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Religion and Animals
First Sunday in Lent
9 March 2003
1 Peter 3:18-22
Sermon delivered by the Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld
Grace Church, Amherst
In the Name of the God who calls us to a renewed reverence for all flesh. Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Today on this first Sunday in Lent we begin a journey as a Church. We get to set out again. This is the season when we can enlist the Church's prayer to help us set things in order in our lives. Needless to say, at least I truly hope it is needless to say, this kind of setting in order is of a much deeper sort than the kind of superficial work we might feel we need to do in giving up our appetite for certain salty or sweet foods, or rearranging our sock drawer or the top of our dressers. Our religion is trivialized by such efforts that merely keep our awareness of the Living God at arm's length.
God calls to nothing less than life. To a life of abundance. To a life of holiness. What is a life of holiness? It is a life in which we are aware of our life as a sacred gift, shimmering with the glory of a life that is quite beyond our ability to create or control or bless.
The poet/priest Gerard Manley Hopkins speaks of life this way:
The World is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil--
We have a kind of paraphrase of the poem in a sermon Hopkins preached where he says: "All things therefore are charged with love, are charged with God, and if we know how to touch them give off sparks and take fire, yield drops and flow, ring and tell of God. (Hopkins,
Sermons and Devotional Writings, ed. Devlin, p. 195.)
We are blessed with a life of radiant color, of joy, charged with a knowledge of a surpassing beauty and love that causes sparks to fly. But the gift of this life is distorted if not touched, if not handled with reverence and care. How often do we take life for granted, and things are disordered and twisted. This season of Lent, itself a gift, can be a time when we reassert our narcissistic need to control and twist our lives, to take the shape of some inhumanity--where we deny our true humanity. We infantilize our ongoing relationship with God by referring to our communion with God as "saying our prayers" rather than nourishing that continual, ongoing, never ending awareness that God is always with us, on the bus or the walk to school or work, in our hectic mornings, at the bedside of the sick. Or we make our devotional life petty by saying, I'm giving up this food for Lent, or this particular habit.
The word Lent comes from the same word from which we get "lengthening." The days of light are getting longer as we move closer to Spring. And so we can also see these days as a call for expansion, of allowing God to expand our life into the glory of new life in the resurrection. We are asked to expand our vision, our awareness of the Spirit of God in all things, in the whole creation.
We heard the account of God making a new promise to humanity through Noah. The flood has destroyed all flesh, all human and animal flesh, except that of Noah and his family and the creatures that he saved by the Ark. In this passage, hear how many times reference is made to
all flesh. "I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendents after you and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you. All flesh shall never be cut off."
This passage is charged with the life-giving blessing of God to every living creature, all flesh, the earth, every living creature of all flesh. These words soak this passage as though to remind us--Look, this life is not only about you, Human, it is about ALL CREATION.
In the beginning God blessed all creation by creating it. The original commandment to humanity, given through Adam and Eve, was "Be fruitful and multiply." And Humanity was to have "dominion' over all creatures, being given all plants and seeds and fruit for food. Animals were also vegetarians. To have dominion over the animals was not to dominate, but to share with God in a healthy, reverent stewardship, seeing the creation as a divine gift, not of our own creation, towards which we have a specially privileged relationship to be characterized by care, concern, and reverence.
After the fall of humanity, we seem to get progressively bloody. Cain kills Abel, strangely for the sacrifice of a lamb that wins God's favor and not the vegetable sacrifice of Cain, and the whole sordid, bloody history unravels. God's attempt to set things aright by the Great Flood results in a new covenant, but there are some sinister overtones that are left out of today's readings. In the beginning of creation, humankind is simply to have tranquil dominion of creation. After the Flood God tells Noah, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth." But then there's an important and painful difference. God continues and says: "The fear and dread of you shall rest on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all fish of the sea; into your hands they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, now I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is its blood."
