Sermon of the Week
No Insignificant Question: The Gospel and Pets.
Keywords: pets, dogs, cats, creation, learning from animals.
I admit, when I proposed this sermon series,
I was not sure what kind of response I was going to get.
I have had colleagues try this kind of experiment out themselves:
inviting members of their community to propose a topic or a question
for the community’s reflection during the week.
I checked around, and found that our responses are remarkably consistent
with those that other people ask.
Generally what you see in the responses
show the kind of everyday matters that are alive in us
as we try to engage the world through the lens of our faith.
Responses generally fall into a few categories:
maybe the biggest category are topics
that relate to one’s own spiritual formation,
the sort of personal questions or concerns or searching
that often feels very unique and particular,
but, when you examine them, they’re questions that connect us with other people
going through a lot of the things that we all are going through.
Many of our topics this summer have been these sorts of questions:
—How do I know God is out there, when sometimes it doesn’t always feel that way?
—How do I know I’m doing God’s thing, what God wants me to be doing,
rather than some other thing?
—Is it ok for me to be angry at God? That was last week’s sermon.
One of the Theologians I studied a lot at seminary, Paul Tillich,
argued that human beings are meaning-making creatures.
That we use language and ideas to try to make sense of our experience,
and that exercise leads naturally to all sorts of questions,
including the big questions of existence and purpose.
Religion, Tillich would say, are ways that we address those big questions,
he called them questions of ultimate concern,
like Who am I?
Why am I here?
What am I supposed to be doing with my life?
When are the Royals going to be any good again?
[How did that question get in there?]
And from those big questions, those questions of ultimate concern,
we seek after ultimate answers,
and many of us experience the answers in an experience of God.
It makes sense, therefore, that the topics we’ve been exploring so far
have been these sorts of topics.
They’re something we share because we’re human
and we’re paying attention
and we want to know more about our place in the world
and our relationship with the God who made us and who loves us.
Beyond these sorts of personal, introspective topics
we often also ask questions about impact, about where all this religion is taking us.
We’ll get into some of these sorts of questions later on this month,
as we explore some of the different ways we engage our faith:
We’ll explore efforts to find peace in our chaotic world.
We will look at this interesting idea in the book of Ephesians called The Armor of God
what does that mean?
We will ask how the church, Church with a big c, relates to our political world,
and how does the idea of privilege impact our faith day in and day out.
If August was maybe more personal in many ways,
some of these topics in September are more about going out into the world
and engaging it on behalf of Jesus.
Today’s topic is a bit of a bridge between those two, perhaps.
While I can deduce who submitted it
in part because of some of the other questions that were offered along with this topic,
I know that many of us have, or once had, companion animals that are important to us:
dogs and cats, mainly,
but maybe fish or gerbils or who knows what.
My maternal grandfather used to keep birds
and I have a rather strong memory of visiting his house as a child
and going into the basement
and seeing a half dozen cages of birds
and they would sing and flap with excitement at my company.
Brook and I both have mainly been dog people,
and generally, the one dog at a time sort of dog people.
Our current dog, Annie, is really in charge of our house
greeting everyone who comes to the door
with a sort of inspection that looks more like aggressive affection:
she will sniff around your feet and ankles,
and then your knees, and then your belt,
and then about as close to your chin as she can get on her hind legs
before one of us tells her to knock it off.
Annie usually helps me write my sermons.
She sits at my feet Saturday evenings while I’m working on them
snoring occasionally to let me know that everything is ok in the world
even if news of another mass shooting or a category 5 hurricane
means it doesn’t quite feel like it.
Annie is a Wheaton Terrier mix.
Before her was Frank, who was a Shih Tzu mix.
Frankie was the first dog Brook and I adopted
when we got married, before kids, as we were neck deep in school
and thought, hey, why not take on major responsibility
when we really don’t have the time or the money for it.
Frank was the center of our life for a decade.
He was there when we watched the twin towers collapse on our TVs,
when we moved into a new home,
when we celebrated major milestones in our lives.
The day Brook passed her first bar exam
I brought home a barbeque chicken pizza to celebrate
and left it on the kitchen table.
And I had to run downstairs for something that I had left in the car
and when I came back up,
Frankie had found a way to get up on the table,
knock the pizza box on the floor, and get it open.
Two whole slices gone, that rascal.
If memory serves, we were able to salvage the rest of the pizza
and Frankie had sauce in his beard for what seemed like a week.
Frankie was there to greet our newborns when they came home from the hospital
the first one to welcome them home.
Before Frankie, Brook had Mookie
and I had Tippy.
Mookie was also a Shih Tzu.
I have no idea what Tippy was.
Some sort of gullible mutt.
I was glad to have met Mookie,
who was the family vacuum and plotted ways to steal my father in law’s snack food,
and ran crazy eights around the living room floor.
