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In which Megan attacks cute animals, avoids an angry mob

I made a promise to myself when I started preaching that I would never preach about my dog.

This was partially prompted by a really traumatic sermon-experience in college, when a bishop expounded at length about his dog, Amos, whom he felt we should all emulate, and come to adore him more.

And partially it was inspired by a sense that, while I might love my dog, not everyone has met my dog, so not everyone is as enchanted with my dog and his Omega-Dog ways as I am. There’s bound to be something more interesting to talk about.

But this week, I broke that rule. And in the process, I explained the overwhelming, and sometimes problematic, allure of cute animals.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan
February 21-22, 2014
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
Matthew 5:38-48

If you’ve been watching the Olympics, then you might have heard about one of the more tangential ways NBC has been filling its time: the dogs of Sochi.
And the situation is this. It seems that Sochi has a lot of stray dogs right now, and not a lot of dog shelters to put them in. So, this being Russia, the government’s solution is to round up the dogs and do away with them.

This has sparked an international outcry. A huge international outcry. As well it should—killing dogs is bad. And people have responded accordingly. Olympians have spoken out, and one athlete has even rescued four or five dogs while he’s been in Sochi competing. A rescue agency has been set up. People are on fire about the dogs. They are mobilized.

Which is great.

What is slightly curious, however, is the slightly-less-level-of-mobilized people seem to be about how the dogs got to Sochi. Namely, the humans of Russia. According to an article on Slate.com, the dogs are there in such large numbers not because they’re strays, but because they were abandoned when their owners were forcibly evicted by the Russian government, and their houses demolished, to make way for all the sporting arenas needed for the Olympics. With almost a city full of poor people displaced, the dogs stayed behind.

But the people don’t make the headlines—the dogs do. Add that to everything else that is currently happening in Russia, human rights-wise—all of it not really making the daily news reports, and why is it really that our sympathy is so readily stirred by dogs, over people?

I mean, I have some theories. And, in full disclosure, my dog is from Ecuador, oddly, so I have some experience in this. Animals are adorable. They are open, they are trusting. You know what you’re going to get when you pet a dog, because, with some exceptions, they’re the epitome of powerlessness. They don’t even have opposable thumbs!

Animals are simple.

People, on the other hand.

People are complicated. People are demanding. Even people you like, people often show up with needs, wants, and desires of their own, that sometimes conflict with yours. People can think for themselves, and that can be a whole mess of complicated, and so our empathy doesn’t get triggered as easily,

People do such a good job of thinking on their own, of acting on their own, of being their own differentiated selves, that we have a hard time of feeling immediate empathy.

And so there develops this empathy gap, where we run the risk of getting selective with what gets our empathy. Cute animals over suffering people. Cuter, younger, more photogenic suffering people over the less photogenic suffering people!

Some living things just end up getting more empathy from us than others, in this media age.

But Jesus has some things to say about that this morning. Jesus reminds us that when we approach our relationships with other people, those relationships are built, not on what we each deserve, but how God sees us. God, who makes the rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous. And the sun shine on everyone, good and bad alike.

This loving our enemies command isn’t a tricky plot to guilt our enemies into befriending us. Jesus isn’t preaching passive-aggression here. This is about echoing the relationship God has with us, so that we can stay in right relationship with God. This isn’t about us–it’s about God.

And so, we are to treat each other as God treats us. We are to love each other as God loves us.

And in God’s love, there is no empathy gap. God doesn’t care more for certain people than for others. God doesn’t love people who follow certain rules than for those who don’t. God doesn’t love people who look a certain way, act a certain way, pray a certain way or believe a certain way more than everybody else.

Turns out, God loves everybody just the same. God has mercy on everybody just the same. God wants justice, and dignity and freedom from suffering for everyone, just the same.

And so we are called to do the same. We are called to be hands and feet and hearts of God in the world, so we have to erase that empathy gap, and learn to see with God’s eyes, so that every life becomes equally worth caring about. Not just the lives that we find relatable.

We need to learn to look at children so that each child–the cute toddler who looks like your kids at that age, and the one who looks totally different than you–becomes someone to invest in.

We need to see our neighbors in such a way so that everyone shows forth the image of God–the fine upstanding young man you assume is in college somewhere, and the one you think is dressed inappropriately and is blasting his music too loud. Both are children of God. Everyone is a child of God.

We need to see every person–near and far, friendly and not, just like us, and not at all like us–becomes a reflection of God, so that the light of Christ is shining out of their face.

And until we can see people like that, until we can see the world like that, we haven’t truly achieved the call Jesus sets before us,

Amen.

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About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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