I did something this past Sunday I hadn't done for the past three years and forty-five days: preach a sermon on a Sabbath morning. At the opening of the service I thought about threatening in jest to make up for the 160 missing sermons, figuring that we would be in the church building through Tuesday morning if I was able to limit each sermon to fifteen minutes. But the congregation, not knowing my weird sense of humor, might have taken me seriously. The pulpit I stood behind - infrequently used in the past thirty years because the preachers preferred to stand on the chancel steps or meander around the front pews - is located in The United Church of Chelsea (VT). We've sat in front of it a Sunday or so each of the past fifty summers of vacations in the Green Hills. I have written from time to time of the experience, evidence of which you can find in several places on this website.
The "United" in the church name refers to a merger long ago of a Congregational (now UCC) church and a Methodist church in the shire town where sustaining two congregations became impossible as the population declined. The church's most recent pastor, a Methodist, left this past June for an appointment in upstate New York. The local polity for choosing a successor to an outgoing pastor alternates between UMC and UCC. Now it's the turn for the UCC. That denomination requires an interim of at least ninety days, preferably longer. The pastoral search committee is looking for that interim, but, in the meantime, needed coverage for Sunday mornings. So a resident PK (preacher's kid), whose late Dad was a colleague of mine in the New York Conference, took a shot in the dark, wrote this reluctant Methodist clergy retiree, and invited me to pick a Sunday, any Sunday, when I could preach for them. We agreed to August 14th. Subsequent developments led the arrangers to ask me to conduct a communion service too.
There were, however, two provisos to my agreement to conduct the service: (1) there would be no honorarium; and (2) the preparation and publication of the order of worship would be left entirely to me. No problem on either score. Herewith in a somewhat reduced form is that order of worship.
The focus of the morning, and the pretext for my sermon, was a little white curly-haired dog. She performed on cue, responding to my whistled summons and dancing before the altar for the reward of a doggy snack. Three members of the Post family and two members of the Carnes family provided a chancel-stair sitting congregation of young people for the Children's Message... which was that we should all trust and obey our Master the way Tappy does her master. That same theme, trusting Jesus, was reaffirmed by a close harmony quartet, which included Margaret Doyle, the aforesaid PK, and Dale Post, the church's organist and music director.
Tappy also received top billing in the regular sermon. You can read why in the following:
Tappy’s Sermon – August 14, 2005
In this morning’s Gospel reading a dog figures prominently. More about that in a minute or two.
At this beginning I want to address the bum rap dogs have dis-enjoyed through the ages. When people or events are vexsome, we say, “They are a real dog.” One of the choice epithets, not much in vogue nowadays, not on TV anyway where stronger stuff is used, involves a female dog. My father-in-law, Barbara’s Dad, took mischievous pleasure in telling the story he probably heard from another Vermont hill-vacationer, Amos Horlacher, about the fellow who was really peeved at someone who had done him wrong. But since he was averse to cussing, he couldn’t bring himself to say the choice words. Instead, he looked the guy dead in the eye and said, “When you get home today, I hope your mother crawls out from under the porch and bites your leg.” Our little bitch, the one recently up here on the platform with me, Tappy, would never, never do that, bite me in the leg; but just try to put a newspaper through the front door mail slot and she’ll rip it to shreds.
I once asked a priest friend about dogs, whether or not they go to heaven. He said that, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, the reigning theologian in the Catholic Church, dogs don’t have souls and therefore are not eligible for the Father’s House, the one with many rooms. But, then, St. Thomas never met Tappy… or my soulmate mutt, Sadie. Heaven would be a far less attractive prospect for me if I couldn’t imagine Sadie waiting for me on the far side of the pearly gates, like she did so many evenings behind the backdoor when I arrived at the end of my day’s duties.
Thankfully, the Gospel has at least one kind word to say for dogs. Of course, you have to listen carefully to hear it. On the lips of the Canaanite woman begging for a healing miracle for her daughter suffering from some kind of psychosis. This is one persistent lady. She hounds (pun intended) Jesus on behalf of her child. The disciples tell her bluntly to get lost. But she keeps coming on. God love her. Any mother here will understand the lengths to which Mom will go, the insults she will suffer, the hostility she will disregard if, by any means, she can get what her child needs. When the Lord explains that he and the disciples are reluctant to attend to her daughter because his mission on earth is to establish a church among a Jewish remnant, the better to reassert the long and blessed history of salvation for a whole world full of broken hopes and broken people; when, in other words, he tells her, “I am sorry, I wish I could, but another agenda claims me”; when he makes his point, she, never to be put off even by the Son of God, responds persuasively, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” Let Tappy say, “Amen!” Only Tappy gets a lot better than crumbs.
