Blessed be God for the animals!


Sermon for St Francis’ Day

October 4, A.D. 2015 St Mary’s, Busselton

Readings: Genesis 2:4-20a            Mark 11:1-11

In the + Name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer, Amen.

This story about Jesus and a mule comes from one of the apocryphal Gospels, one of the writings that didn’t make it into the New Testament. But I’d like to imagine it tells us about how Jesus thought and felt about animals. Here’s the story:

They came across a man with a pack-mule. But the animal had fallen because its load was too heavy, and the owner beat it so much it started bleeding. So Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, why are you beating your animal? Can’t you see that it is not strong enough for its load, and don’t you know that it feels pain?’

But the man replied, ‘What is that to you? I can beat it as much as I want to, because it is my property and I paid a lot of money for it.’ …

But the Lord said, ‘Can’t you see it bleeding? Can’t you hear its cries of pain? ‘

But he said, ‘No. Can’t hear a thing.’

And the Lord was sad and exclaimed, ‘That’s bad news, that you can’t hear it complaining to its Creator in heaven, and crying to you for mercy. Very bad news for those it complains about in its distress.’ And the Lord touched the animal. It got up – its wounds healed!

Jesus then said to its owner, ‘Now carry on your way and don’t beat the animal anymore, so that you too will find mercy.’

No one here would treat their pet like that mule owner.

I’ve been impressed by those dogs which have earned a medal in the war in Afghanistan for their bravery in sniffing out hidden explosive devices, bombs and mines, before they blow up and maim and kill people. I think the Army awards the medals because they know that the dogs are brave. The dogs understand the danger, and the dogs do their dangerous job to protect their humans. It’s quite wonderful.

War is a strange place to start on St Francis’ Day. St Francis thought that trying to get peace by going to war was a bizarre idea, like hammering stones to turn them into water: wrong tool, wrong method, wrong materials. Yet St Francis spent at least three months with the Crusaders in the Nile Delta, nursing the wounded and the soldiers who had succumbed to mosquito-borne diseases. He caught malaria himself during this time. He looked war straight in the face. War is part of the human experience. St Francis cared about soldiers because he knew that God cared about them.

I don’t think, though, that there were dogs helping the soldiers in the Fifth Crusade in Egypt. To have dogs helping in war, you need to know how intelligent they are and how people can bond with them, so that man and dog become a team to accomplish a task. Of all the thousands of knights and soldiers at Damietta, Christian and Muslim, I guess St Francis was the only one who really knew that it was possible for animals and humans to have such a strong bond. We’ve learned a lot from St Francis.

There’s a legend that St Francis tamed a wolf that was terrorising the village of Gubbio. Now, that may have been only a legend, or the baddie in the legend may have been a human bandit or terrorist nicknamed Il Lupo, ‘the Wolf’, but it is possible that it was a real wolf. There are people who have such a connection with animals, like St Francis, that simply by his calm presence, the wolf sensed that Francis was friend, not out to chase and kill him.

The idea back in Genesis where Adam names the animals is that in the beginning we had that close rapport with animals. We are supposed to feel a connection with them. When a pet comes into our home, we give it a name. That’s what we’re supposed to do. It’s more than a childish game.

I grew up with animals on a farm, and our parents emphasised on the one hand that we shouldn’t make pets of our sheep and cows, but on the other hand, they treated the animals with care. They knew that they felt pain. Dad knew that if the sheep were spooked in the shearing shed one year, they would remember and be frightened the next year. It simply made good sense to treat them well.

Montage of wedge tailed eagles in full flight on blue sky with copy space

And when we meet a wild animal, a lizard or a kangaroo, say, our first instinct should be to acknowledge it. The way St Francis did this was by calling every creature his sister or brother. The pair of wedge-tail eagles we sometimes see over our back fence at Novacare are magnificent, and they come from God. They are our brother and sister.

The more we learn about animals, the more we should respect their complexity. We know that dogs and cats communicate, and they learn more ways of communication to fit in with their human companions. But ‘chooks’, hens, also communicate. When they are out foraging and scratching, one always stands guard, and she has a different squawk to indicate a predator over-head or good food underfoot. And it’s vital that her mates understand her straightaway. Scientists have done experiments to show that fishes feel pain, and they give sophisticated intelligence tests to octopuses!

Animals are not dumb. They share our planet as our sisters and brothers, so we bring our pets for blessing, thanking God for all they give to us, whether they are domesticated pets like cats or dogs, working animals like the donkeys Jesus borrowed to ride into Jerusalem, or whether they are wild animals with no human contact. We thank God for them all – and welcome pet rocks, cart-horses and orcas, and everything in between, for a blessing today..

But St Francis went a step further. In his Canticle of the Sun, he calls the sun and moon, the earth and wind and weather, all the inanimate things that make up the environment, that support life, he calls all those things brother and sister too. Because we are all connected. Our bodies are made up of mud and oxygen – water, earth and wind. The trace elements that make the subtle difference and bring us really alive come from Brother Sun and the other stars.

One place to read more about this is in Pope Francis’s latest encyclical Laudato Si’. The Pope even takes the name from The Canticle of the Sun, ‘Laudato Si’’ means ‘Praise be’ and is the first two words of every verse of the Canticle.

The writer of Genesis saw the garden, the river, the trees and the animals, and the humans, as a whole, a gift from God, to be cared for and nurtured. Blessing pets is not just something nice to do: it’s a commitment to care for each other, for every living thing, and for everything that supports life, to the glory of the Creator.

