The Blessing of Our Pets, God’s Blessing of Us in Christ
August 16, 2015
The Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost The Reverend Mark Pruitt
Jesus said, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever."
“I am a presbyter in the church of God.” This is how I responded to a teenager asking me about being a priest and the nature of the priesthood, just this week. Presbyter is the New Testament word that refers to one entrusted with, among other things, the teaching office of the church, and in the Anglican tradition it is from the New Testament word presbyter we get the word priest. Priest is the shortened form of presbyter.
Now, one of the occupational duties of presbyters is to be something like a travel guide, or a trail guide, a safari scout even, who can accurately map the real and varied terrain of the reality called Christian Living or Living in Christ. Imagine me and others like me, not as lecturers and even not in collars and robes and stoles, but in a pith helmet making a way through dense brush, or with a map and compass, a set of binoculars, or with a walking stick. All of which would fit better, by the way, with the hounds (and other animals) we have here today for our annual blessing of the pets.
Our duty, in this role, is to point out, for instance, where the mountain tops and new vistas are—that is, to draw our attention to those things in the life of Christian discipleship that, if we visit them, will keep us astonished, time and time again, bowled over and amazed. This summer we have focused largely on grace. We’ve tried to say, in essence, that we can’t really say God without saying grace, can’t see the real God if grace (unmerited favor, free turning to us in love) is not in view. Grace is not peripheral to the Christian faith, it’s right at the heart of it.
In pointing this out, part of our hope, or my hope at least, is that we will learn to live in the high country of liberation and freedom in Christ. Many reduce Christian living to just another set of morals and religious rituals and, by reducing it to that, only serve to lead us back into a low country of living without the power and vitality that comes from really counting on Christ as a living reality who ceaselessly turns to us and guides us.
Other things that are often mountain tops might be: pointing to some of the great devotional literature that is ours, or to exquisite hymns, or treasured passages of the New Testament. And you may think of other things about Christian living that are perpetually astonishing. Often a lifetime doesn’t seem long enough to learn what we teachers in the church have to learn. No one is fully up to the job, really. But it is our job and with your prayers and a strong measure of confidence in the New Testament, and the best reflection on it, we can point out some things with a high degree of assurance.
To keep the guide metaphor going a little bit longer, we have to know, of course, not just how to get people to the high ground of freedom and delight in Christ, but to show what kind of things are ….like oasis’s for refreshment of the soul, what kind of things are …..like traveling on solid ground, and where are the swamps that will stall our travel….keep us slogging unnecessarily on our journey. And we also have to point out things that keep us stuck in one place. One of those things is the danger of ritualism.
Rituals and habits are good things—or I should say, Good Rituals and Good Habits are Good Things. Good Rituals allow us a chance to enter into their meaning, to rest our souls and minds and not have to think up something new all the time. If we shape our rituals and habits well, they will in turn shape us for good. Yet any ritual or habit, which is good in itself, faces the danger, however, that in doing things repeatedly we can lose a true sense of the importance, meaning and scope of a practice or an event. Those who celebrate communion week after week – or multiple time in a week - can race through the words or be distracted or be on autopilot to such an extent that (as someone one said) “handling holy things so often one’s hands become numb (not literally) but spiritually and lose touch with the reality.”
In our family we have made fun of ourselves over the years when we’ve been on autopilot, speaking quickly and reflexively, without listening first. It started when an attendant at a movie theater handed us our tickets and said not “Have a good day” as we anticipated, since this is what is so often said at the end of transactions at the counter. But she said “Enjoy the movie!” My son and I each said “You, too” because we thought she was going to say “Have a good day.” Since then we have said “You, too” at McDonald’s (“Be careful the coffee is hot!” “You, too!”) and at the pharmacy (“Hope this prescription helps!” “You, too!”)
As it is the Sunday devoted to the blessing of the pets, let me venture the good guess that many times, those of us who have pets, many times we have put the dog food in the dish, filled the water bowl with fresh water, opened the door for our beloved Fido, or Coco, or Sluggo, to go out, without much thought, even maybe with only one eye fully open in the early morning hours. Pardon the pun but though it’s our pet routine, we can do it on autopilot. We often do. We may not look at the dog, may not smile at him or her, may not address the dog, may not pet it—or acknowledge it in any way apart from pouring food and water. (This is probably okay with the dog or cat or whatever we have. No objections have been raised by our dog, Emma. She’s happy to eat.)
I don’t always think about what it means to take care of a pet when I take care of our pet, but what is going on with the caretaking of our pets—at least ideally what is going on--is that we are learning to become more and more gentle, more considerate, and more thoughtful toward a living, feeling, sentient creature other than ourselves. We are intentionally displacing our ego from its throne of self-care to care for something else for its own sake, even if it takes our time, and our money, to do.
