Washington National Cathedral embraces Creation Care Year

Sleeth challenges unthical animal practices in St. Francis Day sermon

[Episcopal News Service, Washington, D.C.] Blessed Earth founder Dr. Matthew Sleeth kicked off a Creation Care series at Washington National Cathedral on Oct. 7 with a St. Francis’ Day sermon on caring for animals, reminding participants that not one sparrow falls from the sky without God noticing.

Describing the manger scene of Christ’s nativity, Sleeth said this “pretty much depicted the way humans interacted with agriculture for 2,000 years,” yet has little relation to the way we raise animals today.

“This has nothing to do with animals held in cages, not able to turn around, not seeing the light of day, and fed other animals, even if they’re vegetarian,” he said, noting that unethical practices “can be hidden from you and me but not from the Lord God. He started life with cows and sheep.”

“Our food has no life,” said Joel Salatin, farmer and author of Folks, This Ain’t Normal, decrying the use of harmful chemicals in agriculture at a forum preceding the service. “If it can’t die it has no life, and it can’t give us life.”

In an effort to shed light on these and other environmental issues, Creation Care Year – a partnership between Washington National Cathedral and Blessed Earth, an educational nonprofit that inspires and equips people of faith to become better stewards of the earth – was launched in April with an Earth Day call to action from Sleeth, who left his position as an Emergency Room director to lecture, write and preach about creation care.

Supported, in part, by a grant from the Kendeda Fund, the program aims to mobilize church leadership by focusing on key pulpits that have far-reaching impact. It will include sermons, forums, small group studies, lectures and classes on a wide range of topics, from food to farming and sustainable energy, delivered by experts such as Norman Wirzba, research professor of theology, ecology and rural life at Duke Divinity School, and organizations such as Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light.

“The focus is on raising up awareness as well as highlighting established efforts,” said the Rev. Lyndon Shakespeare, the cathedral’s director of program and ministry, adding that a thematic program of this breadth is a new approach for the cathedral.

“It allows us the space and time to settle into one topic,” he said, noting that it also enables the cathedral to serve as a resource for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. “You can come here, take a class and then take this back to your parish.”

The cathedral hopes to develop a book out of some of the lectures, as well as get people connected with organizations already involved in this work, he said.

“A lot of these issues are interconnected,” said Laura Leavell, of Blessed Earth.

But in many congregations, she said, the environment has been seen as a political and divisive issue, making it easy for many to dismiss. By reminding Christians of the biblical mandate to care for creation, and by coming at it from many different angles, Blessed Earth hopes that more people will tune back in.

“Christians will listen to scripture,” she said. “They respect the Bible.”

In his sermon, Sleeth offered three key points on what the Bible say about animals: Man is called to name the animals (Adam and Eve), rescue the animals (Noah) and be kind to the animals (Rebecca), he said. It was Rebecca’s kindness to animals – she offered Abraham’s servant Eliezer a drink and then watered his camels – that spoke to her good character and led to her betrothal to Isaac, Abraham’s son, in Genesis 24.

“To know these themes, and to decry their trespass, is the job of the church,” Sleeth said.
Animals are with Jesus at his birth, following his temptation, and on his final journey into Jerusalem, when he rides a horse that has never been ridden, he added.

“Regardless of whether it’s Rebecca watering camels, St. Francis preaching to birds, William Wilberforce rescuing horses or C.S. Lewis refusing to set a mousetrap … saints are kind to animals,” he said.

Referencing what the Bible says of those who are cruel to animals, Sleeth quoted Genesis 49:5 and the harsh words meted out to the violent brothers, Simeon and Levi: “Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel.”

Sleeth said the Bible also includes an important caveat about animals: Do not worship them.
“In ancient times, one could easily value a horse more than God,” he said. Animals were worshiped as deities in some cultures or lionized like Bucephalus, Alexander the Great’s legendary horse.

“Is getting a kidney transplant for your cat or dog wrong when people in the world are going hungry? I can’t say where the line between idol and pet is drawn,” he said. “But if you seek the Bible’s wisdom on such matters, consider this: In all the thousands of pages of the Bible and all the thousands of years they represent, not one horse is named and not one horse race occurs.”

As it unfolds between now and Earth Day 2013, when Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori will offer the culminating sermon, the Creation Care program will suggest many ways for participants to take action. In closing, Sleeth offered just one.

“Americans decide what kind of farms they want, what kind of world they want concerning farmers and food supply sources three times a day, when they sit down to eat,” he said. While he stopped short of advocating vegetarianism, he said it was “essential to not eat meat that was grown or raised or produced in a way that is incompatible with Christ.”

“You picture Christ as a baby,” he said. “If the feeding operation doesn’t add up to some place that you would put him, don’t eat the food.”

A complete list of Creation Care Year programs is available here.

— Lucy Chumbley is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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