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Blessing of the Animals

Preached:  October 13, 2013
Scriptures:   Genesis 1 & 2

The Bible tells us that when the floods came, God rescued each species through Noah & the ark. God made a covenant with fish of the sea & birds of the air & all animals on Earth to protect them for the future (Gen. 9:8-17). In reality, God made the first “endangered species act.

 “Ask the animals, and they will teach you; or the birds in the sky and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you.”  Job 12:7

 There is story that is told about an Italian village in the hills called Gubbio.  800 years ago, as the story goes, a ferocious wolf was terrorizing the village, killing livestock and people alike for food.  Then along came a man who had a peculiar way with animals. He heard what was happening and had compassion for both the people and the wolf.  Against the admonitions of the village people, he decided to talk to the wolf.  “No! No!” they shouted. “He’ll destroy you!”

But he went anyway. His name was Francis from the town of Assisi. He hadn’t been out long, when an enormous wolf charged out of the bushes – growling and snapping his teeth. Francis made the sign of the cross over the wolf and said, “Come to me brother Wolf.  I wish you no harm.”  And miraculously the wolf knelt at his feet.

Then Francis spoke again to the wolf:  “Brother Wolf, you’ve been hurting people and scaring them. You shouldn’t be killing people. So stop it. I want you to make peace with the people of Gubbio. They’re not going to hurt you. And you can’t hurt them either. Do you understand?”

The wolf looked up at him with sorrowful eyes and nodded his head with understanding and remorse. And then the wolf lifted up his paw and put it in Francis’ hands. “Good. All your past sins are forgiven.  Now! Come with me. We’ve got some work to do.”  And of course the wolf followed Francis into the town. And the people were amazed. Francis explained that the wolf was repentant, and then asked,  Will you forgive him? And will you promise to feed him?  And, of course the whole town made peace with this wolf who had previously terrorized their village and agreed to feed him.  And, just to show that the wolf understood, he lifted his paw and placed it in Francis’ hand as a sign of his pledge.  And from then on, the wolf lived in the village and walked from house to house and the people gave him food. Not even the dogs barked at him. He was just another member of the village of Gubbio. And he lived amongst them for another two years, until he died in peace.

Did it really happen? Did the wolf really understand Francis and make a pact with the whole village?  It sounds implausible. But apparently while workers were making renovations to the old church in Gubbio, they pulled up some of the stone pavers inside the church where people had been laid to rest. And there, amongst the other dead, were the remains of a very large wolf.

St. Francis is popularly known as the saint who loved animals. Beneath his love of animals; beneath his love of the poor; Francis loved God.  For Francis, people and animals were like living symbols of God. He felt both he and his fellow creatures were called to love God. He believed all creation was made to live in the love and adoration of the God who made them.

Centuries before Francis, the prophet Isaiah had a vision of the day when God’s salvation would be complete, when the violence of this world would end.  “The lion and the lamb shall lay down together. They shall not hurt or destroy on my holy mountain.” (Isaiah 65:25).

The wolf of Gubbio represents a foretaste of the Kingdom of God where enemies may live side-by-side in peace. This is God’s desire for us. And sometimes we catch glimpses of this kingdom.

God created humanity with a special responsibility—to exercise dominion (Gen. 1:28). This does not mean that we are to exercise domination over other creatures or to exploit them. Rather, we are to delight in the animal kingdom, and respect and care for them.  We are to take responsibility for all creatures, and work to preserve them (Gen. 2:15).

The animal kingdom and our pets can sometimes reveal what we hope and long to be true, for us and for the world around us.

 Prayer:   “Lord, help me to be the kind of person my animal thinks I am.”

Someone who is worth exuberant hugs and kisses and wagging of tails whether we’ve only been gone for five minutes or five days.

When we come home and our pets welcome us, our hearts soften and we believe through them that we are lovable – just as we are. We become our most authentic & vulnerable self.  Unflagging loyalty, following us from room to room, speaks a truth that we are worth loving.

I think “The kind of person my dog thinks I am” does not really have much to do with how good, kind, generous, friendly, and loving we really are.  Animals may be quite aware of our faults & flaws. And love us anyway. I think the answer lies in their ability to find the good in us.