I hope you have thought about this before now. Our caretaking of members of the animal kingdom is meant for us to be one of the classrooms in the universal school of charity. There are many classrooms in this school of caretaking, or just getting along: we take care or contribute in some way to the well being of ….Siblings, spouses, children, friends, schoolmates, coworkers, brothers and sisters in Christ and others. All of these are part of the overall cosmic program of studies called Sacrificial Giving (aka Love) whose banner is flung over the cosmos. God has ordained these things –set up creation in such a way—to teach us how to be increasingly kind, gentle and caring. In a word, how to love. J H Newmans said the Love takes time. In that little saying is the reason for history: it takes time to give and receive love and care, and it takes time to learn how to give and receive love. And, in general if not always, pets (taking care of them) is a lot easier than those others I have just mentioned. Consider pets as a warm up for more difficult exercises. Say “Okay, Fido, I have taken care of you this morning, now for the world.”
Looking out for those others that are pets is something the early writer of Genesis told us about when he spoke of mankind having dominion over the earth by which he meant exercising the care that comes with our position in the cosmos. We have a heightened responsibility for the creation.
This does not mean we have a right to exploit it. We can’t herm it in such a way to leave it worse off for future generations. But we have a responsibility, however taxing, to treat it (the world and all that is in it) with the best wisdom we have. And learning how to do that on a large scale and together – we know from the battles over ecology – is not easy. Think of the debates over fossil fuels, climate change, pipelines, research making use of animals for experiments, and more. They are real issues, and thinking though them may be difficult, but we do so as part of learning to dethrone ego from it’s throne and serve a common good, a real good outside of ourselves. I hope this clarifies what is going on in the ritual I started with—feeding your pup—and you can see how giving of our time, effort, attitude toward others is all part of the same cloth.
Now, turning to the gospel lesson, what goes on in the ritual called Holy Communion includes God’s pledge to be always for us in Christ, never more than a prayer away, whether that prayer is one of repentance, thanksgiving, entreaty, or opening ourselves to God. An old saying is “If you feel distant from God, asked yourself, “Who was it that moved?” God hasn’t, we have. And this contrast with the image of me often in the mornings speeding off to work after feeding Emma. God doesn’t feed us and then leave us for work. No, we are God’s workmanship. We are God’s work, morning, noon, and night. What is crystallized in communion is what is meant to go on day in and day out.
I think there have been 5-6 Sundays in a row this summer devoted to Jesus talking about how he is different than the one-time daily dose of bread the Israelites were given in the wilderness. This emphasis is made by our readings so that we don’t miss the importance of understanding one of our primary rituals. Disciples of Christ are promised a real relating with God in such a way that the relationship need never be on “pause” or “stop.”
Isn’t it a heartening thought to think that God is not in a hurry to feed you so that He can move onto something else. You, and me, and the person next are God’s work – God’s workmanship according to Ephesians. The clay that God is forever shaping, like a potter according to Jeremiah. The sheep of his pasture, says the Psalmist and Jesus, too. God is willing and able to feed us at all times with what we really need. Our Sunday ritual is meant to crystallize what ideally goes on throughout the week.
I became spiritually depressed—my spirit shrivels up—when ritualism creeps in and makes any part of ceremony or liturgy mechanical or rushed-- and when it has become cut off from daily living. I wonder if you do, too? The more positive way to put this is to say that ABIDING IN CHRIST daily, will reinforce what happens here on Sundays, and what happens here on Sundays will reinforce what happens in the week. The more we abide in his ways during the week the less perfunctory and ho-hum our rituals will be here. And, it works the other way, too. The less perfunctory and ho-hum we make our time here—the more intentional we are about this ritual-well, the more vibrant and real our lives of eucharistia—thanksgiving—will be outside of here. Thanksgiving will percolate, I tell you, and bubble over in over lives, visible and real and noticeable to us and others.
So, when we say as part of our ritual “Feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving” we are led by this words to a confident, loving trust to be fed and sustained by all that God had for us in Christ: wisdom for living, strength for the week ahead, a new start, and the promises of ten thousand tomorrows with God as we move along this varied terrain of life in Christ. Amen.
About this publication: Many have asked for written copies of our sermons. Sermon Notes is a response to that request from one of our preachers, Mark Pruitt. These notes that: the written notes, typed in advance of the sermon that shape the sermon eventually delivered—usually with some divergence, condensation, or expansion, from this written form. Often the sermon may be quite different in outline and presentation from these notes, though not so much in content. Generally, theses notes will be (ideally, anyhow) more polished and flowing as befits written expression, while the sermon will aim, as it should, for more connectivity through personal address. In either form, our sermons at St. Paul’s strive to promote wise reflection on biblical themes and texts, issue calls to discipleship and intentional growth in God’s grace and mission, and embody the confidence (even when it sometimes takes the form of questioning and searching) that God speaks to us in the here and now.
he Reverend Mark J. Pruitt, Rector
The Blessing of Our Pets, God’s Blessing of Us in Christ
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