Scared Dogs

Luke 1: 68-79

A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

  Luke 22:14-23

A Reading from the Gospel According to Luke.

When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” Then they began to ask one another, which one of them it could be who would do this.

Scared Dogs                                    

Two men.

Two good men.

Two men facing death, not a peaceful death you would expect for good men, but incarceration, beatings, treacherous executions.

Stephen, chosen by the disciples to take on the task of insuring that widows and orphans were fed, feeding the poor, and waiting on tables.

Jesus who chose the disciples to take on the task of changing the world, washing their feet, and feeding them, preparing them for what was to come.

How does such injustice happen?

We understand when a person is incarcerated and imprisoned for heinous crimes.  But in our scriptures for today, these are not criminals, thieves, robbers, or murderers.  They are holy men.  Men of Peace.  Men living the definition of sacrificial love.   It makes no sense.

Of course, by now, we should be used to it, right?  Senseless murders,  imprisonment, torture, assassination of political, cultural, and religious leaders, saints, who dared to espouse peace, inclusion, and acceptance.   A never-ending litany of injustice that makes no sense.

I admit for years I could not understand the logic of it all.  Until one day, I was sitting with a person of great wisdom and understanding – a dog trainer.  And in one short sentence, everything fell into place.  She explained, “A scared dog is an aggressive dog.”

Yep.  That was it. 

Now if you think it disrespectful to compare humans and dogs, because obviously, humans are more intellectually and morally advanced than dogs, may I kindly refer you to the statistics.  It is true that dogs are known to kill up to 25,000 humans a year around the globe.  Of that number, 30 – 50 take place in the US.  Humans, on the other hand, systematically kill off 475,000 fellow humans – often ones that they loved, an act dogs would abhor.

Dr. Aaron Beck, considered the father of modern cognitive psychotherapy, wrote a monumental book on the same subject. He entitled it Prisoners of Hate, the Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence.  The book could be summarized in one short statement,” A scared dog is an aggressive dog.’ 

In the dog training world, it is important to teach your dog that you are in charge and that he does not need to be hyper vigilant, on edge for any sudden danger, ready to crouch and attack.  He can relax in your presence confident that you are strong and capable.  That you can handle whatever or whoever walks up to you.  And then, as the trainer was quick to add, if someone tries to hurt you, your dog will take him out.

In our human world, it is we who do not need to be hyper vigilant, on edge for any sudden danger, ready to crouch and attack because we walk with God.  He owns us.  We can relax confident that God is with us and can handle whatever adversity we encounter.  We walk our life next to God who knows our heart, our needs, our weaknesses, because God is the light in our darkness.  He is the light of the world.

Which brings us full circle to our original question.  Why kill Stephen?  Why kill Jesus? Because they had to die!

Can you imagine the fear that coursed through the veins of the scared dogs who hurled treacherous lies into the face of Stephen to justify his execution, only to see his face transformed into that of an angel – projecting a purity and strength that belittled them. Suddenly, they were revealed as the powerless entities they had become in the aftermath of a Pentecost that exploded the world as they knew it.  This man must die!

And what about Jesus, the preacher, teacher, healer; the light that raised the dead and the power that calmed the storm.  It was a power that terrified the scared dogs circling for the attack inciting a riot, with chants reverberating through Pilates’ courtyard, Crucify Him! Crucify Him!     This Jesus was a light so strong, so intense that nothing could be hidden from him. His was a light that revealed the darkness in their hearts, the greed, the hypocrisy; and revealed it to the world.  There was only one way to extinguish it. This man must die!

A travesty.  An injustice.  Grievous and heartbreaking.  And in the end, it was all futile.

Fortunately for us, we know the ending of these stories.  Stephen was bludgeoned to death, but he did not die alone.  Peering into heaven, he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father.  Echoing His words on the cross, Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” as he slipped into unconsciousness.

Unfortunately, for his executioners, Stephen’s mission did not end with his death, rather it introduced Saul to Jesus, who on the road to Damascus assigned the newly named, Paul a mission to spread the church to Gentiles throughout the known world.