The One Horse Race


It’s only a bit of fun. Yet strangely, it’s an essential part of out nation’s psyche. The Melbourne Cup, the Horse Race That Stops A Nation. It’s a day when a non-gambler like me will buy a ticket in a sweepstake, and take an interest in the winner of the race at Flemington.
But even when I lived in Melbourne, I never roused more interest than that. If anything, the second Tuesday in November brings out my inner wowser, and I feel sorry for the millions who prop up the alcohol industry today, when it may be the only thing they are capable of propping up.
We look back in 2014 fifty years to zoos where proud lions where imprisoned in tiny cages in which they could barely turn around, and felt sad because their coats were mangy and there was defeat in their eyes. Today’s zoos with savannah spaces and artificial dens lions can seek out are much better. We can feel some pride ourselves that we care for lions much better and that our zoos are becoming 21st Century Noah’s Arks conserving endangered species.
Another century and a half earlier our great-great grandfathers gathered to stir up roosters to scratch and peck each other to death while howling humans urged them on to greater acts of blood-letting. In the time of the first Queen Elizabeth, bears were pitted against each other in the ring. Are we not now so much more humane in the way we treat animals?
The excuse then was that the animals enjoyed it. Maybe the animals did take some pleasure in pleasing the men who had fed and cared for them, preparing for them to take to the ring. Maybe they did. But maybe, if you could give them the whole choice, the animals would have preferred not to be there at all.
Of course, today’s horse-racing industry is highly regulated, and vets and stewards put a stop to egregious cruelty. But in another hundred years, we may look back at the way we bred horses for racing, horses with ankles as slender as humans’ so they break down, horses who are temperamental, for some reason objecting to running against the herd when nature wants them to run with it, and with some pride in ourselves for stopping the cruel business of making animals race for the pleasure of humans.
Then we will say proudly, we are the Nation that Stopped the Horse Race.
But I can’t say that today, can I?

Oh, the farmer and the greenie….


The Farmer and the Greenie Should Be Friends …. But

I am sitting in my brother’s farm ute. My brother is driving. His best dog keeps his distance from the slow-moving mob of pregnant ewes. We are taking them to a paddock where they’ll have more room for lambing. It’s a slow progress across the paddocks. It’s important not to stress these sheep: by the time their lambs are born they will need to be in top condition with the best pastures easily accessible to them.

This care for animals is not only prudent business: my brother treats the animals on his farm well for their own sakes. I know many farmers like him. Farmers in general are unlikely to be cruel to animals, or allow others to be cruel to their stock coming from their property.

Like many others over the last few years, I have become concerned about the way some animals are treated. I was too distressed to watch to the end the Four Corners program on the slaughtering of cattle in Indonesia. I worry that cattle and chickens are force-fed in smaller and smaller pens. I wish we could always buy free-range animals and eggs.

But one thing I am sure of is that farmers are not enemies to animals. Most do what they can to look after sheep, cattle, dogs, pigs and hens. I am angry at activists who call for radical changes to farming practices without investigating how the majority of farmers do things. Often activists ask people to rally around causes that are based on old or incomplete information.

Take the story on mulesing sheep. Mulesing is a drastic operation where skin is cut away from around the sheep’s backside. Before farmers mulesed, there was a high incidence of fly-strike. When flies lay maggots in sheep, the maggots eat away the flesh of the sheep while the sheep is still alive. Mulesing – with much milder consequences for the animal – reduced the rates of fly-strike considerably.

PETA and other activists groups called for the abolition of mulesing. They showed graphic pictures of a sheep’s rump after the skin had been cut. Rarely did they mention the maggots threatening the lives of sheep, and they certainly showed no gruesome pictures of half-eaten still-living sheep. The farmers could well have countered the arguments of PETA by demonstrating the benefits of mulesing. Instead, the farmers went a step further and agreed to a total ban on mulesing. An enormous research effort produced chemical mulesing.

Animals Australia tells this story with reasonable accuracy, but its concluding call to action does not follow logically from the story and is any case out-dated.

I don’t believe that a perfect solution has been worked out, but I do believe the farmers wanted the same end result as the activists.  And with their first-hand knowledge, they could be honest about the situation.

Animals Australia condemns all live sheep export and describes their investigations showing cruelty against animals in transit and in market countries. It counters industry claims to improvement; but not with detailed evidence, rather with graphic photos.

Their ethical arguments begin with the assertion that raising animals to eat is wrong in itself, and therefore any instances of cruelty, however isolated, prove the point. The reality, however, is that our society accepts the use of animals for eating. Finding enough protein for a healthy and balanced diet without meat is currently an expensive challenge.

Farmers who grow animals for meat are not acting illegally, nor are they anti-social, and to claim that all their activity is unethical is at the very least controversial, and is usually insulting. Environmental concerns may well price meat out of existence over time and we will simply be forced to find replacement protein. But we are not at that place yet. Discouraging cruelty to animals makes more common sense in the short to medium term than calling for a total ban on meat.

Animal activists come over as either unrealistic idealists or deliberately undermining the livelihood of the very farmers on whom we depend for our food.

The greenies and the farmers should be friends. Both groups are genuinely working towards a world in which there is less cruelty to animals. But polarising the debate by calling for a complete ban on meat and demonising all involved in its production and transport is unwise and unproductive. It is no wonder farmers defending live sheep exports organise their gatherings off-line away from the glare of volatile social media. Their cause is so easily hi-jacked by easy and sentimental appeal of the animal activists.