Sermon from 2008 Annual Service
Sermon delivered by Bishop Michael Nazir Ali at the 2008 Rochester Cathedral service
So Lord, take my lips and speak your words through them, take our minds and think your thoughts through them and take our hearts making them a place for your spirit. Amen.
May I say first of all how grateful I am for this invitation from the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals to come together to consider this very serious matter for our times, together with you, and also to pray and to worship along with you at this time.
I have been struck on many occasions of the courage that many of you have shown in the face of what is needless cruelty to those creatures who cannot in anyway defend themselves. So we, as a church and as a whole, we are grateful to what you stand for on our behalf.
I want to begin with noting that we live in a world where things are, things exist, in a particular way. A world of intense, almost terrifying beauty – we are sometimes taken aback by the beauty of the world as a whole and indeed of every creature in it. But a world that is not only beautiful but beautifully ordered, the simple and elegant laws which are revealed in the workings of our world. And a world that has a tremendous capacity for growth and for variety. That is itself a miracle isn’t it? That we see how more and more complex forms of life come into being and are found around us and, indeed, we are an example of it ourselves. so a beautiful world, an ordered world and a growing world – that is what we have and in such a world we find ourselves fellow creatures with animals and all sorts of life forms around us. We share a world with them, we share life with them and at the same time we find, as you yourselves say, we are in a position of humble dominion. That is to say we have a special responsibility because of who we are in such a world. Perhaps stewardship is a better expression. We are stewards in this world because we can reflect on its nature, because we understand that eternal law, which is the mind of God, reflected in creation.
And so how we deal with our fellow creatures, how we treat other forms of life has very much to do with our understanding of the world. We are then to go with the grain and not against it. To make sure that natural law, which reflects the mind of God, is not violated again and again in our own lives of course, but also in our treatment of others. God has made us and God has made them in a particular way and if we live according to the way in which God has made us, and if we treat others in the way that God has made them, then of course there will be mutual flourishing. And if not, then we have seen already some of the terrible consequences of violating that terrible law again and again and again.
How things are, how we live together. Human beings are social animals, aren’t they? We don’t live on our own and even though we may express the desire to go into the wilderness and build ourselves a nest, sometimes that is quite a real feeling isn’t it? But we come back to society, to community, to family. Human beings are social animals and our sense of community, of being society, has fundamentally to do with justice, with compassion and of mercy. No society or community, no household is worthy if these characteristics are missing from it.
And of course that has to do with how we treat one another. Whether we treat other people with justice, compassion and mercy. Those less fortunate than ourselves, those deprived in some way or disabled or captive for one reason or another, housebound – whatever it may be – these qualities of justice, compassion and mercy have to be brought into play in the ways we build community, society, family.
But they have also to do with how we treat our fellow creatures. In the Bible, whenever justice in society is mentioned it is never only for human beings. It is also for the world around them and for the creatures with them. That great vision of the messianic society in Isaiah 11 that we have heard about – there is first the establishing of justice in society and then there is that great vision of peace among creatures. There is an inter-relationship between these. When the Bible speaks of animals – it says at least three things, I am sure you will be familiar with them.
First, how important it is to feed the animals in our care. “You shall not muzzle an ox that treads the grain”, might be a basic principle. I was impressed very recently with that series of films on wild China – I don’t know if you saw it – but the one particularly on the Tibetan plateau showed how people are very conscious for the need of the animals around them to be fed as well as for the people to feed themselves. But the feeding of animals in our care, the proper feeding of them, is certainly found in the Bible.
Secondly, the freeing of animals is a Biblical principle. It is part of the biblical vision of shalom. You know the expression “free range” comes directly from the bible, Isaiah Chapter 32, “blessed is the person who allows their ox or their donkey to range freely”. Well that might be a text for us this afternoon as we think of the plight of these birds, so terribly held captive and so unnaturally. Feeding and freeing to make sure the animals have the kind of freedom that their nature requires.
And then of course it is not only the freeing and feeding but it is also the general welfare of animals in our care, of those around us, or where we have some power over them. Rest for animals so that they are not overwhelmed if they are beasts of burden, is an early principle in the Bible and related very much to our own rest. But if a society does not rest itself, it is very unlikely to make sure that animals have rest. How we live together – justice, compassion and mercy have to do with our relationships with one another but also has to do with our relationship with all God’s creatures.
Of course, things have gone wrong. Things are not as they should be and we know in our own lives, in our societies and in our relationships with our fellow creatures, that things have gone badly wrong. Those cages up there are a symbol of ‘gone wrongness’ in our world.
But the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that the things that have gone wrong are being put right. Jesus has come to put things right. He has shown us what God’s purpose is in healing and what has gone wrong. In making whole what has been damaged, by His cross, His suffering, that we have mentioned already, we find that He has done what we have not done, He has undone what we have done and a new path to friendship and fellowship with God has been opened up for us and for the transformation and renewal for the whole world.
In the rising again of Jesus from the dead, we find not only God’s purpose for us, of our own salvation, our own fulfilment as human persons, but the resurrection of Jesus Christ is also a kind of first fruits for the renewal of the whole of creation. That is to say if you want to know what God’s purpose is in creating this world and in making right its wrongs then you look at the risen Jesus. The first fruits of our own salvation and first fruits of that liberation and renewal of all of God’s creatures. So our moral behaviour towards one another and to the rest of the world has to be in the light of not only of God’s creation but also of God’s redemption. We are a resurrection people, we are an Easter people as we so often say but we should be an Easter people every day so that our efforts, whether in animal welfare or in anywhere else, our resurrection efforts, creation and resurrection belong so closely together in the mind of God.
And then, of course, if the resurrection is the first fruits, what is the harvest? What is that final vision of those last things that we look forward to? The coming of the Kingdom of God in its fullness and that wonderful chapter from Isaiah has shown us what it is that is God’s purpose for his works. The establishing of justice and of peace in human society and the reconciliation of all creation so that we can live in peace and harmony together.
This vision which the prophet gave is being fulfilled in our world and in our lives through the work of Christ in us by the Holy Spirit. Of course there are many people in this world who are concerned for animal welfare and that is good. These people are our friends but because you are a Christian organisation your vision for God’s creation and your vision about God’s redemptive purposes has to be distinctively Gospel based and focused on the work of Christ. This should, must, I am sure does, give you a hopefulness that is sometimes missing in other movements. Because in the end we trust in the God who made the world and who redeems the world and we are simply those who join in with Him in His creative and redemptive purposes.
Thank you then for all that you are doing, for all that you are praying and we commit ourselves to listening to what you have to say, to learning from it and making sure that the prophetic word that you bring to us finds a response in our hearts and minds. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Twentieth Sunday after Trinity - Parish Eucharist sermon by Lay Preacher, John Clements in The Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Botley in North Hinxey Parish. Text - Psalm 111 and the Gospel Luke 17:11-19