Sermon for Animal Welfare Sunday 2010

Readings: Habakkuk 1.1–4 & 2.1–4; Ephesians 1.9–10; Luke 10.25–37


You may find yourself sitting here wondering what, exactly, these readings have to do animal welfare. Can we really make an argument for animal welfare from scripture at all? We all know that the scriptures speak often and passionately about social justice, but animals? Really?

Yes, really.

I can sympathise with the frustration and anger conveyed by the prophet Habakkuk’s cry to God in our first reading. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?” I think we can all share these feelings when we hear stories of injustice or atrocities. And I personally have these feelings, including being angry with God for letting it go on, when I see or hear about terrible things done to animals who are, more often than not, completely at the mercy of human beings.

In our reading from Habakkuk, what the prophet is in fact complaining to God about isIsrael’s helplessness and suffering in the face of a powerful enemy. But if it had no meaning beyond that particular historical context, it wouldn’t be much use to us as scripture. So I think we can legitimately lay claim to Habakkuk’s lament for other contexts. And it’s not difficult to think of what some of those modern-day contexts might be: when we see the plight of the desperately poor, when we see people subjected to brutal violence in conflict zones, and when we see our fellow creatures exploited and abused and made to suffer.

It’s worth noting, too, that as Habakkuk’s lament goes on, he comparesIsrael’s helplessness at the hands of her enemies to the helplessness of animals at the hands of merciless and greedy humanity. And God’s reply warns that, “the destruction of the animals will terrify you because of human bloodshed and violence on the earth.” Just as we can legitimately transfer Habakkuk’s words of lament to the injustices of today, so too we can see the truth of God’s warning – human violence does have a terrible impact on other species, such as the heavy toll that civil war in theCongohas had on gorilla populations.

If there is one thing that scripture shows us, it is that it is ok to lament when things trouble us. It is ok to turn to God and complain about the state of the world. But when we do this, we have to be willing to listen to God’s response. God still loves his creation, and is not indifferent to its suffering. So when Habakkuk turns to God to say, “hasn’t this gone on long enough?” God responds by telling him that there is an ultimate plan and, although it may seem a long time coming, it will get here. It’s important not to lose hope.

The people ofIsraelalways knew that God had a plan to save them from their enemies and create the conditions in which they could live in peace in the Promised Land. After his encounter with the risen Lord, Paul realised that the restoration ofIsraelwas only a part of God’s plan. He saw that God’s salvation extended to the gentiles. And he saw that, in fact, it extended even beyond that – to the whole of creation. God’s plan was nothing less than the renewal of all things through the death and resurrection of Christ.

This idea of ‘cosmic reconciliation’ that we see in Ephesians (and also in Colossians) is important. It reminds us that we are not the only creatures of importance to God. It tells us that the non-human parts of creation are not disposable commodities, here only for our use. They too are recipients of God’s grace and have a part to play in the world to come. Every life is valuable to God.

It is, of course, human nature to identify most closely with ‘our own’, whether that’s our own family, our own community, our own faith group, our own social class or our own species. We tend to distance ourselves from those we consider to be ‘other’. Jesus knew that, and this is why we have the parable of the Good Samaritan. It challenges our notions of who is our neighbour and what our responsibilities are towards those we consider ‘other’.

In a social justice context, we are often asked to think of a child in the developing world or a political prisoner as our neighbour. We might be reminded that those of other faiths, and those Christians who express the faith differently than we do, are our neighbours. But I want to push you even further and say to you, animals are your neighbours too. And like the wounded man on the road toJericho, they are deserving of your mercy and compassion.

I realise that some people might be taken aback by this idea of including animals in our sphere of neighbours. Some people think that this diminishes us and our unique status of being made in the image of God. But we must be careful of over-emphasising this unique status, of becoming proud of having this distinction. In our reading from Habakkuk, God says, “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them.” Too often in our history humanity has been proud and boastful of our being made in the image of God, and having dominion over the rest of creation. And so our spirit has not been right within us, and we have misunderstood and misused that dominion.

So we should put aside our pride and think of our fellow creatures as neighbours, and I think that there is good evidence for doing so. We find this evidence right at the beginning of scripture, in the creation narratives of Genesis. In the first chapter of Genesis, when we have the day-by-day ordering of creation, all of the land-dwelling creatures, including human beings, are created on the sixth day. Humans are not allocated their own separate and distinct era of creation. We are not differentiated in that way from the animals with whom we share the land on which we live. We are their neighbours and they are ours.

Similarly, in the second creation narrative in Genesis chapter 2, all of the animals are brought to Adam because God has decided to give him a partner to be his helper. Now we know that this story ends with the creation of Eve, because it is of course only with other members of our own species that we can have a partnership of equals and, not least, do things like procreate. But we are still left with the often overlooked fact that there was the possibility of genuine partnership and companionship between Adam and the animals. They were neighbours to each other.

Moving further on in the Genesis story, we come to Noah. It wasn’t only himself and his family that Noah was to save from the flood – he was also tasked with preserving the lives of animals. He was to be a good neighbour to them. And when the waters receded, the covenant God made, promising never again to destroy the earth with a flood, was not made with Noah and his descendants alone. It is a covenant, “with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.” God tells Noah, “When the bow is in the clouds I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” The animals share with us in being covenant partners with God.

That shared relationship between all living creatures and God is to continue into the time when we see the kingdom come on earth. Isaiah’s vision of the peacable kingdom, where wolf and lamb, lion and calf all live peacefully together with children playing safely in their midst, gives us a tantalising glimpse of the way God intends things to be. And it is a glimpse of the kingdom life that we, as Christians, are called to live in the here and now.

One last piece of biblical evidence I’d like to present to show that we are to care for not only our human neighbours but our animal neighbours as well comes from the post-resurrection narratives found at the end of Mark’s Gospel. The risen Jesus meets with his disciples and gives them this command: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” Not ‘to all people’, not ‘to all nations’, but to the whole of creation. Tomorrow is St Francis’ Day, so I probably ought to point out that St Francis took this command seriously, and is consequently famous for preaching a sermon to a flock of birds. Knowing how much notice my cats take of the things I tell them, I’m not sure that preaching as such is the most effective way to communicate to the whole of creation. So how can we proclaim the gospel to all creation? By living it. It is by making our lives good news for our fellow creatures that we truly fulfil this command. And we can do that by caring for the animals with whom we share our lives, whether they are pets who live in our homes or the birds and other wildlife that live in our gardens. We can be good news for our fellow creatures by speaking out against injustices and abuses inflicted upon them. We can make ourselves put the welfare of farm animals before the welfare of our wallets and avoid buying cheap meat, eggs and dairy products (just as we put the welfare of farmers and craftsmen before the welfare of our wallets when we buy fair trade). We can make an extra effort to care for the environment, and support the preservation of vital habitats around the world. The earth is the Lord’s, not ours, and it is to be shared between all creatures. It is not for our use alone. If we remember this, and recognise that creation has value apart from its usefulness to us, we are one step closer to being good news for all creation.

Prayer of St Basil:

O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom you have given the earth as their home in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty, so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to you in song, has been a groan of pain. May we realise that they live, not for us alone, but for themselves and for you, and that they have the sweetness of life. Amen.