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Consider, Be Concerned, and Care Deeply – Animal Sunday

September 11, 2019

National Animals

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 8, 2019

 Psalm 104:14-23          Luke 12:22-31

Our first reading this morning is a continuation of the Psalm we began last week. As Leah Schade has written in resources for the Season of Creation, “Psalm 104 engages in 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. The processes of their life in the ecosystems God established testify to an enduring truth: God’s work never fails. What does fail, however, is human willingness to recognize the intrinsic value of the [non-human] animals and plants who share our home on earth. [Instead] too often animals are seen a nothing but our servants, entertainment, subjects of scientific experimentation, or food sources.”[i] Let us turn to scripture to hear of the world as God created it.

[Read Psalm 104:14-23]

We turn for our Gospel reading this morning to the twelfth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. I want to say four quick things about this reading before I share it with you. First, Jesus is here in the gospel teaching his disciples, and he is trying to address an anxiety that they experience. He has just old them a parable concerning a man who builds bigger barns in which to store his stuff, to secure his life and his goods for himself and his future. It is a project doomed to fail, Jesus tells them. At the end of the parable the man dies, and all that he has possessed and hoarded for himself goes to another. Jesus is trying to address his followers’ anxiety about food and drink and clothing by showing that it is that very need to secure for themselves through grasping and greed, through storing and hoarding, through acquisition and then securing the stuff acquired for life that causes so much harm in our world and ultimately robs us of the life God intends for us. Second, to contrast the life of anxiety, Jesus turns to the natural world and he asks his disciples to consider the flora and the fauna, the plants and the animals, the lilies and the ravens, the birds of the air. Jesus is here standing in continuity with the ancient sufferer Job, who advises,

But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the sky, they will tell you, or speak to the earth, it will teach you; the fish of the sea, they will inform you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of Adonai has done this? In [God’s] hands is every living soul and the breath of all humanity.” (Job 12:7-10).[ii]

My third point is important. In turning his disciples’ attention toward and asking his disciples to consider the natural world, he is not, though it sounds this way in our translation, placing human life above the life of non-human creatures. He is not saying human life is more important. He’s not making a moral point but appealing to his disciples’ imagination: think, remember, see, observe, how God cares for all living things (as in Psalm 104). In this way God cares for you, if you can let go of your grasping and greed. Your anxious need. Fourthly and finally, Jesus is not saying that food and clothing are unimportant. In fact, they are so important that God provides them for all living things.[iii]

[Read Luke 12:22-31]

CONSIDER THE ANIMALS

So much of this passage and Jesus’ appeal to our imagination here turns on this word consider. It is a translation of a Greek word that means “to perceive, to remark, to observe, to understand, to fix one’s eyes and attention on something.” As an aside, we’ve just done a blessing of school backpacks with our children. The word blessing in scripture means much the same thing as the word consider. To be blessed is the be the recipient of attention. Primarily God’s attention, but also the attention of God’s people.[iv] To address their anxiety and help them rightly understand their place in creation, Jesus asks his disciples to consider, to pay attention, to observe and see with their eyes the natural world around them.

As we consider creation today, we are thinking particularly on non-human animal life.[v]

The big story in the news this week has been, of course, the destruction of the Bahamas by Hurricane Dorian, particularly the horrific images coming from Abaco: the abandonment and frantic flight from the island, the human suffering and loss of life among those who remained, the total destruction of so much property, the rescue efforts and the search for loved ones and survivors. But with the theme of our relationships with non-human animal life in my mind all week long my attention picked up some of stories about animal life. I don’t know much about the natural fauna of the islands (such as the famous swimming pigs of Abaco) or how the hurricane’s destruction will play out among the indigenous animal life, but I did notice the story of charter boat captain Renaldo Bowleg of Marsh Harbor, Bahamas, who was trying to evacuate with his two pit-bulls. It was late and the storm was approaching but he was waiting for the right ferry that would allow passage of all three, and I realized the immense difficulty of negotiating a mass evacuation which includes pets.[vi] Sandra Cooke, a resident of Nassau lost track of her sister-in-law Angela, who was trapped under the roof of her collapsed home on Abaco Islands. Angela was lodged under the roof for 17 hours as the family was unable to locate her among the debris; that is, until the family dog named Shepard was able to find her. “The dog laid on top of her to keep her warm until the neighbors could come to help,” she said.

