YOU MIND DOGS? by
Rev. Chris Glaser
I also thank outgoing Moderator Susan Andrews for her gracious invitation to preach this morning.
Please pray with me. O God, breathe in us your Spirit, so that we may hear your Word to us, Jesus Christ, in scripture, song, and sermon. Amen.
I have two VERY friendly dogs, named Calvin and Hobbes. They’re each a mix of breeds, but their golden Labrador retriever gregariousness rises to the occasion whenever I welcome a guest into my home. They virtually bounce up and down and, at one hundred pounds and sixty-five pounds, respectively, they can knock a guest down with their enthusiastic greeting. I’m also always a little wary that they may sense something “wrong” about the person, which may range from a physical attribute, such as being too tall, to an emotional one, such as being afraid of dogs or—incredible as it may sound—not liking dogs.
In what turned out to be the final year of his life, my seminary professor turned friend, Henri Nouwen, made plans to visit me in Atlanta. Henri wrote more than forty books on the spiritual life, and is regarded by both Protestant and Catholic clergy as one of the most influential Christian writers of our time. I had been pressing him to come for a relaxing visit during his sabbatical. As we checked our calendars over the phone, I asked my usual question of would-be guests, “Do you mind dogs?”
Henri quickly said of course not. But he added, “I don’t mind dogs as long as we don’t spend all of our time talking about them. I find people often prefer to talk about their pets rather than talk about themselves.” For Henri, pets, like other distractions, can get in the way of spiritual intimacy.
Those of us who have pets and those of us who know people who have pets recognize this liability. We LOVE our pets, and we LOVE to talk about them. See, I’ve even gotten them into this sermon! But as much as I love my own dogs, Calvin and Hobbes, I too get bothered by how easily and quickly the conversation of my guests goes to the dogs, when I want to talk about human concerns.
In a similar fashion, it seems to me that often when we Presbyterians get together to talk about controversial issues in the church, rather than talk about ourselves—our personal faith experience and what we may have in common—we instead trot out our pet religious or political dogmas and talk about them, avoiding spiritual intimacy. Some of us have VERY friendly dogmas, dogmas that are evangelical, inclusive, and welcoming. Others of us have dogmas that might bite, or at least, strike fear in the hearts of others who may have been bitten by dogmas in the past.
The writers of the Bible apparently had the same desire to talk about sheep as pet owners like to talk about their pets. After all, many of the Biblical figures were shepherds, such as Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David. Sheep are mentioned more than 500 times in the Bible. In the Hebrew scriptures, they are usually literal references. In Christian scriptures, all references but one are metaphorical.
Sheep and dogs are a lot alike. Sheep too are highly gregarious. They are easily lost. They too know the voice of the one to whom they belong, and the shepherd of Biblical times typically knew each sheep by name. But sheep are unaggressive and defenseless, and thus dependent on a good shepherd whose staff guides them and whose rod wards off predators—thus, in Psalm 23, the Shepherd Lord’s rod and staff comfort the psalmist, offering protection and guidance.
In the scriptures read today, the references to sheep are all metaphorical. Psalm 100 reminds us to make a joyful noise, for we are God’s people, “the sheep of [God’s] pasture.” The prophet Ezekiel decries leaders for failing to protect and feed their sheep, and depicts the Lord God as a good shepherd seeking the lost sheep, feeding and strengthening them. The epistle of First Peter reminds elders of our charge to be good shepherds, not lording it over others but serving as humble—emphasis on “humble” in the text—serving as humble examples to the flock, resisting the roaring, devouring lions of our time so, as the epistle says, “when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.” Our English word “pastor” is taken from the Latin word for shepherd.
And in a chapter of Luke in which Jesus describes also a lost coin and a lost son, Jesus tells the religious leaders of his time, who are grumbling over his welcome of religious outcasts, that he is doing no less than they would do if they lost a sheep: seek it until it is found, and then call “together...friends and neighbors, saying... ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ ” It was as if he were saying to them, which of you would leave your sheep to the wolves? Or to us, which of you would abandon your pet to traffic? Or to the church, which of you would desert a fellow Christian who hears the voice of the Good Shepherd, and knows him as her or his own?
