Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sermon - "Our Friends with Fur Feathers and Scales"

Our Friends with Fur, Feathers, and Scales
(note – The bulk of historical information in this sermon comes from the wonderful book “Signs & Symbols: An Illustrated Guide to the Origins and Meanings” from DK Publishing.)

For all of recorded history, and certainly long before, humans have been fascinated with animals. Whether domesticated or wild, animals have captured our dreams and shared our living spaces us. And in that fascination, they have taken on a deep meaning.
They have been worshiped as gods, linked with good or bad luck, and seen as sources of power and wisdom. Many are symbolically associated with a human quality. Hunter-gatherers respected and sometimes revered animals as being part of the natural world, which they viewed as sacred. And to access their instinctual wisdom, specific animals were adopted as totems or ancestors.

Noah, Aesop’s Fables (The Tortoise and the Hare), Astrological signs, Chinese Calendar. Whethere you have pets or not, whether you own animals or not, they are a part of the collective human consciousness. They are a part of what it means to be in human community.

I want to talk briefly about the symbolic meaning that has developed around a few animals most common to us. Some of this is obvious, but that’s just the point. The meaning and symbolism that we put upon our friends with fur, feathers and scales is second nature to us. Relating to them is a part of our culture, a part of human experience.

Since ancient times the dog has been seen as a companion animal symbolizing loyalty, protection, and hunting. As a dog person myself, I have to say “man’s BEST friend.” Early societies associated dogs with the spirit world. African and American Indian cultures saw the dog as a master of fire and a rain-maker. Interestingly, not everyone is a fan of Fido. Muslims regard the dog as unclean and use it as a derogatory term for an unbeliever.

Shortly after they became domesticated, dogs became commonplace in human populations, they spread throughout the world in human communities. Emigrants from Siberia likely crossed the Bering Strait with dogs in their company. Experts suggest that sled dogs may have been critical to the success of the waves humans that entered North America roughly 12,000 years ago. That’s quite a long time for those friends to carve out a special place in our hearts.

But of course they are not the only ones who have been with us all these years. Cat’s clearly go back in human history quite a ways as well.
In 2004, a Neolithic grave was excavated in Cyprus, that contained the skeletons of both a human and a cat clearly laid next to one another. The grave is estimated to be 9,500 years old. That discovery, combined with genetic studies, suggest that cats were probably domesticated in Cyprus and the Near East, in the Fertile Crescent around the time of the development of agriculture.

From Ancient Egyptians on, cats have captured our imagination. They have been worshiped as gods, persecuted as demons, and associated with an extraordinary range of both positive and negative symbolism.

In the West we know the Lion as the King of Beasts, while in the East that role is taken by the tiger, and in the Americas by the jaguar. All the big cats are fierce hunters, so they are feared and respected. These awesome animals are a hugely symbolic. In China, tigers represent speed, power, and beauty. The Hindu goddess, Durga, rides a tiger, symbolizing her mastery over animal passions, and Shiva wears a tiger’s skin for similar reasons. Needless to say, these are very old, and deeply rooted symbols in the human psyche.

Some people, a few of you as a matter of fact, find a special bond with a much larger animal, the horse. Around the world horses are seen as a symbol of nobility, speed, freedom and beauty. I was also depicted in many Classical statues as a symbol of a conquering power. And this may be the oldest human friend and fascination of all, at least that we have record of. paintings of a spotted horse can be found in the 20,000- year old cave paintings at Pech Merle, France. 20,000 years old. That’s a lot of human history. In those same paintings are Wooly mammoths and Reindeer by the way.

They aren’t as common as pets, but they certainly capture the imagination, birds are the symbol of the messenger in human imagination. For some it was the messengers between heaven and earth, and in the contemporary Harry Potter franchise, birds, owls more specifically, are the preferred carriers of mail.

Traditionally, too, birds were also linked with wisdom. I still remember a cartoon Owl from my childhood who was supposed to be the smart animal. And that expression, “a little bird told me” comes from the ancient belief that birds confided secrets.

And a bird, an Eagle is a part of our national identity. The Eagle, the king of the birds, is a “high-flier” symbolizing status, victory and Omniscience. But it’s not uniquely American. The Eagle has been adopted as a symbol of sovereignty and national identity also by Germany, and the Roman Empire. It was the imperial emblem of the Russian and Austrian empires. That’s one power hungry bird.

And then some of us have friends with scales. Reptiles are amphibian have long captured the human imagination. They are associated with the Sun and Moon, and also cosmos and creation symbolism. And because many regularly shed their skin or change color, they signify change and renewal.

Then of course, there are snakes. Throughout human history and still today, snakes evoke both fascination and revulsion. The simple beauty of its form is at odds with its complex and powerful symbolism. Self-contained, myseterious, inhabiting underground burrows and shedding its skin, it is a creature linked with the underwold. As a result, an array of symbolism embraces themes of duality, fertility, the primeval life force, and creation. We know the snake that tempted Eve to taste the forbidden fruit on the Tree of Knowledge, knowing it would cause her downfall. But there is also Naga, the Hindu serpent, which is benevolent threshold guardian associated with rain, fertility, and renewal. It is often depicted with a human upper body.

