The first funeral that I conducted as a pastor was for a parakeet named Tweetie Bird. It wasn’t the first pet funeral I had ever presided over---I had done plenty of that as a child beginning at the age of 5, solemnly burying and praying over the eventually deceased goldfish I won each year at my elementary school fair by tossing a ping-pong ball into the mouth of a small fishbowl. Each year I would turn in my tickets and play at the “Go Fish” booth until I succeed and was handed a goldfish swimming in a sandwich bag filled with water along with a pint-sized fishbowl that I would proudly take home and care for. (We weren’t allowed to have any other pets growing up. My mother was kinda a germaphobe. And she was German which meant some years we would go to Germany for a couple of months. So no pets.) Each year I would win a goldfish, and within a few months, that hard-won goldfish would turn belly up and I would gingerly and with appropriate earnestness, bury the fish in the flowerbed outside my bedroom window. Having never been to a funeral as a young child, I can only imagine that my ichthyoid graveside services were based on something I had seen on TV, not on any theological conviction in the broad scope of God’s promise of salvation. Unlike when I conducted my first funeral as a pastor for the aforementioned parakeet. My first call, as many of you know, was to Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Santa Monica which still has a very large preschool. Each of the preschool classrooms had a pet, and the class pet for Room 6 when I arrived at the church was Tweetie Bird, who that fall seemed to have contracted some aviary disease that led to his death after only a few days. The three- and four-year-olds in Room 6 were crushed, and so the teachers asked me if I would be willing to conduct a burial service for their beloved bird. I agreed, and so the next day, the 24 preschoolers and the 3 teachers in Room 6, the preschool director, the assistant director and I gathered in a narrow courtyard on the church campus. The class presented me with Tweetie Bird, carefully shrouded in paper towel and placed in a colorful cigar box. We dug a hole, buried the bird, prayed, and closed the service—if my memory is correct—by singing together with the preschoolers “I’ve got peace like a river” with all the hand gestured we had practiced. As we finished singing, and headed back toward the preschool gate, one of the children turned to me with curiosity and honesty and tears in her eyes and asked: “Do animals go to heaven?”
“Do animals go to heaven?” is the child’s way of asking what to my mind is one of the most important and powerful theological questions we can ask today and that is: “what is the scope of God’s salvation?”—or in a fuller way: “what is the scope of God’s salvation promised to us through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ?”
But let’s start with the child’s question: “Do animals go to heaven?” What do you think? [ ] What do you think I said? [ ]. Correct, I said yes, though not before I paused for some seconds reflecting on: what does this child believe that heaven is? Does she think heaven is some real geographical space, some grassy field of sunshine up beyond the blue skies we can see where a kind of “second, heavenly earth” will be populated by people and their pets? In the moment I guessed that yes, probably she had some cartoonesque vision of heaven. I paused a second or two longer to consider: do I want to share with her that “heaven” in our understanding of God is a kind of “shorthand” for the divine mystery of eternal life as full restoration of all breaches and wounds caused by sin, the contours, appearance, timing and physicality of which we really don’t have a conception of? I decide: no, she is only 4. I would wait on sharing that theological truth for a few years. So after the short pause, I stroked her damp cheek and said the words: “yes, dear, animals go to heaven.”
But what I meant was: Yes, God’s promise of salvation—of the restoration of creation that is damaged by sin—encompasses ALL creation. Not just the beloved pets we bring here today, or those whose passing we mourn today. But when I say that God’s promise of salvation encompasses ALL creation I mean that God has the promise and the power even to restore the natural environment that we humans insist on degrading through our abusive use of natural resources. God longs to lead the restoration of the breeches of environmental disruption---think rain to counter drought, cool temperatures to counter arctic ice melt—if we are willing to repent of those behaviors that escalate the degradation.