8a19101a-9163-45ab-96d3-495a29e26e96-AP_Bahamas_Tropical_Weatherphoto credit, USA Today

Did you see the story of Chella Philips, the woman who invited 97 dogs into her home in anticipation of the storm, 76 of them in her master bedroom? OK, I find this kind of mind-boggling, especially 76 dogs in a single bedroom, but as a n appeal to my imagination I have thought about the noise and smell of confined animals, the stress we all know animals experience, the fear in the house and the care this woman was giving these dogs. Someone asked me earlier this week, when animals and their owners are separated, what are the chances that they will be re-united again, which brought to mind the parents and children separated at our border and the many children ‘lost’ in the system. I had the awful thought that the chances of reuniting pets and their owners is probably greater than that of reuniting immigrant children and their parents. And I was ashamed.[vii] My mom lives in Florida and she tells me that animal shelters there have been offering free animal adoptions for the last few weeks to clear their kennels and make way for welcoming refugee pets and animals that were headed their way.[viii]

The other big story in the news this week has been the burning of the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil, and there have been no small number of articles talking not just about the loss of the vital oxygen produced by this portion of the earths lungs and the consequent release of carbon into the atmosphere, but also the significant loss of wildlife taking place. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Amazon is home to “one in ten known species on earth, including at least 40,000 plant species and more than 400 mammal, 300 reptile, 400 amphibian and 3,000 freshwater fish species, including the already endangered, such as the white-cheeked spider monkey, Milton’s titi monkey and Mura’s saddleback tamarin.” I think of the tremendous loss of life in nearly 100,000 fires so far this year and the permanently destroyed habitats, ecologies, ecosystems – systems that can never be restored.

You see, Jesus asks us to consider the natural world, to turn our attention to the non-human animal world, so that when we think about our world and our place in it we are thinking always with a larger perspective than the one that seeks bigger barns for short-term gain.

BE CONCERNED FOR ANIMAL WELFARE

If Jesus asks us to consider the natural world, it follows that he also needs us to be concerned for animal welfare. While I was on vacation in Florida, my son and I took a road trip to Key West on the Overseas Highway. Along the way we passed several ‘theaters’ and attractions’ that offered opportunities to swim with dolphins and touch sea creatures.[ix] But there are serious ethical problems with putting humans and cetaceans together in tanks, or for that matter keeping whales, dolphins, or porpoises in captivity – period. I don’t know enough about the range from care to mistreatment of our kin in captivity, so my son and I refrained, though we certainly understood the great appeal in swimming with dolphins. (You can learn more for yourself by following the links in my footnotes). We refrained out of concern for the care and treatment of these highly intelligent and social animals and because we could find no assurance, and many good reasons to doubt, that they were being treated properly and well.[x]

Did you see the opinion piece in the NYTimes this week by Farhad Manjoo, Stop Mocking Vegans? It was a fun read. Instead of directing our attention the “squalid, overcrowded, constantly-lit, 40 day life span of the typical factory farmed fast food chicken,” he instead asked his readers to pay attention to those who are trying to change eating habits, and in particular for his readers to get over the image of the ‘self-righteous vegan.’ He suggests that most vegans or vegetarians come off as self-righteous not because they are, but because deep down we know that what they are saying is right. In terms of the big issues,

the criminal cruelty of industrial farming; the sentience and emotional depth of food animals; the environmental toll of meat and the unsustainability of its global rise – vegans are irrefutably on the right side of history. They are the vanguard. Climate scholars say that if we are ever to survive on a warming planet, people will have to consume far fewer animals than we do now. We will all have to become a little more vegan…

So without pressing that further, I want also to note that what is primarily driving the burning of the Amazon Rain forest right now is deforestation and the clearing of land for the farming of animals, particularly cows for hamburgers, as well as the growing of soy which is not producing tofu but being fed to our fast-food chickens.[xi] We will learn more about deforestation and agribusiness in a few weeks when our mission co-partners in Costa Rica visit with us.

