Monday, October 5, 2009

Sermon on the Blessing of the Beasts

The Rev. Dr. Robert Carlson is a language translator for Wycliff Bible Translators. He is an Anglican priest, a professor of Linguistics at NEGST in Nairobi, Kenya and, before that, worked for thirty years in the small village of Farakala in Mali--where he learned the unwritten language of the Supiyre people, wrote the first grammar for the Supiyre language, trained translators and led the project which ultimately produced the first Supiyre translation New Testament directly from the Greek.

He is also my father-in-law, Anne's dad. He preached yesterday for the Blessing of the Beasts.

Here is the text:
Sermon preached at Good Shepherd, Binghamton
Pentecost 22 (October 4, Feast of St Francis)
Robert Carlson

Genesis 2.18-24
Psalm 128
Hebrews 2.9-18
Matthew 10.29-31

A few days ago I was talking with two friends who attend an Episcopalian church in Boston. They said their church was planning on doing a “blessing of the animals” this Sunday, and they expressed discomfort with the idea. Both of these friends have come originally from non-liturgical, conservative evangelical churches—churches which would never do something like bring animals to church to bless them.

It was clear that the thing that was bothering my friends was the notion of blessing. What is it that we think is happening when a priest, or anyone else for that matter, “blesses” an animal? I could see that my friends were a bit worried that it might be like some kind of magical rite, something like blessing holy water. Or maybe it was intended to be like holy communion or baptism, and the blessing was somehow supposed to transform the animal.

The word bless has a long and somewhat confused history in English. Way back in the pagan times before Christianity came to England, in the Anglo-Saxon language it meant “to consecrate something by marking it with sacrificial blood”. After the coming of Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons in the 7th century, the word bless was used for Christian rites of consecration—consecrating churches and vestments and candles and the like, meaning setting them apart for use in the worship of God.

Now I should point out at once that the Hebrew and Greek words that are translated bless in English translations—from the King James version up till today—most emphatically do NOT mean “to consecrate”. Blessing and consecrating are two different things. This can be seen right back at the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis chapter 2.3 “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.” “God blessed the seventh day” means something like “God bestowed his special favor on the seventh day”. “[God] hallowed [the seventh day]” means “God set apart the seventh day to be dedicated to himself”. The ordinary biblical meaning of God blessing people is nicely illustrated in our Psalm today. “The man who fears the LORD shall thus indeed be blessed”. If you look at the beginning the Psalm you will see what it means to be blessed by God in the Old Testament sense: “you shall eat the fruit of your labor”, you will have prosperity, health, a good spouse, lots of children, and, to cap everything off, grandchildren. It is all summed up in the concept of “peace” mentioned at the very end of the psalm: the shalom of God.

So the blessing of God in the Bible refers to God’s generous favor to humans. But there’s a complication. It’s easy to see what God’s blessing people means, but what about people blessing other people, and, more confusing still, people blessing God?

When a priest or bishop blesses us, or when we bless each other, what is it we are doing? We certainly are not conferring our favor on them. Instead, when it is people who are doing the blessing, the blessing becomes an invocation of God’s blessing—it is a special kind of prayer which calls on God to bestow his favor and goodness on whomever we are blessing. The priest says “The blessing of God be upon you…” or we say “May God bless you”.

Now it’s important to be very clear what is happening here. There is nothing “magic” about this kind of blessing. God will not bestow his favor on something unholy or wicked just because we call on him to do so. You can’t somehow make adultery or cheating or lying good by pronouncing a blessing over them. In fact, it is the height of insolence to ask God to bless something that God himself has told us is bad.

There is one further complication that I should say something about, and that is the business of people blessing God. The same Hebrew word used for God blessing people and people blessing people is also used for people blessing God, such as in Psalm 103, “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.” Here again, the meaning is not that we bestow our favor on God. Rather, blessing in this context means thanking and praising God for his favor. You can see this from the very next verse of Psalm 103: “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” I love the line in the General Thanksgiving at Morning Prayer: “We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life.” “We bless you for … the blessings” means “we earnestly and sincerely thank and praise you for your favor, kindness, and goodness to us.”

Now let’s come back to this business of blessing animals. Of the three uses of blessing that we have just considered, it is obviously the middle one that is the relevant one. That is, when we bless animals, it is a kind of prayer calling on God to bestow his kindness and favor on the animals. All you have to do is read Genesis 1 to see that invoking God’s favor on animals is very much in keeping with what God himself wants. God gave humans a very specific calling to be faithful stewards over God’s living creation. God not only wants to do good to human beings, but he wants to do good to his whole creation, and he wants to do good to creation through us.

The reason we are blessing animals today instead of some other time of the year is because today is the Feast of St Francis. So I would like to say a couple of things about why it is appropriate to bless animals on this day in particular.

One of the great contributions of Francis to the church and hence to us was a recovery of the significance of the Incarnation. Incarnation is a technical term for the event of God becoming human—for the conception and birth of Jesus. Now you might wonder how something as dry and dusty as an old doctrine with a Latin name could grab someone’s imagination and completely transform their life, but that is just what happened to Francis.

The key is in the juxtaposition of two phrases in the middle of the creed which we say every Sunday: “Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” The one “through [whom] all things were made,” that is, the second Person of the Trinity, was the one who “came down from heaven”. The one who became human, and who suffered and died for us, was the one who created the whole universe in the first place.

God called the universe into being—from nothing to something. It clear from our Old Testament reading this morning that God had clear intentions for his creation. It was to develop in a certain way. But as we know, humans rebelled and sin came into the world, and the universe which had been brought out of nothing began to return to nothing. Decay and corruption came onto creation because the created humans cut themselves off from the God who was holding the whole world together. When we forsook the God who holds the universe together, creation began to disintegrate.

So God sent his Son into the world. When God himself became a creature—a created thing—the whole creation began to turn around—to come back from the brink of decay and corruption, to return from disintegration to reintegration.

The realization of this gave Francis a new way of looking at nature. The universe is bound to God the Son not only by creation, but also by redemption. “Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” So all of creation is doubly bound to give God thanks and praise.

That was why Francis preached to the birds. It is said that he was on his way with some companions to a nearby village to proclaim the gospel when they came to a field where there were many birds on the ground eating. Francis left his astonished companions on the road and went over to speak to the birds. This is what he is reported to have said:

“My little sisters the birds, you owe gratitude to God, your creator, and always in every place you ought to praise him. For he has given you liberty to fly about everywhere, and has clothed you with feathers. Moreover, he preserved your race on the ark of Noah so that you would not perish out of the world. You also owe him gratitude for the air which he has appointed for you. Beyond all this, you do not sow, nor do you reap, but God feeds you, and gives you streams and fountains for your drink, the mountains and valleys for your refuge, and the high trees in which to make your nests. Because you do not know how to spin, God clothes you, you and your children. So you see that your Creator loves you very much, and has bestowed on you very many benefits. Therefore, my little sisters, beware of the sin of ingratitude, and be sure always to give praises to God.”

And we too, brothers and sisters, ought always and everywhere to give thanks to God—to bless him for our creation, preservation, and all the blessing of this life, but above all for the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ.

Let us pray:

Lord God, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

Here is some film from the actual blessing:

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