Sermon by Michael Usey
Two weeks ago I wanted to test the deacons so I asked them a very simple question, what did they think was the most frequently asked questions to me as pastor? Being the diaconate of College Park, they responded with their usual wisdom. Their list included these questions that other people ask me:
- Where is the bathroom in this place anyway? I do get asked this often.
- How did you ever trick Ann into marrying you? A very good question indeed.
- Do you know Jesus? A few in Greensboro doubt that I know him.
- Who did you bribe to get this job? There is a variation on this that I won’t mention this morning.
- Was your barber angry with you? No, but he drinks a lot.
You get the idea. More insightful questions along this line. Okay, I said, let’s try this again. What’s are some of the most frequently asked theological questions that I get asked? After some discussion I gave them my short list. I wonder if my list is pretty much the same as most other ministers. You might think I get asked about social issues, like abortion, homosexuality or the war in Iraq, but not so much. In fact, it occurs to me that I’ve never been asked about the war, even though I’ve chosen not to preach on it directly. No, the questions I get asked generally are more visceral, more poignant. Thinking about it week, I realized that my top five FAQs include these:
- Do you really think there is a God, or is God just a metaphor for everything that is good about people? Like it says in High School Musical 2, we humans are “all in this together.” And for whatever reason God has made his presence ambitious in the world. It takes just as much faith to believe there is a God as it does to say there is not one, but for me personally the answer is a clear choice: There is a God, and most astonishing of all, God cares about us.
- Does God love me? or, Are you certain that God loves someone like me? It’s always tricky to speak for God, but I believe very deeply that God Almighty loves you and me and the rest of us, and creation itself, as impossible as that might seem.
- How can I ever forgive [fill in the blank], and the blank includes son, daughter, mother, father, ex-wife, ex-husband, partner, relative who molested me, mistress, boss, person who raped me, business partner who stole everything, you get the idea. I don’t have any easy answers to this one. I point to people like the Amish families whose little girls were gunned down while they were in school, families who with God’s help forgave. And I remind them that bitterness and resentment are great temptations as we age, which will eventually destroy us, not the people who caused us the pain.
- Will I ever get over my grief? Generally I say yes and no: yes, with help of a caring church, the holy spirit, friends, time, and occasionally some good pharmaceuticals, you will likely come to a place where you can get out of bed in the morning; and no, you won’t ever be the same. The worst grief, like the death of a son or daughter, can’t be fully healed on this side of eternity.
- And the top question I get asked most often is this: Will my dog, cat, or horse be in heaven? (One time the pet was an iguana, but not so much on the reptiles.) It’s true; the number one theological question I get asked is about what is called animal redemption. As one woman assertively said to me once, “Usey, you can be wrong about a lot of things but if you’re wrong about this, I’ll kill you.” I gently pointed out to her that when we both knew the answer, we’d both be death, but this did not calm her. “Even so, I’ll hunt you down,” she said with a sweet southern smile. [See, some of our members have a delicate psychological balance.] The answers I give are generally no, yes, who knows? and I hope so. I’ll flesh out these answers in just a minute.
I want to start a new occasional sermon series called, Pretty Good Questions. The questions will come from you, and I’ll try to address those questions and by that I mean I’ll try and not sound totally and completely foolish when I talk about it. This does not mean I’ll give the definitive answer, as if there is one in most theological questions. As with every sermon, I hope it is a the beginning of a conversation between preacher and listener, between the text and readers, between each other as we seek God’s wisdom about how best to live this very confusing life. This series will be occasional, meaning it will be now and then, when I get a good question. I still have ongoing occasional series on people from church history, and biomedical issues.
As with many issues, the dangers about talking about animal redemption, of whether your pet will go to heaven, are great on the right and on the left. One danger is sentimentality, for example, thinking of polar bears as giant Webkins instead of something that would gladly eat you if you got near enough. Perhaps you’ve seen the stunning documentary by Werner Herzog called Grizzly Man. The movie is about a deeply disturbed man named Timothy Treadwell and the 13 summers he spent living in the Alaskan wilderness in the midst of giant bears. If you’ve seen this remarkable movie, then you know being mawkish about animals can get you eaten, as it did Timothy and his girlfriend. The other danger is cynicism, saying in effect, who cares about animals and would please pass me the steak sauce? But we know that, even here on earth, our fate is bound up directly with our fellow creatures. If too many of them go extinct (and it will not take very many) then we will surely follow. Most of us who have owned a dog or a cat or horse have had a deep connect to that animal in a way that surprised us, delighted us, and disturbed us when they died. If you’ve never felt connected to an animal, then you have missed out on an amazing part of life. In talking about this, I trust we can avoid the twin dangers of sentimentality and cynicism. And I also know that some of you have enough trouble believing in the basics of Christianity without throwing in animal redemption.