When we get down on our knees, bury our faces in their fur and speak ridiculous words of devotion and affection [Who’s the good dog? Yes, you’re a good dog. Yes you are], these pets release in us the freedom to be who we really are.

from Winnie-The-Pooh, by A.A. Milne.
“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.          ‘Pooh?’ he whispered.        ‘Yes, Piglet?’
‘Nothing’ said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand.                       ‘I just wanted to be sure of you.’

Christian the Lion
In 1969, John Rendall & Ace Berg saw an orphaned lion cub for sale in Harrods.    Cramped & lonely in a small cage, they decided to bring him home and name him Christian.  A priest allowed them to exercise the cub in the church grounds but Christian became too big for their flat. They decided  to try and reintroduce Christian to the African wildlife sanctuary reserve.  Unaccustomed to living with his own kind, it took Christian awhile to acclimate to his natural habitat, but thanks to the expert care of wildlife conservationist George Adamson (of Born Free fame), he ultimately thrived.
Four years later Christian’s former owners wanted to visit him but were told that he was now the head of his pride including several lionesses and a litter of cubs. They were told he had become completely wild and would not remember them. They decided to go anyway.  After many hours of looking for Christian’s pride, they finally found the wild lion.
Any qualms they may have had about approaching the no-longer-tame lion were quickly allayed when Christian bounded up to them and threw his paws on their shoulders to greet them. After an exuberant, tearful reunion, Christian the Lion retreated into the bush with his pride and was never seen again.
The video of watching this wild lion recognize his human best friends is so poignant.

Freedom the Eagle
When Freedom came in she could not stand. Both wings were broken, her left wing in 4 places. She was emaciated. They decided to give her a chance at life. Jeff took her to the vet’s office. He got a huge dog carrier with the top off, and placed shredded newspaper for her to lay in. She had to be tube fed for weeks.  He would sit and talk to her, urging her to live, to fight.   This went on for 4-6 weeks; she still couldn’t stand. Finally a decision was made to euthanize her if she couldn’t stand in a week, so as not to prolong her agony.  Jeff didn’t want to go to the center that Thursday, because he couldn’t bear the thought of her dying; but he went anyway. When he walked in everyone was grinning from ear to ear. There she was, standing on her own, a big beautiful eagle. She was ready to live.
They knew she would never fly, so the director asked Jeff to glove train her.They started doing education programs for schools. Their story made it to the news & TV.
In the spring of 2000, Jeff was diagnosed with stage 3 non-hodgkins lymphoma. On the days he felt good enough, he would go to Sarvey and take Freedom out for walks. Freedom would also come to him in his dreams to help fight the cancer.
In November 2000, he went in for my last checkup. He was told that if the cancer was not all gone after 8 rounds of chemo, then his last option was a stem cell transplant. When he went back he was told the cancer was all gone.  The first thing he did was get up to Sarvey and take the Freedom out for a walk.  They went to the top of the hill. Freedom looked at Jeff and wrapped both her wings around him so he could feel them pressing on his back (engulfed in eagle wings), and she touched his nose with her beak and stared into his eyes.

Schoep, the arthritic dog
A few years back, a man by the name of John Unger used to carry his old arthritic dog Schoep into Lake Superior.  Schoep was nearing the end of his life at 19 years old, and the buoyancy of the water helped to soothe the dog’s joint pain from arthritis.  The dog’s owner would take Schoep into the lake every night and hold him in the water, because that was the only thing that would lull him to sleep.
Mr Unger’s good friend Hannah Stonehouse Hudson, a professional photographer, wanted to capture the poignancy of the relationship between a man and his aging dog.  She posted the photo on Facebook, the touching image soon swept across the web, turning Schoep into a canine celebrity. Animal lovers from across the globe donated money to cover Schoep’s veterinary bills and medications.
The stunning photograph has touched so many people that John Unger and Schoep started a foundation to help other dogs in need:  The Schoep Legacy Foundation.  It has raised more than $25,000 to help low-income families care for their aging dogs in need of special care.  Just a month after celebrating his 20th birthday Schoep passed away

Bringing animals into church is crazy. Chaos lurks just beneath the surface. Will the dogs chase the cats, the cats chase the hamsters, and the slugs scatter to the four directions? Celebrating St. Francis Day is risky, because there’s no way to know in advance what the proportion of growling to wagging, and hissing to purring, will be.  But celebrating the Feast of St. Francis with our companion animals makes us more aware of the fact that relationship always involves risk, and that God calls us into relationship anyway — with Christ, and with all our fellow creatures -humans & critters.