|The Rev. Dr.
Kristin Johnston Largen
Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg
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Blessing of the Animals
Probably everyone here has a favorite St. Francis story: mine is the one where St. Francis & a nightingale sang praise to God antiphonally from Vespers to Lauds, until St. Francis’ voice finally gave out and the bird flew down to his hand for a blessing before flying away. That’s only one of many apocryphal stories about St. Francis that have come down to us in the centuries since his death, all of which contribute to contemporary Christians’ affection for and attachment to him.
For this reason and many others, it is well and good that we remember St. Francis today, and honor his timeless example of radical Christian love, love that overflowed even beyond the neighbor, even beyond the enemy, even beyond the animals, to include Brother Sun, Sister Water, and even Sister Death. St. Francis, as well as anyone in the Christian tradition, loved God’s creation – all that God created – and his consistent, passionate embodiment of that divine love still stands as a much needed example both for individual Christians and the church as a whole in this critical time in which we live, when ever more animals join the endangered species list, when ever more forests are ravaged, and the health and well-being of the entire planet are imperiled by wanton human devastation and neglect. The example of St. Francis reminds us that as Christians, we are called into a different relationship with the world, a relationship of love and care that stems from our understanding of the world as created, loved and blessed by God.
And this is why, as we come together today, we bless the animals who are with us. Not because maybe St. Francis blessed them – or maybe he did not. Not because it is a good way to get some people to church who otherwise wouldn’t come, or because it affords the opportunity to preach a sermon with a sweet dog in your arms! Today we bless the animals because God blessed them – blessed them and called them good, blessed them and loved them, and continues to bless and love them steadfastly, just as God continues to bless and love us. By virtue of God’s love and God’s blessing, God’s creation has been endowed with intrinsic goodness, and this means that God’s creation is blessed and good not only insofar as it is useful to us, not only insofar as it pleases us, but rather simply just as it is – in all its wondrous diversity, creativity, and beauty.
And this is where I think Christians have something really important to contribute to the conversations around ecology and environmental justice. Some may argue that we should protect the rainforests because of all the different plants that grow there, and the possible drugs we can make from them. Others may argue that we need to plant more trees in order to preserve a healthy atmosphere for human life. And others may argue that we need to preserve the chimpanzee population, because they have such a high degree of genetic similarity to human beings, and therefore are necessary for scientific research. But while Christians might agree with all those goals, the reasons we use in arguing for conservation and preservation are quite different. As Christians, we argue not from utility but from essence, not from instrumental worth but from intrinsic value.
In his work, Nature and Grace, Thomas Aquinas writes, “God loves all things that exist. For all things that exist are good, in so far as they are. The very existence of anything whatsoever is a good, and so is any perfection of it.…God is the cause of all things. A thing must therefore be, and be good, to the extent which God wills….Now to love is just to will good for something. Clearly, then, God loves all things that are. But God does not love as we love. Our will is not the cause of the goodness in things, but is moved by their goodness as its object. Consequently, the love by which we will good for anyone is not the cause of his [or her] goodness…God’s love, on the other hand, creates and infuses the goodness in things.” All of God’s creation is good – not because it useful, not because it pleasing to the eye, not because we like it. The animals with us here – and all animals – are good in and of themselves because the One who creates them also loves them and blesses them – these three acts of God go together. Therefore in loving and honoring dogs, cats, turtles, horses, rabbits – all creation – we love and honor the Creator.
Today then, as we participate in this blessing service, let us also take this opportunity to remember: to remember the goodness of creation, and the goodness of our own bodies, and to remember the connection we have with all living things that have come from God’s word & God’s hand. And then let us in our actions and our words remind a forgetful world of the love God has for the whole cosmos. AMEN
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