On this second Sunday in Epiphany, we are blessed with two readings that proclaim to us that the scope of God’s promise of salvation is of the broadest kind. We find the comprehensive promise of God’s offer of salvation first in the powerful servant song in the Book of Isaiah Chapter 49. Originally composed by a student or follower of the original prophet Isaiah probably during the 60 years of the Babylonian exile when the Jewish leaders were taken from Jerusalem to Babylon, the servant song seeks not only to build up the hope of the people of Israel that they will indeed return to the Temple City. More than that, God is promising a restoration not of one people but of the globe. “It is too light a thing.” God says, “ that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel;” No God’s vision for restoration goes far beyond one political entity. God says: “I will give you as a light to the nations, / that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
God’s promise of restoration knows no bounds. We hear the breadth of God’s promise again in our Gospel reading from the 4th Gospel of John, Chapter 1, in which John the Baptist—as the advance man to Jesus—proclaims the scope of salvation that God intends Jesus to bear. Using powerful words found only here in verse 29, John the Baptist describes Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” A lot of theological ink has been spilled to explain what—exactly—John the Baptist meant with the expression “Lamb of God.” Generally, the idea is that Jesus became the once and final sacrificial lamb that God offered up to fill the chasm between God and humanity created by sin, as well as the once and final pascal lamb who protects those who identify themselves as believers, like at the first Passover when the blood of the pascal lamb painted on the lintels of the Israelites warded off the angel of death that killed the first-born sons of the Egyptians. Jesus as the Lamb of God is that force which protects and restores in the face of evil and sin. But what exactly is the Lamb of God’s task? John the Baptist says: “to take away the sin of the world.” What an awesome expression! God seeks not only to take away the impacts of our petty or personal sins—when we eat too many cookies or don’t write a thank you note or lose our temper slightly at our kids. No, God’s vision and promise of salvation—of restoration—is global, all-encompassing—and extends to the “sin of the world.” Note the use of the singular “sin” (not “sinS”) to denote the comprehensiveness of God’s vision of restoration. The sin of the world includes the abuse of power and poverty and all of the “-isms” and “-ias” that plague our world like racism and sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. God longs to heal those horrible ruptures in the world and offers us that possibility through forgiveness, through faith, through action.
It is fitting that we ponder the boundless scope of God’s promise of salvation both on the day we offer blessings to those four-footed and winged creatures we live with, and on the day we remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his powerful proclamation of God’s promise of restoration for African Americans, for people of color, and for our nation in its pluralistic beauty and power.
As some of you know, Stephen, Hannah, Zoe and I are heading to Washington, DC—my birth place—later this week. We will be participating in the Women’s March on Washington because I believe that placing restrictions on what women may do and achieve simply because they have a womb and larger fat cells is a sin. Because we are going to Washington, I decided to reread Dr. King’s speech given before the Lincoln Memorial at the original March on Washington on August 28, 1963—53 and a ½ years ago. We all know the speech, given 100 years after President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation declaring Black slaves free. Dr. King named the sinful reality of his day that the life of African Americans “is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”
As I embrace the truth of my faith, that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, I call on God to use us and whoever and whatever God can to free the world that is our nation from the segregation and discrimination that does not just still enslave African Americans—but today, in our international and religiously pluralistic America—to enslave ever more people who are not Anglo-Caucasian.
Dr. King moved generations of people of all colors when he said in hope and faith: “Even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed—we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men [and women] are created equal.” If I had to take my strength and conviction only from the realities I see and hear in our city and our country, frankly—I would find it difficult to proclaim Dr. King’s vision of human and racial and ethnic and gender equality with much conviction today. Some of us were again at the Islamic Center this week and heard how Muslims are experiencing how citizenship is again unequal based on a hierarchy of color and ethnic background that places black and brown at the bottom. If I had to find my strength only from the realities I see and hear in our city and our country, I would be discouraged. But the Good News of today is that my conviction in the restoration of all the inequalities and degradations and wounds and sin of all kinds comes not from reality but from God’s boundless promise. That God has come to take away the sin of the world. And that God calls forth and sends out people of faith not just to help themselves, but to be a light to all the nations, so that God’s salvation and restoration may reach to the end of the earth.
And so must we all who believe in the infinite scope of God’s salvation that it reaches to all creatures here below and to all sin, proclaim loudly and act boldy so that Dr. King’s dream of God’s vision comes true—that the day will come in our nation when, as Dr. King preached, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that not just you and I but all who reside in this great nation will be free one day. Amen.