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Season of Creation: Animals

This week is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, who founded the Order of Friars Minor in the early 1200s. He and his brothers committed themselves to a life of poverty and radical nonviolence—not an easy thing to do during the time of crusades, which was basically church-sponsored violence.

Francis encouraged his followers to embrace holy foolishness, welcoming ridicule and persecution as a means to conform to the way of the cross, extreme humility. However, what we mostly remember about Francis is his deep love for all of creation, whether living beings or inanimate objects.

He saw every part of creation as a reflection of the Creator’s love, and humans are intimately connected in relationship with all of creation. He composed his “Canticle of Creation” to sing the praises of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and even Sister Death. In Francis’s view, even these inanimate members are our family members.

Many of us have no trouble speaking about our house pets as family members: fur babies or children with four paws or even grand-dogs. These names show a deep love and affection for animals, often but not always mammals. As humans caring for animals, we receive the trust of our pets—they depend on humans for food, after all—and their presence is an expression of unconditional love and acceptance, living examples of some of the attributes we ascribe to God.

Is God equivalent to a dog or cat? No, that’s not what I said. But can we learn something about God’s love from the visible excitement of a dog who welcomes you home with jumping and barking and maybe even piddling on the floor? Can we know something of God’s peace by hearing and feeling a cat’s purring? Definitely.

So as a church, we make some space every year for the blessing of animals—at the very least, remembering them in prayer, and some congregations invite people to bring their pets into the sanctuary to join them during worship. (This is for real, I’ve seen it, and I’ve heard the barking of dogs who are astounded to hear their voices echoing inside a cavernous sanctuary) Or, we invite people to bring pets to a brief outdoor prayer event, which is what I’ll be doing this afternoon at 4:00 in the grassy part of the front yard, blessing any animals who happen by.

It’s not hard for us to love those parts of creation which we find beautiful and pleasant and lovely—we’re happy to give thanks to God for creation when we’re thinking of flourishing trees and skies full of stars and colorful fish and the affection of furry animals.

It’s substantially harder for us to give thanks for the parts of creation that can upset us, like lightning and thunderstorms; or confound us, like the nesting habits of squirrels or raccoons when they decide to take up residence somewhere in your home; or show painful aggression toward humans, like venomous snakes; or otherwise have no discernible goodness, like mosquitoes and wasps.

Some people have created memes—an image that spreads online like a visual joke—with alignment charts to define insects based on how humans experience those insects. In case you haven’t seen one before, an alignment chart has horizontal rows to express good, neutral, and evil; and vertical columns for lawful, neutral, and chaotic. Alignment charts came about as a way to classify moral and ethical perspectives to determine the behavior of characters in Dungeons and Dragons, a role-playing game.[1]

But then alignment charts just became amusing, a way to share an opinion or discuss where insects fit in.[2] Are ants lawful good because of their highly-structured cooperative community? Or are they lawful evil because ants also sting humans? Are honeybees chaotic good because they pollinate plants and provide honey but can also sting humans? Or are they lawful evil because the pain of the stinger outweighs the benefits of their food pollinating behavior?

Of course insects don’t ascribe to any moral characteristics; their behaviors are determined by instincts rather than logic or emotion. But the truth is that each of these creatures was lovingly fashioned by the same Creator who made us, and each of us plays a part, even if we humans can scarcely admit that mosquitoes serve any kind of good in the big picture of creation.

Categorizing human motivations with alignment charts isn’t going to convince any insects to behave differently, but it may hold up a mirror to help us see ourselves. Humans have historically made decisions in favor of some kind of good without acknowledging the negative impacts that appear elsewhere. You can think of examples like allowing for home-building in a flood plain, or cutting down so many trees that hillsides dissolve in mudslides, or even creating laws or restrictions to protect one species which can disrupt ecological balance and create problems for other species.

I was surprised to learn last week in a story from the New York Times that conservationists and beekeepers around the world are finding that honey bee populations are actually higher than they’ve ever been. Almost twenty years ago, beekeepers identified a phenomenon of bees disappearing from their hives, which was eventually named colony collapse disorder. That sounded scary, so people installed honey bee hives in their backyards and businesses put hives on the rooftops in cities. It was great that people became aware of pollinators, but honey bees didn’t really need the help: the United States agriculture industry already supports honey bee colonies that are trucked around the country to pollinate crops.

A professional beekeeper in Slovenia, Gorazd Trusnovec (GORE-azz TROOS-noh-vetz), said this: “If you overcrowd any space with honey bees, there is a competition for natural resources, and since bees have the largest numbers, they push out other pollinators, which actually harms biodiversity. I would say that the best thing you could do for honey bees right now is not take up beekeeping.”[3]

There are over 20,000 species of bees in the world, but we mostly don’t know they exist because they live underground or in tree trunks. Only about seven of those species are honey bees, but we like them best because humans like the honey. But honey yields are declining because in some places, the honey bee population doesn’t have enough nectar to produce honey, and then bees have to consume their own honey for energy. Besides bees, there are other species that are pollinators, like wasps and moths, but those populations are in decline, which is a problem.

If insects could create alignment charts, where would bees put humans? Are humans “chaotic good,” trying to do the right thing but sometimes end up causing bad things to happen? Or are humans “neutral evil” because we’re going to mess it up, even when it’s not on purpose? I wonder what the bees would think about this.

God gifted creation to us, all of it—the parts we like and the parts we barely appreciate and the parts we intensely dislike. God’s wisdom is greater than ours, even when we’re trying to align our thinking and our actions with God’s wisdom and God’s will.

The chief priests and the elders of Jesus’ time were faithful in seeking God’s wisdom and God’s will. That faithfulness led them to approach Jesus to inquire about his authority. Perhaps they were curious about his audacity to teach there in the temple without having any of the usual credentials or educational pedigree. Maybe they were protecting their community from Jesus’s teaching, an influential yet confounding force. So they ask him who gave him the authority to do these things—which makes me think of deep questions like “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?”[4]

So Jesus answers with another question: African swallow or European swallow? No, he actually asked the leaders to determine whether John the Baptist’s baptism came from heaven or from humans. They couldn’t answer his question, so Jesus didn’t answer theirs either.

Instead, Jesus told a parable about a parent giving chores to their children: the first said, no way, I’m not going to work in the vineyard, but then later did actually go. The second child said, yeah, I’ll go work in the vineyard, but then didn’t actually do it. Jesus asked which child did the parent’s will, so of course that’s the first one, who did the action aligned with the parent’s request.

In her commentary this week, Nichola Torbett notices that this parent doesn’t reject or renounce either of their children. The parent doesn’t shame or berate or nag. What if this parent is offering unconditional love, giving the child freedom to change their own mind? She writes, “This parent models something—a love that does not seek to control…what if that parent’s unconditional love is a form of authority?”[5]

Could we humans, as children of God, receive God’s love and really accept it? Can we accept God’s love for all creation, even for the non-cute animals and the parts we don’t like as much? Truly I tell you, wasps and yellowjackets are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. Jesus said something kinda like that.

St. Francis of Assisi spent his last years in terrible physical pain and at the same time, spiritual happiness. As he approached the end of his earthly life, he said, “Welcome Sister Death!” He asked his brothers to dress him in his old habit and lay him on the bare earth, and as they gathered around him, he blessed each one, saying, “I have done my part. May Christ teach you to do yours.”

May God’s love confuse and confound you so thoroughly that you can’t help but receive that love and return it, blessing all of God’s creation as you go.


Pastor Cheryl


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