Texts: Genesis 6:17-22 ; Psalm 80:7-15 ; Philippians 3:4b-14 ; Matthew 21:33-46
Earlier this week I found out that a friend died. His name was Sojourner, and he was a pet in the home of my friends Rachel and Marcus who live with their children Nora and Graham just outside Washington, DC. Sojourner was a rescue dog, taken in from a shelter, who always radiated a sense of gratitude for having been adopted by another family – making him, sometimes, a little too underfoot. He was eager to be with people. He was happiest when his family was nearby, and wanted more than anything to love and be loved.
Some of you have brought your pets to church this morning to be blessed. Calling the animals we share our homes with pets always feels a little off the mark to me. It’s true that our relationships with these animals is not a relationship of equals. We have the food, the shelter. We set the schedule for walks and trips in the car. We decide when the treats will be doled out. But our animal companions provide something more valuable than all these things, something that comes so naturally to them. They radiate a desire for closeness, they exude love, and – when we treat them well – they show a profound trust in us. In this, they show us something of the world as it should be.
Churches across the city have been blessing pets all weekend long. Yesterday was the commemoration of Francis of Assisi, the 12th century monk known for his simplicity and care for creation. We bless animals in honor of Francis, who referred to all God’s creations as members of his family. He spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brother Fire and Sister Earth. Legends are told in Italy of Francis calming a savage wolf who’d been terrorizing a village by speaking gently to it.
“Brother wolf,” he said, “you do much harm in these parts and you have done great evil. All these people accuse and curse you. But brother wolf, I would like to make peace between you and the people.” Then Francis led the wolf into the town and made a covenant between them and the wolf. Because the wolf had done evil out of hunger, the villagers were to feed the wolf regularly, and in return, the wolf would no longer prey upon them or their flocks. Francis even made a pact on behalf of the town dogs, that they would not bother the wolf again, and then baptized the wolf.
Francis demonstrated, as our pets often do, an unconditional love for all of creation that shows us something about the world as it should be. He made peace where there was conflict, and made promises to help living things – people and animals – coexist peacefully.
Scripture is full of promises intended to reassure us that God is working to make peace and promote well-being. We hear one of the first of these promises, these covenants, this morning. God says, “I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you and your family, and of every living thing you shall bring two of every kind into the ark.” After the flood subsides, God completes the promise that is started here, saying “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Gen 9:21-22)
But the human heart’s inclination for evil, what Luther called our propensity to be curved in upon ourselves, apparently put God’s promise to the test because this is not the last covenant God makes with us. Later in Genesis God makes a covenant with Abraham that he and Sarah will have a family as large as all the stars in the sky with a land to call their own. When their family has grown and found a land to call their own, God makes a covenant through Moses and promises to be their God and to claim them as God’s people. Later, through David, God promises to build a kingdom that will not fail, to guarantee peace and justice for the people.
Promise after promise after promise, God demonstrates a lavish, overwhelming love for all of creation. But the people continue to divide themselves, to turn their focus inward on themselves, that condition we call sin along with all its consequences. God makes promises to heal and reconcile the world, but the people keep trying to privatize the promise – to make it a promise for them, instead of a promise for all people.
Jesus tells a parable that threatens his followers’ understanding about their place in God’s reign. Those who knew Jesus and those who were listening to him preach expected God to send a messiah, a savior, who would liberate them from their oppressors by conquering them in a decisive way and setting up a political order like the one they remembered under King David, where they would once again be free and powerful. But the political order Jesus imagines isn’t one where some are defeated and humiliated so that others can be free and powerful. Instead, Jesus wants those who are listening to him to finally understand that God’s promises are – and always have been – for all the world. God comes in Christ Jesus to make the world as it should be for all of us.
To do this he uses words that are powerful enough to shake his followers up from their daydreams of conquest. He says, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” These words sound like a threat, and they’ve been interpreted as one since they were first uttered. Scripture says the temple establishment realized Jesus was talking about them, and they wanted to have him killed. The early church too quickly turned these words around to assert that God had sided with the new Christian community over and against the Jews. The church in the Reformation heard a promise in these words to overthrow the hierarchy of the Roman church and claim that God favors those who live lives of true faith. In each age we have heard these words as a judgment against those we think have lost sight of God’s mission in the world and as an affirmation of those we think are doing God’s work. In other words, we’ve found yet one more way to turn in upon ourselves and fragment the wholeness of creation. In our attempts to justify the world as it is, we’ve lost sight of the world as it should be.
God does not lose sight of the world as it should be, which is why God makes one more covenant with us. We remember this covenant each week as we retell the story of a meal shared with friends where Jesus takes a cup and turns it into a symbol of God’s love poured out as a sign of forgiveness and reconciliation. He says, “this cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.” Why does God do this? Because God wants what our pets want, what we all want: to love and be loved.
We remember this promise, this final covenant, this Sunday along with churches around the world celebrating World Communion Sunday. In these days when we are seeing some of the negative effects of globalization on our economy and around the world, we are asked to remember that God’s promises to save, to heal and to reconcile are promises made with all of humanity – with all of creation. God makes this new covenant with all of us so that we might begin to uncurl our inward-gazing selves, so that we might begin to straighten our spines and stand tall, seeing each other and our world as we should be.
This is not easy. I am so quick to judge, so ready to doubt. My suspicious nature is always ready for the worst. But in this spine straightening work I have a strong ally in my cat, Olive. She does for me what I know your pets do for you, she trusts me to do the right thing. It’s like the bumper sticker says, “Lord, let me be the person my pet thinks I am.”
Thank you God for our pets. They make us better people.