Animal Welfare Sunday Sermon
Reading: Hebrews 1.1–4 & 2.5–12
I suspect that many of you won’t know this, but today is Animal Welfare Sunday. Animal welfare is something that doesn’t get talked about much in the Church even though animal welfare is a serious moral issue. And that’s a bit odd, really. The animal welfare movement of the 19th century was a Christian movement. The organisation that would become the RSPCA was founded by Christians, as was the Vegetarian Society. So, what should we, as Christians today, we think about the issues surrounding animal welfare? Should we, as Christians today, think about the issues surrounding animal welfare? I think that we should.
The truth of the Gospel is revealed or hidden by our actions as Christians. If we show the love of God in our lives and in our actions, and in our dealings with others, then people can see that the message of Christ is the truth. And this applies not only to how we treat our fellow human beings, but how we treat other sentient creatures, too.
Britain prides itself as being a nation of animal lovers, and the facts would tend to bear that out. In the UK, 26% of households have a pet cat and 31% have a pet dog. If we were to factor in the number of households with guinea pigs, gerbils, rabbits, or gold fish, not to mention those individuals dedicated to their horses and ponies, I think we’d find that most households had a pet of some kind.
It’s wonderful that so many people in this country choose to share their homes and lives with animals. But there is a darker side to the story, too. The Dogs Trust estimate that there are more than 126,000 stray dogs in Britain, and the number of stray cats is even higher: about 2 million. The incidence of animal cruelty reported to the RSPCA has been rising over recent years. In Britain alone, more than one-thousand million animals are killed annually for food, many of them having been intensively reared, living in unnatural conditions. And in the UK, between three and four million scientific experiments are performed on live animals every year.
When I talk to people about caring for animals as part of Christian responsibility and witness, I tend to get one of two reactions. Either people start looking nervous, like they’ve just realised that they’re talking to a mad woman, and checking for the exits, or they demand to know what evidence exists to say that non-human animals are important. People tend to think that the Christian story is an exclusively human story.
Today’s reading from Hebrews, however, does offer us good evidence that the Christian story – and the work of Christ – goes far beyond human society alone. The letter to the Hebrews begins very much like John’s Gospel – by taking us back to the moment of creation, and declaring that all things were created through the Son, Jesus. More than that, Hebrews tells us, the Son continues to sustain all things. He gives life to the universe.
The opening passage of Hebrews also tells us that the Son is the heir of all things. In other words, God the Father will, in the fullness of time, give all things to the Son.
In those few sentences we see the past, present and future of the entire universe. That’s pretty good for four short verses. And what we are shown is that in the past, present and future of the universe, Christ is at the centre of it all. This fact is also made clear in the opening of the letter to the Ephesians: “He has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth,” and in the letter to the Colossians:
“For in him [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” The work of Christ, be it in creating, sustaining or redeeming, goes beyond humanity. It is truly universal. And it is for this reason that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews can confidently say that Jesus, the Son, is superior to the angels.
For any of you who find that you can call to mind a particularly apposite passage of scripture for a given situation, but can’t for the life of you think exactly where in the Bible said passage can be found, the next part of our reading from the letter to the Hebrews should be a source of comfort. The author of the letter writes, “Someone has testified somewhere…” (and if the authors of the New Testament can’t be expected to remember exactly where a particular passage is to be found, well…). “Someone has testified somewhere: ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?’” Scholars are divided on the someone, but the somewhere is Psalm 8:
“What is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the angels,
and crowned him with glory and honour.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”
As he considers the magnificence of God’s creation, the psalmist is expressing his awe and wonder at the fact that God has entrusted it all to human beings. The psalm, of course, refers back to Genesis 1.26, where God decrees: “Let us make man in our own image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
This notion of dominion has, unfortunately, been misunderstood and misused rather a lot. We have used dominion to justify domination and exploitation. But, in fact, the biblical concept of dominion allows none of this. To have dominion over our fellow creatures certainly does mean that we have authority over them, but it is a delegated authority – an authority that we exercise on behalf of another. We are not the owners of this world, we are instead its caretakers. If we ever need reminding of this, we need look no further than the opening verse of Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
We must not make the mistake of thinking that the non-human creation exists for our use. Scripture is clear that it exists for God’s glory and, like ourselves, is both the result of and the object of his love. Our God-given task has always been to cherish and care for the rest of creation on God’s behalf.
