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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 27, Year A
Thanksgiving for Creation
South Sydney Uniting Church
October 2, 2011

Jonah 3:1-10; Luke 10:38-42

‘A Blessing or a Circus Display?’

The Book of Jonah is a short one, just four chapters. Our reading is chapter three, and follows perhaps the most memorable scene (a Sunday School classic), which sees Jonah praying to God from inside the belly of a big fish. It’s the first of two conversion scenes in the story. Jonah, the reluctant prophet (God had commissioned him to confront injustice among the people of Nineveh and Jonah had jumped aboard a ship sailing in the opposite direction), racked with self-doubt, timidity, faithlessness and prejudice towards people other than his own, faces up to disobedience and prays: “I will sacrifice to you [O God] with a song of thanksgiving.” And we read: “Then God spoke to the fish, and the fish vomited Jonah onto the shore.”

Our reading sees Jonah in the great city Nineveh; preaching repentance among the people. And the people of Nineveh listen to Jonah; they are moved; they repent (which means nothing less than a complete turnabout – from greed to grace; from violence to justice). The ruler of Nineveh decrees a time of humility, of sackcloth and ashes – for the city’s human and animal inhabitants – and God, we hear, feels sorrow for the city. The city is saved.

It’s a familiar story – certainly dramatic – one we may well know from childhood. It’s a story about conversion from disobedient fear to obedient faith – and, ultimately, a story of salvation (which means nothing less than health and wellbeing, peace with justice for all). God feels sorrow for all people. God wants all people to make a loving response to the divine compassion. Amen.

Today, however, it’s difficult not to notice the role played by the fish and the animals of Nineveh. Is the fish, for instance, simply a narrative device – an amusing archaism or children’s book illustration – or might we allow a more literal meaning? By which I mean granting the fish and animals more than merely figurative or decorative significance. In short, there is no conversion for Jonah without the fish. There is no salvation for the people of Nineveh without the animals of Nineveh. The creatures are integral to the story – they have God-given parts to play.

The creatures are integral to the story – they have God-given parts to play …

We are here today, I assume, bound by common care and concern for animal companions. Many of us would find it hard to imagine daily lives without our furry, feathery or scaly friends. We experience a connection to the world by way of creatures we have befriended. And it’s good to meet with others we trust can understand something of the richness of interspecies relationship. The chaos, the comedy, the camaraderie – it’s all good – it’s all good for us. We are here today because, on some level, we know it’s true.

Perhaps we also know that animals, on some important level, befriend us – they minister to us. When I hear today the story of Martha, Mary and Jesus, I see Jesus as the Cosmic Christ, the Christ revealed throughout creation – in all creatures great and small – the One in whose presence we are inspired to stop, to care, to watch, to listen, to forget the busy dramas that trap us in self-concern, self-pity, self-loathing – to be. Mary can be for us a model of ecological sensitivity – of openness to Christ the guest, Christ the teacher, Christ the beloved.

All this matters lest we miss our own opportunities for conversion and wisdom. Commentators note that rituals like ours have grown in popularity over the last half-century or so. Commentators note that justification for services of animal blessing can vary a great deal – from evangelistic outreach to entertainment – from distraction to denial of brutal realities like modern factory farming, laboratory testing, puppy farms, pets abandoned and euthanized … After the blessing ritual, many return to the secular world to consume the suffering of other animals …

One commentator writes: “Although a blessing of the pets/animals becomes a new ritual moment in many Christian congregations and such a ritual invites animals to be part of the Christian community for at least 1 of the 365 days each year, does it simply reimpose the animal as subject of the dominator’s gaze?” (Laura Hobgood-Oster, Holy Dogs & Asses: Animals in the Christian tradition, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 2011, p. 125).

In honour of Saints Francis and Clare, for whom animals were truly fellow creatures, and in the Spirit of the Lamb whose suffering love puts an end to animal sacrifice, we pray that this blessing of the animals might provide a venue for conversion – a new way of seeing the world – “a change of the eye from arrogant to loving …” (Ibid., p. 126) – and a new way of being in it. Amen.