Do this, please. On the front of your worship bulletin, write the name of a dog or cat or horse or (if you were really lucky as a child) a pet monkey that you bonded with. It can be living or dead, but write his or her name down now, on the front of the bulletin. My first dog was named Blackie; my mother bought him home for me with I was six-years-old, in the first grade in Chula Vista. Curled up as he on my mother’s lap, I thought at first she had bought me a Beatles’ wig. Though my family moved umpteen times during my childhood, one of the constants in my life was my love for a cocker-poo with hair covering his eyes. And I held him and cried as we put him to sleep 15 years later, when he was at the point of a painful death—as many of you have held loved pets as well. I am convinced that, for most Christians, the first and most significant connection we have with the goodness of God’s creation is love of a pet animal. This is no small thing. And notice that the opposite is also true: the best early indication we have of someone becoming a serial killer is that person enjoys torturing animals.
Before you think I’m completely loony, I want you to know that most of the church’s great theologians have written on animal redemption. This week I’ve read treatises on this by Augustine, Bishop Joseph Butler, Irenaeus, John of the Cross, John Calvin, John Wesley, Edward Quinn, Keith Ward, Paul Tillich, and C.S. Lewis. Of this learned group of white guys, only Augustine did not think animals would be in some way redeemed because, he reasoned that rationality is necessary for redemption.
Yet, as you heard in earlier in the service, the Bible does have some hints about whether all dogs and iguanas go to heaven. In the Hebrew bible, our OT, there is a fundamental closeness between animals and humans.
- So it’s not surprising that Psalm 36.6 says, “You save humans and animals alike, O Lord.” If you’re shopping for a proof text this morning, you need look no further.
- Isaiah clearly envisions a new world for humans and animals inaugurated by the messiah.
- Ecclesiastes wonders whether humans have any pre-eminence over animals when it comes to life over death.
- Paul in his letter to his friends in Rome—in the passage we studied two weeks ago—hopes for the redemption of all creation, which he says is subject to death not of its own free will. And he is clearly referring to non-human creation, stuff other than people.
- The incredible passages in Ephesians and Colossians speak of a world-embracing reconciliation brought about by God in Christ.
- And, finally, Revelation speaks of a new heaven and a new earth, involving the destruction of pain and death. And, not to press a metaphor too much, but if the messiah comes out of heaven riding a white horse, then where exactly did he get the horse?
So the voices of scripture are a chorus singing and hoping for the redemption of all things, including animals, and not merely humanity. Key questions remain, however: if animals will be redeemed, what does their redemption consist of? Of this I have not a clue. Only that, in all likelihood, dogs in heaven might be very surprised to see humans up there too. Especially if they catch sight of Michael Vick.
Out of the ground the Lord God formed the beast of the field and every bird of the air and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. Following Adam’s lead, we say that is the elephant, and the albatross, that is the weasel and the goldfish. What or who they really are we do not because the animals do not tell. They do not tell because they lack what is either the gift or the curse of speech, depending on your point of view. Perhaps another reason they do not tell is that they do not know. The marmalade cat dozing on the piano presumably doesn’t think of herself as a marmalade cat or anything else for that matter. She simply is what she is and what she does. Whether she’s mating under the moon, or eviscerating a mouse or gazing into empty space, she seems to make herself up from moment to moment as she goes along.