We were made in the image of God to exercise, on God’s behalf, God’s rule and authority over the earth and its creatures. We chose instead to use our power for our own ends and benefit. We have done our best to reshape the world for our own convenience, regardless of the consequences. This is what lies at the heart of original sin – our dissatisfaction with being merely in the image of God, and our desire to be god-like ourselves. This is sometimes referred to as ‘playing God’. In our own day and age, the term ‘playing God’ is most likely to be used in conjunction with genetic modification. Whether you are in favour of or opposed to GM, I think you’ll agree that it is not a risk-free enterprise. There is still much about genetics that we don’t know. The ways in which different genes interact with each other within an organism are complex, and environmental influences add another layer of complexity. Outcomes cannot always be predicted. This was evident earlier this week, in reports about a cow that has been genetically modified to produce milk safe for those who are allergic to cow’s milk. I, personally, think that this is a huge moral issue. Is it right to alter the DNA of a sentient creature simply to make life more convenient for one small group of humans? The scientists involved reported that the alteration was successful, in that the milk does not contain the allergen. But there was also something unexpected. The cow was born without a tail.
The scientists have said that they can’t see how that could be related to the genetic changes that they made, but they cannot say with certainty that it’s not because of what they’ve done, because they simply don’t know.
Human history is full of stories of human beings pressing ahead without fully considering the possible consequences. Global warming is another current example. Of course, this is in many ways merely the unfortunate side-effect of something positive: our desire to explore and advance, to gain knowledge and improve our lot in life. Unfortunately, in this quest, we regard the rest of creation as something to be used or moved aside. We forget our God-given task of care.
Why, if we are made in the image of God, do we find it hard to exercise our dominion appropriately? Because the image of God within us has been marred by sin. Only one person has ever displayed the true and perfect image of God, as the letter to the Hebrews reminds us: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the very imprint of God’s nature.” Jesus is human the way that God intended humanity to be. That is why the writer of the letter to the Hebrews can take the words of Psalm 8, originally describing humanity as a whole, and apply them exclusively to Jesus. He is the perfect human, the perfect embodiment of God’s image and nature.
And what is God’s nature? When we look at Jesus, what do we see? We know what St Paul saw when he looked at Jesus. As he wrote to the Philippians, Paul saw one, “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.”
We are called to be like Christ – to understand being made in the image of God not as a privilege to be exploited, but as a sacred responsibility. Christ became a servant, or slave, to those who were lesser beings than himself. That’s a pretty uncomfortable thought if we truly believe that we are called to be imitators of Christ.
But I believe that we are called to serve our fellow creatures, in protecting and providing for those that we bring into our homes as pets, in ensuring high welfare standards for those that live on our farms, in protecting the habitats of those that live in the wild. As Christians, we should always be asking ourselves, “Am I serving the welfare and well-being of my fellow creatures, and my fellow human beings, in the choices I make: the food I eat, the clothes that I wear, the impact I have on the landscape and environment?” Does this entail sacrifice on our part? Yes, it does. But being imitators of Christ means imitating his sacrifice. We may not be called to sacrifice our lives, but rather some elements of our lifestyle, for the sake of those that God has placed into our care.
Our passage from Hebrews finishes by saying, “For the one who sanctifies and those sanctified all have one Father. For this reason, Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” Christ made his sacrifices, first of leaving his place in heaven and then giving up his life, because he shared the Father’s love for the Father’s creation. That same love causes him to call us brothers and sisters.
This particular Sunday in the year is chosen as Animal Welfare Sunday because it is the Sunday nearest to St Francis’ Day. St Francis also shared God’s love for all creation. Famously, he called the animals his brothers and sisters.
May we, like St Francis before us, have the grace to recognise our kinship with our fellow creatures, and like Christ, be willing to humble ourselves for the sake of the whole world. For we are all creatures of the One God – created by him and for him, and sustained by his eternal love. Let us show that love in our dealings with our fellow human beings and all creatures.