Fur, Feathers, Fins and Francis

Sesame Street preached this sermon for me may many years ago, and so, since it’s hard to improve upon perfection, let’s just go with what they said:

Some of us have feathers
Some of us have fins
Some of us are furry
And some of us have skins
We swim and hop and slither
And leap and soar and run
And we all live together
On a planet of the sun

We are all earthlings
We are all earthlings
Spinning around together
On a planet of the sun

We live in the desert
We live inside a tree
We live high in the mountains
Or deep beneath the sea
We live in tents and cabins
In houses just for one
And we all live together
On a planet of the sun

We are all earthlings
We are all earthlings
Spinning around together
On a planet of the sun

Floating down a river
Swinging through the trees
Climbing up a mountain
Going with the breeze
All of us can have a happy healthy place to be
If we can float and swim and climb in earthling harmony

We are all earthlings
We are all earthlings
Spinning around together
On a planet of the sun

Spinning around together
On a planet of the sun.

We Are All Earthlings, Sesame Street

And that’s really all our amazing youth climate justice activists are saying too, after all, isn’t it? 

That’s all St. Francis of Assisi was saying after all, isn’t it? Some of our Christian beloveds will celebrate the Feast of St. Francis Day this week, and I hope they have a plant-based feast, but that’s another sermon for a very niche market, I know. 

Now, St. Francis had very little to say, or at least little of it was written and passed down to us, so it’s hard to quote from him. We only know of his reputation as someone who gave his all to the service of his faith, but never became one of those kinds of holy men who was too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good. St. Francis of Assisi expressed and lived in kinship with creation, especially our non-human animal family, so much so that he is considered the patron saint of animals in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

And I think that just past weeks of youth-led climate justice action led by the youth of our world, is just about as good a time as a way to stop and honor the other Earthlings with whom we share our one wild and precious planet. 

Oh, okay, let’s just go on back to Mary Oliver then, since I almost just did, because Mary knew the sacred connections between us and the world of the other animals, didn’t she?  She implored us to act more like them in our quest for holiness and wholeness. 

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”

Wild Geese, Mary Oliver

We are all Earthlings. We have so much to learn. So much to learn from animal presence.

“Come into animal presence”, invites Denise Levertov, in this lush poem:

Come into animal presence
No man is so guileless as
the serpent. The lonely white
rabbit on the roof is a star
twitching its ears at the rain.
The llama intricately
folding its hind legs to be seated
not disdains but mildly
disregards human approval.
What joy when the insouciant
armadillo glances at us and doesn’t
quicken his trotting
across the track and into the palm brush.
What is this joy? That no animal
falters, but knows what it must do?
That the snake has no blemish,
that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings
in white star-silence? The llama
rests in dignity, the armadillo
has some intention to pursue in the palm-forest.
Those who were sacred have remained so,
holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence
of bronze, only the sight that saw it
faltered and turned from it.
An old joy returns in holy presence.

Come into animal presence, Denise Levertov

We are all earthlings.

And, this, beloveds, is why we bless the animals. Not just because it’s cute and it’s fun, even though that’s reason enough as far as I’m concerned. But because our connections are literally life-giving, sacred, holy, and worth pausing to give praise to and for. The blessing of the animals is as theologically sound in Unitarian Universalism as anything ever could be, as we contemplate the interdependent web of which we are a part. 

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, is a novel that takes the form of a letter or journal that a dying, elderly Congregationalist minister in Gilead, Iowa, writes to his 7-year old son in 1956 – written so that one day the boy will know something about his father’s life and character.

In this passage, Rev. John Ames reflects on a moment from his own childhood.

Now, this might seem a trivial thing to mention, considering the gravity of the subject, but I truly don’t feel it is. We were very pious children from pious households in a fairly pious town, and this affected our behavior considerably. Once, we baptized a litter of cats.

It occurred to one of the girls to swaddle them up in a doll’s dress — there was only one dress, which was just as well since the cats could hardly tolerate a moment in it and would have to have been unsaddled as soon as they were christened in any case. I myself moistened their brows, repeating the full Trinitarian formula.

Their grim old crooked-tailed mother found us baptizing away by the creek and began carrying her babies off by the napes of their necks… We lost track of which was which, but we were fairly sure that some of the creatures had been borne away still in the darkness of paganism, and that worried us a great deal.

I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing… It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is one of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time. I don’t wish to be urging the ministry on you, but there are some advantages to it you might not know to take account of if I did not point them out. Not that you have to be a minister to confer blessing. You are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position. It’s a thing people expect of you. I don’t know why there is so little about this aspect of the calling in the literature.

Gilead, Marillynne Robinson

We are all earthlings.

Thomas Rhodes writes:

You Birds of the Air,
Hawk, Sparrow, and laughing Jay
You embody freedom itself,
delight us with your song, astound us with feats of migration
Grant us your perspective,
for too often our horizon is limited
and we are blind to the full results of our actions.

You Worms of the Earth,
Ants, Beetles, Spiders and Centipedes
You are the essential but oft-forgotten strand in nature’s web.
Through you the cycle is complete;
through you new life arises from old.
Remind us of our humility.
For the wheel of live does not turn around us;
we are not the axle, but merely spokes
no less than unseen, unknown and shunned companions
such as yourselves.

You creatures of the field and wood and field, marsh and desert—
Bear and Bison, Skunk and Squirrel, Weasel and Wolf
Too often we have sacrificed your homes in the name of progress,
clear cutting the forests to fill our desire,
or covering the earth with tarmac, cement, and suburban lawns.
Pray that we may remember that the earth was not given for our needs alone,
and what we do to you, we eventually do to ourselves.

You animals of the farm—
Horse and cow, pig and fowl
Willingly or not, you give your very lives for us,
your milk for our nourishment, your flesh for our sustenance,
Yet too often we forget that the meat on our tables was once as alive as we are.
Forgive our willful ignorance,
and remind us constantly to give thanks for your sacrifice.

You Dearest Companions in our lives
Dogs and Cats, Hamsters and Goldfish
You who are with us today
and you who always be present in our memories
You have enriched our lives in so many ways
endured our shortcomings with calm acceptance
taught us something of our humanity
taught us how to love.
May we hold you in our hearts throughout the days of our lives.

Thomas Rhodes

We are all earthlings. We are all earthlings, spinning around together on a planet of the sun.

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation

September 29, 2019

© Rev. Misha Sanders