Sermon from 2012 Annual Service - Chelmsford

Sermon by Bishop of Chelmsford, Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell at ASWA Annual Service on Animal Welfare Sunday

Sermon for Animal Welfare Sunday

7th October 2012 - Chelmsford Cathedral


“I am the Good Shepherd, says Jesus, I know my own and my own know me.” (John 10. 14)


There are lots of animals in the Bible. Noah famously saves two of everything when the flood waters rise. Joseph dreams of thin cows eating fat ones. Moses sends plagues of frogs and gnats, flies and locusts. The shepherd boy David cares for his sheep.  Solomon’s wealth is measured in horses and cattle as well as concubines. Jesus himself rides into Jerusalem on a donkey.

In the first creation story in Genesis, God creates animals the day before he creates us, but we are given dominion over them.  We have not always exercised this stewardship wisely. Dominion has too often become domination. We think the creation is ours. We do with it as we please. And animals are often the first to suffer.

One of scripture’s most lovely animal stories is that of Balaam’s donkey. You can find it in Numbers chapter 22. It is a slightly confusing story, but at its heart we find covetous Balaam consumed by greed failing to follow God’s commands. Saddling his donkey, he goes off to seek honour and wealth. God sends an angel to slay him, but only the donkey sees the angel standing in the road ahead of Balaam with his sword drawn.  To avoid the angel the donkey turns off the road into the field.  Balaam strikes it viciously. Again the angel moves to block Balaam’s path. Again the donkey sees him, and this time lies down so that Balaam cannot move.  Again Balaam strikes it. Then, astonishingly, and this is the famous bit of the story, God open the mouth of the donkey and gives it the power to speak. The donkey then addresses Balaam, saying “What have I done to you that you have struck me?” (Numbers 22. 28) And when Balaam persists, suggesting the donkey is making a fool of him, the donkey retorts, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” “No” replies Balaam (Numbers 22.30).  Then, having opened the donkey’s mouth, the Lord opens Balaam’s eyes. He sees the angel waiting to slay him and the angel informs him that the donkey is the only reason he has not been killed. Balaam repents and goes on.

Well, we today live our lives with animals. We keep them as pets. We wear their skins upon our feet. Most of us eat them every day. Some of them – even those we eat – are beautifully cared for, loved and respected right to then end. Many are not. Even household pets are neglected, abused and cast away. If God were to open their mouths; if the animals we live with and depend upon for so much, were to speak to us, what would they say?

First of all I think they would echo the plaintive cry of Balaam’s donkey; they would say, “Why are you treating me this way? Am I not the one who has cared for you, clothed you, fed you, comforted you?

And, in particular, a dog might say, do you know that when you get bored of me, I am left out on the street with thousands of others? And then just put down.  Why don’t you punish those who abuse us? We have been faithful companions to you. Have we not welcomed you home, entertained your children, walked with you faithfully, and brought comfort to the lonely and the housebound? Some of us work as guide dogs, or sniffer dogs with the police. Others of us work with search and rescue. Some of us are the eyes and ears of those who are blind or deaf. We help children with autism to open up as we encourage them to play with us. So why do you take us for granted? Why do you mistreat us? Why do you care so little?

And a cat might say, have we not proved ourselves to be good pets to you? Bringing comfort and solace to our owners, picking up their moods and listening to their sorrows. So why do you neglect us? Why do you leave us without food and see us as disposable? Why do you allow a rising tide of cruelty to overwhelm us, and not offer us any protection? We are treated viciously by some people and you don’t seem to care. And why do you allow our overbreeding to occur? If you don’t want a litter of kittens, why don’t you have us neutered? As many of us aren’t neutered, hundreds of us are put down; there aren’t enough homes for us. We enjoy being a family pet; being chased by the children, playing in the garden, following you round the house showing affection, and sitting on your lap hearing about your day, so why won’t you care for us?

And a horse might say, why do you overlook us, leaving us without food and water, and with cracked hooves?  Why do you put us in danger with hazardous junk on the ground and nails protruding from fences, so we injure ourselves? Why do you saddle us too young and work us too hard, so that our body becomes misshapen?

And a chicken might say, why do you force us to live in such cramped conditions, with only half a square foot of space? You treat us as though we were dead already. You bundle us together in crates in the back of trucks to freeze to death, or in the summer to suffocate in the heat. With artificial light you make it constant daytime, manipulating us to eat constantly. Why won’t you let us roam more freely?         

And looking further afield a rhinoceros might say, why do you hunt us to extinction? Why do you see us as commodities, killing us just for our horns and leaving our carcasses to rot?

And an elephant might say… and a cow… and a tiger… and a cod… . And what if a humble, honey bee could speak, telling us what we are doing to the planet that has caused their numbers to fall so dramatically?  And so on, and so on. The catalogue of cruelty and indifference is almost beyond telling. But we are here this morning to tell it, and on this Animal Welfare Sunday to redress the balance.

But of course it is not the mouths of animals that need to be opened, but, as with Balaam, the eyes of human beings. We need to see the danger that is in our path if we continue to mis-use creation and exploit the animals with whom we share this planet. How we treat animals speaks volumes about how we view ourselves; how we see ourselves as in charge, and animals as our possession. And there is danger: the moral danger of our cruelty and indifference; and the environmental danger of manipulating and perverting the equilibrium of the planet itself. We have been given dominion over creation, but we must start understanding this as stewardship. We belong to each other within the beautiful inter-dependence of the creation, and what we do to others will rebound on us. As Jeremiah says, “How long will the land lie parched and the grass in every field be withered? Because those who live in it are wicked, the animals and birds have perished” (Jeremiah 12:4). 

“Do to others as you would have them do to you”, says Jesus. Surely this must apply to the whole of creation, animals included. And then, in today’s gospel reading we hear Jesus proclaim, borrowing an image of those who do love and tend for the animals in their care: “I am the Good Shepherd. The good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” (John 10. 11). This not only describes the relationship that Jesus has with us, loving us to the end, forgiving the uninterrupted misery of our sinfulness, dying for us; but is also an image of the attentive self-giving and respect which should mark our attitude and relationship with all of creation, and especially our closest friends, the animals with whom we live our lives and upon whom we depend so much.  It is the Christian way: to love our neighbours.


Stephen Cottrell

Bishop of Chelmsford

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