Sunday, October 07, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, October 7 Blessing of the Animals Matt 11:25-30 “Cover Me.”

"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

The poet WH Auden once wrote that if he had his way, all books of literary criticism would be banned from libraries, we would all memorize poetry, and anyone wanting to be a poet would have to  “look after a domestic animal and cultivate a garden.” [1]To be a poet would not be an academic exercise, in other words. It would be living the experience, particularly by being a part of the natural world. To be a poet would be an experience of all the senses, and all the emotions, that are in the real world.

The same thing could be said of the practice of theology: if I want to be a theologian, one who seeks a deeper understanding of God and religion, I need to experience God with all my senses and all my emotions in the real world. And Auden’s prescription of looking after a pet and cultivating a garden would be equally applicable, wouldn’t it?

Pets. They are a vital part of our lives, and they certainly cause us to use all our senses and all our emotions, in every possible way.

A few weeks ago, several of us were staffing the parish’s booth at Glen Allen Days, telling folks about our church and inviting them to come and check us out. There were lots of folks walking through with their dogs. Big dogs, little dogs, purebreds, mutts – just about every kind of dog you could imagine. So we called out to them and asked them about their dogs, because people always love to talk about their pets, as much or more than they like to talk about their children or grandchildren.  And we talked to folks about this pet blessing, and I’m hoping that one or two of you who are newcomers joined us today because you heard about this service there, and wanted to come and ask for God’s blessing on your beloved pet.

At one point in the afternoon a woman walked by with a beautiful collie. I called to her and admired her dog, who she said was called Connor. The woman had a pink cap covering her bald head. I told her about this service and she said, “I would love to come, but I’ll be in the middle of another cycle of chemo, so I don’t think I’ll be able to join you.” We continued to talk about her illness and the challenge of treatments, and I said, “I’ll bet Connor is a real comfort to you when you’re feeling bad.” She said “Wait a minute…” and pulled out her smartphone. She started scrolling through it as I wondered what she was looking for. She found what she wanted, and wordlessly handed the phone to me. On it was a picture of her, stretched out on her couch, obviously feeling pretty low, and stretched out on top of her, covering her almost completely – Connor was a big boy – was that beautiful collie. “He’s with me whenever I’m stuck on that couch. It’s like he knows I need him.” And her face was aglow with love for Connor, her companion who stayed with her through her hardest moments.

It’s a story I’ve heard so many times before. It’s one I’ve experienced as well. When I’m feeling bad, my cat Spooky comes and snuggles up next to me, comforting me. Time and time again, I hear stories of pets who seem to sense when their owners need a little unconditional love, and offer it by crawling alongside or on top of their human.

And it is that unconditional love, that beautiful comfort, that is the gift we receive from our pets. Even when they misbehave, or do something they shouldn’t on the rug, they still love us, and we love them.

In a world where love almost always comes with strings attached, our pets offer a different equation. Here’s my love. Give me a little love back, nothing more. A treat would be nice, but I’ll still love you. No matter what, I’ll cover you with unconditional love. What would we do without that unconditional love?

In today’s gospel, Jesus says “come all you who weary and are bearing heavy burdens. I will give you rest.” It sounds impossible, doesn’t it? Someone would willingly take us at our weariest, when we are tired and messy and broken and angry and confused, and say “hand over all that bad stuff to me. I’ve got you covered.” We would not think it possible, if we hadn’t already experienced the way that works when we came home from school with a broken heart and cried our eyes out into the furry neck of our dog, or when we were terrified at the possibility that we might have an awful illness and our cat curled up next to us and purred, or when we didn’t have the strength to get up because our spouse died and we were depressed and the dog crawled right up in bed alongside us, as if to say “I’m here, you’re not alone. I’ll cover you….”

I’ll cover you, when you need it most, without question, without exception.

In the musical “Rent” a young man tells his lover:
I've longed to discover Something as true as this is,
             So with a thousand sweet kisses, I'll cover you, 
 With a thousand sweet kisses, I'll cover you,
             When you're worn out and tired,When your heart has expired,
             If you're cold and you're lonely, You've got one nickel only,
             With a thousand sweet kisses, I'll cover you, 
 With a thousand sweet kisses, I'll cover you.” [2]

And how can we hear that song and not remember the lick on the face when we walk through the door, the warming purr on our lap, the sweet song when the morning light enters the birdcage? “I’ll cover you.”

We wouldn’t understand what Jesus says – come to me, lay your burden on me, I will give you rest - but for the taste of that love we had already gotten from our pets. We wouldn’t understand how Jesus would love us enough to take on our burden, but for the fact that our pets so often do precisely that. Whether they are aware of what they do, I don’t know – perhaps animal behaviorists can say – but it seems that our pets are willing to be our comforters, with no expectations in return. 
I’ll cover you…

Is that why God made cats and dogs and horses and hens and turtles and such? Simply to show us how God loves us? I think it is more complicated than that…the assumption that animals were put on this earth simply to do something for us is challenged by God’s own comments about the created world. This is interconnected web, this created world. We are all gifted by the things that God created, be they animals or flowers or waterfalls, and each element of the created world has an obligation to support each other element.

So if that is the case, where does this leave us when we contemplate our pets? They give us unconditional love, but what do we give them? Are we capable of learning to offer that kind of love to each other, and to the rest of creation?  Can we cover all of humanity, and even all of Creation, as our pets have so often covered us, with a selfless love? 

Perhaps the answer is found in the Gospel – it so often is. Jesus says “Take my yoke upon you…my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” If we need to learn the lesson of how to love our fellow human beings, we get our first lesson in love from our pets. Our pets, who cover us. Our pets, who love us. Our pets, who give us a kind of love we rarely get from each other. They are our teachers, these dogs and cats and turtles and hens and horses and ferrets and cockatoos and guinea pigs. They cover us, and they teach us and they remind us that the yoke of love is easier than we think. Covering each other, animal or human, is no burden.  It is the gift and the lesson we learn from Jesus and from our pets.


[1] W.H. Auden, “The Poet and the City,” in Modern Poetics, 167-182.
[2] “I’ll Cover You,” Rent, 1996.

1 comment:

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