Sermons

What We Can Learn From Animals…A Message for Animal Blessing Sunday, Rev. Dee Ledger, September 3, 2017

 

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our 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.”(Genesis 1:26)

Here’s the issue: since Genesis, since Creation, since before the naming of the animals by our biblical ancestors, we seem to have a terrible misunderstanding with that word, “dominion.”

What does it mean for humankind to both be made in God’s image and to have “dominion” or to rule over the creatures of the earth?

Certainly, it does not mean that we have permission to exploit or despoil.  As Kristin Swenson writes, “Human beings have the unique responsibility, then, to work creatively at maintaining an order that allows each thing to be and do all of what it is and does. And that, this first chapter in Genesis declares, is good…This story no more justifies rejecting animals’ capacities to think, dream, feel, suffer, and be happy than it does prioritizing men over women. While the text may allow for the necessity of employing and controlling animals to survive in terribly difficult circumstances, it does not deny those animals the possibility of diverse intelligences.”[1]

Somewhere along the line, we forgot that it is perfectly acceptable, perfectly understandable, perfectly laudable, and perfectly biblical to affirm that animals, and by extension, Creation, have the capacity to suffer and to thrive.  Somewhere along the line, we forgot that it is perfectly acceptable, perfectly understandable, perfectly laudable and perfectly biblical to affirm that we can be changed in our hearts and our consciousness by those creatures and by that Creation with which we engage regularly and for which we serve as biblical stewards.

Why would we not think that we could be changed or moved to deeper awareness as much by a majestic sunrise and rainbow, as much by a mighty storm, or as much by a close companionship with our animal friends—both wild and domestic, as by human relationship or human means?

Animals are not merely here for our use or gain, but for our conversion.

So, here is a story about a pig.  And no, the pig’s name is not “Wilbur” as in the book, Charlotte’s Web, but “Esther.”

It seems that Steve Jenkins was already in a bit of hot water with his partner, Derek.  They already shared a home with two dogs, two cats, two businesses, plus a roommate.  So one might anticipate that adding a mini- pig to the family mix would not go very well. [2]

It all began innocently enough.  A friend of Steve’s needed to adopt out her mini- pig as it wasn’t getting along well with the dogs and a new baby.  Steve kindly told the friend, “I’ll think about it.”  But then Steve told her, “Yes, I will take the mini-pig,” as he was intrigued by the idea. The night of the pig rescue, he planned a special dinner for his partner to warm him up before broaching the subject of Esther the pig.  But even with the dinner, his partner was furious.  As Steve said, “the only positive thing I could say was, ‘She’s a mini-pig!  She’ll stay small.”

Except that Esther the pig didn’t stay small.  She grew from an adorable 8” from tip to tail to a whopping 650 pounds, length not mentioned.  It seems that she was only a mini-pig in someone else’s imagination; she was actually a commercial pig who had found herself saved more than once.

As Esther grew, Steve and Derek grew and changed too.  The pig was part of the indoors family life.  She chased the cats and cuddled when she was tired; she jumped on the bed with the humans and dogs, and played with dog toys.  After gaining Esther as part of the family, Steve and Derek lost their appetite for bacon and over time, they eventually became vegan.  More importantly, they quit their day jobs and moved in order to found a farm for abandoned or abused farmed animals.  And the name of their farm?  “The Happily Ever Esther Sanctuary.”[3]

How did Steve and Derek change so significantly?  They were converted by a relationship.  That it was a relationship with a pig really should not surprise us.

The point of this story is not for you to give up eating ham or meat.  It is not to convince you to begin to take all manner of animal into your home.  It is simply to prompt, on this Sunday in particular, a lingering question about what we invite and allow to influence us and what we refuse.  What would it mean for us to perceive Creation and God’s creatures as capable of changing us for the better?  What would it mean for us to be less human-centric, and more Creation-centric?  What would it mean to halt our national discussions about how much we can obtain or derive from Creation solely for our own ends, and to reframe the conversation around how we can appreciate and support Creation for its own unique self, separate from our desired “use” of animals or of the environment?

Vint Virga, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and specialist of veterinary behavioral medicine, describes 10 things that animals can teach us about being human based on his experience of (trying to) immerse himself in the world from their perspective:

1. Savor the moment.

Animals, like children, live in the present moment.  What would it be like for you to notice and appreciate more of the present?

2. Heed your instincts.

Animals use all of their senses available to them and trust their instincts.  What signals are your senses trying to send that your rational mind ignores?

3. Keep focused on what’s most important.

Animals are reminders of how much we value connecting with others and sharing our hearts even when we are exhausted and spent.

4. Don’t get bogged down on words.

Humans often rely on words, but our animal friends and Creation teaches us that there are multiple ways to communicate.

5. Take time to rest.

We are often in a rush.  The dog or cat that naps reminds us that napping isn’t a luxury, but a necessity.

6. Remember to play.

As Dr. Virga observes, “The creatures around us routinely play to invent, discover, and bring joy to their day.”  What is your favorite way to play and when is the last time you played?

7. Don’t take yourself so seriously.

Dogs and cats at play are fully absorbed and not inwardly critical of themselves or others.  When is that last time you were not overly concerned with yourself?

8. Let go of attachment to being right or wrong.

As Dr. Virga writes: “When we defer to our sense of pride and self-importance, we risk losing the outcomes and results we want most.”  How often has your health or well-being or something else suffered because of your pride or self-importance?

9. Practice forgiveness.

How often do you re-hash arguments or deeds from the past?  For animals, “the continuity of their lives takes precedence over reliving the past.”

10. Love unconditionally.[4]

Anyone who has been greeted at the door by a cat or dog, small human, or even a pig knows that animals and little people are much less likely than adults to impose conditions on our love.

 

Some might wonder why we honor Animal Blessing Sunday in the church.  Some might even think it a little strange and a little less than reverent.  Yes, it is fun, and yes, it is a chance to bless our animal friends and pets.  But even more importantly, it is a collective reminder to all of us—both inside and outside the church– that we are part of Creation.  And as members of Creation, we still have a lot to learn.  Creation did not end with the creation story in Genesis.

As Napoleon Bonaparte once said about his horse, “Marengo,” “When I lost my way, I was accustomed to throw the reins on his neck, and he always discovered places where I, with all my observation and boasted superior knowledge, could not.”

 

Or as the writer of Job wrote: ‘But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; …and the fish of the sea will declare to you. In his hand is the life of very living thing…’ (Job 12: 7, 8b, 10a)

 

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Kristin M. Swenson, Ph.D. “The Bible and Human ‘Dominion’ Over Animals: Superiority or Responsibility?” HuffPost Blog, May 25, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kristin-m-swenson-phd/the-bible-and-human-domin_b_681363.html

 

 

[2] Steve Jenkins, “The Pig That Changed My Life,” Readers Digest, April 2017. 74-80.

[3] Steve Jenkins, “The Pig That Changed My Life,” Readers Digest, April 2017. 74-80.

[4] Vint Virga, DVM, DACVB.  “10 Things Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human

Reminders from our pets about what truly matters most.” Psychology Today online.

Posted Jan 10, 2015. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-soul-all-living-creatures/201501/10-things-animals-can-teach-us-about-being-human