As we are all staying at home during COVID-19, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
— (Rev) Andrew Jensen
Every Living Thing
Scripture: Isaiah 43:19-21
When I attended the General Council in Wolfville, NS the local worship committee made a point of highlighting Celtic Christianity in our worship services.
For the United church, the link is back through the Presbyterian roots of the church; but Celtic Christianity is much older. It is an ancient form of Christianity that came to the British Isles as the Roman empire chased the Celtic people north and then was separated from most of the European church with the fall of Rome.
A core characteristic of Celtic Christian spirituality is the idea that we can discover truth about God in creation: in the sea and sky, in the rocks and trees, in the plants and animals. The understanding was that since God created the world and declared it good, then much of the nature of God could be found in the fabric of God’s creation.
This idea was not confined to Celtic Christianity. In other parts of Europe, particularly in the Middle Ages, it took some bizarre turns.
The doctrine of signatures, for example, came along in medicine with the idea that God had given clues to the medicinal value of plants in the shape they took. For example, kidney beans would be good medicine for the kidneys. We think it’s pretty simplistic and wrong-headed now but at the time it was cutting-edge scientific theory,
Bestiaries are another good example. Popular medieval books written as an early kind of scientific text would give a description of an animal, artwork, from familiar local animals to exotic foreign animals including some that never existed: like the phoenix, the cockatrice, the griffon and the dragon. With each description there was included some kind of moral lesson often referring to the behaviour of the animal and sometimes to their physical nature, including total nonsense – what they said about weasels should have caused a defamation lawsuit!
The idea was that each of these animals had a moral lesson from God built in, so we could learn to be better Christians. There was such a powerful following that the symbolism connected with the animals is still built into animals on coats of arms – not just ancient ones, but new ones created today!
The Protestant reformation in Britain worked very hard to downplay this understanding, this search for God in nature. Europe was entering a more rational age. It didn’t help that some of the stuff I have described above was so obviously wrong, so completely absurd.
The result has been that our Western World, both the protestant Christian part and the firmly scientific part, have for years held strongly that nature in general and animals in particular, are nothing more than tools for our use and resources for our exploitation.
That is a position that really doesn’t have good support in the roots of either camp. Reformers in the church always pointed to the scriptures as our core of belief and as we have seen in our readings today the idea of nature, of even the wild animals, being connected to God and honouring God is firmly present.
Similarly, Charles Darwin, in the Origin of Species, remarks on the basis of his observations that the differences between humans and other animals are differences more of degree than of type. In other words, we humans share every aspect of what we are with other animals to one degree or another.
It doesn’t matter which source of authority you seek out; the message is the same: we humans are not as set apart as we like to think we are.
We have found animals that use tools, mammals and birds alike. We find a whole range of feelings, of qualities like loyalty and love, and abilities to communicate that require no speech at all. We find social structures and family relationships and indications of intelligence that can be startling and even alien as ants, bugs with a hive structure, farm aphids and milk them every day. This kind of thing has been great fodder for science fiction writers for years.
I am probably preaching to the converted here. People who care for pets already know most of this from personal experience. Our love for our own animals gives us a way to be concerned for other animals that are mistreated, whether they are in homes, in the wild, in factory farms or testing labs or puppy mills, or wherever.
We are already aware that it is human arrogance that lets people behave so badly, that lets people treat living creatures as if they were “things”. And we know that God loves all these creatures and that God hopes we will learn to love them as well.
Of course, none of this is totally simple. We humans can be pretty messed up. We often don’t know how to treat other humans well, let alone other species. And yet we have seen, over and over again through prison programs and drug rehabilitation programs that one of the things that has consistently managed to make real change in people are the programs where participants have to look after animals.
Maybe they are working with farm animals, caring for them every day or maybe they are working with dogs or cats from a shelter, caring for their basic needs and preparing them for a home.
But it works, over and over again. People in these programs have managed to make emotional connections with animals that have helped them care more, understand themselves and others better, become less self-destructive or less anti-social and learn to see the value in themselves and others.
It’s a kind of everyday miracle and it’s a shame we don’t see more of it because this is one of the lessons nature has for us about God.
Maybe we are starting to remember. There is a new term I’ve heard recently: COVID puppies. This refers to pets newly brought into homes to help with the stresses of the pandemic: the loneliness, the isolation. And I hope and pray that in doing this, people are really connecting and loving these animals and not just using them as emotional tools to address a temporary crisis only to be neglected later.
But no matter what motivation brings an animal into human care, situations can grow, and develop and real connection can form.
Animals consistently show us that God can work in unexpected ways, teaching us profound lessons through creatures that we often call inferior.
They remind us that we are connected to the rest of creation in ways that we may not be aware of all the time, but that are so deeply part of us that we can’t help it.
And they remind us that we are not alone, either as individuals or as a species. They remind us that God has given us companions on this journey of life and that we need them.
When we stop and reflect on these truths it seems to me that there are two appropriate responses:
One is to open ourselves up to God’s voice as it comes to us through the animals in our lives and the many voices of God’s creation that surround & touch us. God is busy doing things all around us and it might be a good idea if we paid attention.
The other response is to be thankful; thankful to God for all these relationships and connections we are given and thankful to the animals in our lives for the ways they touch us, teach us, and help us be more profoundly human every day.