Animal Welfare Sunday 2016
Sunday 2nd October, ASWA Service, Animal Welfare Sunday
St Cross, Winchester
The Rt Revd Dominic Walker OGS
It is very good to be with you on this Sunday which happens to be ‘Animal Welfare Sunday’ so called because it is the Sunday nearest to 4th October which is the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, the 13th century friar well known for his love of animals, and I am privileged to be asked to preach as President of ASWA.
In the gospel this morning the disciples ask Jesus to give them more faith. I have often had people say to me, ‘If only I had your faith,’ as if a bishop must have more faith than others. I have also heard people say that if they had more faith then life may have been different for them, and their lives might have taken a different direction. I have even heard people say that if they had more faith then their prayers would have been answered, or if they had more faith they would attend church more regularly and be prepared to take more risks in their daily lives.
The problem with all this is that it sounds as if faith is a commodity like money – so the more you have the more you can do with it, but Jesus tells his disciples that it isn’t like that. He says that if you have just a tiny amount of faith – no bigger than a tiny mustard seed – you can move mulberry trees or mountains! He must have said it with a twinkle in his eye because it could be very inconvenient if people of faith went around moving trees and mountains! But what Jesus was saying is that it is not how much faith you have, but how you use what little faith you have that matters. It only takes a little faith on our part for God to do amazing things.
Faith, of course, is based on love and trust. A married couple will be faithful to one another because they love and trust one another. It doesn’t mean that they will always agree with one another and that married life will not have its ups and downs but it does mean that what under-girds it is faithfulness – a deep-rooted love and trust.
The same is true of our relationship with God. Our relationship with him is also likely to have its ups and downs but if it is built on love and trust we shall be able to do amazing things. Remember it only requires a tiny amount of faith – mustard seed size – to be able to grow into something amazing! We can all pray, ‘Lord I believe, help thou mine unbelief’. Our relationship with God requires listening to him and the root of the word ‘obedience’ comes from the Latin for listening – and we listen to God through the scriptures, through prayer and even through sermons. Jesus tells us that he no longer calls us servants but friends because he has made known to us all that he has learned from the Father, and so as we learn from Jesus we enter into that relationship of faith, based on love and trust.
I am told that the best known verse in the New Testament is ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that those who believe in him may not perish but have eternal life’, and the word that is used in that verse for ‘world’ is ‘cosmos’ which means the whole of creation. It is not God so loved human beings but God so loved the whole of creation – and that includes human beings and animals.
So today, we focus on animals because they are so often forgotten. They are rarely remembered in prayers in church and yet whilst animals could survive without us, we could not survive without them. Not only are they so often forgotten by Christians, they are also so often abused. I am an Honorary Vice President of the RSPCA and that organisation was founded by an Anglican priest the Revd Arthur Broome who in his struggle to form the society spent time in a pauper’s prison. The RSPCA was also instrumental in founding the NSPCC because we know that those who are cruel to animals are likely to be cruel to children as well. St Francis of Assisi said, ‘If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men’.
In the gospels we read of Jesus commending compassion towards animals and saying that not a single sparrow falls to the ground without his father’s knowledge. Whilst it is said that the British are a nation of animal lovers and we adore our pets and mostly look after them kindly, we often ignore the suffering that takes place in some intensive factory farming methods to bring us cheap meat, and the suffering that takes place in unnecessary laboratory experiments and the suffering that takes place in some of our abattoirs. Worse still is the suffering that takes place overseas with donkeys that are worked to death, with animals tortured to death in what is described as ‘sport’ and animals caught in cruel traps or kept in crowded zoos and even chained up all their lives in Indian temples.
Faithfulness is based on love and trust and God has entrusted to us the care of creation. We were given dominion (not domination) of creation and we are called to care for God’s world and not to exploit animals or the world’s natural resources. Last week, I was in Monaco at the Oceanographic Museum where I learned that the shark population is being so depleted that there is a real danger of it damaging the ecology so that the seas and oceans may become full of jelly fish. That is just one example of how exploitation of the seas is likely to have a damaging environmental consequence. Another was to learn of how ocean beds are being polluted particularly by old fishing nets and plastic which can take hundreds of years to rot and in which turtles and other large animals become ensnared and die. There is also a knock-on effect when upsetting the balance of nature then threatens the livelihoods of human beings as well.
So faithfulness involves us in not just having a right relationship with God but in having a right relationship with the world that he has created for us to enjoy, and also to recognise God’s presence in all his creation. St Francis described this wonderfully in his prayer that is known as ‘The Canticle of the Creatures’ in which he refers to Brother Sun, Sister Moon and Stars, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire and our sister Mother Earth. And as you will know the Pope chose to be known by the name Francis and he said, ‘It helps me to think of the name of Francis who teaches us profound respect for the whole of creation and the protection of our environment which all too often instead of using for the good, we exploit greedily to one another’s detriment’.
I was recently looking at the draft of a devotional book. In some ways it is quite old fashioned and encourages the familiar practise of examining one’s conscience at the end of the day, but this old fashioned book includes some ‘new sins’. It asks Christians to consider if they have recycled waste when they could have done, if they cycled or walked when possible, if they bought FairTrade and animal friendly food and so on. Thankfully, we are becoming more aware of the need, as people of faith, to be people who care for God’s world.
Today’s gospel ends by Jesus teaching his disciples that when they have faithfully carried out their tasks they have done no more what was expected of them. And so we need to remind ourselves that when we faithfully care for God’s creation, we have only done what was expected of us, and the good news is that to do that we do not need to pray for more faith but simply that we shall use what little faith we have already and with God’s grace it will grow and we shall do amazing things. And to him be the glory. Amen.