Animals of all different varieties have captured our imagination. In fact we are so fascinated by animals, that we make some of them up. Mythical beasts abound in human history around the world. They are symbols of supernatural power or different aspects of the human psyche. They sometimes act as messengers or teachers, or represent dark, untamed forces in human nature that must be overcome. In a lot of lore, they must be fought by a hero figure, like the knight slaying a dragon, allowing good to triumph over evil, or order over chaos. Although we come nowhere close to the creativity of actual nature, there are some fascinating concepts out there: the mermaid, the Capricorus, the phoenix, the thunderbird. And Harry Potter has unleashed a menagery of new ones.

Complicated Relationships

Our lives are interwoven in so many ways. Many of the examples I just talked about were just fascination, but in a lot of ways, the animals we come in contact with most frequently depend on us. And in profound ways, we depend on them. The degree to which that is true finally occurred to me when I was watching TV.

I was watching my current television obsession, the show “Friday Night Light’s.” It’s a show about high-school football in a small town in West Texas. Obviously everything and everyone in the town lives and dies by the Friday night football game.

One of the story lines in the show is that of the leading quarterback. He’s a player of mediocre ability who inherited the role after the town’s star quarterback was paralyzed from an injury on the field. Needless to say, there’s plenty of pressure from football on this boys shoulders.
The more complicated plot though is his living situation. The boy’s father is in Iraq, while he lives with his grandmother. Legally, his grandmother is his guardian, but in reality, she is slowly becoming disabled with dementia. Matt, the 17yo quarterback, when faced with the challenges of caring for his grandmother finally comes realizes that legally, to take care of her, he must become and emancipated minor. He must legally flip flop, from the child to the caretaker with a few strokes of a pen.
It’s a very difficult story to watch, but it’s far from unique. Yes, the fact that this character is only 17 years old makes the story much more dramatic. But it points to the difficult reality of family relationships. We care for one another, but we do it in a fluid way. First the child, then the adult, and then the senior, who needs help again. Sometimes we are cared for, and sometimes we are the responsible ones.
Family is very complicated that way. Sometimes it is confusing, and sometimes it is heartbreaking. But as I thought about it more, I realized how much our pets are like a part of our family in this way. Sure, I feed my dog every day and look out for her. But she also provides companionship that deeply enriches my life. She give back in an amazing way, and seems to have an ability, when I am most absorbed in a mundane problem, to bring me back to the sanity of the present moment. She cares for me. For many people their animals care for them in much more literal terms. Whether it is a guard dog, or a therapy dog, the relationship is a give and take. Sometimes we are the responsible ones, and sometimes we get cared for.

Isn’t that the nature of family, a give and take. What I hope we can celebrate today is our whole family taking care of one another, including the non-human members. I deeply believe that our relationships with animals, the relationships that have been a part of human experience for at least 20,000 years, are key getting a grasp on what it means to share this ever shrinking planet.

The last thing that I want to talk about today is a little abstract, but perhaps the most important piece of this sermon. I believe, and generally we as Unitarian Universalists believe, that relationships are an inherently good and powerful thing. It’s reflected in our support for democratic principles, and our interest in ecology. We build church communities from the ground up, not the top down because we value the relationships between individuals. Throughout our tradition we celebrate relationships as powerful. And I think recognizing our relationship with our friends with fur, feathers and scales also holds power, not just feel good power, but power that helps us understand and make a difference.

These past weeks I have been pretty dismayed by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Very early on, when I read about the leak in the New York Times I wrote about it on Facebook. On April 29th I wrote “As the news of the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico gets worse every day, I have a very, very bad feeling about the impact. This is not going to be pretty.” Rarely have I wished to have been more wrong about something. I knew it was going to bad. I did not expect over a month later for the flow of oil gushing into the ocean to have simply increased in flow.

Can you imagine what that would be like for our town? For our beaches to be covered in thick globby oil. For our pelicans and seagulls to be coated with gunk, so much oil that many of them die by drowning or hypothermia. Honestly I can’t absorb much of the coverage at this point. I can’t get past the first couple of paragraphs of any news story on it. It is overwhelming.

So I am trying to engage the issue in a different way. Rather than reading the facts and figures and failed plans, I’m trying to hold in my heart all of those affected, the fishermen, and the local people, yes. But also the birds and the fish and the countless variety of creatures that live on the coast. Deepening my respect, our respect for our friends with fur, feather and scales, is one of the few hopes that we have for taking our shared world seriously. And unfortunately the opportunities for those relationships with the animal world get fewer and fewer as we wall ourselves off from the natural world. So I am doing my best, whenever I walk on the beach, whenever I pet my dog, whenever I see a crow in my neighborhood, to hold that animal in my heart, to have some level of relationship and respect for it.

As we heard in our opening words from Jane Goodall, “The line between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, once thought to be so clear, has become blurred. Chimpanzees bridge the gap between “us” and “them.” Unfortunately, today it is an oil spill that bridges the gap between us and them. It is an oil spill and global warming and deforestation, that remind us that our fate in intertwined with that of our non-human friends. I think we would do well do remember our relationships with them, they way they have shaped the human experience, the way they depend on us, and we depend on them. I think it’s time to remember our relationship rather than reading more statistics.


No comments:

Post a Comment