What of that life, the blood of animals, as the sign of our fallen relationship with God's creation? Matthew Scully, a former speechwriter for President Bush, a credential that serves in my mind to make him immune from mere sentimentality, wrote a powerful book recently that could serve as good Lenten reading. It is entitled, quite fittingly,
Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. (St. Martin's Press, 2002). In it he investigates our relationship to God's creation and especially, of course, to animals. I was struck by the depiction of the abattoirs, or the factory slaughterhouses through which virtually all of us get our meat. This is what happens to the sacred life that God proscribes Noah and us Noah's descendants from spoiling:
Kill-floor work is hot, quick and bloody. The hog is herded from the stockyard, then stunned with an electric gun. It is lifted into a conveyor belt, dazed but not dead, and passed to a waiting group of men wearing bloodstained smocks and blank faces. They slit the neck, shackle the hind legs and watch the machine lift the carcass into the air, letting its life flow out in a purple gush, into a steaming collection trough.
His happens at 16,000 kills per eight hour shift, 2,000 per hour, and 33 every minute. "The electrocutors, stabbers and carvers who work on the floor wear earplugs to muffle the screaming. What is it like for them? Well, it's a 100% turn over rate. Five thousand quit and five thousand are hired every year. People say,
'They don't kill pigs in the plant, they kill people'" (pp.282-283).
It's in the light of this sad fact of our current modern existence, in the ugly truth of the fact that this horror will only increase as Easter approaches and our appetite for Easter ham will spike, that we might read the Gospel with new eyes. Jesus enters the water, that primal element of creation. Jesus enters water at his baptism, water--that element of life that is the context of our life and is even the medium of our communion with God--and in that moment of re-creation, Jesus hears from deep within him and above him: "Behold, you my Son, my creation, my Beloved, with you I am well pleased." And immediately, Mark's Gospel tells us, Jesus is driven out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. And there along with the angels who wait on him, he is with the wild beasts. There is no mention of his being harassed or threatened by the beasts. It is rather, I am being led to believe, an image of that passage from Isaiah of the Peaceable Kingdom, where:
The wolf shall also dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf with the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox--they shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
Oh what sentimental, unrealistic, idealistic, liberal drivel, the hardened cynic in me says. But I silence that cynic by reminding him that one could say the same of the beatitudes Blessed are the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. So is the passage from Isaiah about beating swords in ploughshares, loving your enemy, giving your enemy your cloak and turning the other cheek. All of these passages, just by the mere reading them, by merely hearing them, bring us closer into the blessed age of God when there is no more bloodshed, no more death. Why is it, when one comes to the Dominion of God, we are always stern literalists in the subduing parts of the Bible, and such despising skeptics when it comes to the peace-bringing parts?
Our baptism is a reordering of our lives to see all of creation, all creation, all flesh as beloved, all infused with the dappled glory of God, all deserving of our compassion, mercy, and enlightened stewardship. Am I calling you to being a vegetarian? Perhaps you already are. St. Francis was not a strict vegetarian, but one senses that he knew the animal upon which his life depended, and he revered life in all forms. Most of us here, I venture, hardly stop to say a prayer before our meals.
A while ago, while I was stuck in a deep funk of numb despair and loss, my spiritual director asked me the oddest question. He asked me, how is your dog? And to be honest, I couldn't say, so careless I had been toward him. My Spiritual Director said, go pet your dog. Everyday, for at least five minutes. He might have well then said to me, and then go show yourself to the priests to make the required thank offering for you will be made whole.
And so this Lent, this season of expansion, I urge you to reconsider your relationship to life, and from who and what you take your nourishment. Allow God to hurl you into the wilderness as Jesus was driven by the Holy Spirit, and find yourself with the sun, the sky, the animals. Perhaps the presence of animals in our lives, our pets, or the birds and squirrels in the feeders of our back yards, are here to remind us to be merciful, even as our God is merciful to us.
May God's angels assist us in expanding your sense of life, opening up before you. And listen to that voice deep within us, and all around us say, You are my beloved. To live and love as you yourself are given life and are loved by God.