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For the Birds – Blessing Animals

October 9, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on World Communion Sunday and the Blessing of the Animals, October 1, 2017


 Gospel Reading: Matthew 6:25-29

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by being anxious add a single hour to your span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these…

Reading from a Sermon of St Francis: ‘Peace, birds, peace!’

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

In a well-known invocation, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped his congregation name their anxieties so that they would no longer reign over them. He wrote,

Is someone here moving toward the twilight of life and fearful of that which we call death?

Why be afraid? God is able.

Is someone here on the brink of despair because of the death of a loved one, the breaking of a marriage, or the waywardness of a child?

Why despair? God is able to give us the power
to endure that which cannot be changed.

Is someone here anxious because of bad health?

Why be anxious? Come what may, God is able.

Surely God is able. 

If there’s one thing we learn from the Christian story, it is that God is able. God is able to bring life from death. God is able to make a way where there is no way. God is able.

How do we know this? How do we know?

Jesus suggests that to understand how God cares for us we should be mindful of the earth and observe its creatures. Jesus is attentive to the earth and its rhythms.

Ancient Israel and our biblical tradition had always paid attention to the land, its frailty, its rainfall, its possession and its distribution, its fragile ecosystems. The very life of ancient Israel, was a way of living lightly on the earth and in complete dependence upon the gifts from the earth which God provided every morning.  Every time Israel forgot the earth and God’s sustenance of them through the earth, they suffered, and, as the prophets tell us, the earth suffered too.[1]

It is a profound experience to worship with animals in our sanctuary this morning. To hear their rustlings and voices, to feel the warmth of their bodies or the tickle of a claw or horn or beak upon our hands reminds us of how alienated we are from the rhythms and processes of the natural world. There is something that feels “right” when the animals are with us. Just this morning the Nobel Prize in Physiology was awarded to three scientists who have demonstrated this connection at the cellular level. 

The biblical world as well as much of the church’s history, involve animals and nature and revolve around their rhythms – when they pasture, where they wander, where they are kept, how they are fed. In famous cathedrals like Chartres – we find animals of all sorts and images of nature – wheat, fruits, olive trees, shrubs, deserts represented as a natural part not only of the biblical story but of the church’s story. Animals were valued possessions; providing essential subsistence for ancient families – food, clothing, milk, warmth, dung used in building. They were usually kept inside the house with the family at night for the animals’ protection. In fact the Christmas story of Jesus being born in a stable makes it sound like there was some barn out back when in reality, the animals would have been inside the house where they stayed, living with the family on a regular basis.

It was a profound experience for me to stay once with a couple in Cuba. When I was first taken to their home I spent an hour or two in conversation in their backyard, the chickens scratching all around us. When I returned for dinner that night, one of the chickens was on the table. A sumptuous gift for me as the guest. These days in the US most of us would just drop by the grocery store and pick up a package of precut chicken breasts – maybe even pre-seasoned as well! The distance between the farmyard and the table is stretched to include industrial farming, often animal cruelty, certainly processing, some with chemicals, a network of distribution, and then display at the store. We rarely meet the chicken we eat. But just a generation ago, my mom’s family and Noelle’s mother’s and father’s families all raised chickens in the backyard for food; just like in Cuba. A re-reading of the beloved book Charlotte’s Web, makes that past experience palpable again.

All of this is backdrop for our passage today to remind us, in this industrialized setting where chicken appears in a grocery store or in a box with spices from Blue Apron, where farms aren’t inside White Plains and we have to be deliberate to support and share in their bounty through our CSA and by visiting the farmer’s market, that we should remember how interconnected people’s and animal’s and the earth’s life were.

So it is unsurprising that when looking for an example of God’s provision for our needs, Jesus calls attention to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. He lifts up what later theologians would call the Book of Nature, God’s first book. God’s revelation in the natural world, the world God loved so much God sent Jesus to live as part of it, incarnate in it.

The point of our gospel reading this morning is very clear. It is a challenge to us not to be anxious. Six times (in the full passage) Jesus warns against anxiety: three times as instruction, twice as a question, and once as a description.[2]

As we sit with our pets – animals we’re not planning on eating but animals which bring joy to us, show love, demonstrate curiosity, make us laugh, and remind us that we too belong to the animal kingdom – as we rejoice that God’s love redeems not only human beings but all creatures and the earth itself, we are reassured. And yet in this precarious time, when earth’s life hangs in the balance, as animal species are made extinct and natural disasters increase because of, because of our human carelessness and greed, what do Jesus’ words “consider the birds” have to say to us? When we can no longer look to the Great Auk, the passenger pigeon, the Dodo or the Bachman’s Warbler[3] because they no longer have one surviving member living on our planet? When we can no longer consider the Rio de Janiero myrtle,[4] Thismia Americana,[5] or the Falls of the Ohio Scurfpea[6] because their beauty and their pollen that sustains all life have been eradicated utterly?

First, Jesus’ words remind us of the gravity of our situation. They should not be heard as words of escape. His words were offered in a context that no longer exists. So his words invite us to a reckoning of what we human beings have done.

Second, his words invite us to remember and recreate patterns of life that are mutually beneficial, as God intended. We cannot just think of what makes human life easier – a kind of mindless, so-called “progress” that destroys the very ground upon which we live. We cannot allow titans of industry or ambitious politicians or greedy developers to say these concerns are “for the birds.” We must think about how our human well-being is entwined with that of all creatures and the earth. We must develop a mutual mindset that truly IS “for the birds” and the fish and the topsoil and…us![7]

God is able. But so are we. Jesus’s words point us to God’s desire to sustain all life through this beautiful, fragile world in which we live; to provide for all creatures what we need. So, as we trust God’s promise, may we do our part – in our homes, in our schools, in our workplaces, in our community, and in our world – acts that are small (like composting), acts that are sustainable (like planting trees), acts that are wide-reaching (like policies to slow climate change), that we may join God in creating a world that is truly “for the birds.”

Giotto di Bondone - St Francis Preaching To The Birds

Giotto: Saint Francis Preaching For the Birds

Sermon Hymn: Let All Things Now Living

[1] See Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading the Bible. (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

[2] See Elaine M. Wainwright, Habitat, Human, and Holy: An Eco-Rhetorical Reading of the Gospel of Matthew. The Earth Bible Commentary Series, Vo. 6. Edited by Norman Habel. (Sheffield Phoenix, 2016).

[3] Special thanks to Lisa Curtis, President of the Westchester Audubon Society for texting me list, particularly the warbler that has not been seen since the 1960s and which will soon be added to the list of extinct species. We’re proud to host the Audubon Society at White Plains Presbyterian Church.

[4] Previously endemic to that region of Brazil

[5] Previously lived in wetlands by Lake Calumet in the 1910s which became an industrial neighborhood.

[6] Was enmic to Rock Island in the Falls of the Ohio, an area of rocky limestone outcroppings in Kentucky’s portion of the OH river. The plant’s population may have collapsed following the eradication of buffalo. If this factor alone had not extirpated Orbexilum stipulatum already, Rock Island and the associated rapids were flooded in the 1920s by the creation of US Dam 21, which sealed the fate for Orbexilum stipulatum at the Falls of the Ohio.

[7] For a recent example of what it might mean not just to look at the birds but to listen to them, see H. Paul Santmire, “The Two Voices of Nature: Further Encounters with the Integrity of Nature” in Eco-Reformation: Grace and Hope for a Planet in Peril, edited by Lisa Dahil and James B. Martin-Schramm. (Cascade Books, 2017).


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