Scripture reading: Romans 8:19-23 (NRSV)
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freeife, dom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
I’ll admit—I’ve never been much of an animal person. My family’s first pet, a terrier named Taffy, died when I was young and we never got another pet. I desperately wanted a cat growing up, but my mom got me books on cats rather than an actual cat, and I quickly lost interest. I don’t have anything against animals or pets, but I’m more content to observe them from a distance. I like my personal space.
Yet, I recognize that for many people, animals are an integral part of the family. My brother’s corgi Stella was present when my niece was born, and the two of them grew up together until Stella died earlier this year. I still hear from some of you stories of the pets you used to have, even when they’re long gone. They’re still a part of your memories of time spent with family. For my mom, growing up on a farm, her pets included the farm dogs that wandered around outside and even a cow that was her very own to care for. Even if you’ve never had a conventional pet, maybe you have a particular fondness for certain animals. My grandmother was an avid birdwatcher and knew all about the birds that congregated on her back porch.
When pets become part of the family, they’re often treated just like everybody else. They may have their own special foods that cost just as much as the human foods! They’re pampered when they’re groomed. And when they get sick, many pet owners are willing to do everything they can to keep their beloved companion alive.
When a family loses a pet, there’s a real grief that takes place, even when its not fully acknowledged. When that happens, we might try to comfort the children and adults who lose a beloved pet by saying, “he’s in doggie heaven now.” Or, going along with the title of the 1988 film All Dogs Go to Heaven, we might declare: all dogs go to heaven! They’re faithful, loyal, and kind—how could such pure creatures simply cease to exist?
But is any of that really true? We might expect that the answer is no. After all, humans are the focal point of God’s redemptive action. Jesus Christ came to forgive humans of their sins and put them in right relationship with God. What does that have to do with animals? They don’t have souls, do they?
Do all dogs, cats, and pet fish really go to heaven?
As we look to the Bible for answers, we might start with the creation of living things in Genesis 1, where we find out that God does care about animals, just as we do. God lovingly created them, just as God created the heavens and the earth. After God created creatures of every kind, God declared “it was good!”
To be clear, humans do have a special relationship with God that creatures do not. We were created in God’s image, we were blessed to fill the earth and have dominion over the animals and plants. But, all creation bears the breath of life, the enlivening Spirit of God. All creation, to some extent, shares in the glory of its creator. Those of you who have pets know this—they each have their own personality. They bring love and joy into your lives. They are reminders of the goodness of God the creator of all. Genesis reminds us that the creation was designed so that all creatures—humans, land animals, fish, birds—would live in harmony with humans leading and caring for them.
Yet, we don’t even need to look in the Bible for proof that all creation is groaning in pain because of sin. The fish of the sea suffer the results of mercury poisoning and micro-plastic waste. The birds of the air are threatened by a shrinking habitat. Industrialized farming operations force chickens and other animals into crowded warehouses to grow faster than natural with only enough room to stand up. Pets suffer abuse at the hands of negligent and violent owners.
Look, this isn’t a pitch for the ASPCA. I’m not trying to sing you a sad song like Sarah McLaughlin in those commercials and break your heart, but this is the reality of our world. Creation groans under the weight of its futility. Like humans, animals are in bondage to decay. As we acknowledged, our pets suffer some of the same ailments that humans do, even requiring expensive treatment. They get cancer and die in our arms.
Looking at Genesis we realize, it wasn’t meant to be this way! Even beyond the obvious signs of sin and creation’s futility, Paul tells us in Romans that God’s world has a potential for glory that we can’t even imagine! Because of our sin—at the beginning of time and in every moment since—creation has been subjected to futility. It can’t realize its potential. The creatures of the earth, air, sky, our planet, our solar system, our galaxy—all creation is groaning, waiting, and subjected to decay.
In response, we as humans often try our best to do a lot of good. As we mentioned last week, we take small but significant steps to better care for the environment. We strive to be responsible pet owners. We may even donate to animal charities. We acknowledge the work of all who strive to understand God’s world and care for it—biologists and other scientists, veterinarians, and farmers. I just saw an article this past week that at a zoo in Maryland, zookeepers designed a Lego wheelchair for a turtle! Who would have thought? But that’s an example of what it means to fulfill our God-given role as stewards of creation.
When we think about Christians who put this teaching into practice, St. Francis may immediately come to mind. Francis of Assisi is singularly identified as the patron saint of birdbaths and all created things. Franciscans tell all sorts of stories about the Saint and, admittedly, we can’t know how much of them are true. But the life of St. Francis opens our eyes to the possibility of humans and creatures fruitfully and peacefully living side-by-side.
St. Francis was… a bit eccentric to say the least. According to one account, St. Francis was once traversing through the Italian countryside when he encountered a flock of birds of all varieties. Francis ran up to them and greeted the birds, half expecting them to run away. But they didn’t. Stunned by the attentive birds, St. Francis began to preach to them, “My brother and sister birds, you should praise your Creator and always love him: He gave you feathers for clothes, wings to fly and all other things that you need. It is God who made you noble among all creatures, making your home in thin, pure air. Without sowing or reaping, you receive God’s guidance and protection.”
According to the story, in response, the birds began to stretch their necks and look right at Francis, rejoicing and praising God in their own way. What a phenomenal sign of the relationship between creatures and humans as it was designed by God!
