Our friend Beth Foster, Director of Mercy Junction, preached this sermon at Renaissance Presbyterian Church on St. Francis Sunday, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016.
A poem for the animals on Good Friday, by Matt Morin
What will all of these animals do—
The bulls and the rams,
The cows and the sheep,
The pigeons and the goats,
And the lambs—
Now that sacrifice has been abolished?
Will they return home,
To tell the good news,
To the hawks, wolves, and camouflaged hunters?
Their joyful songs echoing through the valley,
Each one worshipping according to its kind,
Praising their redeemer.
After all, Jesus took their place—
Will they come to the table,
And receive the bread and wine,
The gifts of grain and fruit?
Will they join us at the love feast,
“Every green plant for food”?
Or must they too, wait patiently?
Eyes cast heavenward,
Flesh groaning for redemption,
Praying “Father forgive them”
Maybe it seems a little odd to start with a poem about Good Friday this morning.
As the calendar goes, we’re about as far from Good Friday as we can be. Instead of standing at the edge of the season when life and light are about to burst forth on Earth, we are at the edge of that season when rest and darkness are almost upon us.
It’s not Good Friday.
It’s not Resurrection Sunday.
But, it is St. Francis Sunday — the Sunday closest to the Feast Day of St. Francis, the person most associated with animals in the history of Christianity. When I think about where my feelings for animals meets my Christian faith, something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, I always go back to that poem for the animals on Good Friday.
Those animals, spared sacrifice on that first resurrection morning, remind me that Jesus’ life, Jesus’ death, Jesus’ resurrection — the good news for a broken world — these were not just for me, not just for humankind, but for all creation.
A relationship between the non-human animals and the divine can be found throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and Jesus is often with the animals — from his birth among the creatures of the barn to his time with the wild beasts in the desert. From C.S. Lewis to John Wesley, from the Salvation Army founders to Leo Tolstoy and theologian Albert Schweitzer, there can also be found a thread of Christ-followers who spoke for animal rights, who chose not to eat the flesh of other living creatures.
“It is not only for the sake of the creature subject to cruelty that we would plead for kindness, but with a view to the good of the person causing the pain,” the famous 19th Century preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote. “ … Cruelty hardens the heart, deadens the conscience, and destroys the finer sensibilities of the soul … For the man who truly loves his Maker becomes tender towards all the creatures his Lord has made. In gentleness and kindness our great Redeemer is our model.”
And of course, don’t let us forget that most famous ordained Presbyterian minister who chose vegetarianism because he said he wanted “to be a vehicle for God, to spread his message of love and peace.” We know him best as Mr. Rogers of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.
But, what of Francis, the man who is recognized on this day.
Francis grew up in relative wealth and was a bit of a wild child. He was known for drinking and partying. He became a soldier and was captured and imprisoned. It was during his time in prison that God came to him in visions. When he was released, he renounced his old life and chose to answer God’s call to live in poverty and work to repair the church.
Some folks who knew Francis before his jailhouse conversion, thought he’d lost his mind. The fact that he’d walk away from power and luxury proved this.
Most of the time, when we choose to stand with the marginalized, the poor, the suffering, when we choose to stand with those with whom Jesus stands — when we eschew violence and greed and harm in favor of peace and generosity and healing, we are called mad. The choice Francis made, was to answer the call of the divine and that call is rarely something that can be understood within the value system of this world.
But, Francis call got stranger still. If his friends thought Francis was mad when he chose to live in poverty, you can imagine what they must have thought when he began preaching to the birds.
Francis believed that nature was the mirror of God. He called the animals his sisters and brothers. There are many legends about St. Francis and the animals, but one of the most famous is when he strikes a deal with a wolf. The wolf and townsfolk we’re going after each other. The wolf attacking, then the townsfolk, then the wolf. And the violence was escalating until Francis interceded. The townsfolk agreed to put out food for the wolf and in return the wolf agreed to quit attacking them.
Pope John Paul II said Francis “offers Christians an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation … As a friend to the poor who was loved by God’s creatures, St. Francis invited all creation — animals, plants, natural forces, even Brother Sun and Sister Moon — to give honor and praise to the Lord. The poor man of Assisi gives us striking witness that when we are at peace with God we are better able to devote ourselves to building up that peace with all creation which is inseparable from peace among all peoples.”
I think about this in relationship to the way in which animals, the environment, human workers, human rights and our own bodies are treated in our current factory farming system. I think about how industrial agriculture is contrary to the values of my faith.
I’m going to spare you gory details here, but if you want gory details they’re one google search away. What I will give you for now is this synopsis of the system from Farm Sanctuary:
“Far from the idyllic, spacious pastures that are shown in advertisements for meat, milk, and eggs, factory farms typically consist of large numbers of animals being raised in extreme confinement. Animals on factory farms are regarded as commodities to be exploited for profit. They undergo painful mutilations and are bred to grow unnaturally fast and large for the purpose of maximizing meat, egg, and milk production for the food industry. Their bodies cannot support this growth, which results in debilitating and painful conditions and deformities.
“The factory farming industry puts incredible strain on our natural resources. The extreme amount of waste created by raising so many animals in one place pollutes our land, air, and water. Residents of rural communities surrounding factory farms report high incidents of illness, and their property values are often lowered by their proximity to industrial farms. To counteract the health challenges presented by overcrowded, stressful, unsanitary living conditions, antibiotics are used extensively on factory farms, which can create drug-resistant bacteria and put human health at risk.”
When I see those trucks taking chickens to slaughter — the animals crammed in by the hundreds, wings broken, some already dead, their lifeless bodies hanging between the rails, the living with little protection from the rain, sleet or sun — all of us have seen the on the interstate, going to Pilgrim’s Pride or Tyson’s plants, I think about the one I follow and his saying “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings?”
I think about the scripture that tells us, “Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord,” and I remember that 70 percent of what was the Amazon rainforest has now been destroyed to supply cattle for this system and I think of the words of Jeremiah, “I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination.”
Our is a faith that calls us to grace, mercy, gentleness and peace. Doesn’t that extend to our relationships with our non-human sisters and brothers, to the very earth, all of which is God’s creation — all of which God saw and God said was good.
That right relationship, that calling to mercy, gentleness and peace, is contrary to a system that says everything must have economic value, that every life must turn a profit, that even creation is a commodity. But our faith — that good news — is, and should, be contrary to that system.
“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?” Jesus asked. “Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.”
And that is a part of that good news. None of us are forgotten by our creator — not even those who have fur, feather or fins. As a people called to love mercy, to do justice and to walk humbly with that one who remembers the animal with the least worth in an economic system, we must ask what our obligation is to our sister and brother animals and if we are meeting it as we are called to do.