In that moment, with that woman’s response, you can, even from this distance, see Jesus’ eyes light up and a smile come to his face. The dog was the clincher. Oh, St. Thomas, how could you be so mean. A recollection of the woman and her canine comparison was enshrined in that prayer in the communion service Methodists borrowed from the Church of England, right after the prayer of consecration, the prayer of humble access. Remember? How we used to pray, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.”
Dogs vindicated. This morning with the children I sought to offer one little dog as an example of faith, how to trust and obey. In my hands Tappy, even when shaking at the sight of a veterinarian with a hypodermic needle in his hand, will hold still when I hold her and tell her very certainly to be still. Our faith in God should be like that, trusting and obedient. Like when Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow. Like when Jesus tells us to love one another as he loves us. Like when Jesus tells us to be generous even to giving the shirts off our back. Like when he reassures us that he will be with us always. Trust and obey. Oh, how hard it is. Love your neighbor, sure, but he and she can be so unlovable. Turn the other cheek: right! And get the other one creamed too. Go the second mile, and you know what, your traveling companion will complain that you didn’t go the third. What we need is a hand to hold us firmly. What we need is someone to whisper assurances in our ears. What we need is someone into whose eyes we can look and know that he knows we can do it. What we need is a friend who has been there done that, suffered “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” walked the lonesome valley, lifted the cruel cross, and, somehow by the grace and favor of God, gotten through it all to a better day.
I won’t claim that Tappy reads all of those heroics and sympathetics in me; but, after fifty years of preaching and pastoring and seeing people face every imaginable terror circumstance can throw in our way, after all that, I am eager to proclaim that we have a Master whom we can trust and should obey, a Master who does a lot more than let us gather up the crumbs under his table; he invites us to dine with him at the great banquet feast of heaven; more, he enables us to be victors in this life for the next.
One more thought about dogs and the Christian faith, this one only hinted at in Paul’s letter to the Romans, in the verse I’ve quoted at the top of the order of worship. Admittedly, it’s something of a stretch, but I’ll suggest it anyway, that when I hear our little bichon friese moaning because, for instance, she sees daughter Betsy in the outfield and longs to be rid of the leash’s restraint, to run to Betsy, that whimper of frustration, that groaning of undiluted yearning reminds me every time I hear it of that verse, how
we know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
There you have it, Tappy on behalf of every critter, those that purr and those who lie dead in the road from an onrushing car, reminding us of the brokenness of this mortal life, if ever we needed such a reminder, and most of us don’t. It’s plain to see in the newspaper headlines and with a minute’s reflection upon our own lives, their ups and downs, especially their downs. The whimpering canine, in my translation of dog talk, addresses us, masters and mistresses, to whom, you will remember in the opening pages of the Bible, the creator gave dominion over the flora and fauna. The whimper/groaning tells us to get with it, get in step with Jesus, trod this earth more gently, love one another more generously, make the world a better place for the little ones and those who have yet to be born, and, in every way, embrace our responsibility, by God, for tending this garden and steering this round, blue ark to a distant and better shore.
We’ve gone from a little white dog to the Master of the Universe and, in his name, to the end of the world. We like to claim that God is everywhere, and, to be sure, there’s much truth in the statement. Better, however, to put it this way, that everywhere in God’s creation there are reminders of God’s grace and glory and eternity’s intentions with us… if we will but look and listen. Maybe even a dog can lead us to divinity. Let Tappy bark “Amen.”
It might be interesting but it would be immodest (or humbling) for me to give a halo rating on the morning's sermon. The congregation was attentive, laughed in most of the right places, and did not seem to be upset with a bichon dancing at the altar. There were thirty-five of us in the sanctuary, eight of us from the Chelsea Farm Society. Someone caught the mistake in the drawing of the church on the front page of the bulletin. It isn't the church that's depicted; it's the courthouse on the second green, a building which may once have served as the Methodist church. Tappy was a model worshipper, sitting upright through the hour, her floppy ears framing an attentive face, more like a stylish dowager than a hound. She did have to be restrained when the bread of the Lord's Supper came near. Food, more than anything else except the mailman, is her great motivator.
We passed on the passing of the peace. I suggested that we should make the coffee hour a substitute for that moment in the ritual. And we did, hug and talk and eat chocolate chip cookies in the basement hall once worship was done. I collected the usual compliments and no one complained about a dog at the altar. Maybe you will.