Pet Blessing Sermon

Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost

“Do not worry about your life,” says Jesus in today’s reading from Matthew.  Clearly Jesus did not know about 2020 – the number that while still meaning visual acuity is now more frequently used with a sigh – #2020 – yet another disappointment, tragedy, natural disaster, or other unexpected event. “Don’t worry” – are you kidding?  There is so very much to worry about – the economy, school, my children, the election, my parents, the President’s health, democracy, systemic racism. (I could name more but you get the picture and probably have your own list of worries).  Worry is one of those things that can consume us overwhelm us, weigh us down with the sheer force of its load.

“Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” Jesus asks. 

What we have learned from medicine is that not only does worrying not add a single hour to our life, it can actually take hours away.  And mental health professionals are noting with alarm, the tremendous increases in anxiety and depression over the course of this year of COVID-19.  There are many recommendations for the treatment of anxiety and depression – counseling, medication, exercise, yoga, and time with our pets.  A more hopeful statistic from this year of COVID has been the huge increase in the adoption and fostering of dogs and cats.  One shelter I read about reported a 300% increase in the number of pets being fostered this year.  And another reported that its daily occupancy of cats and dogs awaiting a family has been cut in half because of the increase in adoptions. 

Which brings me to St. Francis, the Saint whose feast we celebrate today.  Whose life we remember because of his devotion and love for all of God’s creatures and creation.

Growing up in 12th century Assisi, Francis was weighed down with the way his family and other persons with power, wealth, and privilege behaved and treated others.  While still a young man, Francis began to feel God prompting him to question the direction of his life.  He would visit abandoned churches and lonely places to pray for God’s guidance.  An experience with illness and time in the military during war caused him to reconsider all of what burdened him and in what Franco Zeffirelli portrayed in a dramatic scene in his 1972 movie, Brother Son, Sister Moon, Francis renounced his life of wealth and privilege, and embraced a God who invites us to see things differently, to consider a new perspective.

“Consider the lilies, look at the birds,” Matthew writes – notice creation, pay attention to the creatures.  When I am worried or feeling anxious, I generally want to do nothing more than to sit on the couch and scroll through an ever worsening parade of news.  Worry can turn us inward; the worry of how we are seen or perceived can blind us to seeing God’s love for us and for all God’s creatures and creation. 

Yet I find that when I turn attention away from that which draws me into deeper worry and turn toward God’s creatures and God’s creation, I am able to see with new eyes, that I am open to new insight about God and God’s intentions for me.

And my furry creatures at home, Willow and Avril, help me to leave behind those worries that can paralyze.  Three years ago at our annual pet blessing, we decided it was time to add another dog to our household.  After having no dogs for 9 months, we had adopted 3 year old Avril from PAWS in June 2017, and with the approaching school year, I thought that Avril needed a companion.  And thus we ended up with 6 week old Willow whose mom was a Hurricane Irma rescue who gave birth to three puppies at the Humane Society. Willow and her two brothers were playing on the front lawn of All Saints when we spotter her, and before the end of the day, we had brought her home. When Willow was a few months old, from a sole desire to help her burn off some of that incredible puppy energy, we started heading to the dog beach every few days or so.  And soon after, in an effort to avoid the large crowds of humans and dogs, I started heading to the beach early each morning often arriving just as the sun was showing its first light on the horizon and staying through its rise up over the lake.  I marvel at the stunning sunrises and am endlessly awed by the light each new day bring.  Rain, snow, ice, gale force winds, hot humid mornings, and bitter cold rarely deterred me from this morning ritual. And Avril and Willow, with their longing eyes and excited tail wagging help get me off the couch on those days I didn’t want to get up.  And soon it became something I almost had to do.

And it’s such a delight to watch the dogs play in their big fenced in lakefront yard. Dogs are so present and focused on what is in their current environment–which at the dog beach is the ducks, other dogs, sometimes skunks, waves, weird smells. They have an innate ability to be fully in the moment and they really notice their environment.  They see – they hear things.  They pay attention.  They remind me to do the same.  To see.  To be present.  To leave worrying behind. 

The closing of the beaches during the pandemic has been a bitter pill – because while my dogs still get that morning walk outside in God’s glorious creation, I found something else in my morning beach walks – connections with community, relationships.  I so miss the community of fellow dog owners who are part of the early morning crew – Al with Frankie and Dublin, Dave with Cash, Joe and Rooney; those whom I know only by their dogs’ names – Frieda and Blase’s dad, Zoe’s owner, Winny, Shadow, Hugo – these are the dogs and their human friends who make up the early morning beach crew, watching together for the sun to rise as we leave our footprints (and paw prints) in the sand, noticing the lingering smell of skunk, or the ever diminishing beach from the rising water.   We didn’t start out to get to know each other – we exchanged first names and dog names, shared sometimes the neighborhoods we live in, the teams we root for, whether we had kids and grandkids or no kids.  At first I’d walk off by myself with Willow and Avril but soon found myself walking with the group in companionable silence or easy conversation up and down the beach; We’d wonder and sometimes worry about those who weren’t there – aware we wouldn’t even know how to reach out to them to find out if they were ok, if their beloved pet was ok.   And sometimes our conversation would turn to what was burdening our hearts – the end of a relationship, an upcoming surgery, the death of a parent, the death or illness of a pet.  It became a place to shed any pretense, to be our real selves, and to really “see” each other.  Our dogs and God’s wondrous creation on the shores of Lake Michigan provided the vehicle to deeper relationship and caring.

We have been scattered during this pandemic. Exiled from the shores of Lake Michigan to neighborhoods and forest preserves, to a loss of connection.  Yet I know we will return.  I’ve managed to find one beach friend, Dave, on Facebook and learned his family adopted a second black lab; through Dave, I learned that Al’s beloved dogs, Frankie and Dublin both died; and this week, I was able to connect with Al and learn about his plan to adopt a two month old shepherd pup. And there’s been something about re-connecting, the sacredness of renewing relationship that has brought me hope this week.  These pets whom we bless this day, offer some lessons, I believe – they offer a reminder to be present, and to participate; to notice what friends and family, neighbors and strangers are saying and seeing; a reminder to pay attention so that we may understand the deep longings and needs of the world around us so desperately in need of being seen. 

And also, I believe the lessons in our gospel today and in the life and witness of Francis are this:  See with new eyes and insight, do not let worry cut you off from relationship with God.  In that perfect freedom of relationship with Jesus, Francis was able to see God in ALL of God’s creation – in the earth and sea, in the moon and the sun, the two legged and the four-legged and all that lives on the earth. 

And as we celebrate this day, may these dear, beautiful pets we’ve brought for a blessing nudge us with their cold noses and gentle kisses into remembering to see the world with open eyes and open hearts.