To Jesus Animals Matter *
A sermon based on Luke 12:22-31
given at Mount Vernon, OH on August 24, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
From our service of animal blessings
On animal blessing Sundays preachers tend to preach short sermons. While that may make Pet Blessing services a little more popular, I like to think the presence of animals and our love for them is what makes them popular. God’s creation and spirit in such a variety of beings is touching and fun to be around (Plus they are all so cute!).
A long, long time ago when I was a wee lad there used to be a television show with Art Linkletter called “Kids Say the Darndest Things!” I have a book that captured some of the sayings of the children on that show. And every once in awhile when I want to have a smile I read a page or two. I decided to turn to that ancient text to see if I could find some words of wisdom on animals. I was not disappointed. I discovered that one boy [on the show] had a ready answer when . . . asked what breed of dog he had.: “Half male and the other half airmail.”
Actually Art Linkletter found that the subject of pedigree puzzled children in a way that led to other imaginative answers. Like the time [he] asked a boy if he had any brothers or sisters.
“One brother but he’s a cat.
“What’s his name?”
“Does he have a pedigree?”
“No. It died last year.”
Another exchange went:
“You have a pet dog; is it pedigreed?”
“I think she lost her pedigreed last week.”
One girl was sure her dog didn’t not have a pedigree. When . . . asked why, she said:“Cause he’s had his shots.”
Perhaps the answer that brought the biggest laugh . . .on the pedigree question was this exchange:
“Do you have any pets?”
“Yes– a cat and a dog.”
“Do they have a pedigree?”
“No we took them out!” 1
The book of Genesis indicates that pedigree is not a prerequisite to being a valued creation. In Genesis we are told that on the fifth and sixth day God made ALL the animals and saw that they were very good. In fact Psalm 145 (9) tells us that God is good to all and that God has compassion over all that God has made. So know this: ALL these critters here with us and everywhere else – as well as each of us– have God’s very own personal compassion and care.
Jesus, of course, had no earthly pedigree. To the powerful Jesus was nothing but an itinerant, homeless, expendable peasant; he matters not a wit to the powerful in the Bible stories. But Jesus mattered to God and to his followers and to the people whose lives he touched then and all those lives he has touched since.
We tend to think of Jesus’ dealings in life relating to only to people. While people were clearly important to him, it is also remarkable how many animals are remembered in one way or another connected to Jesus’ story in the Gospels. Some of the animals in the stories of Jesus’ are implicitly there. For example, most of us cannot think about his birth narrative – the Christmas story– without animals in the picture. Before Jesus was even born we imagine his mother riding a humble donkey to Bethlehem with him in her womb.
We picture camels carrying the Magi and their treasures as they follow a star to Jesus and kneel before him in the manger when they found him. We know that the host of angels appeared to shepherds while they were watching their flocks of sheep by night and shone the glory of God on shepherd, ram, ewe and lamb. And the perhaps one of the most endearing Christmas images we have is of Jesus in that blessed lowly manger surrounded by the camels, the sheep and the other animals in the stable where he was born. In other words, before Jesus was even a day old animals of all sorts are remembered as having already helped bring him to Bethlehem and then shared in the birth and celebration of the newborn king, the very Prince of Peace, Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, Christ.
God made sure to include animals in preparation for the arrival and the birth of Jesus. They were important enough to be there with Christ since the beginning. Most of us have the animal images in our head for Christmas, but after that we seem to forget that animals were part of the rest of Jesus’ life too. We tend to forget that as Jesus prepared for his ministry animals are also in the picture. On the day of his baptism God comes to Jesus in the form of an animal. The Holy Spirit descends like a dove and it is through the image of that gentle bird, a universal symbol of peace, that God speaks to Jesus “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Afterwards Jesus goes into the wilderness for forty days. Satan tempts him there and angels wait on him, but no other human is there. He does have company, though, Mark specifically tells us wild beasts kept Jesus company in the wilderness. Animals intentionally kept company with Jesus – and he with them– as he prepared for his ministry, how cool is that?
The Gospels report too that the first humans Jesus recruits into his ministry are those who spent a lot of time with, and made their living through, animals. Peter, Andrew, James and John were all fishermen. And Jesus calls them to be fishers of men. His first metaphor and pun relate not just to humans but fish, both of whom he symbolically compares to one another: Fishermen and Fishers of men. Jesus himself is shown to be an expert on fish, he knows how to locate and catch them when other experts cannot. Jesus,you see, had intimate encounters and knowledge of animals in the wild.
We learn in the Gospels too that Jesus understood and believed that God values animals. He tells stories with God as a shepherd valuing the life of each sheep, and God as a mother hen protecting her chicks. In Matthew 10 (29) Jesus specifically notes that while humans may undervalue animals God values them and they are a very part of God. Jesus claims this saying, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” The God of Jesus cares about animals! As we heard in the reading from Luke Jesus also pointed out that animals are of value to God, as well as under Divine care. Jesus said: “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.”
Throughout the Gospels Jesus is described as having encounters with, or making references to, quite a number of animals, including wild beasts, donkeys, doves, fish, ravens, foxes, sheep, goats, camels, dogs, wolves, sparrows. moths and gnats.
The last type of animal –besides humans– that Jesus touched outside of Jerusalem, and the first to touch him inside Jerusalem is the same type of animal we imagine that carried him into Bethlehem while in his mother’s womb and later carried Jesus safely to Egypt to avoid Herod’s attempt to kill him as a child. That animal is a donkey. Every year on Palm Sunday we remember that Jesus needed a donkey, an ass. Jesus, THE LORD, needed a donkey and told the disciples how to get one and what to say. And sure enough they get it and he is seated upon it and rides it into Jerusalem as the crowds cheer him on that first Palm Sunday.
In the week that follows that ride Jesus encounters what we might call asses of another kind; mean and cruel power-elites, vicious human animals, who take his life. In the Gospels the only animal that mistreats Jesus in the man kind, the non-human animals in the Jesus narratives are blessings to Jesus and powerful images in his teaching and stories.
It is also no accident that two of the most powerful images that we have of Jesus are as shepherd and as lamb. In one, the shepherd, we imagine him watching over humankind with the care of herdsman or herdswoman who protects the flock. In the other, the lamb, we imagine him as sacrificed by human powers for his efforts to watch over us with that care.
All of these references to animals in the stories about Jesus evidence that animals were a big part of Jesus’ life and that they matter not just to God, but to Jesus. They surrounded him at his birth and the birth of his ministry. They are remembered as carrying him on two of the most important trips in the Bible, to Bethlehem for the start of his life at Christmas, and to Jerusalem for end of his life and his resurrection to a new life during that first Holy Week that leads to Easter. A dove swooped in and announced Jesus ministry; and other animals soon after kept him company as he prepared for that ministry in the desert.
Perhaps the most telling verses on animals in the Gospels are those that indicate that Jesus knew and taught that God values animals, from sparrows to ravens to sheep to human beings.
The bottom line is that Jesus experienced and understood that all animals matter to God, and that they are a blessing from God. May we all experience and understand that too because animals have ever been just that, and are, and always will, be blessings to us– and from God.
* This sermon is based on a pet blessing homily I first preached in 2010.
1. Linkletter, Art, Kids Say the Darndest Things! Pocket Books, Inc. New York, (1957), 117-118.