Creation speaks — a sermon
Though I had threatened to liveblog it, I just listened to the Rev’d Melody Shobe’s excellent sermon yesterday morning at Christ Church. It is terrific to have such a fine preacher as a colleague. Melody was kind enough to send her sermon along so that I could post it here. I thought others should be able to benefit from her work. It says exactly what needs to be said on the occasion of the Blessing of Animals. I was inspired as I listened yesterday, and I hope you find some inspiration as well.
I recently watched an interview with a Georgia Congressman who had co-sponsored a bill to have the Ten Commandments posted on the wall in the House of Representatives and the Senate. He said that without the Ten Commandments, we wouldn’t have a sense of our direction. And yet, when the reporter asked him to name the Ten Commandments, he would only get three of them. While not everyone agrees with the Congressman’s position on displaying the Ten Commandments, I think most people would echo the importance of those rules. When we start talking about knowing right and wrong and how humans are supposed to behave in relationship to God and one other, the Ten Commandments are usually high on the list of things that people can agree on. They are right up there with the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Most people know what the Ten Commandments are, even if they don’t know where they’re found in the Bible, and most people would say that they are good and important rules, even if they can’t name all ten.
And yet, the Ten Commandments are not the only, or even the ultimate way to understand who God is and how we are called to relate to one another. In today’s Psalm, the poet begins “the heavens declare the glory of the Lord and the firmament shows God’s handiwork… though they have no words or language, and their voices are not heard, their sound has gone out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the earth.” The writer of the Psalm is reminding us the list of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” in the Ten Commandments, and even the words of the Bible are not the only guidelines that God gives us for living. The entire created order; the beauty of the natural world and the creatures that populate it also have an important message about God and God’s love.
Today is the perfect day to hear this Psalm. Because today, the Sunday closest to St. Francis day, is the time when we remember and celebrate a person who had a particularly close relationship with the beauty of creation: Francis of Assisi. St. Francis lived in Italy in the 12th century. He grew up in a very wealthy family, but as a young man renounced his wealth and possessions, left his family and inheritance behind, and chose to live simply. His simple life of service to the poor also included a profound respect for all of God’s creatures and for all of creation. He once preached to a flock of birds, reminding them that everything they had was due to God’s gracious gift, and encouraging them to use their beautiful voices to praise God in song. He sought to reconcile animals and humans to one another. Once, when a ferocious wolf was terrifying the people of Gubbio, Francis tamed him and taught the wolf and people to live in harmony. History shows that one Christmas, Francis brought animals into the church and invited people to dress as Mary and Joseph, shepherds and angels, to portray the Christmas story. When asked why he included animals, Francis said, “Surely the animals praised the new Messiah just as the shepherds and angels did.” He even wrote a hymn in which he called his Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and all the created order to sing their praises to God.
I think that all of us have experienced, on some level, the truth of what both St. Francis and the psalmist were proclaiming. We have seen the beauty of a sunset, or heard the symphony of the waves crashing on the sand, or smelled the perfume of the woods after a rain or a flower newly in bloom. And something about that moment, some truth about God and life and us, spoke to us in a way that went beyond words. Though perhaps you couldn’t put your finger on what exactly it was, or couldn’t exactly explain it to another person, you felt the reality of God’s presence in that moment.
I have felt that way more than once. I have heard God speak to me, in those moments, in a language without words. And it doesn’t just happen in big, cinematic moments, like when I’m standing by the Grand Canyon, or watching a spectacular sunset. It happens in little everyday moments. I see God in the way that my dog, Susie, greets me at the door every day. She prances and dances and wags her whole body, bursting with unconditional love, forgetting that I have abandoned her all day, and instead overjoyed that I have chosen to come home to her here and now. I know something about God’s love in the way that she props her warm nose on my knee and sits with me quietly when I am sad, just being present with me when things are bad. I learn something about how badly God wants a relationship with me when I see the way that Susie dashes desperately out the door every time I leave, and tries to jump and leap into the car, hoping not to be left behind, just wanting to come along with me wherever I happen to be going. I got a card once that said “All I ever need to know I learned from my dog;” but it might also have said “Most of what you need to know about God, you can learn from your dog.” Francis was on to something when he listened to the voice of the birds or marveled at Brother Sun and Sister Moon. Because the beauty of God’s creation does proclaim the truth of a creator. And the loyalty, affection, and dedication of God’s creatures proclaim the love of the God who created them.
Francis proclaimed by his life and example the message being expressed in today’s psalm—that we hear God’s existence proclaimed and learn about God’s call for our lives, not only in the words of the Ten Commandments and the other words, beautiful though they might be, of the Bible, but also in the wordless speech of creation and creatures. And that’s a wonderful and marvelous thing. It should lead us to a greater appreciation for the natural world. It should cause us to protect and advocate for this fragile earth, our island home. It should force us to look more closely for God, not just in the words of the Bible or the letter of the law, but in the beauty of nature and the kindness of God’s creatures.
And if that were all that St. Francis was saying, if that was the only point of the psalmist’s hymn, then that we could all pat ourselves on the back for recycling and go for a nature walk instead of coming to church. But, you know, I don’t think that is the end of the story. Because, you know, Francis is famous for something else, other than being the patron saint of birdbaths and nature trails. Francis once said: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” The reason that Francis could see God in the beauty of creation was that he knew that sometimes actions speak louder than words. That God is proclaiming Godself to us in ways that go beyond and above speech, and that we are called to do the same. St. Francis isn’t only about noticing God in he beauty of creation, or hearing God in the animals we encounter. Saint Francis is also telling us that we need to proclaim God in those same ways. We don’t need pretty speech or perfect words to proclaim God’s love. Sunsets don’t speak. Dogs can’t form sentences. But they proclaim, by their beauty and their behavior, the love of God. Can we say as much about ourselves ?
The reality is, sometimes I don’t preach the gospel as clearly as my dog Susie does. Sometimes, though I might know all ten of the commandments and say all the right words here in church, my life doesn’t reflect God’s unconditional love as clearly. My actions don’t proclaim God’s acceptance as loudly. I don’t always welcome other people as joyously as Susie always welcomes me. I don’t always sit as quietly and patiently with them when they’re in pain. I don’t always forgive them as readily.
The way that Susie loves me isn’t just a reminder of God’s love; it is also a call for me to love others in that way. The beauty of creation doesn’t just proclaim God to us; it also calls us to proclaim God differently in our lives. Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words. If you don’t know how to do that, then go find a dog, and ask them to give you some lessons.
Today, we honor Francis’ memory by inviting God’s creatures into our service at 10:30 for a blessing. We bless animals today, not as a way of making them holy, because they already are, but as a way of acknowledging and affirming that they have been and are a blessing to us. We bless them as a sign that they, too, communicate the love and grace of God to us, even though they do so without speech. And we bless them as a way of reminding ourselves that God’s other creatures have a lot that they can teach us; that we too are called to preach the gospel, sometimes without words.