Off the Leash

A sermon for Lent 1A February 10, 2008

Genesis 2:15-17,
; Matthew 4:1-11

It’s a recurring conversation at my house. Does Sam need to
be on a leash? His behavior says “no” but the law of the town says “yes.” I
never leave the house without both dogs on the leash, even though I know that
Sam would walk nicely to the car with me and hop in unassisted. He’s not like
Molly, a dog so friendly that she looks for houses when we are out on a walk,
just in hopes of walking up on someone’s front porch to say “hello.” Be in no
doubt, if there are people around, she cannot resist temptation. 

Sam, on the other hand, can resist 99 temptations out of
100, but with a 125 pound dog, you have to know which the 100th is
likely to be. A firm “SAM” will keep him in check where squirrels are involved,
and even with ducks, but if it’s a deer, as has happened a few times at one of
our favorite parks in Falmouth,
forget it. You’d better grab hold of him, or he will go stotting off after them
in a great state of excitement.


I really don’t love to let either of them off the leash
unless we are in a fenced park. It gives me a sense of safety. 

Our Genesis reading tells part of the second Creation story
in Genesis, not the seven day creation of Chapter One, but the ancient folk tale
of Chapters Two and Three. Adam and Eve are in the Garden, a sort of safe,
fenced area, and there is only one rule other than to look after the other
creatures there: do not eat the fruit of that certain tree. 

It’s the story that convinces me that God the Father was new
at this parenting thing. 

Last Sunday my daughter and I went to see a production of The Fantasticks, and in that story of
star-crossed love, the fathers of the two young people sing a song about being
parents and the attendant frustrations: 

Dog's got to bark, a
mule's got to bray.
Soldiers must fight and preachers must pray.
And children, I guess, must get their own way
The minute that you say no.

Why did the kids put beans in their ears?
No one can hear with beans in their ears.
After a while the reason appears.
They did it cause we said no. 

Of course, there was more to it with Eve, who had the
encouragement of the Serpent. But I wonder if there isn’t more power in the
story if we imagine the dialogue as interior, the idea springing from Eve
herself, the Satan who tempts Jesus as a mirror image of the man?

Because most of the time temptation does come from within,
from a sense of our own power to make things happen.

All week I have been reading an unfolding story on my
Bernese Mountain Dog club email list about Johann, an 18-month-old Berner just
placed with a new family last week. On Monday night, he bolted out the front .The
poor boy did not know this to be his family yet; perhaps he wanted to find his
REAL home, wherever that had been. 

An email traveled to the Rescue Coordinator for the club,
who sent out an SOS. Club members offered to search for Johann, to hang flyers,
to help in whatever way they could.

Wednesday and Thursday we heard reports he had been spotted,
and there was a brief period of worry that he had broken through a fence onto

Johann was so far off the leash that no one could do
anything for him. 

Finally, on Friday, came this report: Johann was in a field
at a farm not far from his new family’s home. The farm owner reported he had
been spotted off and on there all week. A club member, Mimi, went over to the
farm with her female Berner, Ivy, in hopes that Johann would find Ivy
attractive enough to come close. Knowing how shy he was, Mimi, who has helped
do this kind of runaway rescue before, came prepared to stay as long as
necessary, to win Johann’s trust.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit
into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty
nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him,
"If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of
bread." But he answered, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread
alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"
4:1-4, NRSV)

All day she waited, watching Johann warm up to Ivy and
finally play with her, but despite delicious meaty bait, he kept his distance
from Mimi.

In our gospel lesson, Satan speaks to Jesus, tempts Jesus, and I wonder,
where were the angels? We know they could not have been far away, for soon they
would arrive to wait upon Jesus, the trials of this temptation over and behind
him, the forty days of mind-altering fasting behind him.

Was it hard to stand by, or hover somewhere close, and do nothing?

