The Blessing of Animals in the Cathedral

Jesus said, “Do not worry 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.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and these things will be given to you as well.”

What are the kinds of things that worry you?  A recent survey in Industry Week Magazine suggests that (on the basis of the responses which were given) 73% of people in full-time employment worry about their own health and fitness, 49% of people worry about the lack of time that they have for leisure and for their families, and 43% of people worry about work related stress. That’s a lot of worrying!  The article goes on to list in smaller percentages: worry about housing, investments, children and of course our pets.

That was a survey of people who were in full-time employment, but broader surveys of people at all levels in our society unearth the reality that there are a significant number of Australians who are anxious about a great many things: lack of employment, and lack of income, and lack of ongoing stable safe housing, and lack of opportunities.  What are the things that worry you?  There was an extraordinary statistic on the radio on ABC Newcastle the other day, about the staggeringly high number of young people who cannot sleep at night because of their worries about the effects of global warming.

I very much enjoy watching the kinds of programmes on television where people buy old run down homes and turn them into something really beautiful, I find them very inspiring when everything is going well.  But as soon as it all starts to go wrong (when the people renovating the house find that

the whole water system has to be replaced, or that the roof is about to cave in) I have to stop watching and turn over the channel, because I begin to feel my own anxiety levels, (my worry levels) rising for the people in the show.  Deep in my sub-conscious every failed DIY job that I have ever undertaken somehow begins to stir to the surface.  I am a worrier! If you think that is bad, I even worry about fictional characters when things go wrong for them in soap operas!

What are the things that worry you most?  Are you more worried about things that have already happened or things that might happen in the future?  Perhaps you were worried this evening about coming in to a building which is strange to you (a church) or perhaps you are worried right now about whether your pet is about to eat another animal, or even be eaten by another animal here in this holy place!

Jesus says, “Do not worry, look at the birds of the air and follow their example.”  I was preaching last Sunday in the Parish of Southlakes about how we humans can be like traditional angels, bringing a message as messengers from God.  The more that I think about animals and birds, the more I am beginning to understand that they too can be messengers for all of us about what the world could look like.  Because  one of the great gifts, one of the great reminders which our pets offer to us, is that by and large they are not professional worriers.

In our home, on the edge of this Cathedral Close, we have a black Labrador (Emily) and two black and white cats, (Sanctus and Kyrie).  Each of our three pets has a different temperament, a different approach to life.  But none of them live out their lives in constant anxiety and worry.  My cats, like Fr Bruce’s cat Agnes, are so laid back that they are literally asleep most of the time; and my dog is not only a reminder for me that I constantly need to try and keep fit, but that I can have a different perspective on life.  A healthier, more holistic approach to living.  A message to me that the priorities of a market driven economy in which we are urged to work harder and longer, may not ultimately (eternally) be the best pattern for living.

An e-mail the other day got me thinking about all of this, it expresses things better than I can myself:

“If you can start your day without caffeine,

If you can be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains,

If you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles,

If you can understand when loved ones are too busy to give you time,

If you can overlook it when people take things out on you,

When, through no fault of yours, something goes wrong,

If you can face the world without lies and deceit,

If you can eat the same food, day-after-day, and be grateful for it,

If you can conquer tension without medical help,

If you can relax without alcohol,

If you can sleep without the aid of drugs…

…If you can do ALL these things, then, you are almost certainly the family pet!”

In the spirit of the words of Jesus, recorded by his early followers, and passed down by his Church, we all need to “stress less.”  We need to stress less, and live within the confidence that God loves us, and calls us not to worry – and even sends us messengers (whether four-legged, or two-winged, or whatever) to be a constant reminder to us of that reality.

“Look at the birds of the air;” Jesus says, “they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”  It is that sense of value, of self-worth, of God’s view of us which we find in the opening words of the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, the opening words of the Jewish Torah which we heard read to us earlier in the service in our first reading.

