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Be What You Are – Animal Sunday

September 11, 2016

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A Sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday in the Season of Creation, September 11, 2016. This is not
entirely
a repeat of my Sabbath Day post.

 Job 39          Psalm 104

Thursday is my Sabbath Day. One day in seven that I set aside – religiously, if you will – to break the patterns of work; to rest and recreate myself through prayer, study, and time with nature. A perfect Sabbath Day involves coffee, a good book, a long walk, a rambling conversation with God, listening (to the world around me and the conflicts in my own heart), dinner with my family at the end of the day, and a good night’s sleep.

This past Thursday, however, I found myself involved in a number of church programs – including the welcome and orientation for new parents in our Nursery School program. It was, therefore, more important than ever that I took the first part of my day to hike a new trail, which I did along the western shore of the Hudson. Hiking the Lower Hudson felt like an initiation into part of the history of this congregation – a statement that requires some explanation.

I am the 25th pastor to serve the White Plains Presbyterian Church in its 302 year history. The first Presbyterian to shepherd this flock was The Rev. John Smith, whose gravestone says he was “worn out by many duties” as pastor here. (He should have taken more Sabbath Days!)

In 1722, Smith was twenty years old and living with his mother, Madam Susanna, in Manhattan. As devout New England Calvinists, the Smiths had been members of the First Presbyterian Church of New York City, but the new Scottish pastor of the church overstepped his authority (which meant stepping on the well developed colonial style of church democracy) and Susanna led a group out of the church and into her home where she established a small Presbyterian Church – New England style. The congregation eventually found a meeting place on Williams Street, near the docks, and began to search for a pastor. Yale University sent them a very young Jonathan Edwards – yes, THE Jonathan Edwards, the voice of the Great Awakening – to serve as un-ordained stated supply. The nineteen year-old Edwards and the twenty-year old Smith struck up a fast friendship. Edwards wrote in his journal that the two Johns would often take long walks along “the wilds of the Hudson’s shore” to contemplate the beauty of nature and the sacrificial compassion of Christ to which all nature pointed.

When we are delighted with flowery meadows and gentle breezes of wind, we may consider that we only see the emanations of the sweet benevolence of Jesus Christ; when we behold the fragrant rose and lily, we see his love and purity. So the green trees and fields, and singing of the birds, are emanations of his infinite joy and benignity; the easiness and naturalness of trees and vines [are] shadows of his infinite beauty and loveliness; the crystal rivers and murmuring streams have the footsteps of his sweet grace and beauty.

Edward’s most intense and interior writings come from this period when he was regularly walking along the river with Smith, who he describes as a spiritual brother and a soul mate. His diary is filled with observations of animals and plant life, waterfalls and blue skies, all manifesting the Glory of God of which the two men felt a part. During these walks, they committed their lives together to doing all they could to advance God’s kingdom. In more ways than one, but certainly by theological affinity and through service to the congregation Smith helped establish, I am heir to their experience of nature and subsequent spiritual commitment.[1]

These are thoughts I was thinking as I hiked an eight-mile loop along “the wilds of the Hudson’s shore.” Exit 1 on the Palisades Parkways is Englewood Boat Basin, through which the white blazed Undercliff Trail passes and meanders along the river. I hiked north along the rocky path … and along stretches of hidden beach … eventually climbing the Palisades to look out upon the river… and back down upon the path I had been walking.

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While hiking, I was particularly attentive to the fauna of the park. I was intrigued that parts of the white trail are underwater twice a day at high tide, as evidenced by water lines on rocks and the ever-present smell of exposed sea life. I found quite a few dead fish on the path, left behind, I believe, by the omnipresent raptors. I saw huge osprey, gulls, hawks and heron, as well as lots of ducks; blue and black butterflies; a fair number of snakes; as well as squirrels and chipmunks. On the return path, I was surrounded by the omni-present singing of crickets and cicadas as well as birdsong. And deer; including two that had been hit by cars and crawled into the shelter of the trees to die. Several creeks and waterfalls cross the path, and I found clam shells dropped by large birds all the way up beside the Palisades Parkway. Once, feeling just like a little kid, I pried up a stone to see what little life might skitter and squirm away back into the dark earth.

It was fun to think that John Smith and Jonathan Edwards saw all this life beside the river (and more) and found in it the beautiful and joyous voice of all creation singing praise to God. So do I.

Psalm 104, which we have read last week and this week, gives us “a positive theology of nature wherein animals are not just passive receptors of God’s grace, but actively doing God’s work with their very existence.”[2] Animals give praise to God by being what they are: the lion is a lion, the lamb a lamb, the snake and ostrich, goat, birds and coney, all being themselves. (The snake and ostrich, in case you are wondering, are mentioned in the passage in Job 39, which we did not read, and a coney is a rabbit). I think this is one of the reasons little children are fascinated with learning about animals – animals do what animals do: the cow goes moo, the pig goes oink, the sheep goes baa, and the rooster goes “cock-a-doodle-doo.”  And maybe it’s why the song “What does the fox say?” was a global blockbuster!

