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Sermon: Some of My Best Friends are Dogs

A sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Sunday, August 17, 2014.

10th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (RCL): Gen. 45:1-15; Ps. 133; Rom. 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matt. 15: (10-20), 21-28


May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,

be always acceptable to you, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

          I hope you know already: I am a dog person. Growing up with dogs my whole life, you might call me a “cradle-to-grave dog lover.” I am certifiably a ‘dog guy.’ Some of my best friends are dogs. For me, they are the best example of God’s unconditional love.

          You may be familiar with Paul Harvey’s “So God Made a Farmer" speech. It was used effectively in a Super Bowl ad last year ... just in case you saw that. Here's a different take making the rounds on the internet today.

          “And on the 9th day, God looked down on his wide-eyed children and said, ‘They need a companion.’ So God made a dog.

          God said ‘I need somebody willing to wake up, give kisses, pee on a tree, sleep all day, wake up again, give more kisses, then stay up until midnight basking in the glow of a television set.’ So God made a dog.

          God said, ‘I need somebody willing to sit, then stay, then roll over, then with no ego or complaint, dress in hats they don't need and costumes they don't understand. I need somebody who can break wind without a first care or second thought, who can chase tails, sniff crotches, fetch sticks, and lift spirits with a lick. Somebody, who no matter what you didn't do, or couldn't take, or didn't win, or couldn’t make, will love you without judgment just the same.’ So God made a dog.

          God said, ‘I need somebody strong enough to pull sleds and find bombs, yet gentle enough to love babies and lead the blind; somebody who will spend all day on a couch with a resting head and supportive eyes to lift the spirits of a broken heart.’ So God made a dog.

          ‘It had to be somebody who would remain patient and loyal, even through loneliness; somebody to care, cuddle, snuggle, and nuzzle, and cheer and charm, and snore and slobber, and eat the trash, and chase the squirrels. Somebody who would bring a family together with the selflessness of an open heart. Somebody who would bark, and then pant, and then reply with rapid wag of tail, when their best friend says, ‘Let's go for a ride in the car.’

So God made a dog.”

As I said, some of my best friends are dogs. But today's Gospel talks about dogs in a different way.

          Matthew’s gospel has Jesus teaching his disciples that true purity is a matter of the heart rather than outward religious exercises. Then almost immediately, this teaching is tested when a foreign woman approaches for help.

         

What Jesus says was, for Jews, maybe one of the most startling things he ever proclaimed! Here he not only denounces Scribal and Pharisaic ritual practices and ceremonial religion; Jesus actually abolishes much that is set forth in the Book of Leviticus about purity observances, practically saying the scriptures were wrong!

          It’s no wonder the Scribes and Pharisees would be shaken. If Jesus spoke the truth, then their whole premise of religion was invalid. They identified religion and pleasing God with rules and regulations about clean and unclean. They had rules about how food was prepared, how people readied for meals, and what could or should not be eaten. Jesus says that doesn't matter. What does matter is the state of one’s heart and what comes out of one's mouth. He likened the Pharisees to “blind guides” who knew not the proper path to God, and that those who followed them would end up in a pit.   

          Think about it: If religion were built solely on external practices and observances, it might be easy. Abstaining from certain foods and washing hands a certain way are far simpler tasks than being commanded to love the unlovely and the unlovable; to help the needy and the poor. And what you eat is often easier to control than what you say, especially how you talk about what you believe!

          I think we all have lots of opportunities to learn this lesson. Come to worship regularly, give generously to the church’s mission and ministry, actively engage in regular study of Scripture to find its relevance to our lives today; these are but a few external things we all can do. They are actions, but they do not constitute religion. No, religion, the word itself meaning to ‘actively bind’ together, is about personal relationships and attitudes between us and God, and with God’s people.

          Jesus’ teaching challenges and condemns us all. Many people have been faultless throughout life in external ways, but bitterness and evil lurked in their hearts. Jesus says that no one who observes externals rules and regulations can automatically count themselves among the good. Goodness comes when our hearts and minds match our lives. Thomas Aquinas said, "Man sees the deed, but God sees the intention." Hearing this and believing it, we should all say aloud, “O Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

          So ... what about the dogs? Remember, some of my best friends are dogs.

          Jesus referring to the Canaanite woman as a dog has generated much creative interpretation over the centuries. Traditionally this sentence was explained as a technique Jesus employed to test the woman’s faith. Some contemporary scholars read the exchange by flipping it around, crediting the woman with instructing Jesus about the breadth of God’s mercy. We might also hear that if our faith is strong enough, our prayers will be granted. Like the storyteller, we might hope that our faith will bring us instant healing. But really, it is a difficult story to proclaim and explain.

          Yet there are wonderful implications here. It describes the only occasion on which Jesus was ever outside Jewish territory. It foreshadows the commission from Mark 16:15, which we publish every Sunday in our bulletin as a guiding principle of discipleship: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel.” It shows us the beginning of the end of all barriers.

          For Jesus, this was a time of deliberate withdrawal. The end was coming. He had hoped for some quiet and rest to prepare for the coming days, to ready his disciples to face the day of the Cross. There was much to teach them, and much he must compel them to understand.

          Nowhere in Palestine could he find privacy; regardless of where Jesus went, crowds followed. So he journeyed north through Galilee to the land of Tyre and Sidon. There, he hoped to find relief from the crowds and the hostility of the Scribes and Pharisees. Yet his fame had reached even into that region.