I have been, more or less, meatless for the last twelve months – a year now. Not quite 100%, but I am trying something new and developing new habits: a new diet with significantly less meat. A number of churches, particularly the Lutheran Church, have begun to embrace and promote movement toward Meatless Mondays, a way of getting us to consider our diets differently and to introduce new ways of eating at the beginning of the week. That’s a big topic, and we should probably have an adult education class or two or three about diet and food justice and sustainability, but for now I would ask you to consider trying something like a Meatless Monday, much like the older Roman Catholic practice of fish on Friday. There is solid science behind this movement.[xii]

CARING RELATIONSHIPS WITH ANIMALS

Jesus asks us to consider the natural world. Jesus needs us to be concerned for animal welfare, for the care, treatment and welfare of the non-human animal world. But first and finally, Jesus comes to us in our caring relationship with animals we are closest to, the pets we know and love.

How many of you have had or now have pets at home? (Nearly every hand in the congregation went up).

These are animals we share our lives with. When my son and I returned from vacation we discovered that in the last hours of our return, probably while our plane was delayed, his smallest reptile, an Emerald Swift named ABE, inexplicably drowned in a small pond in its terrarium. We came home, and walked in the door, to grief. And the full range of feelings that attend grief: anger, blame, guilt, and no small amount of magical thinking that somehow we were wrong and ABE was still alive, merely sleeping underwater. We cared for ABE, but not with deep emotional attachment. He was beautiful but small, about the size of a mouse; he didn’t move much but was known to be wickedly fast which meant that we never took him out to play. But then last week we discovered that out Bearded Dragon, an 18-inch long reptile that was really part of our family, had developed inoperable, cancerous tumors that were going to take her life. And so, on Friday, August and Noelle held Bazil the Bearded Dragon as she was put to sleep and then buried yesterday. This little pet, in terms of how she fit into our household – we would let her out and let her trot around like a dog. She particularly liked to sit beside my wife Noelle while she worked. She would lift her head and “listen” while she spoke on the phone and follow her around the apartment. She responded to Noelle’s voice. The silliest encounter we all remember with Bazil is sitting in our home, each member doing our own thing; and we had a Roomba, you know, a robot vacuum, in our house, and Bazil the bearded dragon climbed up on the Roomba, stepped on the start button, and then surfed around the room for the next 20 minutes. She just… (stops speaking)

We love our pets. They draw us out of ourselves; they invite us to be concerned for something other than ourselves. We often give pets to children to help them learn empathy and responsibility. They give us joy, companionship; comfort us when we are lonely, pick us up when we are down; they make our lives more complicated, as all relationships do, and our lives are richer because of their presence. Pets remind us daily that are ourselves animal and teach us what it means to be uniquely human.[xiii]

As advertised in our mid-week newsletter, later in our service we will have a chance to lift up the names of pets we have shared out lives with and who are no longer with us. But because I put that invitation out there, I have been hearing deeply moving stories about animals you have shared your life with all week long.

  • I have heard of long, loving relationships, like the one Beryl had with her cat Princess for 18 years. Beryl is just home from the hospital, but you should know that Princess died just a few days before Beryl went in. Grief and worry.
  • On Friday I performed a marriage service for a couple unrelated to our congregation. At our rehearsal on Friday I learned that the bride’s parakeet, a long-standing part of her family, had passed away that day. Grief and joy.
  • Walking to church this morning I heard the story of a beloved dog, a companion to a single person, who died on cancer some time ago, not to be replaced. A lingering loss.

