“Who is My Neighbor? Animals as Neighbors”

Matthew 6: 25 – 29; Mark 12: 30 – 31, Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN – Jesus says, “I give you commandments: Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. The entire law is fulfilled by these two commandments.” “Love your neighbor,” commands Jesus, but who is our neighbor? Would we consider non-humans, the animals as our neighbors? No doubt, many of us would agree that “dogs” fall under the neighbor category. Let me ask — how many of you would consider your dog a family member? We love our dogs. One of my very favorite cartoons is St. Peter coming into the pearly gates. He lays eyes on God for the very first time. God sitting on the throne in heaven. St. Peter is absolutely shocked to discover that God is indeed a dog. God the Dog says to surprised St. Peter, “The joyful, loving, eternally forgiving nature of dogs never tipped you off?” No wonder that dog spelled backward is God. Yes, dogs clearly are a window to the Divine.

Dogs are miracles truly. How many of you heard about that dog named “Miracle” this past week? A one year old pup was almost crushed under a collapsed building in the wake of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas.  He was pinned down for three weeks and a half weeks, drinking only rain water…and he survived. His unbelievable survival has us believing in miracles, hence, the name. The Big Dog Ranch Rescue Foundation is looking for his owner, but if they can’t find the owner…no worries. There have been over 10,000 inquiries to adopt Miracle, from across the world, even from London and Australia. Families touched by the tenacity and strength of this little, “Miracle” dog.  

Yes, I think most of us would agree that dogs are our neighbors. But what about other animals? The skunk, the snake, the spider, the lowly worm? Are they our neighbors, too? The truth of the matter is that Christianity does not have a very good track record about animals and creation. For over two thousand years, Christianity teaches that “it is members of the human species alone who matter among the earth’s animals.” No doubt, Christians have exploited this planet believing that this is our temporary home. Jesus will come back and take us with him in the second coming and there will no longer be need for Mother Earth. In other words, unless you are human, Christianity is a pretty bad deal.

Fortunately, St. Francis of Assisi came along in the 12th century igniting a love for nature and her creatures. St. Francis preached to birds, tamed a ravenous wolf, bought a lamb that was being taken to slaughter and raised it as a pet, fed bees wine and honey so they would not die in winter, and removed worms from a busy road so that they might not be crushed under the feet of passersby. St. Francis referred to nature as his siblings – Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wolf, Sister Whale, Brother Eagle, Sister Loon.

He took Jesus’ words from today’s scripture passage literally. Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet God feeds them. Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? 28“And why do you worry about clothes? So do not worry about tomorrow, Jesus said,  for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.

Taking this passage quite literally, Francis renounced his wealth and exchanged his riches for rags…trusting that God would indeed take care of him like God cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. In a very real sense, creatures and creation exist as the ultimate teachers of holy poverty. Animals, birds, trees, flowers own nothing. They own nothing and they are profoundly beautiful. Jesus says, I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. The very ones that humans consider the least are actually the greatest because they exist in such close connection to God, a connection that illustrates a life of total dependence, total trust in relationship to the Creator. Francis knew that all creatures have the same source, no matter how small, and so he calls them brother and sister.

In The Canticle of the Sun, Francis reverses medieval hierarchy and begins his song to creation not with humanity, but with “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon” moving through the ranks of wind, water, creatures, fire, plants and earth until ending with, in a seemingly ad hoc way, human beings. Francis took literally the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” He treated even non-humans the way he wished to be treated. May we do the same. Christianity as a whole may not have the best track record with nature, but Francis – and those Christians who have taken his vision seriously – certainly model a way to treat animals as neighbors.

Francis was way ahead of his time, for scientific research shows that our neighbors, the animals, are so good for us in so many ways: Petting an animal releases oxytocin, the hormone of love and bonding. It appears that when we pet animals, it does the same for them too and reduces their heart rate. Bird watching (Jesus says “Look at the birds of the air…” Do we have any birders in our midst?) can have a positive effect on mental health causing a lower risk of depression, stress and anxiety. Just being around an animal decreases our blood pressure. Animals decrease our reactions to stressful situations – this is why many dentists’ offices have fish tanks in them. Just watching fish beforehand reduces the stress of undergoing dental procedures.  Horses are being used to treat PTSD in veterans. Emerging research shows species conservation has a positive impact on lowering carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. We all know that if we save the planet, we will save its creatures. It turns out, however, that the reverse is true, too. When we save animals, we save the planet because of the role animals play in the various ecosystems. St. Francis knew all along what scientists are telling us today – the animals are our neighbors.

Jesus says, “Look at the birds of the air. Consider the lilies of the field.” Lilies and birds can’t defend themselves but must trust in God’s abundance, provision and love. May we do the same…knowing that whatever tomorrow brings, God will be there too.

It is a joy to bless these precious animals for they have blessed us so much more.