Sermon for October 8, 2023 19 Pentecost, Animal Blessing Sunday
Exodus 20:1-20, Psalm 19, Philippians 3:4-14, Matthew 21:33-46
By the Rev. Kim McNamara, Ph.D.
Today is Animal Blessing Sunday, a favorite day for many of us animal lovers here at St. Hugh; a day we have chosen to celebrate the birthday of St. Francis of Assisi and the end of our Season of Creation. Many of you know that John and I rescued a dozen horses during the Great Recession. The dozen horses became 18, when the babies were born. In partnership with local equine rescue and 4-H groups in the area, we found homes for all but the five horses that still live with us. Our current family of dogs and cats are also rescues. They seem certain they have rescued us. Over the years we have lived with a variety of fish, birds, hamsters, and guinea pigs inside the house, and a collection of wild animals we have attempted to provide shelter for in the forested areas of our property.
Animals may be one of my favorite topics, but it is very difficult to write a sermon about the animals in our world today. A sermon about animals should be about love, joy, beauty, and blessings. However, I am so afraid for the future survival of our wild animals, I found myself writing, then deleting, paragraph after paragraph of dire warnings. It all comes down to an ugly truth. Our lifestyle, especially in the past 100 years, has put our animal friends in peril. The baby boomer generation has witnessed the biggest kill-off of animal species in recorded history. While we were watching the cute animals on Disney, the Wild Kingdom was decimated. With the world population now at 8+ billion people, we are quickly destroying the habitat the animals need to live. Did you know we are cutting down 80,000 acres of rainforest a day? The loss and degradation of forests caused by the expansion of agricultural land, intensive harvesting of timber, wood for fuel and other forest products, as well as overgrazing, is causing great harm to our little planet home. Some estimate that it will take 10 million years to restore the diversity that has been destroyed in the last century.
While writing this sermon, I toyed with the idea of setting up a big screen in front of the altar flashing pictures of endangered animals, with their statistics listed like baseball cards; how many there were, how many are left, what their biggest threats are. The problem with showing you the pictures of our animal friends in peril is that we would all be in tears by the end of my sermon. If you look at the animals in those pictures — really look at them — there is no way not to empathize with their confusion and pain. I know you have already seen the depressing pictures and studied the statistics of gloom and doom that fill us with sadness and a sense of hopelessness. Knowing that it is the human activity in our world that is destroying their world, what can we do to save them? What can we do to stop the destruction of their habitat? Many of us live in places where our feet no longer even touch the soil. In our highly developed world, it is easy not to see the animals and it is even easier to ignore the fact that we are killing them.
So, let us be clear. We are not just talking about the welfare of our animal friends. We are also talking about the welfare of humans. If animals cannot live on Earth, humans will not be able to live here either. As we sit here together wringing our hands, we are generally comfortable in our life of abundance, with plenty of food, adequate shelter, and access to power, transportation, communication, and medical care. Of the 8+ billion people on Earth, many are suffering along with the animals. 2.5 million do not have access to electricity and 4.5 million do not have adequate fresh water. Many of the people who share the habitat with our most vulnerable animals cannot worry about the animals, as their own habitat is also being destroyed and they, themselves, are vulnerable and fighting for survival.
Our Gospel reading today from Matthew captures some of the sense of betrayal that comes when a most precious and beloved gift is given to another, who then rejects and destroys the gift. In our parable, God is represented by the landowner who plants a garden, builds a winepress, and then leases the property to tenants. The landowner has given the tenants all they need to grow, harvest, and produce wine and expects to share in the joy of the harvest. Instead, the tenants beat and kill the landowner’s servants. When the landowner sends his son, the tenants seize the son, throw him out of the vineyard and kill him, with the intention of stealing his inheritance. What will the landowner do to the people who have destroyed the gift of life and killed his son? Jesus tells us. The Kingdom of God will be taken away from us and given to a people who produce the fruits of the Kingdom.
The Rev. Rachel Taber Hamilton is an active and constant voice in our diocese reminding us about Creation and Earth Justice, Indigenous People and Racial Justice. She serves as rector at Trinity Episcopal Church in Everett and is Vice President of the House of Deputies for the Episcopal Church. I have attended several of her workshops and am stunned by the wisdom she shares with us at each session. She is part of a team of Episcopal leaders who have written a new curriculum about Creation Care that I hope to share with all of you in the next year. However, before we take the new course, it is recommended that we complete the first course, Sacred Ground, which is about racial justice. Stay tuned for more information.