I recognize how much a part of our lives our pets are, and we don’t often talk about them the way we talk about other relationships in our cares and concerns, but I would invite us to do so, particularly over coffee and refreshments today at Fellowship House.

As we move toward our prayer we are going to sing a hymn that weaves together some of the roles and relationships we have with non-human animals in our world, and I would ask you to do so prayerfully, and then during our prayers Pastor Sarah will make space for us to call out names of pets and animals we have loved, saying something like, “Snowy, the parakeet,” Bazil, the dragon,” or “Princess, my cat.”

Let us sing, “O God, Your Creatures Fill the Earth” by hymn writer Carolyn Winfrey Gillette.

 

[i] Leah Schade, Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary – Year C.

[ii] Tanakh, trans. Jewish Publication Society, cited in Jonathan Crane, ed. Beastly Morality: Animals as Ethical Agents. (Columbia, 2016), p. 19.

[iii] “Jesus is not making amoral point. He is appealing to the imagination, attempting through poetic exaggeration to inculcate a basic attitude to God.” Brendan Byrne, The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. (Liturgical Press, 2015). But see also, “In specific ways the Bible clarifies what life under the reign of God looks like, how faithful disciples think and act, what priorities they set, and what passions control their beings. More often than not, the Bible does this not by prescribing rules, but by prodding the imaginations of the faithful, by offering scenarios, by posing questions about life without giving direct answers, by forcing readers to stop and take stick, by molding institutions and sensitivities.” Charles Cousar, et al, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year A. (WJK, 1995).

[iv] We are blessed because God sees us and knows us and loves us, not because God pleases us, answers every request we ask for, or answers every perceived need.

[v] If you were to read only one essay on the complexity of our relationship with non-human animals, I would recommend “Animals and People” by poet Pattiann Rogers, reprinted in Food and Faith: Justice, Joy and Daily Bread, edited and compiled by Michael Schut. (Living and Good news, 2002).

[vi] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/06/world/americas/hurricane-dorian-bahamas.html

[vii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2019/09/03/this-woman-took-rescue-dogs-into-her-bahamas-home-protect-them-hurricane-dorian/

[viii] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/humane-society-of-grand-bahama-dorian_n_5d7199a4e4b0fd4168e7e0ad

[ix]  Please tell me if you click on this link. I couldn’t help myself: https://www.theonion.com/florida-resort-allows-guests-to-swim-with-miami-dolphin-1819577471?utm_campaign=SF&utm_content=Main&utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=SocialMarketing&fbclid=IwAR38bXxIWcQZN8vB4kyjMT-MNEekXTSP4Hf1HU4VIQClb8CxFjtbGeBQuJc&/setsession

[x] Learn more from the www.WorldAnimalProtection.us.org, www.Whales.org, and www.WorldCetaceanAlliance.org, all brought to our attention by our Lonely Planet Guide.

[xi] Farhad Marjoo, “Stop Mocking Vegans: They’re right about ethics and the environment. If you won’t join them, at least respect their effort to build a sustainable future.” New York Times, August 28, 2019.

[xii] Meatless Mondays: Read about it on wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meatless_Monday and then check out the movement website: https://www.meatlessmonday.com

[xiii]  On the human as animal, see Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am. Perspectives in Continental Philosophy (Fordham University Press, 2008). On animals, empathy and the complex way “animals teach children how to become human,” and always have, I was instructed by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages” in Engaging with Nature: Essays on the Natural World in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Edited by Barbara A. Hanawalt and Lisa J. Kiser. (Notre Dame, 2008). pp. 39-62. For another perspective in which animals teach, see the role of animals, especially crow, horse, fish, deer and eagle, in Native American cultures through the poetry of Nobel Laureate Joy Harjo, How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems: 1975-2001. (Norton, 2002). On Animals as moral agents and a discussion of animal rights, see Jonathan Crane, ed. Beastly Morality: Animals as Ethical Agents. (Columbia, 2016). The later includes as discussion of the only two animals to speak in scripture, one of which was a prophet (Number 22:21-38).

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