Sermon: Sunday, October 4, 2009: Francis of Assisi/Blessing of Animals

Texts: Psalm 84:1-4  |  Genesis 1:1,20-28  |  Matthew 21:1-5


Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ (Gen. 1:26-28)

Have dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth. Evidently God said that. Do you think God ever had a cat for a pet? I’m a former pet owner, I’ve had a dog and I’ve had a cat, and I just can’t imagine that I ever had dominion over my cat. At most, at best, we had an understanding. I was to feed her and play with her and keep her litter box clean; and in return she would sleep with her cold nose against my neck each night and sit next to me on the couch after work, resting her paw on my foot. It wasn’t a very egalitarian relationship.

But in plenty of ways I did have dominion over my pet. She counted on me to bring food home from the grocery store for her; she relied on me to look after her health; and, as the only other living creature in her environment, she needed me to play with her and pet her, to socialize with her. No matter how late I got home from work, or how many days I’d been gone on a trip, when I walked in the door, my cat was waiting for me – eager to be picked up, held, touched and loved. I did have dominion over my cat.

The word dominion comes from the Latin word dominus, which means “absolute ownership,” or “supreme authority.” The antonym, the opposite, of dominus in Latin was servus which meant both “servant” and “slave.” That’s an ugly word, slave. It reminds us of the shameful treatment of human beings as property. We no longer believe that any human being should be treated as property, should be under the dominion of another human being, but at one time it was common practice – not only here in North America, but around the world. And, in fact, human slavery and human trafficking still take place in our world in places where racism and sexism have conditioned people to believe that one person can legitimately own another.

From where we sit that seems inconceivable, although we know that our country was born in an era when slavery and indentured servitude were accepted institutions of our culture. We can see from our continued struggles with racism and classism that it is not so easy to uproot the idea of dominion from our relationships with each other.

And for all our violence against one another, for all our attempts at reconciliation, we have barely begun to notice the trauma we are causing the earth or to make peace with the planet. Humankind’s reliance on coal, natural gas and oil is turning our atmosphere into a solar oven, trapping heat and giving the Earth’s surface the equivalent of a planetary fever. The symptoms include the increased incidence of hurricanes, which have almost doubled in the last thirty years; the spread of malaria to higher altitudes, as mosquitoes and other disease carrying insects expand their habitats in response to warmer temperatures; the disappearance of global icecaps and rising sea levels that threaten our coastal shores.

Humanity’s botched dominion of the earth is leading us down a path that scientists tell us ends in increased droughts and wildfires, more frequent and intense heat waves, the extinction of hundreds of thousands of species, and as many as 300,000 additional human deaths per year in the next twenty-five years as a direct result of global warming.

It is time for human beings to relinquish dominion as our mode of relating to the rest of creation, for us to recognize that we don’t live somehow set apart from the consequences of our treatment of the earth and its creatures. We are taught, and we tell, a story about creation that says God handed us the keys to the planet and told us to take charge – but rather than interpreting this as a responsibility to provide for the needs of God’s creation, humanity seems to have taken this biblical mandate to subdue the earth as license to do whatever we want, to take whatever meets our needs.

By contrast, we hear a bit of the gospel of Matthew this morning wherein Jesus is making his final approach to Jerusalem, coming near to the Mount of Olives where he’ll spend some of his last moments before death in deep prayer, and he sends two disciples ahead to fetch a donkey for him to ride into town.

I’m going to admit that I took a complete wrong turn as a preacher when I read this text earlier this week, getting ready to preach. I was too focused on the donkey. My mind was thinking about this day marked by pet blessing, and I was imagining preaching to all of you and your dogs and cats, and I was thinking, “what shall I say about this donkey and this colt? Do I talk about how these humble animals played their part in proclaiming Christ Jesus as king” and all sorts of thoughts like that, thoughts that seemed to be taking me toward some sort of animal pageant.

Then I realized that this text isn’t a text about animals at all, it’s about Jesus. Jesus calls for these humble animals to bear him into Jerusalem as fulfillment of the prophet Zechariah’s words,

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zech 9:9)

The text from Matthew, though it makes mention of animals, is not a text about animals. It’s a text about kings and kingship. It’s a text about dominion. God, in the person of Jesus, takes on the human condition and makes the decision to tell the truth about God’s love for all people, and all of creation, in a way so persuasive to those without power and so threatening to those who held it, that he is taken to a cross. God, in Christ Jesus, transforms the cross from a place of painful, shameful death to the site of God’s reconciling power.

The dominion of God, the thing we pray for when we say “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is a world order where absolute ownership and supreme authority are never separated from unfailing love and sacrificial service.

In Latin, the language behind so much of our language, dominus is the opposite of servus, master is the opposite of slave, human is the opposite of animal, and we have absolute power over the earth. But in the language of God – the mythic, powerful, reality-defining language of God – dominus and servus can never be separated. Absolute ownership and supreme authority are the characteristics of a king who would choose death on a cross for the sake of justice-making love.

“Then God said, ‘let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…”

God’s intention for human dominion is that we would treat it the way God does; that, created in the image of God, we would exercise the compassion and practice the servitude of God. Can you imagine how the world might be different if we made all our decisions with that criterion in mind? Would we change our eating habits, once we started to realize the impact our hunger for meat has on the rainforests of the world? Would we change our shopping habits, once we started to realize the global impact of the oil it takes to ship our food and our clothes halfway around the world? Would we change our cities, rethink our urban planning, once
we started to realize that our sprawl and our highways and our cars and our furnaces have created a way of living that cannot last – not for us, certainly not for our children, and not at all for the creatures we are displacing and destroying to maintain our way of life.

What would change if we exercised our dominion in the image and likeness of the God who willingly goes to the cross to transform the world?

There was a time when no one would have thought the end of slavery was a possibility. It was so engrained in the culture of dominion that it was invisible to those with power (though never to those without power). It was just the way things were. Then, thank God, a revolution in human consciousness, led by the witness of enslaved people and people of faith, compassionate humanists and wise politicians, brought us to a way of living and relating to each other.

We are living in a moment of another such revolution. It is time to shake off the myth of self-serving dominion and find a new way of living and relating to the earth. It is time for us to heed the wisdom of our scientists, to demand action from our politicians, to find common cause with peoples of faith, as well as those claiming no faith tradition, to transform human consciousness and recover for ourselves the language of God, in which absolute ownership and supreme authority are never divorced from unfailing love and sacrificial service.

In the name of Jesus,


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