As those early seekers of God contemplated what it must have been like at the very beginning of this beautiful world, they sought (through a series of poetic-word-pictures) to reflect on the majesty of God’s creating work.  And as they imagined, over many many years and generations) they egan to come to a common mind, that in the beginning there had been nothing, (nothing but God), and out of this nothing, (this dark void), life had been formed at the will of the Creator.

I suspect that if animals had been able to communicate clearly with us humans all those years ago, they might have objected to the idea that we humans have been endowed forever with dominion over the earth.  Certainly environmentalists remind us, that our arrival on this planet in the recent past has led to large and wholesale destruction, as humans have plundered the earth for our own gain, without proper regard for the creatures and plants who share this place with us.

At the heart of our Christian understanding of this planet earth, is the idea that everything was created good. And when God sees the world as good, it is good because it is first and foremost a reflection of the goodness and beauty and love and wisdom of God himself.  As Christians we believe that this process of creation is ongoing in our world. It did not just happen in a big bang billions of years ago. Creation is ongoing and developing and evolving.  And no matter what we do to try to destroy this world, the very fact that this earth continues to revolve around the sun, the sight of every new born baby, and every new born puppy, and every new born kitten, reminds us – that whatever we might do to this earth, God has not yet given up on it.  And God has not given up on us either.

In that reading from the Book of Genesis, people who lived in primitive conditions thousands of years ago, tried to reflect (not scientifically but religiously) on what things might have been like at the beginning.  They came to the understanding that they (and we) had and have been made in God’s image.

Or to put that in another way, that we have been created (made) with something of the capacity to see as God sees, and to act as God acts.  Which means that if God looks on the world as good, then we humans who have just a tiny capacity to see as God sees, must also see the world as good and as precious as well: a place to be close to and not to be fearful of.  Some of us may have been brought up with quite a different understanding of how Christianity understands the world.  We may have walked out of Church believing that we were more bad than good, and that this world was a place to be suspicious of, rather than to embrace.  That seems to me to deny that early religious sense, that however things actually came to be created, God’s creation was good, indeed not just good but delightful.  And if we are to be truly human, made in God’s image, able to see (even in a small way) as God’s sees, then we will look at the world, and all that has life on it and within it, with that same delight.

What is special about us humans, according to the Christian tradition, is that we are free – free to relate to God by our actions and thoughts and hopes as no other being on earth is able to do.  But, if we let ourselves be submerged in desires and pre-occupations that focus our attention on fear, worry, greed and aggression, then we will become less than we really are in God’s eyes.  The human being,(as Martin Luther said) is the ‘free Lord of all’ – not because he or she can control everything and will never be surprised or hurt, but because they know that their worth depends upon nothing that they do or achieve but only upon the free love of God.

This is what the Christian faith insists on: God has loved us since the moment of our creation.  We are not to be anxious because there is nothing that we can possibly dream up to do which will make God love us any more than he already loves us; and there is nothing whatsoever that we could think of doing which would make God love us any less.  If we can treat our pets with unconditional love(despite their occasional accidents!) then surely we can begin to believe that God may treat us at least in the same way?

From the point of our creation God has loved us, as he loves the whole of his creation; and in the life of Christ we are reminded that that love can banish away all worry and fear.  God will not guarantee to keep us safe and successful, but he promises his companionship and his forgiveness to each one of us.

This evening has been a welcome opportunity for us to give thanks to God for those animals with whom we share our lives in that very visual form of seeking God’s blessing upon them. It has been wonderful to see a fuller representation of creation than we normally see during our weekly Evensong!  If we could only take on the full responsibility of our humanity, then we would see this world as God sees it, in all of its beauty and joy.  We might then perhaps, hear Jesus say to us (even tonight) “do not worry about yourselves, but do not also be complacent or complicit in the cruelty and the destruction which you see going on around you.”

My prayer for us all is that this opportunity to gather together will bkingre than an annual oddity or a bit of fun.  But rather that this could be for us a moment of re-centering, through thanking God for our own pets, which moves us beyond our own worries to a greater concern for, and maybe even a move towards action, for the whole of creation.  As Jesus says, “If we strive first for the kingdom of God and for righteousness, then everything else will be given to us as well.”