The Image of God in Our Animals
A sermon based on Job 12:7-10
given at Mt Vernon, OH on August 21, 2016 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I love seeing all these animals at our Animal Blessings. We call this an “animal blessing service” but we it could also be called a “blessed by animals service” couldn’t it? . . .I need to let you know that just like in years past it’s okay if our animal brothers and sisters talk a little during the service. Meowing, purring, barking, howling, neighing, cawing, bocking, bleating, etc. are permitted . . .by furry and feather friends only.
And fur or no fur the no biting rule is still in place for everyone.
As our animals friends are celebrated and blessed – and blessings– this morning, I figured I should talk for a bit about animals.
The Bible explains that Adam named them. I always wonder about some of the names. Take the name Elephant that Charlotte just mentioned? Where’d that come from? I mean it is cool now that we are used to it but, you know, it doesn’t make sense. I like the idea of practical sense-making generic names. Especially for animals. If I were naming the elephant, I think Disney got it right, I’d call them “jumbos,” or maybe “hose-nose.” Those fit.
Adam, or whoever picked the names for animals, just made them too hard. But I have always suspected that the namer got tired one day of coming up with difficult names, and finally named one animal exactly right . . . Fly. It’s perfect. What more do you need to know? Fly . . . Jesus mentions a type of fly in the Bible, a gnat. That, of course, is not the only reference to animals in the Bible. Indeed animals get mentioned a lot.
We like to think that we humans are made in God’s image, but there are also plenty of texts that suggests animals also reflect the image of God. If we think about it, many of us would probably agree that we have experienced the Sacred through our domestic pets as well as in animals on the farm and certainly in those out in the wild.
John just read a great, short section of the Book of Job. Job tells doubters of God this:
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. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In [God’s] hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being. (Job 12:7-10).
I had a number of encounters with the image of God in animals when I was on sabbatical in Oregon a few years ago. A part of the sabbatical involved long and intentional meditation to connect with the Sacred, God. I meditated a number of times near bodies of water. Animals almost always showed up. One time as I sat on a log where a river met the ocean, a trinity of river otters played in the water. Another time a bald eagle swooped down and walked around on a river shore. But the most impressive encounter came on a day I spent with two other ordained pastors. We walked on the beach toward a cape and saw a whale spouting and then her tail breaching the water as if to wave to us. In whale watching circles they call a whale tail breach “lobtailing,” the tail comes out and splashes down. It’s quite impressive to see. Once we left the beach and climbed up to the cliffs on the cape and sat down to mediate and talk about peace, the whale reappeared numerous times spouting in the deep blue ocean below and to our never ending amazement, lobtailed repeatedly– waving, I like to believe, to us.
I also spotted from our lofty cliff perch, jellyfish wandering up to the sea’s surface and a sea otter treading water in a small cove it’s little flippers flapping about to keep it’s curious head above water.
We were seeking God and God showed up in animals just doing every day things. This happened again at Peace Village our summer day camp. I was amazed this summer at the numerous encounters with God in creation. When taking the time to look we saw God in finches, geese, herons, osprey, sparrows, buzzards, hawks, kites, toads, catfish, sucker fish, clams, crawdads, dragonflies, damselflies and water striders and more.
In all of these animal being I experienced the presence of the Creator, of God. I was in awe of life, of the very nature of being in those beings. The Apostle Paul preached that it is in God that “we live and move and have our being, ” Meister Eckhart, thirteen hundred later added that “to the extent that anything has being it resembles God.” 1.
Eckhart asserts the astounding idea that “being” is God itself. He preached that “No creature is so small that it does not long for being. When caterpillars fall from trees, they crawl on a wall in order to preserve their being. So noble is being.” 2. I love that idea. All creatures everywhere long to be . . . “So noble is being.”
A modern theologian, Matthew Fox points out that Eckhart claims that “‘being is the word whereby God speaks and addresses all things.’” Fox goes on to explain that:
Being is God’s Word, the word of creation, the word of glory and goodness, the word that flows out but remains within, the word of our inness with God. Being is the Creator’s word to creation, for “creation is the giving of being.” 3.