Last weekend, during the Convene Day sponsored by our diocese, Rev. Rachel explained to us how European and Christian cultural belief systems have created a terrible dilemma for the world. Rev. Rachel described three strands of our cultural belief system that have woven together to create this dilemma. The first strand of the problem is western civilization’s Doctrine of Discovery, which consists of the body of laws and principles established in the 15th and 16th centuries supporting the notion that it was God’s desire that the entire world be discovered, conquered, and possessed by European kings and Christian empires.
The second strand of our cultural belief system causing problems is the very big and ancient assumption that the Tree of Life has a hierarchy, with the Triune God at the very top, followed by the Assembly of Heaven with the archangels and angels. Below heaven are the pope, cardinals, bishops, and clergy, then come nonordained humans; the different races of humans are ordered by the color of their skin with light at the top and dark at the bottom. Then come the animals, from elephants to worms, then trees and plants. This view of the hierarchy of life encouraged European explorers and settlers to exploit the life forms they found around the world. They believed the people they encountered in those “undiscovered” lands were heathens with no souls and that the animals and plants were created by God to be consumed by Christians.
A third strand of our cultural belief system ensures that the problem is not just about back then but is here now. Descendants of the European conquerors have reaped the benefits of domination. We have had the privilege of writing, and now holding, the story of the world’s history from our perspective. We are the heroes in our own history. From this third strand have emerged the beliefs of white supremacy, Christian nationalism, and American exceptionalism. The lives of those we have conquered are marked forever by the fact they were once our prey. The voices of the killed and conquered are silenced and devalued.
So, what can we do with this information? Well, hopefully, we can learn and change. As with any process of change, we begin our first step with awareness. As I mentioned in my sermon last month, the past 100 years of technology and rapid development have changed how we live with each other and with the earth in amazing and unpredictable ways. It seems obvious that we need to pay attention to the way we are living and working, study and learn from our mistakes, and find other ways of living and working as needed. When we learn which of our inventions and behaviors have been helpful and which have been harmful, we have the opportunity to improve systems and products to make them less harmful. The time has come. All the world’s creatures are telling us about the harm we have done. In their way, they are asking us to learn and to change. Hopefully, we can continue to live in God’s Kingdom, but only if we stop killing it.
I found a hopeful list of actions we can take to save our planet on the National Geographic website for kids. I will share some of those ideas in a minute, but the first step is tackling the issue of racial injustice. For thousands of years before they were “discovered,” ancient peoples lived in a world they described as a Circle rather than a ladder; a world where the health of the animals and plants was critical to the health of the people. We have silenced this ancient wisdom, but now we need to learn from the very people we conquered. As the Rt. Rev. Dr. Steven Charleston, a member of the Choctaw Nation, explains in his most recent book, Native Americans have already survived the end of the world and now offer us lessons about Apocalypse and hope. Will we stop to listen and learn? Will we change our harmful ways? The time has come.
Our children are also sharing their ideas and their pleas for change. Here are some examples. If you have not already, stop buying products made with Palm Oil. Recycle and reuse waste, rather than harvesting more. Fight plastic. Be a green eater by choosing more vegetarian meals instead of meat. Track the water and energy you use and find ways to use less. As consumers, we have both voice and power. Be mindful, not mindless consumers. Learn about the resources, animals and people who made the products you like and find out where the greatest injustices are. We need to know who and what we are killing and how we are doing it. Really. The time has come.
I offer up another idea. Okay. To be honest, I just could not avoid sharing one dire warning. Learn about and stop using products that contain hazardous toxic chemicals. If you are still using products like Killzall, please stop! Pesticides are generally designed to inhibit the sex drive of pests. Past studies have already shown that pesticide accumulation is altering the physical sex of frogs and fish. Manufacturers assure us that our exposure to the chemicals is too small to impact us. Yet, decades later, we are finding that those pesticides have polluted our waters, infected our entire food chain, and are now causing health problems we still do not fully understand. What happens when those chemicals build up in humans? We do not know for sure, but we are learning. Meanwhile, odd things are happening to the young people in our world. Did you know that the sperm count in young men across the world has gone down? Are you aware that the current transsexual trend in our young people may have deep and complex biological roots? Unfortunately, it has been easier to criticize the morals of our children than to examine the impact of the chemicals we are using on their developing bodies. Our children are already beginning to sue us for the damage we have done to their future prosperity.
In last week’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he tells them, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interest, but to the interests of others.” It is time to put our arrogance aside. It is time to learn more about the impacts and interests of others. It is time to create learning communities with those who have already learned. Learning together will bring us hope for the future of animals and children; hope, as well as solutions. It is time to change.
Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask. In the name of Jesus Christ our savior, we pray. Amen.