Rev. David Clark sermon: Pet Blessings
October 26, 2014
Today we continue a long RUCC tradition of blessing the animals. I’ve been part of several pet blessing services, but never one that was incorporated into the full church service, and never one where I had to preach on the topic. I thought could talk about how pets remind us of the unconditional love of God, that we can know we are loved without condition, but I thought that that isn’t very inclusive because we might have some cat owners here and we know that cats have conditions.
I thought about talking about how instinctively we know that pets are blessings to us. They save us from fires, pull us out of danger, help in rescues, know when we are sick and cuddle up to us at the right time. People post thousands of sappy pet videos on social media every day. Pets lower our blood pressure and risk of heart disease, they help children become more compassionate. But that didn’t seem very inclusive either, because the message might sound like: if you don’t have pets you are going to die early and raise monsters as children.
The third idea was to talk about St. Francis of Assisi who taught us to see ourselves spiritually connected with animals and all of creation. He made spirituality more natural, earthy, simple. Jesus said to “consider the birds of the air,” and St. Francis took him up on that. There are stories about St. Francis talking a wolf into repentance for terrorizing a village. The Bible says Jonah led the cattle in Nineveh to repentance. I’ve never put much stock into stories like these and assumed they literary devices to underscore a point because I’ve tried on several occasions to get our cat to repent, but thus far he seems impervious to my preaching. Maybe I just didn’t go to the right seminary.
I like that although Genesis was never intended to be a science textbook, it says the animals were here before people ever arrived on the scene. I don’t like the way people have interpreted the line about God giving humans dominion over the creation. It continues to be a favorite text for those who are bent on destroying habitats for economic gain. They say that God made the world and the animals to be subject to us, they are for us and it’s okay to destroy anything that doesn’t serve our economic purposes. Seems like a stretch, but the argument is persistent. I always thought that if we are given dominion over the earth and the beasts, we should exercise dominion in the same way that God exercises it over us–always looking out for our best welfare, responding with loving kindness, ready to sacrifice for our benefit, relationally. What if we learned to read this text as a command to take care of the earth and species instead of exploiting them? Maybe we could learn to live in harmony with nature and find a more healthy and sustainable path.
Of course there are folks who are better at responding to the needs of pets than people. I understand that, there are dIfferent sets of expectations. You are not disappointed when the cat doesn’t seem grateful for your help–it’s just a cat. We don’t say that with people because they ought to know better. What if the next time someone disappoints you, you were able to offer the same amount of grace you would to a cat. “It’s just Bob bing Bob.”
One day my friend Mark told me that he’d read a study that means that your dog doesn’t love you, he’s just been bred to the characteristics that make you think he does. Dogs are just wolves who learned to manipulate humans into a food source that doesn’t require much energy from them. It’s not love as we know it, you are just projecting the study says. He said more, but I quit listening, wondering if I’d been duped by my beloved Tucker, thinking about our interactions. Even if it was true, I didn’t want to know, so I channeled Forrest Gump: I may not be a smart man, Mark, but I do know what love is.
Subsequent studies have contradicted the one Mark was telling me about. Tucker did love me, I know it and I loved him. For many of us there is one special pet that bonds with us and captures our hearts like no other and when they go, it breaks our hearts when we lose this family member. Even if you aren’t a pet lover, and don’t get the big deal, be a love of humans and know that when they lose a pet, it is a big deal; reach out with compassion and love.
Kathy Blanchard is a vet in our church who found out that being a vet also means at times being more than someone who knows how to diagnose and treat different kinds of animals. It also means knowing how to diagnose and treat the owners. Because the connections to our pets are so strong, the emotions that arise in the vet’s office can be very raw and hard to see someone going through. So today on this pet blessing Sunday, let’s say a prayer of blessing for the vets and their teams, and everyone who helps us take care of our pets from the clerk at the pet food store to our pet sitters when we are gone.
Sometimes I come across television shows where an expert comes in to save pet owners who have out of control pets. It only takes a few episodes to learn that it’s always a people problem, not an animal problem. They have to better understand their pet’s needs and nature. Often for cats the solution is to play with them more, wear them out and provide a secure environment. For dogs it usually means retraining the owners on how to become the alpha in the relationship.
These shows are a good reminder for human relationships, too. If someone is misbehaving, you know that you cannot change another person. You can change yourself and make clear what others can expect from you and where your boundaries are. Sometimes by changing how you react to situations, those around you will rise to a higher level and things get better. Sometimes we train people on how to relate to us. If we never stand up for ourselves, they learn and think they have a right to mistreat you. Jesus said the second great commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. Self-love and setting boundaries is okay and may make everyone happier in the end. The spiritual life is training yourself.
What does it mean to bless animals, what are we doing? Is it a magic spell? We throw around the word blessed all the time. But sometimes it’s good to remember that blessings are more about giving God thanks for gifts and praying that we enjoy the gifts properly. It’s to pray for a good life, happiness, safety. When we learn to bless animals, we learn to bless all creation and one another. Amen.