Scripture: Genesis 28:10-19
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
November 15, 2015
Some of you have said that this is your absolutely favorite worship service of the year. I have a feeling that it may be one of my favorites, too! There are few opportunities in the Christian religion to celebrate our fellow creatures. Too often, the Christian tradition is anthropocentric, acting as though God cares for the human species exclusively. The God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, you and me is also the God of our dogs, cats, guinea pigs, parakeets and gold fish. This is a sign of deep imbalance in our theology.
As a way to declare the holiness embedded in all animals — through the years, I’ve given my pets spiritual names. I named my cats – Justice, Freedom, Blessing, Sacred and Spirit. I named my tortoises, Patience and Perseverance. And I named my dogs – Amen and Alleluia. Funny story – my friend, Patrick, was housesitting for me some years ago. One Sunday morning, the dogs got out. He couldn’t find them anywhere. So, he started running up and down the street, yelling out – “Amen! Alleluia! Amen! Alleluia!” Since it was a Sunday morning, people in their front yards looked at Patrick like he was crazy, a religious fanatic in their midst.
By giving my pets spiritual names, I am reminded that the presence of the Divine is alive in them, too. It is what we call panentheism. “Pan” means “all”. “En” means “in”. “Theos” means “God”. Panentheism means “All things in God.” God is everywhere! God is in those parts of creation even where we may be sure that God is missing, like skunks, snakes, and spiders. “All God’s critters have a place in the choir!” sing our children. And God declares that all of creation is good — which is why I love this story from Genesis.
Jacob is fleeing for his life. He runs and runs and runs. He is running from his brother, Esau, because he stole Esau’s birthright. Jacob is so exhausted that he takes a stone and uses it for a pillow to lay his head on and sleep. There, Jacob has an exquisite dream. God gives a vision of a ladder that runs from heaven to earth with the angels of God scurrying back and forth on it.
When Jacob awakes he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it!” And then he went on and on, “How awesome is this place!” and “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” This happened in Haran. How many of you know where Haran is? Exactly…it is in the middle of nowhere. If God can show up in Haran – God can show up anywhere! It is Panentheism at its best!
The whole world is the House of God. Where did the Church get the idea that God preferred four walls and a roof to wide-open spaces? Where did we get the idea that church buildings are the safest and most reliable places to encounter the living God?
No wonder people say they are spiritual, but not religious. They experience God, the Divine presence, as too huge to be limited by any religion, or confined to only certain a group of people who behave a certain way and believe a certain kind of doctrine. For heaven’s sake, God blessed Jacob, a low down scoundrel, in the middle of nowhere. Yes, God drops ladders everywhere. Earth is crammed with heaven, and the world is just waiting for us to notice her holiness. “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not even know it” says Jacob.
In the Bible, we read that people encounter God under shady oak trees, on the top of mountains, in the middle of rivers, and in long stretches of barren wilderness. God shows up in whirlwinds, starry skies, and burning bushes. When people want to know more about God, the son of God tells them to pay attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. We can learn as much about God from a wildflower or a hummingbird or our dog “Spot” as we can from knowing the Ten Commandments by heart. The House of God stretches from one corner of the universe to the other.
According to the Psalms, the people of God are not the only creatures capable of praising God. There are growling bears, humpback whales, and flying ducks. Even trees clap their hands. St. Francis of Assisi loved singing hymns with his brothers and sisters, that is, Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brother Wolf and Sister Whale, Brother Eagle and Sister Loon. Francis could not have told you the difference between the sacred and the secular, the holy and the mundane if you twisted his arm behind his back. Francis declared, “Such love does the sky now pour, that whenever I stand in a field I have to wring out the light when I go home.” Francis preached to birds, removed from the road little worms, lest they be crushed under food and he ordered that honey and the best wines be set out for the bees, lest they perish from want in the cold winter. He read the world as reverently as he read the Bible. For him, a single bird was as much a messenger of God as a ladder full of angels. Francis had no discretion. He did not know where to draw the line between the church and the world. For this reason, among others, Francis is remembered as a saint. I believe that Francis embraced a theology of panentheism!
This morning we will be blessing the animals. Blessing, however, does not confer holiness. The holiness is already there, embedded in the creation of God. Our job is simply to give voice to that holiness found in all of God’s creatures. And after each blessing, you will receive a bandana for your pet with a comma on it, compliments of Barbie, Susi and the children. In the United Church of Christ, the comma tells us that God is still speaking. It is inspired by the Gracie Allen quote, “Do not place a period where God has placed a comma.” May we be open to the Stillspeaking God who blesses us through the holiness of our animal companions.
*Many thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World, which inspired today’s sermon.