This sermon was delivered on October 25th, 2020 at Oakhurst Baptist Church for the Blessing of the Animals Service celebrating St. Francis’ feast day on October 4th, 2020.
Last week I attended a webinar about apocalypse, ecological collapse and the role Christian religion plays in our current ecological state. Heavy stuff, right?
One of the things that was suggested in our time together is that human existence might not end, but rather, it would go on as a future marked by ecological social division. Think of a future where perhaps the rich — I’m talking the millionaires and billionaires, the Mark Zuckerbergs and Jeff Bezos of the world — isolate themselves and the wealthy in the last habitable places where humans can live safely. The oppressed and the common folk might have to compete for safety and resources in order to survive in less habitable lands. This isn’t a science fiction plot or one of those dystopian novels your youngest relative might be reading. No, we are already seeing environmental social inequality being enacted here in the United States today, when we hear about African American communities being built on landfills and near waste facilities, or when we learn that food deserts are more likely to be in neighborhoods belonging to people of color.
When I heard about this, I thought to myself: I’m not sure what’s worse, human extinction or a future where humans would use the ecological crisis to heighten class and racial divisions. I so desperately want inequality to end. Would it be wrong to tell God in my prayers that I would prefer the second of these two bleak possible outcomes? An end to human existence instead of more centuries of human suffering?
Okay. I know that’s a lot. So I’ll slow down a little… That’s a lot to be processing and ruminating over right now, especially during a global pandemic. But how many of us can say that we are NOT worrying right now? A tense election is one week away and the possibility of a fascist presidency continuing is likely. I’m also a 27 year old second generation Panamanian-American living during the six mass extinction: You bet I worry! And I know that many of you are worried about a future for your loved ones… or even your own. Many of you may have spent the past few weeks following closely the news, all of the court proposals and threats of progressive rulings like Roe Vs. Wade being pulled back. Perhaps you’re glued to your televisions, or reading commentary after commentary on Facebook with no end. Maybe you’re doing what my generation calls “doom scrolling”. It is hard not to feel like our worlds are ending. It makes sense to be worried, to not be okay right now, to be worried about the future of everything. We are all doing our best to cope with a nation and world that continues to unravel, unravel, unravel…
In the end of that webinar that I mentioned earlier, the one about ecological collapse and social division and the gospel, we wondered aloud: what do we do? And it makes sense to ask this question after such a difficult discussion about what our future could look like. We talked about how those powers that be, our current government and the corporations responsible for our ecological crisis have some investment in telling us that there is nothing that we can do. In other words, we suspected that the Powers want us to feel defeated, to believe we have no power to create a just and equitable future for ourselves or each other.
We were mostly followers of Jesus attending that webinar, and we felt that we couldn’t give up hope. And here I am with you, a gathering of mostly Jesus-followers wondering with you, what does it mean to love God with all of our heart and all of our soul and with all of our mind in such a precarious and dangerous time? What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself in this time where worry and hopelessness make sense? How do we love God and neighbor when it seems like the world is about to end?
Maybe you were expecting a quaint little sermon about the ways we experience God’s love through the animals in our lives. After all, this is the blessing of the animals service, right? But this time of blessing animals is also a time of recognizing our deep and mutual interdependence with all of God’s creatures. Interdependence meaning, we need the Creation, as much as the Creation needs us to exist in right relationship with it. Surely, our dogs and our cats need us to be in right relationship where we are seeking their well being. And many of us know intimately the ways that the animals we live with help us to live well. But we must also live in wellness-seeking relationship with ourselves and the rest of Creation. For this reason, I want to speak about Brother Francis and some of the things that we can learn from him, a man who I believe loved God and all creaturely neighbors with all of his might. Do you ever wonder what it would be like if St. Francis was alive today?
What we know about St. Francis was that the guy was the party animal son of a clothing merchant. Merchants were a rich class of people during medieval times. Perhaps in 2020 St. Francis would be the progeny of a CEO for some popular clothing brand (like Zara).
We also know that before his conversion, Francis wanted to be a knight, to fight on behalf of oppressed peoples in the land. Perhaps, a 2020 version of Francis would be hearing about the Youth Climate movement, the Movement for Black Lives or about migrant refugees fighting for their rights in the fields and slaughterhouses. Perhaps Brother Francis would be captivated by these movements, wondering where he fits in despite his class privilege and sheltered upbringing. We knew that Brother Francis would eventually give up his possessions to abandon his life of nobility after hearing the voice of God. I’d imagine a 2020 Francis perhaps getting involved in some radical wealth redistribution or mutual aid project. Maybe Francis would be known by many for being a class and a race traitor for seeking a life alongside the oppressed.
However, we know Francis was not living during a pandemic or during a contentious election. Francis, however, was living in a time where the Church was wealthy and powerful, and where it was uncommon for Christians to take a meaningful stance in solidarity with the poor. This might sound familiar as we find ourselves in a time where an overwhelming amount of the white American church is choosing to align themselves and sympathize with the wealthy, such as the businessman in chief, rather than the least and oppressed among us.
To love our neighbor as ourselves? I want you to think about this. The answer will as unique as each of you, but I believe that our ability to survive this apocalyptic time will be dependent on our ability to rely on each other, to see the person next to us truly as sibling and necessary, in the same way that Francis saw the Sun, the Moon, the wolves and the poor as his siblings, but also necessary to his personhood and livelihood. We have seen the ways that Trump’s border wall project, for instance, not only prohibits migrant refugees from fleeing distressing situations, but ecologists have also noted the ways the wall has endangered local wildlife and disrupted foodways that indigienous habitants living near the border have relied upon for centuries. All plights are connected, more so than they seem on the surface.
I want to encourage us to lean into this theme of mutual dependence: of relying on each other and seeing our fates as connected. Kathy Black, a disabled theologian encourages Christians to adopt a theology of interdependence as a means to understand some of the relationships that happen in the world without adopting pithy beliefs that the suffering that happens is ordained or caused by God. Often, pain and isolation and oppression that happens in the world is caused by our own failure to care and mutually depend on others. Black encourages us to remember God’s love, compassion, presence and care, when we are tempted to focus on whether God controls or causes the suffering we are facing. Our well being is connected to our siblings’, and while we cannot control and fix the world, we can continue to show up and follow the greatest command to love. To love ourselves is to love our neighbor and vice versa. To advocate for others among God’s creation is to advocate for ourselves, despite the ways that our hyper individualist culture has socialized us to look out only for our own interest (or to fix our gaze exclusively on others at our own expense if you are like myself).
There is a lot to worry about and there is so much at stake ahead of us. But, we still live in a beautiful interconnected world, even though much of that is hard to see because of the political and ecological predicaments we are in. Yet, this is the world that we are called to love God and each other in; the oppressed, by seeking out their well-being, the rich, by calling them into account, and the rest of Creation, by seeking out balance and right relationships with all of God’s creatures. Brothers, sisters, siblings, may this be so.