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St Michael & All Angels Watford

Animal Blessing Service at the Church of St Michael and All Angels, Watford

Sunday 1st June 2014

 

Christian Love and the other animals

 

Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,

and spreads its wings towards the south?

Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up

and makes its nest on high?

[Job 40:26-27]

 

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

 

   A friend of  mine, a keen gardener, was asked by his exasperated next-door neighbour contemplating a row of  half eaten cabbages: ‘What is the purpose of slugs?’ This particular friend who played a key role in introducing me to the Christian faith much earlier in my life  passed on this enquiry to me and I replied : ‘What is the purpose of human kind?’ which perhaps has something of  the laconic and almost evasive answer that the author of Job puts into the mouth of God. But I think he deserves a somewhat fuller answer, so here it is, at least as I see it.

 

 Psalm 50, the first part of which (verses 1-15) we have just heard in our service today in the version by Eugene Peterson differs from the original Hebrew, and from all the standard translations such as you might find in the King James Bible or the New Revised Standard Version; it is nevertheless entirely Biblical in spirit. It is in fact a Midrash, an interpretation of the kind that the Rabbis used and still use to keep scripture alive and relevant. And it is in complete conformity with other texts, the Creation text of Genesis I, Psalm 104, the Song of the Three Jews (the Benedicite) and the powerful culmination of the Book of  Job.[1]

 

The ultimate purpose of Creation was not to bring human beings into existence. Whatever it means to have been ‘created in the image of God’, we are not  gods by any stretch of the imagination ,and we are not God (however much in our pride we dare to act as though we are). We did not set the universe in motion, and our knowledge will be forever bounded by a vast sea of  our own ignorance. Even the most learned person among us can only make a brief acquaintance with that divine Wisdom which belongs to God alone. We are in essence not so very different from the myriad other species which are born, flourish and die. Human beings only differ from so many other animals in their use, or more often misuse of power, their use, or more often misuse of the knowledge of good and evil, a misuse forever symbolised by their crucifixion of the Wisdom of God who had come to save them.

 

And despite this, God still wants to save us, to save all his creation; he saves through the Resurrection of Christ; he saves through the precious gift of the Holy Spirit. And we can glimpse his love throughout nature, in people and in animals, those we know and those we see around us. And it is through that reflected love we can glimpse the purpose of all creation. As the Psalmists knew that purpose is to praise god, whether one is a slug, a fieldmouse, a dog or a university professor.

 

We live in a world where we are used to quantifying everything and asking questions about utility. How useful am I? – and that question might be answered in terms of bringing up a family, doing an important job or creating a lovely work of art. Prayer, contemplation and singing praises to God might not sound like the best use of time from a prosaic human perspective, but it is ultimately what we are about, what we are there to do. We know that birds sing to demarcate territory, flowers are perfumed to attract insects and all creatures are engaged in a fight for survival, but simply by being themselves they are a tribute to the God who made them, and their real purpose, like our own real purpose, is as praise singers.

 

Slugs are part of this creation, and thus, obviously, have a relationship with God which it is not essentially ours to know, though if we look closely at a slug or a snail we can observe with wonder the amazing way in which it has been fashioned. But take another small creature, the Mason Bee, about which there was a news item in the Church Times this week.[2] This is a species of solitary bee, not a honey producer, but even more important for the pollination of plants than the Honey Bee. Human blindness has destroyed its habitats, and the use of insecticides has decimated its population. Here the Church, at least the Church in the Lichfield diocese, is taking a hand in trying to nurture these creatures, for human need certainly, but also for the health of the natural world.

 

This interrelatedness is central to what it should mean to be a Christian. I was licensed last week as Assistant Priest in the Osney Benefice in Oxford, a large part of which, centred on the little church of St Margaret’s, Binsey is rural, just as I gather part of this Parish of St Michaels embraces those fields and water meadows where I played and watched animals when I was a boy. Most of the inhabitants of Binsey, apart from insects, slugs and spiders, are the birds in the trees, the shrews, mice, rabbits and other scampering creatures living in the hedgerows and the sheep, cows and wild deer grazing in the fields. I chose as the Gospel reading at my licensing the passage in Luke’s Gospel in which our Lord tells his disciples that God cares for the ravens and the wild flowers.[3] Of course he does, for didn’t he make them as well as us? This is a theme which we find from time to time in scripture, for example in the last line of the book of Jonah where God links the people of Jonah ‘who do not know their right hand from their left’ with their domestic animals.[4]

 

Human beings in their arrogant speciesism,  too seldom think of that. In Biblical times most accounts of animals are in relation to sacrifice for in a pastoral society slaughtering animals was thought to be a way of giving something to God that he would enjoy, just as those who offered these sacrifices evidently relished a meal of meat. The Psalmist reminds us that God himself knows every creature for he made them, and he attacks the primitive notion that we are assuaging God’s hunger by sacrificing animals. ‘If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine’.[5] And the creator God does not subsist on  the flesh of bulls nor on  goats’ blood! Furthermore, drinking blood would have been particularly abhorrent to Jews for it was regarded as the very stuff of life: it was surely out of the question that God would indulge in so barbarous a practice.

 

Do we do better? The way we treat animals today on Factory Farms of all kinds, not allowing cows, pigs, hens, ducks, turkeys and fish live natural lives, is clearly at variance with any belief in a God for whom all life relates to the love which brought them into existence. Hunting, the destruction of habitats and polluting the world with our waste are equally gross offenses against the creator. And I am sure we should be asking far more searching questions about experimenting on animals: by what right can it be justifiable to do harm to another creature without that creature’s consent? Our non-Biblical reading today was an extract from the Good sermon delivered by the Blessed John Henry Newman when he was still an Anglican, in the Church of St Mary the Virgin on Good Friday 1842, in which he described such activities as ‘satanic’ and compared them with ‘the very cruelty inflicted upon our Lord’.[6] Expediency or even the possible good arising from such acts for the human species might satisfy a purely utilitarian philosophy, but cannot in my opinion satisfy the overriding moral imperatives of a faith absolutely rooted in God, in which the one purpose which unites all creation is the singing of praise to the source of all being.

