Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
I’ll never forget our first animal blessing together several years ago. Out on the front patio of the church, around 20 people, maybe a dozen dogs, one very brave cat. Loud, happy chaos as everyone arrived, and I’m not going to lie, it was a bit of a challenge to get everyone’s attention. But hey, they’d trained us in seminary to project our voices, so I just upped the decibels and went for it. We’d sing a song, I explained, read a psalm, pray together, and then I’d make my way around the circle and say a blessing for each animal friend, addressing each one by name with a hand on their head. As I talked, canine attendees who weren’t quite sure of each other barked and jostled for position while other tails wagged, and wet noses nuzzled, and kids introduced furry companions to their non-furry friends with pats and handshakes and hugs all around, and everyone did their best to encourage the dogs (and that one brave cat) to keep things friendly.
Then we began to sing. “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small…” And the most amazing thing happened. Suddenly every dog in the bunch was quiet, and attentive, and still. (I can’t speak for the stillness of the cat, who was at this point hiding in her carrier, but she was quiet too, which under the circumstances was pretty impressive!) You’d have sworn they all understood the significance of the moment. And admittedly, there was more wiggling along the way as we moved from the song into our psalm (the same one we read today) and our prayer. But then as I made my way around the circle to offer a blessing for each animal, most of them again sat perfectly still and some looked right into my eyes as I prayed over them: “Loving God, bless our friend Buddy, our friend Dixie, our friend Butch, our friend Miles... May they always know that they are loved by you, O Lord, and by their human family.”
I suspect the author of Psalm 148 wouldn’t have been as surprised as we were by the willingness of our canine and feline friends to participate in that service. We mistakenly think we have the monopoly on worship. But listen again – “Praise him, sun and moon; praise him all you shining stars! . . . Praise the Lord… you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost… mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds. . . Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 148) Elsewhere in the Psalms, we find “the heavens declar[ing] the glory of God,” (Psalm 19:1) and “the gateways of the morning and the evening shout[ing] with joy.” (Psalm 65:8)
You see the earth isn’t simply a backdrop for the events that unfold in the pages of Scripture, like a piece of scenery or a glorified prop. The landscape becomes one of the characters in the biblical story, the trees of the fields clapping their hands, the land breaking forth and shouting for joy. So we can not only praise God out of gratitude for the beauty of creation, we can praise God right along with the rest of creation.
Sure, it requires an imaginative stretch to consider that moths and sloths and mountains and mountain lions can offer praise to God. But biblical authors are unafraid of such talk. The irony may be that we can so easily forget to offer praise of our own. Could it be that deer and otters, ferns and cedars get it in a way we sometimes don’t? The recognition that we are all creatures of our God and King. And that along with the “beasts and cattle,” the “bird and whales,” as we sang earlier, we too are called to proclaim God’s glory.
During this time of physical distancing from human friends, why not pay a little extra attention to our non-human neighbors? Time spent in God’s creation can restore our souls, offering a healthy balance to the significant challenges we’re all working through as individuals and a society right now. Whether you crave summer sunshine in a cloudless sky or like me you love walking in the rain too. Whether you’re an avid gardener or you prefer a book and a comfy chair under a tree. Whether you’re hiking, kayaking, going for a jog, seize the chance to look around you. Really look. And listen. Who else is there? They’re not only an important part of our community, the psalms teach us our fellow creatures are part of an ongoing chorus of praise.
There’s a fantastic scene in The Magician’s Nephew, one of the books in the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, where he imagines God (in the form of the great lion Aslan) not just speaking but singing creation into existence:
There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard… the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count… [and] the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars…if you had seen and heard it… you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves who were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing… [then] the eastern sky changed from white to pink and from pink to gold. The Voice rose and rose, till all the air was shaking with it. And just as it swelled to the mightiest and most glorious sound it had yet produced, the sun arose…you could imagine that it laughed for joy as it came up… when you listened to his song you heard the things he was making up: when you looked round you, you saw them.
Beech trees, and cool, green grass, and daisies and buttercups, showers of birds and flutters of butterflies and then the larger animals, from beavers to elephants, all of them somehow both brought into being by the Voice, the Song, and joining in its magnificent music.
Speaking of music, I’ve gotten permission to share with you today a musical setting of Psalm 148 by a group called the Sons of Korah. They take their name from a notation accompanying a handful of Old Testament psalms, indicating they were written for or by the “Korahites” or “sons of Korah.” (e.g. Psalm 84, 88) In contrast to many hymn and praise song composers who’ll use just a few lines or perhaps paraphrase the general idea of a psalm, Sons of Korah take their lyrics almost verbatim from Scripture so that simply listening to their recordings provides a terrific introduction to biblical Psalms. The lead vocalist you’ll see here in a minute, Matthew Jacoby, is a doctor of philosophy and theology at the University of Melbourne, Australia and I’ll send out a link to the band’s website later in case any of you are interested in reading the paragraph-long commentaries he provides on a number of psalms, or in hearing more of their music.
For now, I simply wanted to offer you, as we conclude, this gift on a beautiful summer morning, an opportunity to hear today’s Scripture reading in a new way...
 C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, Collier Books Edition (1970), pp. 98 and following.