          This foreign woman knew somehow of the wonderful things that Jesus had done or could do. She has a daughter who is seriously afflicted, so she followed him and his disciples, crying out desperately for healing. At first, Jesus paid her no attention at all. But the disciples were embarrassed. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” Not a compassionate response; the woman was a nuisance and they wanted to be rid of her. Have you ever been followed by a persistent salesperson or politician who keep talking as you try to walk away? Ever taken their literature, just to make them happy? Sometimes, to grant a request to be rid of someone who annoys is a common enough reaction. But this woman is asking for much more.

          But for Jesus, there's a problem. Though moved with compassion for her plight, she was Gentile and Canaanite, the ancestral enemies of the Jews. We see this was not the priority he knew for the Kingdom. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he says. Here was a Gentile crying for mercy. Can you feel just how tired such a request must have made Jesus? What I think he decides to do here is animate the true faith in this woman's heart.

          “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

          Some of my best friends are dogs.

          But to call a person a dog in that day and age was a deadly, scornful insult. Then, dogs were often the unclean scavengers of the town and streets—they were lean, savage, often carriers of some kind of vermin or disease. Not the comfortable, cute, compliant companions we know today. But two things I ask you to consider regarding Jesus’ “dog” reference here.

          First, even with personal interactions today, the tone and look of something written or said can make a huge difference. Things that seem hard can be said with a beguiling smile. You might call a friend “you old booger,” or say to a colleague “oh, there you go thinking again,” with a smile and a tone which removes the words’ sting to convey warmth. I’d like to think that Jesus’ expression and compassion shining forth from his eyes stripped away insult and bitterness from the word he spoke.

          Second, she is quick to see and respond. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Even if not privileged to sit at the Lord’s Table, she would gladly have the scraps! Then I imagine Jesus’ face lighting up with joy, admiring the woman’s determined faith. He granted her the blessing she sought and the healing her daughter needed. Faith ignited; faith confirmed.

          There are things about this woman who seems to change Jesus’ mission to God’s Kingdom that we should explore:

          First, she had Love. She pleaded for her child to the Lord she believed could heal. In her heart, this mother’s love for her daughter required she approach Jesus, for her love mirrored God’s love for all God’s children. It was love so strong so as to reach out to the stranger in her midst; it was love that forced itself through his silence; it was love which withstood the rebuffs, ridicule and rejection the disciples threw back at her; it was love which enabled her to see and hear compassion in the words of Jesus.

          This woman also had Faith. Perhaps hearing about Jesus and his marvelous works beforehand, the faith she hoped she had actually grew in her as she saw him with his disciples. As she cried out, she sought mercy, using the title, “Lord, Son of David.” It was a popular title for Jesus, even political. It spoke of Jesus being a great and powerful worker of wonders, and she saw in him power and glory.

          I think Jesus wanted to stir up in her the full sense of faith she'd not fully known nor could completely comprehend. Her desperate plea was a cry for help to the One who could hear and grant her request. I think Jesus wanted her request of him to become a prayer to the living God. Can't you almost see her faith grow in the presence of Jesus? Can't you feel the compassion of God?

          Love drove her to follow Jesus, and Faith pressed her to worship him. She followed by foot, then fell to her knees. She began with a request and ended in prayer.

          She came with persistent and passionate hope and a noisy sense of need. She was so adamant that she would not be stifled. The earnest quality of her prayer was effective and undeniable.

          So, with fire in her eyes and genius in her words, this Gentile woman pushed the door of healing and salvation wide open for all of us. As commentator Michael H. Crosby (no relation) wrote about this reading, “Mercy, in Matthew, finds Jesus redefining the holiness codes characterized by separation and removing the boundaries that demanded that exclusive control of God’s reign be in the hands of the chosen few.[1]

          My guess is this woman also may have ministered to Jesus. After laboring long with hard-hearted Pharisees and dull-minded disciples, this exchange with an open spirit and a lively mind could have refreshed Jesus like a good night’s rest.

          As Jesus commends her bold faith, how might we interpret this story? How do we, as Immanuel Church, swing open the door to healing and salvation to those on the margins of society? What, for example, do we do in response to the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO? Can we find ways to help communities here in Alexandria overcome deliberate or inadvertent acts of exclusion? How might we react to the pain, despair, and illness exposed by Robin Williams’ death? Can we work together to better understand such hidden problems? I still look for those answers. But when people come here, as they do repeatedly for help, it isn't always because we have food or money to offer. It may be the healing they need is for us to make time to see and hear them. It may be that what they seek is confirmation that their lives matter, that God's mercy extends even to them. It may be that the love and faith they have inside needs to be let loose by our invitation, when they are unemployed or despondent or homeless or even just a foreigner. This is loving compassion through faithful relationship. As we gather around Word and Sacrament, I invite you to come by faith to seek strength, grace, mercy and love to become better advocates for all who need justice, healing and peace.

          Now, here's the end of ‘God Made a Dog’ that I began with. This part made me think to share it, given these Gospel lessons and this persistent woman of faith:

          “God said, ‘I need somebody who will stand at your side when the world around you collapses. Somebody to lie next to you during the long nights of pain and sorrow when it hurts to move, or talk, or think, or be. ... Somebody to give you strength when you have none of your own. Somebody to fight when you have no fight left, to hold onto your soul as if it were their favorite toy, playing tug of war to keep you in this world. Somebody to be your companion and guide in this world and the next. Somebody to wait for you on the other side or stand guard in your absence until they can join you for eternity.’ So God made a Dog.”

          Maybe some of Jesus' best friends were dogs. Some of my best friends are dogs. I imagine some of yours are, too. AMEN.



[1] The New Testament-Introducing the Way of Discipleship. Eds Howard-Brook, Wes & Sharon H. Ringe (Oribis Books, Maryknoll 1970) p. 29