find they are flowing with living waters again. Amen?
Secondly, in Philippians we hear: “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love…” Any “encouragement”, any “consolation from love”, “any compassion and sympathy” how many of us have experienced all of these from our pets? It is a reality we cannot afford to ignore if we indeed wish to be of that same mind and have that same love.
This passage also reminds me of another that comes just a little later in Philippians when Paul speaks about how “the peace of God which passes all understanding: can keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Paul goes on to say what can help us find that peace when he says: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (4:8)
How many of us have, have experienced through the way our animals love and care for us– something that is true, honorable, pure, lovely, and gracious? And yet, because they do not speak, I think we do not value it the way we would if they could speak.
And this issue of how we speak, or whether we speak, comes up in our last reading from the Gospel of Matthew.
Throughout history the church has always seem to focus more on “orthodoxy,” emphasizing the importance of saying the right thing, rather than “orthopraxy,” which emphasizes the importance of doing the right thing. But the story Jesus tells about the two sons emphasizes the opposite.
The one son seems to reject and deny his father’s authority, but goes and does what his father wants. The other with his words honors his father, but then doesn’t go do what his father asks him to do. Jesus asks who did the will of the father? And the answer is “the first.” I think if we really took the time to understand the implications of this it would revolutionize our life as a church.
This focus on action is why Luke, when he writes the gospel of the Holy Spirit, he calls it the Book of ACTS, for where Spirit is truly present it becomes embodied in actions. Francis of Assisi once said: “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words.”
Matthew’s gospel is, in part, a long tirade against the hypocrisy of Christians and other religious folks who say the right thing, but don’t do them. Perhaps if we had less of a focus on saying or believing the right things, and more on doing the right thing, we wouldn’t be living in a culture where someone would think of themselves as a Christian even if they weren’t loving their neighbor or the stranger, even if they claimed to have never repented about anything.
I would suggest that perhaps paying more attention to our animals can help us get past our prejudice towards words and focus on all the ways we experience the Spirit and divine presence speaking to us, not through words.
So let us then take some time now to reflect on and share what our animals have meant to us and what we have learned through them. Amen