Then the devil took him to the holy
city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, “If you are the Son of
God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels
concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you
will not dash your foot against a stone.'
" Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your
God to the test.'"
(Matthew 4:5-7, NRSV)

There are a couple of dogs on our street who frequently get away from their
families and head straight to our house, fascinated by Molly and Sam. As an
overprotective Dog Mama, I am the one who will find a leash and take a dog
home, but I have never had to work with a dog as shy as Johann. I tend to
believe I can power through an encounter and fix the problem. I want to be the angel
who flies in and make things right, my way.

As a parent, I have been protective, too, and I’m sure my children would
agree. But ultimately, I realize I must trust that the instruction I have given
my children will help them decide how to answer when temptation comes. It’s not
just about particular incidents, about whether to go out or stay in, but about
what kind of person to be: kind or unkind, caring or selfish, honest or
prevaricating, whole or broken. Believe me, when I hear from my 12-year-old that there are
pink fuzzy handcuffs for sale at the 7-11 in honor of Valentine's Day, I would
love to swoop in and "save" my child from facing the challenges of
this world. I want to protect her. I want to preserve her from harm. I want to
set her on a high mountain top where nothing will soil her.

Does that make me a frustrated angel? Or am I the one with the real
tempter's power, the one who can say to her, "Oh, the world! Never mind
about the world! Come away with me and separate yourself from the struggles and

What I really need to do is equip my children to face the world, exactly as
it is, to be ready to choose well when temptation comes, as it surely will.
They need to know how to live off the leash.

Friday afternoon we heard that Johann was still avoiding Mimi, though he
seemed to feel safe with Ivy. The farm owner offered to let Mimi stay in his
barn overnight with Ivy, leaving the door open in the hope Johann would choose
to be with them.

Again, the devil took him to a very
high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor;
and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and
worship me." Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is
written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"

I love this story about Jesus because it tells us that he really had a
choice about living in our human skin. And it tells us that God the First
Person, the Divine Parent, had learned a few things along the way in this Human
Experiment. God must have known that temptation was part of the human
experience, and therefore Jesus must learn to make choices, just like the rest
of us.

So, there he was, faced with all his capacity for power and the real choice
before him was whether or not to follow through on the commitment to live out a
human life. We hear that he was about thirty, and since there are no stories
about his younger adulthood and only a few about his infancy and childhood,
we’re left to assume that life had been relatively uneventful for Jesus, son of
Joseph and Mary, the carpenter’s boy. I’m glad for him, glad that there must
have been time to enjoy feeling the warm sun on his skin, time for making
friends, for sharing meals with his family, for the simple moments that are a
large part of what it means to be a living creature. I wonder if he thought of
these home pleasures when he faced down the temptation to unleash his own Godly

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

(Matthew 4:11)

Saturday morning, I got this email:

Hi everyone,

I just got off the phone with Mimi. Johann is safe with her at
her house!

It took 28 hours of baby steps from yesterday morning to today, but the
little guy finally gave in and decided to trust Mimi.

Quite frankly, I've never seen the devotion to a cause that Mimi
just showed us. She and Ivy are quite the team.

Keep those thoughts and prayers flowing toward Westford as Mimi,
Ivy and Johann recover from this ordeal and start to
move forward. Johann is
going to need a lot of love and care.

Real angels sit by and wait. They watch and see. They smile when the
challenges are met, and then they wing their way in to restore the soul from
its battle. They do not interfere before the time is right. They let us work it
out, off the leash. Amen.

3 thoughts on “Off the Leash”

  1. Thank you for incorporating Johann into your beautiful sermon. I am thrilled to say that this sweet puppy is safe, warm and cuddling with his new pack.
    What a special boy to have found a way to overcome his worst fears and work it out off the leash in order to get back on the leash.
    Peace and blessings to you, Reverend Martha.

  2. Mimi, thanks so much for your comment. I’m very glad to hear that Johann has found his way home with you.
    Auntie K, we did indeed!

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