Fur, Fins, Feathers, and Francis

Prelude: Blackbird video, NWUUC animal pictures montage

Chiming of the Singing Bowl: Rev. Misha Sanders

Words of Welcome and Announcements: Robert Neidermeyer

Good morning! I am Robert Neidermeyer, one of your Youth Group Worship Associates here at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Sandy Springs, Georgia. 

Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation seeks to create loving community, inspire joy and spiritual growth, and support courageous action. All are welcome, as together we journey towards justice and equity by learning, caring, and acting together.

We especially welcome any newcomers and visitors we have today.  I hope you’ll join us after worship for coffee hour… from the comfort of your own homes. You can just stay right here when the service ends. There is no need to leave this zoom call, we will begin coffee hour as soon as the postlude is over. 

If you haven’t already, now is a great time to grab whatever materials you’ll need to light your own chalice if you’d like that to be part of your worship experience today.

As always, kindly set your phones to worship mode; we won’t know, but I think you might enjoy the hour free from distractions. And feel free to check in on your social media of choice to let your friends and family know about this place of caring you’ve found today. Our congregation is an exciting place to be, and we love it when you share the good news. 

And although we cannot be physically together to greet each other today with hugs, high-fives, smiles, and words of love, we are all together in spirit and each and every one of us is welcome.  

And now Rev. Misha Sanders will call us to worship.

Call to Worship: Rev. Misha Sanders

Good morning!  I am the Rev. Misha Sanders, and I am honored to be your senior minister here at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Sandy Springs, Georgia!  

Welcome!  It is my great pleasure to welcome several special guests who are worshiping with us this morning. 

First of all, the senior youth group from our closest neighboring UU congregation is with us today! Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta Youth Group, and your fearless leader Ayanna Stringer, welcome to worship! 

And it is such a joy to welcome the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Stamford Connecticut, who are joining us this morning, led by their interim minister, my friend and colleague, Rev. Craig Schwalenberg. Welcome, Rev. Craig, and welcome UUs of Stamford! We are so thrilled to have you all with us this morning.

Our call to worship today is by Susan Karlson.

“Welcome to all our siblings this morning.
We enter into this half circle of diversity,
Celebrating the ways that we upright walking two-legged wanderers share
With the four-leggeds lounging, lunging and leaping among us,
With Winged warblers,
With slithering, sliding snaky beings,
With circling cavorters in a watery world, and
With those who carry their house on their backs.
We look so different, moving according to the way we were made.
Yet look at us here in this circle,
We are part of one family sharing one planet.
May our celebration bring us into a deeper relationship
With the diverse beings in the interdependent web of all life,
Remembering we all have common needs
For safety, care and respect.
Welcome to all our siblings gathered here today.”

And now, I’m happy to send it over to David Neidermeyer, who will light our chalice.

Lighting of the Chalice: David Neidermeyer

And now, Jay Kahn has prepared a story to share with our children of all ages:

Story Wisdom: Jay Kahn

Reflection: Chloe Morgen

Hi, Welcome, I am Chloe morgen, one of your worship associates today. When I was very young my family had a family dog. She was an older chocolate lab and her name was Lola and I loved Lola. But I am going to say this now, I don’t remember Lola very much at all but I remember her passing made me sad. I also remember for years after her passing whenever I was sad or hurting I’d say I just missed Lola. Another thing you should know was that I have struggled with migraines for as long as I can remember and for the most part I was a happy kid, a happy kid who probably had some anxiety and probably needed help with my migraines. But the fatal flaw of being a young child in pain is that you don’t have the vocabulary or knowledge of how to speak about your pain or sometimes even how to recognize where it’s coming from. I was in pain and I didnt know how to ask for help, I don’t know if I exactly knew I needed help. I just knew what I was feeling was maybe some of what I was feeling after Lola was gone, her passing had been one of the times where the negative feelings I was experiencing was explained to me, it gave me a vocabulary, it gave me a way to vocalize hurt that didn’t exactly have clear causes. It was an experience where the emotions I was feeling were being shared by my family around me. I knew they’d understand that maybe I’m just a little sad or maybe I’m just hurting a little if I said I just missed Lola cause I knew they missed her to. Lola became my language of hurt even when I certainly didn’t remember her or her passing in any amount of clarity. I’m grateful I had a family who understood my language, looking back I’m also grateful that I found myself a language to speak my pain at an age that’s not so easy. 

Interlude: Cat Aria video 

Joys and Sorrows:  Anthony Neidermeyer

Good Morning. I’m Anthony Kahn, one of your youth worship associates today, and I am here to bring you the Joys and Sorrows of our church community. And I invite you all now, those of you with Joys and Sorrows to share with our congregation here gathered virtually, to open the chat box at the bottom of your screen and enter your Joys and Sorrows. Joys and Sorrows is our time in this space to honor these sacred moments and milestones. For our Ritual, we have water and Instead of  river stones, we have gemstones. Glistening and beautiful, these stones symbolize life’s times of ease, However they are rough and heavy, symbolizing life’s times of hardship. The water in our bowl is a precious natural resource. We use it sparingly, reminding us of the preciousness of each life and its unique journey.

David Morgen shared that his daughter, Ella, has a big new JOY in her life.  She’s adopted two tiny kittens.

Maria Drinkard continues to recover well from COVID-19, and we continue to wish her well.  

Hannah Cowart shared a JOY.  She reconnected with her third grade teacher this week after thirty years!  Hannah is hopeful that they will be pen pals.

