The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimate that about nearly half of people in America own a dog and one out of three have a cat that owns them. Last week, the Bishop mentioned that especially in the Bay Area that church attendance is less than 20%.
I looked at those numbers and was a little bit surprised. As you may have gathered, I’m kind of a church person…. I love church services. Today is my favorite kind of Sunday where we are bringing together the well-loved chaos and tradition of the blessing of the animals and the most holy and precious moment that happens in our community: the baptism of a new follower of Christ.
What you may not know is that i’m also kind of a crazy animal lady. My kids keep dragging in a variety of creatures and I am unable to turn my back on them and so they become part of the family. It’s not unusual for me to get up, make a cup of coffee, give the cat some fresh water, check whether the guinea pigs have enough hay, and then go visit the bunny. When my older daughter is home, we also have a grassland tortoise in residence.
I confess to you, my brothers and my sisters, that I spend half my time in church and the other half in a zoo. i live in a different kind of world, one that is full of animals and children and full of God. In thinking about that i realized that the two worlds (church and pets) are both all about relationship, about understanding, about connection, and about the blessing that comes when we take the time to stop and really see each other.
It can only make sense that the relationships we build with our pets and with our children draw us closer to God, that they teach us about God. Mother Theresa said that love begins by taking care of the ones closest to us the ones at home.
It’s not a new idea at all. A well-known pastoral theologian of the early 20th century, Martin Buber calls this the “I/Thou”: those moments when we personally encounter another being and find grace in that encounter…Buber says that it is in those moments that we truly encounter God.
The I/Thou relationship is a two sided affair, when both the individuals enter into an encounter with their unique whole being. The relationship is reciprocal, yielding, momentary, and leads to clarity even as it lacks permanency.
Lately, i’ve been paying attention to the interactions that I’ve had with my animal friends and thought a lot about what it tells me about how we can and should approach our relationships and encounters with God.
Of course, I have to start with my rag doll cat Noah. This summer, as I hung out doing very little with two broken arms, that cat never left my side. He didn’t care that I wasn’t working or doing the housework. He was just glad that i was around to hang out, to have quality time with him. His love for me was not dependent on what I could do, but rather about the bond.
Paul in his letter to the Ephesians said “For God chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” In our pets, we often feel this same sense of being chosen and loved simply for ourselves. Nothing more and nothing less.
Our bunny, whose name is Kylie, is a shy creature who lives free range in my daughter Claire’s room. What is surprising about her is that she has a fierce personality, quite unlike what i would think a bunny would be. She has a tendency to react to people as if they might be a threat. She is part of our family though, and so i’ve gotten in to the habit, as i mentioned of going by every day to offer her a raisin (her favorite treat).
In the beginning, she wouldn’t even come out from under the bed. Then i would see just the tip of her nose. Later, she would wait for me to put the raisin on the floor and then would hop out to get it. Now, she hears the door open and she comes shooting out and takes the raisin right out of my hand, standing on her hind legs if i don’t get it out quickly enough.
In the same way, that i am reminded by the abiding love of God by the way that my cat loves me, i feel as if i have been called to offer that same continuing affirmation of care and love to our bunny. One of the most beautiful truths about our God is that God continuously reaches out to to us in invitation. Sometimes we are ready, and sometimes we are not. Sometimes we accept tentatively and sometimes we leap out ready to engage in the relationship. Whatever happens, though, God continues to invite us again and again, showing up and meeting us where we are.
A couple of times a week,I walk with Sue Marquis and her miniature Australian shepherd Loki. When i show up, her nearly turns himself inside out in effort to greet me enthusiastically. For whatever reason, he’s decided I’m part of his pack. The thing that Loki has taught me more about than anything else though is trust. After our walk, we sit and drink tea and Loki waits for me to give him a piece of cheese. That’s his favorite. After a few minutes though, he let’s out a bark. “Give me the cheese!” he seems to say.
It’s a good reminder that God wants us to speak up about what we want and need. God wants us to come forward in trust and prayer and ask. God wants us to put forth our truest selves.
My final encounter this week has to do with our guinea pigs, who are named Marzipan and Penny. Last week, as I entered the room where their cage is kept, my feet got caught on some stuff that was on the floor and I ended up literally sitting in the guinea pig cage with my feet in the air. Of course, I had the terrible moment of wondering if i would have to tell my child that i had smushed her guinea pigs in a terrible and unforeseen accident.
Thankfully, when i righted myself, i found that the animals, seeing or sensing the incoming threat had scurried to the very back of the cage and were unscathed. The thing that stuck me though was that the moment i hauled myself out of the cage, Marzipan and Penny both scurried toward me to find out what had happened. Given a choice between hiding and not, they both chose to take a chance on moving toward me.
It’s a good reminder of how God’s forgiveness works, As human beings, we often make mistakes and transgress against each other and against our relationship with God. In that moment, the thing that most likely holds us back from healing and wholeness is not God’s unwillingness to meet us where we find ourselves, but rather our inability to reach out to God because we feel ashamed and unworthy.
Whether we are at c
hurch, or taking time with our pets, the lesson is the same: we must always focus on how to love and be loved. In these relationships, we come to know the great gift of relationships where we both give and take. It’s a a
In a few moments we’l have another reminder as we baptize Matthew and renew our baptismal covenant. Today’s Gospel says: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”
Matthew already knows about giving and receiving love. Matthew knows about trusting and asking for what he needs. Matthew even knows about making mistakes and being forgiven. And today, Matthew’s baptism will give us time to remember and reaffirm the promises that we have made to God and that God has made to us.
Preached by the Rev. Hailey McKeefry Delmas at the Church of the Epiphany, San Carlos on October 9, 2016.