I have a hard time talking about Tippy,
who was my childhood dog,
caring and sweet and affectionate
who helped me get through some hard childhood times,
and who died a painful and unnecessary death
because he got into some poison that someone had dumped in our back yard.
I am still clearly emotional about that.
We once had a cat, Midnight,
when I was just a toddler.
I don’t know much about what happened to midnight.
I was told that he went to go live on a farm
but I don’t know if that was a literal farm or a “farm” farm.
In rural Iowa, at the time, that might have been the equivalent of “the rainbow bridge.”
All of this is to say that our pets have been integral parts of our lives
for most of my life.
I know that is also true for many of you.
It is not just that we have a distinguished Kansas City veterinarian among us
who has helped us care for, and sometimes adopt, wonderful cats and dogs,
but I have met many of your creatures
some of whom greet me, sight unseen, as a friend and as part of your families.
And I know that not everyone is a pet person.
We were talking this week during our bible study
that these kinds of feelings vary.
Some people aren’t really close to companion animals, or animals generally.
Others grew up on a farm, or have outdoor pets, working animals,
with varying degrees of closeness and affection.
That is all well and good.
But we’re exploring the idea of
The Gospel and Our Pets
though it could be extended a bit more broadly,
if you’re not a dog or a cat or a horse or a bird or a pet person
to The Gospel and the Animals.
One of the challenges we have
is that there aren’t really examples of pets in the Bible.
Pets are animals that relate to us for companionship or company,
rather than to work, or to be raised as livestock.
There is some ancient writing that appears to express gratitude
for the companionship of a particularly beloved horse.
Cats were revered in ancient Egypt, and royal families and the upper classes
seem to have kept them around.
But beyond some of these examples, there’s not a lot of written evidence of pets
from the time period of our scriptures.
Most people had hard lives and eked out a hard existence
and animal companionship may have been hard to come by.
It is hard to care for a pet when you barely have enough food to survive.
But beyond that, it isn’t really clear why there aren’t pets mentioned in the bible.
Jesus does talk with someone about dogs who eat scraps under the table
more to illustrate a point than to talk about the dogs.
Sometimes people are called ‘dogs’ in something of a put down
to suggest that they are scavengers, or maybe a bit wild
all of which points to a time and a place
somewhat different than ours
before companion animals became more widespread
and dogs, along with other animals, better cared for.
That doesn’t mean that this isn’t a topic we can look at, though.
It just means we have to do a bit of theologizing to get there.
There’s this little passage in the Book of Job
that I almost selected for one of our readings today.
Maybe we can start there, where Job says:
But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
It is perhaps a startling idea, about animals as teachers.
We like to think of ourselves as the teachers, and animals the student.
We take dogs to behavior classes to teach them to sit, to heal,
to take a prone position with ‘down.’
One of our daughters has taken some horse riding lessons
and she’s learning how they are trained to walk, trot, canter and gallop.
Some horses have pedigree and college education like classes
in something called ‘dressage,’ and they can learn to dance.
You can train a cat, I hear, but they won’t learn very much.
Cows learn to head to the barn when they wish to have
their discomfort eased by milking.
We once saw a dolphin show at Sea World, where a dozen
leapt and spun and splashed the audience on cue.
We like to think that we are the teachers, and the animals the student.
This fits with the first creation story, our reading from Genesis,
where we learn that human beings are part of the created order.
We are given similar instructions from God that all the other creatures have
be fruitful and multiply, words that make us similar to all the other animals
who were given the same instructions,
but we were given an extra layer of responsibility
to govern, or as some translations render it, to have dominion over
the notion of which has sometimes been
quite complicated and problematic over our history.
And we do, with our particular gifts and aptitudes,
exercise incredible power over the natural world,
even if we miss the overtones of responsibility to care and tend and keep it
that came along with those added layers of instructions at creation.
But other voices in the scriptures,
for example, these words from Job,
or you find similar ideas in the Psalms, and in parts of Isaiah,
suggest that we have a lot to learn from the rest of creation
and from animals in particular.
Job’s point was that the animal world knows that God is God
that God ties our existence together
making our daily lives possible
providing a world where we can live and move, survive and thrive.
And there are ways in which our companion animals are training us,
more often than maybe we care to admit it.
Most of us who have had a pet can tell you that they are often training us.
They can make us talk to them like they are going to respond.
Brook and I have all sorts of college and graduate degrees between us
she has a very professional job, and the work of a pastor
has me dealing with rather professional things all the time too
but when you get us around our Annie
lets just say we have a little voice that we use for her “when she’s talking.”
It is, strangely, the same voice that Frankie had.
But we know it isn’t just us.
We were at a friends house over the weekend for dinner
and they have two dogs,
and wouldn’t you know it, they let their guard down around us
and used their “dog voices” too.
Our dogs have us trained well.
They know how to get our attention, and to look at the door,
or the garage, where their food is kept,
and know what our response is going to be.
