Old Dog, Old Habits

(A sermon for Epiphany 7A February 20, 2011     Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48)

If you are friends with me on Facebook, or read my blog, or you stopped by the office this week, you may already know the big news from my house: we have a new, old dog. Monday afternoon I came home to a call from my friend in Rescue who asked if I could do emergency, short-term foster care for an 8-year-old Berner. I said, sure, but I can’t keep the dog past the middle of next week, because I’m going on a cruise. She assured me that would be no problem, and she also said, “I know you’ve just been through a period of loss. I promise I’m not trying to use the back door to place an old dog in our home.”

“Okay,” I said. LP and I got in the car and went to meet the old fellow. To our surprise he barreled down a flight of stairs to greet us, despite being a bit barrel-shaped himself. He settled right into our house, and by the time we got home from taking him to the vet the next afternoon, I wondered how we would ever give up this sweet, though very dirty, dog.

Most of what I would later read in his surrender forms was already clear. He has a sweet, pleasant personality. He loves to ride in the car. He wouldn’t know a cat if he saw one—that proved to be very true! And the six-and-a-half pound cat put the 117-pound dog in his place immediately. He remembers one command, “Sit,” but he dropped out of puppy obedience because the smaller dogs were afraid of him.

And…he’s not great on a leash. He pulls, wrote his previous owner, but really what he does is dawdle, so that as the person walking him, it’s hard to establish any sort of pace. I had grown used to a dog who stayed by my side 99% of the time, so this is, well, annoying.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. It’s a famous saying, but I’m determined to prove it wrong.

Famous sayings are tricky, because unless we understand the context from which they arose, we tend to apply our own meaning to them.

Jesus laid out a series of sayings that became famous in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. “Turn the other cheek.”  “Go the second mile.” “Love your enemies.” There’s more, but that’s enough to get us started.

Here’s another maxim, one you’ll know is true if you’ve ever tried to change yourself:

Old habits die hard.

You might remember that a few weeks ago we talked about how the Mount on which he gave this sermon is really more of a sloping hill, and the set-up and the follow-up suggest that although Jesus started out by talking to his disciples, he ended up preaching to a crowd.  We’re in the section just after the one we read last week, and Jesus continues to ask his followers, and anyone who might be listening, to hear God’s commandments in a new way.

Our first reading takes us back to the heart of Jewish law, Leviticus. It’s the book that prohibits all sorts of things. We tend to hear most often about prohibitions against certain sexual practices, but it also calls tells the faithful not to eat shellfish or pork, and among the things declared abominations are tattoos. So we may be inclined to dismiss Leviticus as that dusty book with all the rules no one cares about anymore except for a few things that are useful in arguments.

But this passage sounds like good advice, doesn’t it? Don’t overuse your resources. Whatever you have that is extra, leave it for those in need.  Don’t lie or steal or swear falsely.  Pay your workers what you owe them. Don’t make life harder for those whose lives are already more complicated than yours. Be fair with everyone, not siding more with the poor or the rich. Don’t lie about people. Take care of your own and watch out for your neighbor, too.

Oh, and love your neighbor as yourself. That’s the one we associate with Jesus.

Now, you may have noticed that all of those commandments are directed at people who own land, who employ people, who are in a position to *make* a judgment or do good for others. And it’s important to know that the law as practiced in the time of Jesus had just that orientation. The law set guidelines for the “haves,” with some concern to be shown for the “have-nots,” but not too much.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. It’s a maxim, so it must be true. Right?

Not as far as Jesus was concerned.

He laid out a whole new foundation for being faithful.

Now, one of the things I’m trying to figure out about the new dog in my house is what sort of schedule he had and how I can get him to fit into mine. This will require some short-term compromise for both of us, but first I have to learn the rules of his life so far. And some of that is guess-work. I can tell you that he has an unfortunate propensity for climbing onto snowbanks to do his business, and leaving me in the awkward position of holding onto his leash with my right hand while I pick up – well, you know – with the left. And while this may not sound like charming sermon material, it’s pertinent to the first thing Jesus tells us to do.

Because all that stuff about turning the other cheek makes reference to something we who live in the hygiene era would never think to consider. Being slapped in the face was something a superior would do to an inferior. The person on top would give the back of his hand (most likely HIS hand) to the slave or servant, the person of lesser social standing. The back of his right hand would hit the right cheek. And if the person being hit offered the other cheek to be slapped, it placed the slapper in a predicament. How could you not slap the second cheek? To step back would seem to be giving in, admitting the first slap should never have happened. To slap again with the open hand would immediately make the inferior person an equal, because that kind of slapping didn’t happen between master and servant. And to backhand with the left hand was the biggest taboo of all, because that hand, used for, shall we say, “business,” was ritually unclean and couldn’t be used to touch anyone. *

So turning the other cheek was not giving in to abuse. It was the most powerful kind of non-violent resistance. He goes on to describe going further than asked for and loaning willingly and doing more than simply leaving the extra for the poor. All of these actions turned the old laws upside down.

Old habits die hard. For the people listening to him, the ones who liked the system as they knew it, this must have sounded very disturbing. They had to know what he told them to do would be risky. It was enough to be fair, wasn’t it? Enough to live by the familiar Law?

Not to Jesus. Not to Jesus.

It’s not enough to greet your neighbor or love your family, he’s saying. Even the people who don’t follow the rules of our faith community do that, for Pete’s sake. Those tax collectors, those Gentiles—they love their families, too. It’s not even enough to take what other people inflict on you; don’t hit back, but let them know you are their equal. It’s a challenge to all of us whether we “have” or not.

Jesus wants more, because more will change the world.

I want more from my new old dog. I want him to actually walk instead of stopping to sniff every five or ten feet.  No one ever asked him to do more before.  I’m laying down some new rules for him. And we may feel like that old dog, happy to stay with the way things were.  Why work harder? Why dig deeper? Isn’t it enough to be fair and friendly to the people we know?

Isn’t that hard enough by itself sometimes?

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, they say.

But I believe you can. It requires patience, which is something I have, and time, which is something I’m willing to commit.

And let’s be clear, I’m not just talking about the dog here. I’m talking about my own faith journey and our life together as a community of Christ.

As people of faith, in every generation, God challenges us in new ways to move toward the ideals represented to us by Jesus in his teachings and in his life.  The words of Matthew’s Jesus are hard, sometimes very hard. Be more than fair. Love where you wouldn’t naturally. See other people as people, not rivals or inferiors or oppressors or enemies. See them as God’s children on whom the sun shines and the rain (or the snow) falls, just the way it falls on us.

That’s the foundation Jesus lays for us, an expectation that we will learn new tricks and let old habits die. May it be so, for each of us and for this church. Amen.

*Read more about this in Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium. I’m not quoting, just remembering what I heard about his thoughts in seminary.

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5 thoughts on “Old Dog, Old Habits

  1. Wow! Not only a brilliant connection between life and scripture, but beautifully expressed. And I learned something new too. It's the first time I've ever heard about the cheek slapping. This is one "old dog" who learned a a new trick!!

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  2. How interesting to read this sermon from my home church and to hear a sermon in a Methodist church in Swansboro, NC, delivered by a female minister entitled, "On Being a Blind, Toothless, Red Cheeked, Naked, Luggage Toting Pauper" based on the same scripture. Both sermons were wonderful

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