In a dark and satiric short story published almost twenty years ago, award winning author Julian Barnes retold the story of Noah’s Ark form the perspective of a stowaway, one of the animals Noah did not want on the ark: the head of a small family of termites. Near the end of the story, the termite says:

The voyage taught us a lot of things, you see, and the main thing is this: that humanity is a very un-evolved species compared to the animals. We don’t deny, of course, your cleverness, your considerable potential. But you are, as yet, at an early stage of your development. We, for instance, are always ourselves: that is what it means to be evolved. We are what we are, and we know what that is. You don’t expect a cat suddenly to start barking, do you, or a pig to start lowering? But this is what, in a manner of speaking, those of us who made the voyage on the Ark learned to expect from your species. One moment you bark, one moment you mew; one moment you wish to be wild, one moment you wish to be tame. We knew where we were with Noah only in this one respect: that we never knew where we were with him.[3]

What can animals expect of us? What should they? We use many terms for this: we are to be good stewards, caretakers, kin with the creatures. Genesis teaches that our human vocation is to serve and preserve all creation that it might forever sing God’s praise; we are what God intended us to be when we allow all creatures to be what they are. That we do not do this well, or with any kind of consistency, and are in fact – according to some scientists – leading the planet into a sixth major species extinction, is a sign of how lost we are. Barnes’ story makes an important point: we are the one species that can forget who we are. But Psalm 104 already knew as much: at the end of the litany of animals praising God by being what God made them, it notes: ‘Meanwhile, men and women go out to work, busy at their jobs until evening.” Occupied with ourselves, we miss much that God would have us see and that could teach us a better way. But caring for animals has a way of calling us back to who we truly are.

While my family was away on vacation this summer, an older woman who lives in our apartment building fell and broke her leg. We had not met before, but August and I met her “walking her dog” in front of the building.  She had her arm braced against the front wall of the building as the dog did its business.   It was obvious that taking the dog out was causing her a lot of pain – just standing was painful, let alone walking and bending down to clean up after it, so I said, “I know a young man who loves animals and would enjoy taking your dog out every day.” And with that, August took over care of little Minnie, a 13 year-old white Shih Tzu with brown mottling who we discovered is both deaf & blind.

Over these past weeks as August has collected Minnie to walk her, he began to notice certain things changing.  Minnie now expects him at 6pm each evening and is waiting at the door.  Minnie is no longer terrified of walking over the crack between the floor of the apartment building and the floor of the elevator.  Minnie poops promptly once she is deposited gently on the soft grass in the park.  Minnie is daily more curious about the outside world, walking farther, sniffing out new smells, reclining in new spots.  The consistency and care August has shown has led what was once an apartment only, elderly, blind and deaf dog, to trust and explore.

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And August is learning what it means to have an animal and a neighbor depend upon you.  He’s experiencing and grappling with how to receive such gratitude from a neighbor.  He’s experiencing the pride of explaining about the dog to his friends – particularly her new skill of walking in and out of the elevator – not to mention the thrill of caring for this “companion animal” in an apartment building that is otherwise pet-free.

As August has walked Minnie and we’ve accompanied him, we’ve also ended up connecting with a whole set of neighbors around the block who are out walking their dogs, corralling their children, or strolling through the park.  People love to stop and talk about the animals with one another.  Smiles come unbidden to faces, interest about a limp quickly breaks the safe public distance as we and the people we’ve just encountered look closely at the dog, details about great vets, and funny or heartwarming stories about pets start flowing out.  And of course we find out interesting things about people we already knew.  We were wondering where we might get Minnie washed when we ran into Z whose child attended the church’s pre-school.  She said she does dog baths and would be happy to help out.  We then of course chatted about lots of other things – how the children were doing at school, what was great about the neighborhood, and the twilight began to glisten as the sun faded away.

Whether pets or wild, when we connect to our fellow animals within the animal kingdom, when our species, homo sapiens, finds its place within the fauna, we interestingly deepen connections within our own species.  As we humans locate ourselves as one animal among many, many others, we can then properly examine how we have been protector and predator, friend and faithless.  From a position of being a part of (not over) creation who are charged with stewarding this wild, wonderful world, we are better able to give and receive, to explore and trust not only other animals but our own human sisters and brothers as well.  Thanks be to God.

[1] On the friendship between Smith and Edwards, see George Marsden’s magisterial Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale, 2003), which won the Bancroft Prize. I grabbed the citation from Edward’s journal from Belden Lane’s wonderful book on creation spirituality Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality (Oxford, 2011).

[2] Leah Schade, at http://www.letallcreationpraise.org

[3] Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. (Vintage Books: 1989).

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