October 3, 2021
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Tomorrow, October 4th, is the Feast of Saint Francis in the Catholic Church and so today around the globe many churches are participating in the ceremony of the Blessing of the Animals dedicated to his memory. St. Francis is one of those cross-over saints who has become popular among Protestants as well as Catholics because of his dedication to the other creatures with whom we share this planet. Born in Italy in 1181, Francis renounced his wealth and position as the son of a prosperous merchant, and took on a vow of poverty. He traveled the countryside living among the poor and teaching the gospel wherever he went. Francis also became renowned for the love he showed to the animals that inhabited the fields and forests around him. He called all creatures “brothers and sisters,” supposedly mediated a peace agreement between a village and a wolf that had been threatening it, and was said to have preached to the birds. Maybe he found the birds to be better listeners than his congregation but whatever the reason, he encouraged his followers to likewise treat the earth and all of its inhabitants with reverence. In 1209, he established the monastic order of the Franciscans, an order that emphasizes simplicity, solidarity with the poor, concern for social justice, and careful stewardship of the natural world. I always thought that if I were Catholic — and a man — I might have become a Franciscan monk.
Alas, however, I am Protestant and a woman, so instead, once a year I channel my inner St. Francis with a worship service dedicated to the natural world and the animals with whom we share our home, and during the time I have been doing this, I have discovered that many of you as well have an inner St. Francis. You, too, appreciate this Sunday when you can acknowledge how grateful you are for your animal companions and express how important nature is to your faith without apology. I say “without apology” because it really has only been recently that Christians have felt comfortable talking about trees and elephants in the same breath with God. During much of the 20th century, it was considered heretical to admit that we might feel God as much in the woods as we do in church. For church leaders, such sentiments smacked too much of paganism and hobby dooby earth-religion.
This fear of sounding too pagan, however, had terrible consequences. When talk of nature was excluded from our worship, God was likewise banished from the natural world and instead of seeing our earth as the sacred handiwork of God, we saw it as a utilitarian commodity. Forests became in the minds of human beings merely lumber, mountains merely ore. Animals were material goods there to serve the needs of humanity, and if they were of no use to us, like the Chiriqui harlequin frog, we did not grieve their extinction. To suggest that nature is sacred threatens the economic and utilitarian order of things and creates ethical dilemmas when the needs of nature and the needs of people conflict so even progressive churches found it easier to concentrate on justice for the poor and the oppressed than to wade into the complexity of environmental issues. In the 20th century, the church just stopped talking about nature as if God might be found there and focused on ourselves alone.
And alone we became. The Christian poet and farmer Wendall Berry wrote, “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.”
As the earth has become increasingly fragile and animal species have begun disappearing at an alarming rate, we have become aware of how our religious thinking about the earth affects our treatment of the earth, and in the 21st century, many in the church have finally returned to a recognition that God is everywhere and in everything. St. Francis was right to call the animals, the sun, the moon, the wind and water brother and sister because we are all part of the family of creation; we are all part of the handiwork of God.
For most of us, this return to a more nature inclusive spirituality is a relief because when we are free to be honest, our most profound spiritual experiences have often come not in a sanctuary but while immersed in nature. Wendell Berry expresses this common feeling in a poem that says,
“I part the out-thrusting branches
and come in beneath
the blessed and blessing trees.
Though I am silent
there is singing around me.
Though I am dark
there is vision around me.
Though I am heavy
there is flight around me.”
Nature restores an element to our experience of God that is often absent in our weekly worship: an experience of awe. When we relegated God to the sanctuary, we experienced God through human constructed doctrines and human conducted worship in buildings constructed by human hands. While all of these elements of our faith can feed our spirits and strengthen our hearts, they can also cause our heads to swell with the centrality and importance of our human endeavors. We might experience the majesty of God when we sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” but our feelings are being transmitted through human voices singing human written lyrics expressing our very human experience of God, and we risk becoming the builders of the Tower of Babel, believing that we can reaching right to heaven with the works of our hands. Step outside of the church into a forest glade, however, and we are reminded that no matter how awesome we might be, God is “awesomer.” The book of Job says with a whisper of awe:
“…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. In God’s hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.”
God is in this sanctuary, but God is also in the woods quietly turning to crimson in the October air. God is with the gall fly larva burrowing its way into the stem of the golden rod where it will spend the winter transforming into an adult fly, a fly that will live a mere two weeks, yet whose brief span is known to the heart of God. God is with the monarch butterfly taking its last sip of nectar in preparation for its thousand mile flight to Mexico. How do the butterflies know where to go? How do they survive that massive flight? God only knows. God is with the creatures of the sea, both the mighty whales that entertain us on our whale watching boats, and the ghost fish that haunts the ocean floors, unseen to human eyes. God is with the stars scattered across the night sky, stars that are trillion miles away and began to burn when the very universe was born, to which the entire evolution of human kind is but a flicker in their existence. Every time we step outside to watch the birds, spy on a newborn fawn, hold an acorn in our hands, or look up at the night sky, we are filled with awe and wonder with the psalmist, “What are human beings that God is mindful of us, mortals that God would care for us?”
The Jewish thinker and writer, Abraham Heschel said, “Awe is an act of insight into a meaning greater than ourselves… The beginning of awe is wonder, and the beginning of wisdom is awe… Awe precedes faith; it is at the root of faith. We must grow in awe in order to reach faith.”
I am happy that a reverence of nature has been restored to our faith and not just because it gives me an excuse to bring my dog to church. For me, as for many of you, my faith is diminished when it is restricted to the rituals and places of human endeavor but when I am outdoors, walking the woods with the call of the hermit thrush in my ears, kayaking through a marsh while carp roil the waters under my bow, feeling a million snowflakes drifting onto my upturned face, watching lightening flash across a storm filled horizon, or stroking the silky fur of my dogs asleep on my lap, my faith is expanded to the reaches of creation and I am in awe of just how great my God is.