Nancy Johnson shared that her brother, Bruce, and her good friend, Wei, each had a birthday this week both turned sixty this week. HAPPY BIRTHDAY to both!

Remember John Wienert who is at North Fulton Hospital following a fall a couple of weeks ago. Keep him and Penny Raney in your thoughts and prayers.

And I place this final stone for all those who have yet to find a caring community like ours in which to share their joys and sorrows. 

Prayer and Meditation: Rev. Misha Sanders

Our Prayer today is adapted from the words of Christine C. Robinson

Surrounded by the animals we love, we remember with gratitude the pets, protectors, and animal companions who have blessed our lives.

We give thanks for our childhood pets, who taught us to love and to cry. We give thanks for our children’s pets, who help us to teach them responsibility and relationship, and we give thanks for the pets who brighten our days and comfort our nights.

Surrounded by beloved pets, we remember that many animals suffer.

We remember that some animals are hunted or deserted or tortured or hungry. We remember that nature can be cruel and that people can be mean. We remember and want to help.

Surrounded by the animals we love, we know that many animals contribute to our lives.

We give thanks for all those animals who help us: worker animals who guard us and find our lost and guide the blind, the animals who provide us food and clothing, who tote our burdens and entertain us with their antics, and for animals who give their lives to help us learn.

Spirit of life, help us to remember that we live and work and love among the animals. Help us to be their friends, to love them and care for them and protect them from harm, to thank them when we use their lives for ours. Especially this morning, bless these animals who are the companions of our lives. Hear our outpouring of love and gratitude for them and help us translate that into love and gratitude for all your creatures.

We bless these animals we love. We pledge to care for them tenderly and faithfully, and to remember that we are not alone on the earth.

Pet Videos: Chloe Morgen, Robert Neidermeyer

Sermon: Fur, Fins, Feathers, and Francis  Rev. Misha Sanders

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”

And that’s really all our amazing scientists and health professionals urging us to care for one another by staying out of in-person church right now 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 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 right now in this weirdest of times while we all do our best to keep each other safe is just about as good a time as any to stop and honor the other Earthlings with whom we share our one wild and precious planet.  

Mary Oliver 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. 

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.”

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.  

We are here today to bless these creatures who share our homes and our lives. Really, we know that it is our animals who bless us. So perhaps what we are doing today is honoring the bonds of deep love and trust between which are not limited to human relationships. We bless our animals to honor their essence, their being, just as they are. 

As much as we might want our animals to be fully tame and housebroken and well behaved, if they lost all of their wildness they would lose something precious and important, they would lose something essential to themselves, something that connects them to their world, far beyond human understanding.  

And some of you do not have living pets, but you have brought a stuffed animal with you that you love.  

Margery Williams, in her book The Velveteen Rabbit, had this to say about our toy animals.  

“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’

‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’

‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’

‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Here is how we will bless our precious animals.

Some of you have brought your animal companions with you to the screen today. Some of you have brought things that remind you of pets that you have loved who have died. Some of you do not have pets and maybe you have brought a stuffed animal that you love, because those are really important too. Some of you will just bring forward into the chat box a name of an animal that you love, and will receive a blessing right onto your own hands.    

I want to call each precious animal by name, so I will ask you to tell me the name of your animal, if you want to, in the chat.  

WORDS FOR BLESSING:

Stuffed/plush animal:
[Name] You are blessed and beloved.
May you never get lost, and may you always be a symbol of a love that is very, very real. 

Live animal symbol: 
[Name} you are blessed and beloved.  May you always know this deeply. 
May you live all of your days in safety, comfort, and happiness.
I close this sacred, sweet ritual with a poem by my friend and colleague, the Rev. Theresa Soto: 

“What it means to have a pet is to
love someone who speaks a language
you do not. A dog will bow and prance,
a cat will purr and blink. A guinea pig
will giggle and squeak. A long time ago
a friend of mine had a dog with soft ears,
and considered herself the pup’s guardian.
A gentle way to think of protecting
and caring for a friend, such a small gesture
of respect for a source of boundless love.
The dog’s long pink tongue lolling in a goofy
grin. The cat convinced that kneading
and grooming are crucial to this day. A bird
asking for a treat, bending a wing to wave.
These are friends. They are loves. It’s
kind of a surprise that you should love
someone so much who would eat the butter
on the table if they could get away with it,
and gets endless hair on the sofa when they
aren’t even supposed to be on the furniture.
When they are called companion animals,
it’s such an open, tender truth. The endless
cuddles and tricks and loyalty. The comfort
of fingers to fur and big, adoring eyes.  
These are friends. They are loves. They
stretch our hearts and fill them with
their abundance of kindness. When they
are gone, our hearts remain larger,
though their absence leaves room
for expanses of grief. Their love
champions and companions us still.”

Offering: Introduction by Chloe Morgen

The offering that we take each Sunday isn’t just a stale habit: it’s an opportunity to recommit to this place, and to this people. Our offering is an affirmation—a “yes.” 

When we give, we say yes to something we value. With our gifts, freely given, may we say yes to the values of our faith. Our offering will now be given and gratefully received.

Dedication of the Offering: Chloe Morgen

“To the work of this congregation, which is weaving a tapestry of love and action, 

we dedicate our offerings and the best of who we are.” 

Music: Music w/ Animals

Benediction: Rev. Misha Sanders

Great Creator, hear and bless
Your beasts and singing birds;
And guard with tenderness
Small things that have no words

Postlude: Jim Pearce