Humans live largely inside their heads, from which they tell rest of their bodies what to do, except for the occasional passionate moments when the tables are turned. Animals, on the other hand, do not seem compartmentalized that way. Everything they are is in every move they make. When a dachshund takes a shine to you, it is not likely to be because he has thought it over ahead of time. Or in spite of certain reservations, or in expectation of certain benefits. It seems to be just because it feels to him like a good idea at the time. Such as he is, he gives himself to you hook, line, and sinker, including the bad breath, the frenzied tail and the front paws climbing the air. Needless to say, the whole picture can change in flash if you try to make off with his dinner, but for the moment his entire being is an act of love bordering on the beatific. Job said to his foul-weather friends, Ask the animals and they will teach you. And what might they teach us? Innocence is one of their lessons, as I just talked about. But the one Job has in mind is another, that in the Lord’s hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being. [Job 12.7, 10] All life comes from God, so we sort of sense that since life belongs to God, it might return to God in death. This is no small hope.
I said earlier that I generally give a couple of answers to people who ask if their pet will be in heaven: no, yes, who knows? & I hope so. I say no to those people who assume that their pet here will be their pet in the next life. If redemption means anything, it means freedom for everything to be free to be it’s own true self. Whatever animal redemption looks like, it will be something truer, higher, purer & more free than here. The lion and lamb will lie down together. Woody Allen adds, “But the lamb won’t get much sleep.”
But to most people I say Yes to those who ask if their beloved animal will be in heaven. I say this on the basis of the verses we looked at this morning. Yes, because Christ’s work was cosmic and world affirming, and when God becomes all in all, it will be the dawn of the new creation. With the theo-logians I read, all but one opposed the idea that humans alone are destined for eternity. So the witness of scripture and the church is that God will not aban-don creation in favor of incorporeal souls, but God will transfigure all creation.
But the truth is, we don’t know. Any talk of eternity is speculation and wishful thinking, in the best sense of that phrase. We have assurances from the messiah himself that nothing, not even death can separate us from God’s love, and this is our hope, but it’s not yet proven. We haven’t died; we don’t know so we should be skeptical about our epistemology. Meaning we should have some appreciation of the vastness of what we don’t know, and the mysteries of life, death, and redemption are huge, as our trust in God is great.
But I hope animals are redeemed—I deeply hope so. The Christian paradigm of afterlife is the resurrected body of Jesus. He is our best example of how suffering is changed into joy. It seems to me that any being that suffers pain should and must find that pain changed into joy. I have no idea how this might happen, but it follows from the doctrine that God is love, and so God would not create any being whose sole destiny was to suffer pain.
A man and his dog were walking along a road. The man was enjoying the scenery, when it suddenly occurred to him that he was dead. He remembered dying, and that the dog walking beside him had been dead for years. He wondered where the road was leading them. After a while, they came to a high, white stonewall along one side of the road. It looked like fine marble. At the top of a long hill, it was broken by a tall arch that glowed in the sunlight.
When he was standing before it he saw a magnificent gate in the arch that looked like mother-of-pearl, and the street that led to the gate looked like pure gold. He and the dog walked toward the gate, and as he got closer, he saw a man at a desk to one side. When he was close enough, he called out, “Excuse me, where are we?” “This is Heaven, sir,” the man answered. “Wow! Would you happen to have some water?” the man asked. “Of course, sir. Come right in, and I’ll have some ice water brought right up.” The man gestured, and the gate began to open. “Can my friend,” gesturing toward his dog, “come in, too?” the traveler asked. “I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t accept pets.” The man thought a moment and then turned back toward the road and continued the way he had been going with his dog.
After another long walk, and at the top of another long hill, he came to a dirt road leading through a farm gate that looked as if it had never been closed. There was no fence. As he approached the gate, he saw a man inside, leaning against a tree and reading a book. “Excuse me!” he called to the man. “Do you have any water?” “Yeah, sure, there’s a pump over there, come on in.” “How about my friend here?” the traveler gestured to the dog. “There should be a bowl by the pump.” They went through the gate, and sure enough, there was an old-fashioned hand pump with a bowl beside it. The traveler filled the water bowl and took a long drink himself, then he gave some to the dog. When they were full, he and the dog walked back toward the man who was standing by the tree. “What do you call this place?” the traveler asked. “This is Heaven,” he answered. “Well, that’s confusing,” the traveler said. “The man down the road said that was Heaven, too.” “Oh, you mean the place with the gold street and pearly gates? Nope. That’s the other place.” “Doesn’t it make you mad for them to use your name like that?” “No, we’re just happy that they screen out the folks who would leave their best friends behind.”