Genesis 2:18-24; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
The Book of Genesis tells us that “out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam, to see what he would call them; and whatever Adam, called every living creature, that was its name. Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field…”
Following today’s service, we will gather to bless the animals of our parish, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. Given this, it seems too good a coincidence that this reading from Genesis should also be one of our assigned lessons for this Sunday. It doesn’t happen often, and I’m not about to pass up a liturgical gift such as this.
A number of theories exist as to the immense creative force behind the creation of all the animals of the earth. Leaving behind theories such as “evolution” and “intentional design”, I’d like for us to take a lighter approach to the task at hand. Take a moment and imagine God, divining the idea of kittens. God turns to His helper Angel and says: “I want them to be fluffy and adorable, like little furry hugs. The Angel assisting the Almighty responds: “That’s so sweet” and God replies. “And put razor blades on their feet.” We turn next to the Alligator. God says to the Angel: “See that log?” The Angel responds with something of a bewildered: “Yes.” God directs: “Fill it with teeth?” Angel: “Say that again?” God: “I said: Fill it with teeth!” And now for the parrot: God suggests to the Angel: “How about this. Let’s make a tie dye chicken who screams actual words at you.” And finally the octopus. God—speaking to the Angel says: “Give it eight super strong arms and hands.” The Angel responds: “Uh, we’re out of bones. and “God replies: “Okay. Eight strange floppy arms with suction cup things.”
Even the author of the Book of Job is fascinated by the weirdness of creation. When God appears before Job in the whirlwind, the Almighty never speaks about why Job must suffer so much affliction and loss. However, God does speak to Job, and among the many things God says, there is an exclamation of absolute pride in the creation of one of the living wonders of the world. God says: “(Hey Job), Look at that hippopotamus. I made that--just as I made you; it eats grass like an ox. Its strength is in its loins, and its power in the muscles of its belly. It makes its tail stiff like a cedar; the sinews of its thighs are knit together. Its bones are tubes of bronze. …Under the lotus plant it lies, in the covert of the reeds and in the marsh…Even if the river is turbulent, it is not frightened. Can one take it with hooks or pierce its nose with a snare?” (pretty great, huh)
However, you may be tempted to reply: “Interesting though the talk of the creation of kittens and hippopotami might be; what is the significance of Adam, naming the animals of creation?” In other words, who cares whether Adam named them or not. It’s a good question, and here is the answer. Beyond the practicalities of having something to call these astonishing creatures, there are other aspects to the bestowal of names that is important for us to understand.
In the mind of ancient peoples a name expressed the essence or identity of a person. Therefore, to know the name of someone—or to give either a person or an animal a name—is an identification of the character of the person carrying it. What’s more, to take upon oneself the task of naming another means that the namer (in this case, Adam), knows or understands the named. And finally—to name someone means that the namer has authority over the one named. That’s pretty heavy stuff, and it just might encourage us to think twice before we name either our children or our pets.
So, from a Biblical perspective, we learn several things from verses nineteen and twenty of the second chapter of Genesis. The first is this—God entrusts Adam with the task of naming the animals which means several things. First, that Adam was to take pains to know and to understand these creatures. And second, by taking upon himself the task of naming them; Adam was to have authority over them. He was to be a steward, a caretaker of those whom he named. Now, I’ll grant you that over the years the word “authority” has been much misused. It doesn’t mean to “plunder” or “abuse”. It means to care for another, in the best sense of the word.
So, consider this: from these two verses of the Bible comes a theology of how humanity is to relate to the creatures of the earth. We are to do our best to understand these beings and to care for them.
There’s a wonderful story of St. Francis that illustrates this point. One of the tales associated with this beloved saint tells of his encounter with the wolf of Gubbio. Now, this wolf was, in a word, a terror. He not only devoured other animals, but people as well, and (nor surprisingly) the inhabitants of Gubbio were in great alarm. Enter St. Francis, who resolves to meet this scourge of a wolf. Upon seeing Francis, the wolf runs to the saint with jaws wide open, at which point Francis makes the sign of the cross and the wolf lays down at his feet as meekly as a lamb. And Francis speaks to the wolf, who agrees to put aside his past transgressions, and Francis goes on to talk to the people, who agree to forgo pursuing the wolf. And they all lived in peace, the wolf going door to door without harming anyone, and the people feeding him with great pleasure, until he died of old age.
Melanie’s caveat: I wouldn’t attempt this if confronted with a man-eating wolf. Saint Francis was in a league all his own. However, it’s worth asking ourselves how we might take upon ourselves the call of Adam to be one who knows and understands the animals of the earth, and also has authority over them. If we do this with the compassion of our Savior and following the example of St. Francis, we might discover that we are living closer to the hope God intended when the Creator of All appointed humanity to be stewards of the earth and all that dwells in it. And, that, if you think about it, can be very Good News indeed. In Jesus’ name. Amen.