 

Now, in much of this sermon I have made implied or overt criticisms of human beings who have not treated animals aright (and indeed with like disregard have more often than not treated fellow humans with like disregard for creation). However, it is clear that nature itself is not a situation of  peaceful co-existence. The hawk and the eagle, two wonders from Job, with which I headed this sermon feed on smaller birds and on mammals. Isaiah’s famous vision of a pre-lapsarian world in which :

 

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,

The lion shall eat straw like the ox;

But the serpent- its food shall be dust![7]

 

is hardly realisable, at least in temporal terms. Carnivores are not adapted to a vegetarian diet. The world is a place of suffering. We do not know why, but we do know through Christ that God truly suffers with the world and we can have faith  that at the end of the ages all will be revealed. Here I am very much in sympathy with the premise of Elizabeth Johnson in her thoughtful study which embraces both the writings of Darwin and the book of Job.[8] Until then, or at least while we are living on this earth, as a species and as individuals, we have a massive challenge before us to follow Christ in love, to do our best not to harm creation.

 

That means respecting wild nature and realising that the whole of creation has rights. Whether one is involved in a vast project of Nature conservation or is simply attempting to garden in an ecological manner and yes, being mindful of the slugs; whether one is a grown up or a child, we all have a part to play.

 

And mindful that this is, an animal blessing service we must learn to respect all those animals which share our lives. The ancient Jewish Law justly laid down that neither ‘your ox nor your donkey, nor any of your livestock’ should work on the Sabbath.[9] Moreover, ‘you  shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading grain’,[10] again for humanitarian reasons, so that it will not go hungry while it is working for you. But my favourite story about a domestic animal in scripture is that of Balaam’s ass (which is the reading for Morning Prayer in Common Worship tomorrow).  The ass saw the angel and understood the intentions of God when its master did not.[11] I spoke about this wonderful passage at an evensong sermon in Gloucester Cathedral a few years ago.

 

If you keep animals you have taken on a sacred duty of care towards them, because they are not slaves (nobody, no creature should be treated as a slave). They do not belong to you; they belong to God. And that is why so much of human treatment of animals is not just wrong; it is blasphemy, a sin against the ordinances of the most high God, a sin against the Holy Spirit, no less. One instance of this can be seen in our society’s  treatment of poultry. Quite a lot of people keep a few chickens and readily observe that they are social creatures with complex social lives. They like scratching around for titbits in loose soil; they enjoy dust baths. And yet countless millions of their fellows live crammed together in battery cages or spend short and unhealthy lives in broiler houses. How, as a species, can we dare to praise God with the rest of  creation while we are committing  acts of such unspeakable evil?

 

Dogs share our lives; they are intelligent and emotional animals with distinct personalities and fortunately most of us treat them (and cats too) as family members, but far too many are ill-treated and discarded when they get old, and in some countries dogs are eaten, while even in this country some dogs (and cats), identical in intelligence to our canine (and feline) friends are vilely misused in vivisection labs.[12]

 

Pigs are too large to make convenient household companions. They must be one of the animals which suffer most, especially in modern husbandry methods, in sow stalls and the like. And they so often simply end up without thought on the breakfast plate or that invariable stand-by of church functions, minced up in sausage rolls! I was disgusted when some in my Franciscan Group (and Franciscans are supposed to care for creation as Francis did) produced such ‘fare’ at a shared meal. Is this a way in which we can with a clear conscience chant the psalms of praise to our creator?

 

We all like to think of happy dairy calves munching grass, but what about all those male calves taken from their mothers at birth, and if  not immediately killed, the pain of separation?  Too often cows are simply exploited as milking machines for human convenience to make milk as cheap as possible. How do we square such practices with human stewardship for God, or how can we square our callousness with the love of God?

 

Christians have sometimes been accused of being less concerned with Creation as a whole than they should be, certainly be some animal activists. Certainly some Christian thinkers in the past such as St Thomas Aquinas, rooted as they were in Aristotelian science, gave animals a low priority, though for others  including St Giles, St Cuthbert, St Godric and St Francis,  animals were very much part of divine Creation. And of course there have been many other Christian champions of animal rights through the ages including Cardinal Newman and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and for some of us this cause is absolutely central to our mission. Christianity is (or should be) a radical faith, for we are following a radical teacher who overthrew those tables in the Temple and liberated the doves, who challenges us all the time to take radical paths, even paths  untrodden by any before.  Only by so doing can we ever hope to purify our relations with Him and through him with his Father, so that the groans of all creation[13] may be reconciled through that divine pity and that divine love which calls to us from the heart of the Godhead.

 

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Job 38-41

[2] Church Times 30 May 2014, p.6.

[3] Luke 12:22-31

[4] Jonah 4:11

[5] Ps 50:12

[6] John Henry Newman,’The Crucifixion’, Sermon X in Parochial and Plain Sermons (London 1868),133-45

[7] Isaiah 65:25

[8] Elizabeth A.Johnson, Ask the Beasts. Darwin and the God of Love (London 2014)

[9] Deut. 5:14

[10] Deut.25 :4

[11] Numbers 22:22-34

[12] Nor am I forgetting monkeys and even the great apes, very highly complex and social creatures,  closely akin to us emotionally and in DNA who are forced to undergo painful experiments whose purpose they have neither understood nor approved!

[13] Romans 8:22