Sunday, May 13, 2012

Nobody here likes a wet dog

The following sermon was written by the Reverend Scott Walters of Christ Episcopal Church and is published here with his permission.

“Nobody here likes a wet dog.” That’s what Billy Collins says. He says,

No one wants anything to do with a dog
that is wet from being out in the rain
or retrieving a stick from a lake.
Look how she wanders around the crowded pub tonight
going from one person to another
hoping for a pat on the head, a rub behind the ears,
something that could be given with one hand
without even wrinkling the conversation.

But everyone pushes her away,
some with a knee, others with the sole of a boot.
Even the children, who don’t realize she is wet
until they go to pet her,
push her away,
then wipe their hands on their clothes.
And whenever she heads toward me,
I show her my palm, and she turns aside.

O stranger of the future!
O inconceivable being!
whatever the shape of your house,
however you scoot from place to place,
no matter how strange and colorless the clothes you may wear,
I bet nobody there likes a wet dog either.
I bet everybody in your pub,
even the children, pushes her away.”

Billy Collins titled that poem “To a Stranger Born in Some Distant Country Hundreds of Years from Now”. And I’m pretty sure he gets something just right in it. Our own dog isn’t at her most lovable when she’s wet. The kids don’t cuddle much with Annie when she steps dripping from the bath. Nobody is instinctively drawn to a damp, often sour, dishrag that wanders around begging for approval. And I bet nobody ever will.

So finally, we’ve found one simple thing we can all agree upon, even across cultures and time: wet dogs are unpleasant. Maybe the unity of all humankind will follow. Because nothing unites people more naturally and more completely than agreement about who should be excluded. And nobody here likes a wet dog.

There are no wet dogs in the book of Acts. But to really appreciate a turning point we read about today in the story of the early church, it might help to get our wet dog aversion reflex going strong. And here’s why. From the distance of all these centuries, it’s easy to assume that what was being debated among the early followers of Jesus was just a collection of ideas. Was Jesus the messiah? Was he resurrected? What is a resurrection if it’s not resuscitation? What’s a Christian? Can a Gentile be one too? Strange as these questions actually are, reasonable people have debated them for a long time. 

But in Acts, reasonable discourse keeps getting disrupted by the Holy Spirit of God. Peter preaches in Jerusalem, but no one remembers the points of his argument or even the clever little wet dog poem he introduced the sermon with. Not after a wind from God blows in and tongues of fire rest on the apostles and people begin speaking languages they don’t know. Likewise Saul isn’t converted by the force of an argument. It’s the force that knocked him to the ground and blinded him on the road to Damascus that gets his attention.

The book of Acts is a book of violent disruptions, of radical realignments, of unlikely inclusions, and we may miss its impact, we may miss the heart of its truth completely unless we see that its truths are delivered less like reasonable ideas to the head, and more like blows to the gut or wet dogs to a pub. The rational moments always seem to be in response to the unthinkable thing that’s just occurred. Theology in the book of Acts is about putting violent winds, strange tongues, unexpected flames and flashes of light into words.

So our short reading for today includes what seems to be a clear and forthright description: “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles”. But we may not understand anything about this sentence at all until the word “even” hits us like a sopping wet Labrador that has just jumped into our lap. Even the Gentiles. It was unthinkable to Peter. Even the uncircumcised? Even people who eat unclean foods and have not been formed by Torah practices? Could God’s spirit be present even in people like these?

But here’s a very knotty problem. Most of us in this room are Gentiles. And in our day and time, let’s be honest. A middle class American Gentile is in the least excluded class of people on earth. So where do we really find ourselves in this reading? Well, we may not be able to find ourselves in this story at all until we ourselves learn to feel a little like a wet dog that’s been welcomed, against all odds and impulses, into the pub. You mean the church is a place even for the likes of me? You won’t push me away, even though I’m dripping wet and smelly?

Appropriately, then, on Mother’s Day, maybe we see the real reason Christians call the church our mother. It’s because sometimes we’re folks that only a mother could embrace.

We tend to think of church more as Cheers—as the place where everybody knows your name. And I hope that’s true on a literal level. But Gordon Lathrop once wrote that Christian liturgy is meant to “graft us as outsiders.” In other words, our worship should form us as people who feel a little like outsiders ourselves. It should form us as people who can’t quite believe we’re here. Because won’t we be much less likely to exclude the stranger if we don’t think we earned our seat in church by our gifts or virtues or good looks? The liturgy should stir up a little wonder and disbelief that there’s even room for me at this altar. Even me.

Now, this is a curious Sunday to have invited a couple of Jewish friends to church, which [A] and I did today. Rabbi [G] and [B] are with us. Knowing they would be here, it was mildly uncomfortable to prepare a sermon on a passage whose lesson Christians have often reduced to “Don’t sweat the Jewish stuff.”

But ironically, or maybe just appropriately, our Jewish brothers and sisters may be the very people to show us how to be good Gentile Christians, faithful to the 10th chapter of Acts. Here’s why. In the 6th chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses tells Israel how to respond when a child says, “So what does it all mean? The statutes, the decrees, the ordinances, the teachings of Torah, what does is all mean?” And Moses says don’t jump to an explanation. Tell the child our story. Start like this: “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”

It’s the Passover story, of course. The Hebrew people knew that if they forgot their experience of slavery, they could miss the essence of the Law and maybe even begin to enslave other people. If they forgot what it was like to be an alien in a foreign land, they might forget to provide hospitality to the stranger as they had been commanded so clearly to do.

And there is great wisdom in this persistent act of remembering, this defining act of remembering. Because we never have to look far to be reminded that we often turn our pain back onto the world. We pass it along on someone else. And so the slave becomes the enslaver, the oppressed one becomes the oppressor, the victim of abuse too often becomes the abuser. We respond to our own exclusion by excluding someone else. And the cycle spins on and on and on until someone remembers what it was like. Until someone stop the cycle of exclusion with an embrace.

You see, the lesson of the book of Acts isn’t that Christians got updated and better answers to what it means to be a child of Abraham. It’s not that the religious rules changed one day in first century Palestine, so now we get to eat shrimp gumbo and pulled pork sandwiches. The lesson is that the reach of God’s grace is so broad, it embraces even Gentiles. Even us. Of all the words in the story, it might be that astonished and grateful “even” that we need to comprehend first. Because the unlikeliness of our own inclusion might just be what turns us around to see who else God wants us to embrace.

So maybe when a child asks us what the Christian faith means we should begin with a story as well. “Remember that we were Gentiles, outsiders, the excluded and the un-chosen people who were welcomed into the family of God anyway. Welcomed by sheer grace, not of our own doing, caught up by the spirit of God as it swept through Jerusalem one day.”

Or, if you don’t mind a little poetic license, try this: “Remember that we were wet dogs, scurrying into the pub. And no one, no one at all, pushed us away.” Amen.

And may the peace of the Lord be always with you.

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