St. Francis’ preaching to the birds is one thing. There are plenty of people who can live in harmony with the birds. Perhaps more shocking is what St. Francis did when a wolf terrorized the people of a small village. As legend has it, many of the villagers went after the wolf with swords, but each was mauled by its sharp teeth. Francis had a different tact. He decided to go out of the village limits to meet the wolf. The villagers warned him against this, they suggested that he should at least take something to protect himself, but he trusted that God would protect him from the wolf.
When Francis got within view of the wolf, it started to charge at him. Francis just stood there and made the sign of the Cross. The wolf slowed down and closed its mouth as a result of God’s power. Once again, Francis preached to the creature: “Come to me, Brother Wolf. In the name of Christ, I order you not to hurt anyone.”
The wolf, under the power of God’s Spirit, lowered its head and laid down as if a lamb at Francis’ feet.
It’s one of those stories that sounds too fabulous to be true. Yet, we should be convinced, that with the power of God such thing would be possible.
Look, as Paul tells us in Romans 8, “the creation [has been] subjected to futility,” as God has made us sinful creatures its caretaker. We’re going to fall short when it comes to caring for God’s creatures. I don’t say that to suggest we should resign ourselves to failure, but rather that we should be aware that even in our good works, we can only do so much.
Yet, these stories from the life of St. Francis are a sign of things that Paul promises us will come to pass. Not because of our own power, but because of the power of God and because of the work of Jesus Christ. Paul admits, yes, God’s creatures suffer in their bondage to decay. But one day, because of God’s loving plan for all creation, all creation “will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
You get that? Just as God has set us free from our sins and will deliver us into the new creation, God will also grant freedom to all creation. Creation will blossom and flourish. Dogs and cats will sing for joy! The planets will move in a beautiful symphony.
See, right now creation is like the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under the direction of a tone-deaf, incompetent conductor and music director with no musical training. No matter how well-trained the musicians are, no matter how beautiful their instrumental melodies, they wouldn’t be able to fulfill their full potential. They might unleash a beautiful note or two, but it would be fleeting. The creation is like that. We can recognize its beauty. We know that God has made it for good things, but for now it suffers at our hand.
But God will not leave it this way. God will not only forgive us our sin, but God will, in the end, make us into what we were meant to be from the beginning—fruitful, wise stewards of creation that can make all creatures sing in tune.
We might not be able to see it now, but is hope really hope if we can see it? Paul is convinced, and we should be too, that God will make a way where there is no way. God will bring all creation into harmony for God’s glory and our good.
So what does that mean for the fate of our beloved pets? What will God do with our faithful puppies and self-reliant cats? I think Paul gives us good reason to suppose that none of God’s beloved creatures will be subjected to futility and decay forever. The creatures we so dearly love will be released from their bondage and continue in even more glorious form in the new creation, the heavenly kingdom of God.
Even though I have had some uneasy encounters with dogs in my life and the phrase is a bit theologically simplistic, I think it’s fair to say that, yes, “all dogs go to heaven.”
Now, some of you are looking at me like, “who cares?” You don’t have pets. You don’t care so much about the salvation of the birds of the air or the bats in the attic. That’s okay, but when we forget about God’s hope for the creatures of the air, sea, and sky, we neglect to see the whole picture of God’s redemptive work. Our God becomes too small, only preserving some “souls” and not really bringing all creatures of our God and King into the fullness of their created purpose.
When we don’t consider the birds of the air, we put limits on what God can do. But when we realize the whole scope of what God is doing, whole worlds begin to open up for us.
If all God’s creation will be freed from futility and bondage to decay, including the animals, then what else can God do?
Well, as Jesus taught us, “with God, all things are possible.”
Our bulletin cover today gives us a hint of the possibilities of God’s kingdom. Reflecting on the prophecy of Isaiah 11 that the wolf would live peacefully with the lamb, the 19th century painter Edward Hicks painted over a hundred versions of this painting which he called The Peaceable Kingdom. In many of them, it’s not just the animals living peacefully that Hicks presents. In different versions of the painting, different human situations fill the left side of the painting.
Hicks was convinced that the promise of God that the lions, lambs, and wolves would lie down together was starting to break through in the ways human beings found peace in divisive situations. In the version of the painting we have printed, William Penn is pictured signing a treaty with a tribe of Native Americans, showing a fleeting glimpse of the peace of God at work in the world.
See, because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his power over sin and death, the power of God is at work in our world. It makes possible the fantastical stories of peace with animals told about St. Francis. And it makes possible any prospect for a lasting peace between nations, ethnic groups, and political factions. As Colossians 1 says, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
Yes, God can truly bring all things and all people together for God’s glory and our good.
Just think of the most hopeless division and broken relationship in your life right now. Maybe it’s a struggle in your family. Maybe it’s a struggle within our church or the United Methodist Church as a whole. Maybe it’s the political gridlock of our nation or the perpetual conflicts between nations.
If God cares about the chickens… how much more does God care for each of us and the things we care about? For God’s church? If God can cause the wolf and lamb to live together in peace… how much more can God reconcile all of us together!?
In Christ, we have a sure and confidant hope that everything God has created—animals of land, sky, and sea, human institutions, and everything else—is covered under God’s redemptive work.
All we need to do is confess that Jesus is Lord over all creation and trust that God will work things together for good. If our God is for us, then truly nothing can stand against us.
So how far does God’s redemption go? Farther than we could ever ask or imagine. Thanks be to God!