When I served, non-ordained, on the staff of the West Hollywood Presbyterian Church in California in a ministry of reconciliation between the church and the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community, a gay man who attended an Alcoholics Anonymous group that met in the church building was invited to worship. He had rediscovered a spiritual path in the 12-Step program, but he was reluctant to return to church. He had grown up in the South in the 50's, where I now live, and had witnessed how badly his church had treated African-Americans. And, in the broader church, he saw its disregard for women, and its hatred of gay people. During his first worship experience in adulthood, he was so angry at the church he told me later he could not bring himself to say the words “Jesus Christ” when the name appeared in a unison prayer. Through weekly worship and Bible study, talks with me and recommended reading, he finally was able, not only to say the name Jesus Christ, but to confess him as Lord and Savior one year later in joining the church.
Months after joining, during coffee hour following worship, he came to me and said, “Chris, I have to tell you something that I think only you would understand.” Hearing the urgency in his voice, I led him to my office and asked what was on his mind. “I don’t think I could ever tell this to anybody else,” he began, and I braced myself for a serious confession. “Yesterday morning I woke up with the most profound sense of God’s love. God loved me. I felt surrounded by God’s love.” It was a precious moment.
But it did not stay there, only with him. In the years to come, this man became an elder and the church treasurer. He left his job as a bank vice president to become the church custodian so that he could be closer to where he found God working. He helped found the congregation’s lunch program for the homeless, volunteered with its ministry helping female prostitutes transition, and eventually led its ministry to the gay inmates of the Los Angeles county jail, who were neglected by the jail’s chaplains. Very early Sunday mornings he found himself preaching at the jail about the very one whose name he could not say when he first returned to church: Jesus Christ.
It would be too easy to hear this story as that of a “lost sheep” returning to the fold. Given the reasons this man had left the fold, the church, in the first place, we might also hear this story as that of a “lost fold” returning to the sheep left out.
For me, all theology, all ecclesiology, all evangelism, all mission is wrapped up in this story. I believe this is the reason we exist as the church. We may have our pet dogmas, but we can’t let them get in the way of welcoming one another and one another’s stories of faith. In Jesus Christ, we know God as the Good Shepherd, who risks the brokenness of his own body so that we ALL may have life in fullness—outsiders and insiders. In his Spirit, we become good shepherds when we seek the other out. We are each lost sheep and we may each be a good shepherd.
When the next General Assembly meets in the year 2006, we will have before us the final report of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church. The members of that task force would be the first to admit they cannot do our work for us; that we must embrace their mandate as our own. Though the origin of the New Testament Greek word for peace, , is uncertain, it may be derived from the root , which means “to fasten together.” Peace thus may have more to do with union than it has to do with the absence of conflict. When Jesus gave his disciples his “peace” in John 14:27, he nonetheless warned of conflict. “Christ is our peace,” declares the writer of Ephesians in the context of blending formerly hostile and opposing groups, Gentiles and Jews, into one church. Christ is what fastens us together.
We are all the sheep of his pasture. We are called by the prophets to seek and nurture the sheep that we have failed to protect and feed. As elders and pastors, we are called, in our imitation of Christ, to serve humbly as good shepherds, using the rod not to punish but to protect the sheep, using the staff not to coerce but to lead the sheep. Reminding ourselves that we, the shepherds, are at the same time lost sheep should keep us humble and modest, reigning in our dogmas, rejoicing with the heavens, welcoming the other’s story to fill our hearts and our houses of worship with joyful noise and singing and thanksgiving and praise. “For the Lord is good; [One] whose steadfast love endures forever, and whose faithfulness to all generations.”
Copyright © 2008 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission
granted for non-profit circulation with attribution of author, occasion,
date and venue. Other rights reserved.
Invite Chris to lead your retreat, workshop, or presentation. For possible topics,
For Chris Glaser