1 Thess 2:1-8, A Dog's Life, Matthew 22:34-40, Proper 25A, Sermons

Heart Dog

(A sermon for Proper 25A — October 23, 2011 — 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-40)

When I was a little girl growing up in Virginia, I was afraid of dogs, especially big ones.

(Pause for a laugh, because my dog is so big!)

And when I was a single mom of three children, living in Maine and going to seminary in Massachusetts, I had a child who was afraid of dogs, especially big ones.

But that particular child, determined to overcome that particular fear, began to ask for a dog. And ask. And ask. And ask. And thinking a dog would be something like a cat, just bigger, I agreed to consider the possibility.

(Please, dog people, feel free to laugh again. What did I know?)

One thing I knew for sure, you couldn’t go away overnight to seminary once a week and just leave a dog behind, the way you did a cat, so I set a timeline. When I graduate we’ll get a dog. That’s what I told my eager child, thinking since graduation was still two years away, the interest would pass.

It didn’t.

When I started my last year at Andover Newton, this child of mine reminded me: “Mom, you said we could get a dog when you graduate. That’s not very far away. We need to start thinking about it.”

I bought a guide to dog breeds, and my child began to study it. I didn’t say so, but I knew, the way you know things without knowing why, that we would get a lab or a golden, because they were good with children, and that was the kind of dog I liked, so there. But we made a list of qualities we found necessary or appealing, and others we found intolerable, and one day my child brought the book back to me and said, “Mom, this is the kind of dog we want.”

I’d never heard of the breed, Bernese Mountain Dog. I’d never seen one in real life. I had no idea where to find one. But I understood the attraction. The puppy picture in the book looked just like a stuffed animal.

Little Molly

And so did the live one we brought home six months later. In the car she cried and cried, to the woe of the dog-desiring child trying to comfort her in the back seat of the station wagon. We loved her like a new baby in the family, my first clue that this would be very different from having a cat. I talked “for” her when people spoke to us, just the way I did with my human children, as if that would somehow teach her to talk, too. And when I think of how much received language that dog had, I sometimes wonder if it didn’t work, or close enough. She grew up to be smart, able to distinguish where we were going and what we were doing and even what we were saying. I socialized her, because that’s what the books said to do, and she grew up to be winsome, running with the other dogs at the park but taking particular trouble to greet every human being, too.

She grew up to be smart … and winsome … and crippled.

She was still a pup when we noticed the limping. Vet visits and x-rays led to a consultation at Tufts, where the surgeon had three students watch her walk. He asked each of them, which is the primary site of her lameness, and every one of them had a different answer, because every leg had a problem.

It seemed unfair that a heart overflowing with so much love was bound in a body so limited.

During recovery from hip surgery

We took the surgeon’s recommendation and poured a ridiculous amount of money into treatment for Molly, with no assurance that it would make a major difference in her quality of life. There was a hip procedure, followed by three months of rehab, and then arthroscopy on both elbows.

I didn’t even know a dog *had* elbows.

After the elbow surgery, we waited to see if things would improve. Some days things looked better and other days not so much. We added another puppy to the family, Sam, and she took some interest in him, which cheered everyone.

Molly with Peter, circa 2004

Then one day, she sat up on her haunches, on those awful hips that should have bothered her more, and she offered both paws; she raised up those bad elbows and offered both paws in a sort of affectionate gesture.
It wasn’t the last time. It happened over and over again. We came to call them The Paws of Love.

And what I want to tell you about the Paws of Love is that they changed my life.

I went all over the place with Molly, in the beginning mostly to dog parks and coffee shops and to pick the kids up from school and activities. At the dog park, as I said, she greeted everyone. A dog park is a funny cross-section of the human community, especially a park in a city. The dog owners are of all ages and socio-economic classes and political persuasions. They may or may not look like their Beagles and Dobermans and Pit Bulls and Standard Poodles.

They’re not all nice.

They’re not all attractive.

Some of them smoke and drop their cigarette butts where dogs might eat them. Some of them ignore the fact that their dogs are bullies. Some of them never pick up their dogs’ business.

It’s possible I judged them.

It’s possible I judged them harshly.

But Molly? She did not care if people smelled good, or how nice their outerwear was, or the condition of their cars in the parking lot or whether their dogs behaved right or anything else. All they had to be was alive and in the dog park, and she wanted to greet them and offer those Paws of Love.

They were such pretty paws, and the expression in her eyes when she looked at these strangers was incredibly tender and charming.

At the dog park, 2003

Molly went with me not just to dog parks and coffee shops and school parking lots but to nursing homes and assisted living and church. She went to church a lot, even on Sundays. And it may not surprise you to hear that even at church there are people who – well, they may not drop their cigarette butts in the sanctuary, but there are other ways of doing things that are just as troubling. But that didn’t matter to Molly. She didn’t judge a person’s participation or whether they dressed up or down, how often they attended or whether they liked her human mama’s preaching. She went happily to coffee hour, and the only possible preference she showed was for Mrs. Brown, who carried Milk Bones in her purse.

I used to hear other dog people say they had a “heart dog.” They meant, and you’ll know this already if you’re a dog person, that there was one particular dog who fit into their heart so exactly that even though other dogs might be treasured, that “heart dog” would never be forgotten or replaced.

Molly as photographed by jo(e) — 2007

Molly was my heart dog, certainly. But it’s not because she fit into my heart. It’s because she broke my heart open to love in a new way. She compelled me to look at other people and see neighbors God wanted me to love. She overcame the genteel training that inclined me to be, I must admit it, a little judgmental. She took me outside the dog park of social constraints and superficial evaluations and into the open field of love.

You wouldn’t think it would take a dog to teach this lesson to someone who went to church all her life.

Yet Jesus found himself struggling to teach the same lesson to a group of committed religious people. There in Jerusalem, almost at the last, he faced the rhetorical challenges of people who feared he threatened their way of life and their social and religious power. They looked again and again for ways to prove he was dangerous in his beliefs, hoping he would deny one of the laws they valued in front of witnesses. They asked him, what really matters most? His answer to this question did nothing to make their case, because he spoke from the ancient scriptures they knew so well. But he somehow made the ancient words sound different.
He calls us beyond the laws of the priests and the warnings of the prophets to say that the ancient rules and the hard-won wisdom mean nothing without love.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. *Love* God. That’ s deeper than respecting God, or fearing God, or holding God in awe. It’s relational. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love the people who aren’t part of your self-identified, safe family or cultural group just the same way you love the people you are. Love them. It’s active.

Molly with her protector, Sam — 2008

It’s not sentimental. It’s visceral.

There is nothing sentimental about a dog’s love. *We* may feel sentimental about the dog’s behavior, tilt our heads in imitation or say “Awww.” But the dog throws herself into love, whole-bodily.  Jesus calls us into a world where we love that way, with all that we have and all that we are, whole-heartedly and whole-mindedly and whole-soul-edly.

Love God. Love others. Love yourself.

I don’t know if a dog can perceive things beyond her senses. I don’t know if a dog can love God. But I do know a dog can love what God has made, with all her heart and mind and soul. I do know she taught me what it meant to love outside my accustomed circle. And I pray I’ll have the heart of that dog whenever and wherever God calls me to extend the Paws of Love. Amen.

(For Molly — February 27, 2002 to February 10, 2009)

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