When Annie knows I’m settled in on our couch
and just at my most comfortable spot
all she has to do is go to her empty water bowl
and start licking it a few times to know that I’ll hear it and groan
and get up to go fill it.
Pavlov was right! I can be trained by a dog.
Maybe old Job was right too.
Maybe the animals can teach us.
The question, really, is teach us what?
If you’ve ever owned a dog,
one lesson might be about devotion.
Dogs are pack animals—social creatures.
They want to be around others.
If they cannot be around others of their kind,
they adopt you as their kind.
Unless they are maltreated or trained otherwise,
they are indiscriminate in their acceptance and approval.
A dog does not care about color, race, sex, economic position,
education level, sexual orientation,
or any other distinction that we humans might make.
A dog simply looks for companionship, for acceptance, for affection.
That’s a lesson perhaps we could learn.
If you’ve ever owned a cat, you’ve fooled yourself.
No one owns a cat. A cat owns you, or so they say.
But if you watch a cat, you can learn some other lessons.
Cats are creatures of awareness. They don’t miss much.
A sunbeam on the floor can captivate them.
A laser pointer can entertain them for hours.
A little catnip toy can really get them going.
Cats have an appreciation for sabbath – for restorative rest –
And for many cats,
they are creatures of simplicity:
You can leave a large bowl of food for a cat, and it will only take what it needs to be satisfied.
Awareness and sabbath,
moderation and simplicity. Some lessons we could learn in better ways, perhaps.
Maybe you’re not a pet person,
but you can appreciate the beauty of animals,
and can learn something from them, too.
Consider the birds.
Whether you watch the majesty of an eagle gliding on the invisible wind,
or watch the invisible wings of a hovering hummingbird,
you can’t miss the wonder of a bird in flight.
Whether a great raptor, or a simple songbird,
or anything in between,
birds have an innate sense of confidence and trust.
No one tells them the wind is there to create lift,
to bear their weight,
to allow them to climb high and swoop low.
No one explains the physics of flight to a bird.
At some point in their young life,
the mama bird nudges the youngling from the nest
and it learns to beat its wings and fly.
Birds are creatures of faith and trust.
In the dead of winter,
they know where the feeders are and they go to them,
trusting that they will provide.
Confidence, trust, maybe even “faith?”
Those might be lessons we would learn in better ways.
Look at the squirrels.
Oh, I know, we often see them as nuisance rodents.
But back in 2016,
Avi Steinberg wrote a wonderful essay about squirrels
in the New York Times Magazine.
In part, Steinberg wrote:
Squirrels…are right there with us.
They live on our level
and toil on the same schedule as humans, in every season.
They share our approach to life’s problems.
They save and plan ahead, obsessively.
They make deposits and debits (of nuts and seeds, mostly);
build highways (returning to well-known routes in and around trees);
manage 30-year mortgages
(they can inhabit a single nest for that many years);
refrigerate their staples (in their case, pine cones);
and dry their delicacies for storage (mushrooms, as we do).
They work the day shift and live in walk-up apartments.
And like stock traders, they gamble in the marketplace.
While most animals breed as food becomes available,
squirrels have developed the ability to predict a future seed glut
and reproduce accordingly, like bullish investors.
Ingenious, hard-working, diligent, industrious –
and remarkably entertaining through it all.
There might be some lessons from the squirrels we could learn in better ways.
And then there was Jesus, at the sermon on the Mount
talking about how the animals don’t really seem to get anxious about things.
Maybe if you intrude on their space, sure,
but beyond that, animals do not seem to worry.
Consider the birds of the air…
And note how they trust in the God who loves them
to keep loving them, and providing for them,
through thick and through thin.
What can the animals teach us?
More than we might be aware of.
They can teach us how to navigate God’s world
with trust and with skill and with amazement.
They can show us how to be good and true companions
focusing on the things that bind us together rather than pick us apart.
They can connect us, though feeling, or through hard labor, to God’s great world
a world where God is working to make all things new,
a place where peace and reconciliation and justice shall reign.
So may we, whether we are people for whom pets are important parts of our lives
or if we are just people who are fine observing animals from afar,
may we remind ourselves that God’s providential love weaves us all together
that we have something we can learn from God’s animals
and may we seek to deepen our own gratitude for our creator God
with every pet and animal encounter we have.
May it be so.
 See Juliet Clutton-Block’s chapter “Origins of the Dog: Domestication and Early History” in The Domestic Dog: its Evolution, Behaviour, and Interactions with People.” Edited by Serpell, James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) pp 10-11.
 See https://www.thedodo.com/9-touching-epitaphs-ancient-gr-589550486.html (accessed September 1, 2019). Also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pet
 Ideas and language for some of what follows indebted to a sermon by Kevin Fleming, “What the Animals Teach Us.”
 See https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/17/magazine/letter-of-recommendation-squirrels.html (accessed September 1, 2019)