Animal Welfare Sunday- ASWA annual service 2017
St Peter’s, Nottingham on Sunday 8th October
Revd Jennifer Brown
Animal Welfare Sunday 2017
Philippians 3.4b-14; Matthew 21.33-end
As a visiting preacher, I suppose it would be courteous of me to tell you a little bit about myself so that you can know something about this person who has been entrusted with delivering the sermon. I’m not going to tell you very much, though – after all, you didn’t come here to hear about me. In fact, I’m just going to reveal one thing about me. This is my favourite time of year. I love autumn. Maybe some of you do, too. It’s a wonderful time of year – the colours as the leaves start to turn; apples fresh off the tree; going out for walks with the dog and picking blackberries; American football. Autumn has it all, really. It’s also a great time of year to see wildlife.
Migrating birds begin to arrive in Britain, either for a brief rest or to begin their winter stay; squirrels can be seen scurrying around gathering nuts to store for the winter; and, because the nights are drawing in and the sunrise coming later, plenty of opportunity to hear and, occasionally see, owls.
It’s around this time of year that churches and schools have their harvest festivals. It’s a time for marvelling at and rejoicing in the beauty, diversity and plenty of this world which God has entrusted to us – human beings. Being entrusted with the care of precious and productive piece of land is at the heart of the story that Jesus tells in the parable of our Gospel reading today. I have to admit, putting oneself in the place of the characters of Jesus’ parables is, generally, not a comfortable thing to do. Nowhere is that more the case than today’s parable.
When Jesus first told this story, the scribes and Pharisees saw themselves in the description of the wicked tenants − those who had been entrusted with good seed that they were to plant and nurture, ultimately to return a harvest to God. That harvest was to be the good fruit of God’s kingdom. The people of Israel were meant to be a beacon to the other nations; a living example of God’s kingdom. But, as the books of the Old Testament tell us, they failed again and again to provide that example, often rejecting the prophets, represented in the parable by the servants, who came on God’s behalf to remind them of the harvest they were meant to produce and set them back on the right course. In the parable, the tenants abuse the servants and send them away empty handed and then kill the Son of the estate so that they might have the land, and the wealth and benefits that went with it, all to themselves. This might originally have been a story making a point about religious and political leadership, but it can also be read as a parable of humanity’s care of the natural world.
In that context, if we are the tenants, who are our ‘prophets’? Who are those who come to remind us that we are supposed to be promoting the flourishing of the world to return to God as our harvest? I would suggest that, in many ways, animals serve this purpose: animals that are disappearing from the earth in extinctions driven by our actions; animals that provide our food, and are treated more as commodities than living creatures; animals that are our companions and helpers, who remind us of the unconditional love of God; animals that remind us of just how diverse and magnificent this world is. We should think about whether we are heeding their message about the care we provide.
How we care for this world and its creatures matters. Like Paul, we should want to become more like Christ. Paul writes, “I want to become like Christ in his death.”
Paul may well have meant that he literally wanted to give his life for the sake of the Gospel (and he writes similar things elsewhere). But Paul also encourages Christians to be a ‘living sacrifice’; to be in our lives like Christ was in his death. In other words, we should strive to live our lives as a means of giving ourselves for the sake of others, specifically, for those who might be considered somehow lowlier than ourselves. Earlier in the letter to the Philippians, Paul writes:
“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”
Jesus gave up equality with God to share our creaturely life. He then gave up that life for the sake of redeeming the whole creation. As Christians, we are called to share in the work of Christ, to be like him; to humble ourselves and make sacrifices for the good of others, and I don’t think it’s going too far to say that includes non-human animals.
Like the tenants in the parable of the vineyard, we have been given a great trust. How we respond is up to us. The tenants in the parable met with a bad end. We aren’t just characters in a story, however. Our ending is not written down, settled and irrevocable. Unlike the characters in the parable, we don’t have to reject the prophets. We don’t have to give in to self-serving instinct. We can embrace the difficult and yet liberating truth – we are tenants in this world; its owner is God, as the psalmist acknowledged in Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it; the compass of the world and all who dwell in it.” Our tenancy agreement includes taking care of the owner’s property and enabling it to flourish. As God’s tenants, and as God’s people, we have a duty to respect and live according to the values of God’s kingdom, in which all life is precious. How can we know what those values are? When he was asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God; Love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets.” When he was asked, “Who is my neighbour?” he again made use of a parable, in this case the parable that we have come to know as the story of the Good Samaritan. The essence of that parable is that your neighbour isn’t just one who is near to you, but one who might never cross your mind, one you might think of as valueless, one who − to you − seems utterly unlike you.
With that in mind, it is easy to see that, for us, neighbour includes not just our human neighbours near and far, but our fellow creatures who share this world with us; those who, although they have no say and no control, are impacted by every decision humanity makes. When we clear land for agriculture, when we build new cities, when we pollute the air, inland waterways, and oceans, when we pour noise and artificial light into the world, as we change our climate we are in many ways harming ourselves, but we are also harming countless others of numerous species. Of course, we must farm to provide food for ourselves and, indeed, for our companion animals. We need homes in which to live, and light by which to see.
But how and where we change our world, and how much; how we use its resources, what we consume and how much − these are things that can and should be given careful consideration, things that can and should be done carefully, giving thought not just to ourselves, but to the creatures and the environment that God has placed in our care. One day the owner of the vineyard will come to see what we have done with his plot – how we have cared for it and what we have done to help it thrive. What will we have to show him?