I read somewhere that a female dog will love you, but a male will be *in* love with you, and that has certainly been our experience with Molly and Sam. Sam has a few people he’s absolutely in love with: our five family members and our dog walker. Other people he can take or leave, mostly leave. Molly, on the other hand, or perhaps I should say the other paw, loves everyone.
We noticed this in her puppyhood. She never, ever met a stranger. I took her with me everywhere. If I got in the car, she got in the car. We drove children to school and to day camp that first summer of her life. We went to the coffee shop. She even visited my church, riding up on the elevator to meet the dog-loving pastor. Everywhere she went, Molly left behind a trail of F.O.M.s (Friends of Molly), people who would ask about her and people who prayed for her when, later that fall, our vet told us she had severe hip dysplasia with signs of arthritis and referred us to the Tufts Veterinary School.
I remember lying on the kitchen floor with Molly the night before our first visit to Tufts. Our cheerful, friendly puppy had become a sad, sad girl, losing interest in the world, lying on her dog bed, disconsolate. I promised her then I would do whatever was best for her, fearing that might mean having her put to sleep.
The next morning the vets at Tufts diagnosed her with bilateral hip and elbow dysplasia and explained their plan for her: first a surgery to shore up the better of her two hips, then a period of rehabilitation, followed by arthroscopy on both elbows. The worse hip we would leave be and embark on a course of medication and supplements that would last for the rest of her life. This list of things to do felt daunting, but we decided to go for it. How could we not, knowing what a loving, happy girl she had been before her arthritis became so crippling?
We really did not know what would happen next. The elbow surgery, in particular, had mixed results, great for some dogs and not much help at all for others. It would be many months before we knew the outcome, months of crate rest and lying on the snow leashed to the swing set, because she was happier outside but couldn’t be left unsupervised unless we tied her, months of short walks that gradually got longer and then another surgery and starting all over again. For the first month or so after the elbow surgery, I did not feel hopeful. We saw signs of our happy Molly, but she remained lame and tentative.
Then one spring day, she played with our new puppy, Sam. And one summer day, she did something that at first looked like a trick, except that no one had taught it to her. She sat up on her haunches, something you would imagine to be unthinkable for a dog with such a bad hip, and she gave me both paws. We noticed her doing this over and over again, to us and to friends, even to strangers at the dog park. I began to call them The Paws of Love. She gave them generously, lavishly, indiscriminately. And she taught me something about love that I knew in my head but suddenly understood with my whole self, a sort of Hokey-Pokey revelation about the Great Commandment and how we are commanded to be faithful followers of Christ.
Molly has a passion for living and a passion for others, both dogs and people. Full of love, she lets it overflow to everyone. Sometimes her love for creation means she runs off faster than a dog with arthritis should, and that’s how she managed to injure her shoulder last fall. She hurt it again on Friday, pelting up our back stairs to greet a visitor. I think she would tell you, if she had our kind of words, that every step was worth it. She cannot help her herself. She needed to get to our friend and sit up and produce The Paws of Love.
Now, in the gospel lesson, I freely admit Jesus probably did not have dogs in mind. But that doesn’t mean Molly can’t be an example to me, and she is. In a world full of polarizing political arguments and theological disagreements, she does not stop to ask people about their party or their denomination. She simply greets them with love. She does not stew about her sore shoulder or her stiff elbows. She approaches each day with joy, happy about simple things like getting a cookie or springing up to say hello to the cat.
But Jesus stated the essentials of a faithful life, and it’s interesting that all the great religions share them.
My hairdresser told me that her business partner is always looking for some new system of belief, and I told her I believed there are three important things:
1) Relate to something transcendent and outside yourself
2) Be kind to others
3) Be kind to yourself
Love God. Love others. Love yourself.
Jesus tells us that this is the essential understanding underlying all the Law and the Prophets, all the books of history and wisdom that built the basis of his Jewish faith. All that remains of his life as portrayed in the gospel of Matthew will underscore these principles: his extended critique of the Pharisees and scribes, his parables and instructions to his followers, his actions on the last two days of his human life. It is all about love for God and others, and although it may sound like a stretch to describe walking to the crucifixion as an example of loving himself, I understand it as the ultimate act of living his calling in this life, an act of loving who he was and living into his true self.
Paul knew this, too. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians shares that loving feeling, reminding the recipients of his love for God, and his love for them, a love that includes sacrifice of his own freedom and ultimately his life. Paul lived passionately as a persecutor of the followers of Jesus, and after his conversion on the road to Damascus, he lived passionately as their teacher. He lived his passion as thoroughly as he could, following the example of Jesus as fully as humanly possible.
Most of us are not called to give ourselves quite so dramatically, but we are certainly called to share our passion with the world as a way of showing our love for God, for ourselves and for one another. The Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila wrote, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which to look at Christ’s compassion to the world, yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good, and yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.”
With our hands and our feet, with our eyes and our words, we show love to God and to each other.
In this season when we are measuring how much we will give, we can see many ways that passion is expressed by members of this church. Some of us knit without ceasing: prayer shawls, items for the fair, and the Remsen blankets for Church World Service and hats and scarves for Christmas at Sea we blessed last week. Yesterday and this morning, talented hands prepared the Harvest Dinner we will share in a few minutes, the dinner that smells so good right now! We even have a ham raised on the farm of two church members.
This morning we had the gift of music from the Bell Choir, and on other Sundays we hear the joyful noise of the choir.
There are many ways to express our love for God and for each other, but they all stem from the love within us, the love that inspires our passions and our talents.
Perhaps this all seems too ideal. When we find ourselves questioning, or when Jesus’ words sound too simple or Paul seems like an overachiever, we may find it all a bit too sweet or too pat to believe.
But, you can learn a lot from a dog. Molly’s Paws of Love are no trick. She gives them in earnest; she gives them in love. Sharing that love is her passionate response to being alive, and even on days when her shoulder is bad or her arthritis acts up, she still has love to give.
So when the words of Jesus seem *too* familiar, or the example of Paul seems too perfect, I think of Molly. I think of Molly and extend the Paws of Love. Amen.