Fox and Eckhart didn’t pull this idea out of a hat. The very first image of God in the Bible can be heard as a female-giving-birth- wind-persona of God sweeping over the formless void and darkness of the deep and then She speaks creation into being. Listen to Genesis 1 and hear how “Ruah” a feminine word in Hebrew for wind creates by speaking the “Word” of God:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind (“Ruah”)from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
God goes on to speak the rest of creation into being including life in plants and animals. Animals including humans come into being by the spoken Word of God.
The Gospel of John begins with the claim that Christ is this very same Word that begins creation in Genesis.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being . . . (Joh 1:1-4 NRS).
This “God’s-Word-creates” is what Eckhart and Fox rely on in their theology of creation– each living thing is a Word of God. Being is Godness. And God’s name Yahweh suggests this. It means “to be” and “I am.” Being is Godness.
To put this idea into United Church of Christ language: “God is still speaking,” that’s our denominations catchy slogan. God is still speaking not just in new words and acts of humans but in each new moment of creation. The Word that created in the beginning continues to create moment-to-moment. Creation by the creator still happens. God is still speaking beings into being, moments into being, us and our furry pals into being, in this now-ness and even right out here in this beautiful spot of creation.
Going back to Paul’s phrasing, all life lives and moves and has being in God. Life is in and of the very being of God. This includes our beloved animals here today and all the others in the world. Each animal – human and otherwise– is a good and wondrous bit of God in our world and therefore a blessing just by its being . . . most especially by its being.
All – ALL– of the animals gathered here (and hiding out there) are God’s very being and when we focus on an animal we cannot help but notice God in their existence which is what I intentionally tried to do on that sabbatical in Oregon and at times in our own Peace Village at Ariel Foundation Park. God’s Word makes each creature and sustains them– that is what Meister Eckhart meant when he said “to the extent that anything has being it resembles God.” 4.
The animals friends in your arms and below your feet and in your row, in your photos, and those human animals sitting around you, are the very images of God. Blessings in our midst. They are a means through which we can experience the Sacred because they are Sacred.
Obviously if a 13th Century Monk was pushing this idea it’s not new. And it goes further back than Meister Eckhart. The Bible has numerous references to understanding God’s image as existing through animals. They can be found in metaphors, their being can be found to be like God. A metaphor is the use of something as a comparison. God is like a magnificent whale that fills you with awe. That whale focused our attention on the Divine during meditation on an Oregon sea cliff. God is like a pet who loves you unconditionally all the time. Pets focus our attention on the Divine if we take time to notice– especially when we love them and feel love back.
Christianity has animal images for God from the very start. We are told in the Christmas story that Jesus actually begins his life in an animal stable and that his first sleep is in an animal trough. We are told the adult Jesus noted how much God cares for birds. Jesus Christ is called the Lamb of God. Jesus compared himself to a mother hen: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Mat 23:37 NRS). And God works through a dove-like Spirit in all four Gospels lighting upon Jesus as his ministry begins, representing the presence of peace throughout his blessed ministry.
It is telling that at his baptism the Holy Spirit landed on Jesus like a critter. God’s first appearance in Christ’s adult ministry is described in the metaphor of an animal blessing Jesus and ultimately all of us with peace. Doves are peaceful images of God.
Have no doubt about it the image of our God– who is love– can be found in animals. You know that from their presence in your lives as beings to love and give love. Know it also as a part of the Word of God. ANIMALS MATTER MUCH!
So the good news to remember today is what you may have suspected all along, the being and love of animals is God still speaking, their being like each of ours is the result of the Word of God.
* Based on a sermon I that I began writing during my sabbatical in 2012.
1. Fox, Matthew, Breakthrough: Meister Eckardt’s Creation Spirituality in New Translation, Doubleday, (1991) p. 84.
2. Ibid at 85.
3. Ibid at 88.
4. Ibid at 84.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2016 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED