Sunday, October 14, 2012

End of greed – Be kind to animals

Today I preached at Journey Uniting. The topic they asked me to address was animal care. First time a church has ever asked me to preach on that type of topic!

But I have an experience of a dog scoffing the communion bread. Which in time became a journal article – “Even The Dogs Eat the Crumbs That Fall From Their Masters’ Table”: A Contemporary Reflection on The Sacramentality of Communion” Colloquim 39, 2 (November 2007), 209-225. Which seemed an interesting challenge to offer as a sermon.

So I wove together three personal stories, a selection of Biblical passages, three Christian thinkers (Isaac of Nineveh, Francis of Assissi, Paulos Mar Gregorios) along with Rublevs icon.

Let me start with some wisdom from the 7th century. “What is a merciful heart?
Ask the person beside you. ““What is a merciful heart?”

“It is a heart of fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons and for all that exists.” That’s Bishop Isaac of Nineveh.

In other words – mission includes animal care.
Telling – the Good News of the Kingdom. Yes
Nurturing – the discipleship of new believers. Yes
Caring – in loving service. Yes
Acting justly – prophetic acts in response to unjust structures. Yes
Being kind to animals – heart of fire for whole of creation. Yes
Let me share with you three stories, which’ve got me thinking long and hard about being kind to animals.

A beginning story
It was young in my faith. It was 1990. I was standing in a breakfast queue in Nicaragua, in Central America. I was part of a missions experience and I was helping myself to bacon and eggs. As you do when you’re on mission in Central America.

One of the hotel guests observed my large helping of bacon and eggs. In a surprised voice he spoke to me – “Excuse me, aren’t you a Christian?”

“Yes,” I said, wondering how he knew and what it had to to do with breakfast.

“If you’re a Christian, why are you eating bacon. Doesn’t it say in your book, your Bible, your creation story, that in the beginning humans are created vegetarian?”

How would you respond? If you were in a queue and a stranger challenged you about Genesis 1, 2 and the meat on your plate?

Do animals matter? If they do, to God, then why eat them?

I went back to read my Bible and discovered that this hotel stranger was right.

In Genesis chapters 1, 2, in the beginning, humans are created vegetarian.
Adam is given a garden. Not to exploit, not to pollute, not to chuck rubbish into, but to care for.

In Genesis 9:1-11, we have the story of Noah and the Ark. When humans leave the ark, the words from Genesis 1 and 2 are repeated.

With one change: – “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.” (Genesis 9:3)

My hotel stranger was right. That in the beginning, God did not create animals first and foremost to be protein for humans. Be kind to animals. Because of our beginning story.

For us as Christians, we have an another beginning story. Not just in creation but in Jesus. Thank God for animals in that story.

Jesus. Carried on a donkey. Born in a stable. Close to animals. Visited by Magi, most likely with camels. Celebrated by shepherds tending flocks.

Hence that Christmas carol. Away in a manger –
Away in a manger,
no crib for His bed,
The cattle are lowing, the donkey is braying, the camels are nuzzing, the sheep are a bleating.
It’s no wonder “poor Baby wakes,
[And] little Lord Jesus,
yes crying He makes;
Being kind to animals. Because of our story of beginnings.

A second story. A story from the middle.
It was 2004. In the 14 years since 1990 I’d become a church minister. I’d planted a church. I’d become senior pastor and a stranger rang and said she had some questions about Christianity and could she talk to me as a minister about her questions.

We made a time to meet and she came and produced a book, full of her questions. Like “If Christians believe God is Creator, why are Christians so bad at caring for creation. Why aren’t all Christians vegetarians – it’s a much kinder way to care for creation?”

A story from the middle. We have our beginnings, but how do we live now. In the middle? How do we consume as if animals matter?

The Bible gives us some guidance. In Psalm 36:6 “O LORD, you preserve both people and animals.” So we need to live in ways that preserve animals.

If, as of August 2012, there are only 26 fairy penguins left on Granite Island – compared with 2000, there were 2000! Then where are the Christians, saying “O LORD, you preserve both people and animals.”

Or what Jonah 4:10-11.
God – “And should I not have concern for the great city of Ninevah, in which there are a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right from their left – and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11)

God, being kind to animals

In case you think this is just the Old Testament. Word of Jesus in Matthew 6:26

Consider the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” According to Jesus, we can learn from the animals.

But any Uniting College student, will tell you that good theology works not just with the Bible. It also works with the Christian tradition in history.

I’ve given you 3 Bible texts. So let me also give you 3 Christian thinkers.

In the 7th century, this is the wisdom for Bishop Isaac.
If a person of humility comes near dangerous wild animals, then the moment these [wild animals] catch sight …. they [wag] their tails and [lick their] hands and feet. This is because these [wild animals] smell that fragrance .. from Adam when he named the animals in Paradise before the Fall: this fragrance was taken away from us at the Fall, but Christ gave it back to us at his coming. – in Sebastian P. Brock, Spirituality in the Syriac Tradition

Then in the 12th century there are the stories of St Francis. Here’s my favourite –

A cricket used to perch on a figtree beside [St Francis] and sing …. [St Francis] called it one day, and it flew upon his hand as if it had been taught by God. [St Francis] said to it: “Sing, my sister cricket, praise the Lord Creator with your joyful song!” It obeyed without delay and began to sing; nor did it stop until at his command it flew back to its usual place.

Here’s my second favourite –
Once in Rome [St Francis] had with him a little lamb out of reverence for the Lamb of God. At his departure [St Francis] left [the lamb] in the care of the … Lady Jacoba. Now the lamb went with the lady to church, standing reverently by her side as her inseparable companion … If the lady was late in rising in the morning, the lamb rose and nudged her with its horns and woke her with its bleating, urging her with its nods and gestures to hurry to the church.

Away in a manger, the sheep are a bleating. Animals as your alarm clock. Get up. It’s time for church.

Being kind to animals. Because of the middle. Because of the Bible texts, because of thinkers in Christian history.

Time for my third story.

It’s a story that gets me thinking about the end.
It was 2007, and the people of God, numbering about 40, were gathered for Sunday worship at Opawa Baptist Church in New Zealand.

Towards the end of the service, a man wanders in and takes a seat on a empty seat near the front of the church. He comes complete with dog on a leash.

Initially, I as the minister was a bit offended. How rude to bring a dog into church. But then I realised that we provided no place outside the church to tie his dog, not bowl of water. So we were showing no kindness toward animals.

Needless to say, the presence of a dog inside the church caused quite a stir. Two teenagers quiz me as the minister. “What’s he doing here?”

“Same as you,” I replied, “Being part of church.”

“Why a dog in church?” the ministers daughter, at that time aged six, loudly quizzed her mother. Delicately the mother picks her way toward an answer.

All strangers are welcome. Yes. But are all animals? You see, the six-year-old has a rabbit. If the dog is welcome, then what about the rabbit next Sunday? Images of rabbits lopping up the aisle of church.

The service of worship continues. It includes communion and all are invited to gather around the table. The story of Jesus is told. The loaf of bread is broken. Half the loaf goes one way. Half the loaf the other.

Out of the corner of my eye, there is a blur of movement. I turn, see the body of Christ, being fed, by the visitor, to his dog.

Whole half loaf. Gone.

Dog looks up, licking the remaining crumbs of Christ off his salivating jaws. Hungry for more.

True story.

Was this a moment of heresy? Or an experience of being kind to animals? Are the gifts of God for people? Or for all of creation?

The Biblical prophets, men like Isaiah, certainly dreamed of an end, of a world that was kind to creation, a world in which the lion lie with the lamb.

In the New Testament, in the book of Colossians, we that end-time dream is placed in Jesus. In Colossians 1:15-20 The Message: “all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.”

[Jesus] body is a creation body. [Jesus] shares his creation body with the whole created order. All parts of creation are now reconciled to Christ … Sun and moon, planet and stars, pulsars and black holes – as well as the planet earth – animals and birds, snakes and worms, flowers and seeds – are to participate in that final consummation of the redemption. (Paulos Mar Gregorios)

Be kind to animals. Because of the end. The endtimes dream of the Old Testament and the resurrection hope of Jesus.

Do we see animals as objects. As things to eat and squash and grill and BBQ and be cruel to?

Or do we see them as God-gifts, each with a God-given value, dignity, and rights. Who can teach us things. Who can remind us, like St Francis cricket, to sing to creation.

I learnt this from my children. We were walking in a forest one day and I was piggybacking one of my children and I asked her what noises the trees were making. I thought she’d hear the window, but instead she announced, “Oh, there all singing praised to God.”

Five ways to make being kind to animals practical.

First, eat less meat.
As my sister-in-law, a trained dietician reminded me, when I became a vegetarian, as humans we get all our protein needs from 2 meat meals a week. Anything else is excess.

Second, Love our pets
Make sure they have food, water, space, exercise and love.

Three, look for logos on food your buy.
Forest Stewardship Council and Marine Stewardship Council certification logos – groups approve food that is harvested sustainably.

Fourth, pray with your cans
Every time you open a tin, take a moment to look at the labels. Product of Thailand. Product of China. I wonder how the farmers who grow this lived. I wonder how their animals are treated. Give us this day our daily bread, so God I pray for farmers in Thailand. God, who was concerned for animals in Nineveh, I pray for the farm animals in China.

Five, participate in animal welfare advocacy campaigns
Animals have no voice, but ours. So part of being kind to animals, part of Genesis 1, to take care of the garden, is to speak on their behalf. Bookmark websites like the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the RSPCA.

Let me finish with this picture of communion.
It’s from Russia in the 11th century. Based on the Bible story in Genesis 18, where the three Persons of the Trinity visit Abraham.

There is communion – the Eucharistic Cup in the centre.

There is the table. Has four sides. Three persons of the Trinity – God as Creator – Redeemer – Sustainer, sit on three sides.

But the fourth side open. Faces each of us as the viewer.

Like an invitation.

For each of us to come and sit with God – to be part of communion. To talk, around a table, with God. To find in God that merciful heart, that “Welcome”, that love.

So, returning to my third story, the dog who ate my communion bread, what does happen what that dog eagerly steps up to the fourth side at the communion table? Will God tell the dog to get lost.

Surely the dog also will find a merciful heart.

A heart of fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons and for all that exists. A kindness for animals.

Posted by steve at 09:24 PM


  1. Steve, I really appreciate this post. I went veg several years ago for many of these same reasons. The longer I’m on this path, the closer to full-on vegan I get. When you open your eyes to the suffering that your lifestyle causes other people/animals… it gets harder and harder to do it. Thankfully.

    I know that most folks (especially most Christian folks) think this way of living is totally flaky. Wanted to leave you a bit of encouragement. Thanks for giving voice to loving kindness.


    Comment by Erin Wilson — October 16, 2012 @ 3:50 am

  2. Yep, I certainly felt flakey preaching it – fitting all those left wing, tree hugging stereotypes. Thanks Erin


    Comment by steve — October 16, 2012 @ 8:08 am

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