And then there was Jesus.  The son of God who died and rose again to change the world with his sacrificial love, unconditional and generous.  Death did not extinguish His light.  It shattered it, erupted it it to miraculous heights! Even today, it guides his people through the storms of loss and chaos. It warms us with his glory. It empowers us in the face of adversity. It teaches us the way of faith, with love, not fear.  And he never leaves us to walk alone through the storms of life.  His presence lifts the darkness of random acts of injustice and death.  In the words of Episcopal Priest, Marcea Paul, “We are reminded that the power of God is mightier than any wind that beats against us, that the love of God is deeper than any wave that threatens to drown us.  Jesus invites us to stay with him in the boat, saying, ‘ Let us go across to the other side, I won’t leave your side, I will journey with you.’” 

I think that it is the time, if I may be so bold as to suggest, that you grab your pole, get your dog and climb into that boat. It is still light and the fishing is good!  Amen

Summer Travels

Mark 7: 24-37

From there Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.

Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syro-Phoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So, she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha’, that is, be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Summer Travels

“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy . . .”  Or so go the words of the signature piece in George Gershwin’s blockbuster opera, Porgy and Bess.

I imagine for some folks, livin’ gets easier in the summer, unless they are planning a family vacation!  For me as a child, family vacations meant hours of boredom riding in the back seat of the car.  For my parents, it meant hours of planning, picking destinations, arranging for pit stops and meals on the road, packing clothes for two adults and four children, and picking the best and most scenic routes to our destinations, with planned activities at each one.

Despite the work, we know that family vacations are important.  As an adult looking back, I can see that.  There were memories to be made, experiences that changed us, connections that never would have happened with or without all that planning. Ironically, it was frequently those unexpected stops, wrong turns, and unplanned interruptions that created adventures never to be forgotten. They made the deepest impressions, transformative, if you will – – much like the travels we read about in our scripture today.

Samuel in his second book, invites us to join King David on his excursion to political destinations, battles, and transformation.  Our trip starts in Hebron, where King David has been ruling the tribe of Judah for seven and a half years, while King Saul ruled Israel.  Hebron is considered even today to be the holiest of cities, second only to Jerusalem. It is built on land that Abraham purchased after Sarah’s death, for her burial place. The land had a rugged beauty with hills and dry riverbeds and valleys and the Cave of Machpelah.  The Cave still contains the graves of Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah, and according to a Jewish tradition, Adam and Eve.

Hebron was the ruling city of King David as he governed the tribes of Judah.  He was perfectly content living there until leaders of the tribes of Israel approached him.  Essentially, they came to tell him that as King Saul and his sons were dead, it was time for David to step up to his full responsibility and take on leadership of all the tribes of Israel.

David made a covenant with them that he would.  In so doing, he decided to take a trip.  He left behind his old home for a new one in another city, symbolizing the transformation of his kingship. With his armies, he marched nineteen miles up the hill to take Jerusalem as his own.  On the way, he had to clean up that little matter with the Jebusites who inhabited the land, which he did in short manner.  He built a new city that he named the City of David.  And to add to the perks, his neighbor King Hiram of Tyre sent messengers to David, along with cedar trees and carpenters and masons to build David a house.  Without David’s journey of battle, victory, and transformation, he would never have made this new and unexpected friend.

You see, Tyre did not have the greatest of reputations.  Tyre, along with Sidon, and Sodom had long been cursed by Old Testament prophets for their wickedness, but it didn’t keep David from accepting the generous gift from a Gentile kingdom, which was a miracle in its own right. 

It also did not stop Jesus from complimenting Tyre and Sidon in Matthew, saying they were more receptive to him and the miracles he performed in their midst than the Jewish cities where he had been dismissed and criticized.

Which takes us to our next travelogue.

In our second reading, Jesus is on his way to the Sea of Galilee when he stops to rest at a house in Tyre, hoping to slip in unnoticed.  Not a chance.  You may be familiar with my assertion that Jesus favored uppity women.  Well, here we are again, another uppity woman and a gentile to boot. She interrupts his plans for a quiet entry into town.  She blocks his path, bows at his feet.  He wasn’t going anywhere.  He couldn’t ignore her.  She pleads. She begs.  She calls on him to cast out the demon in her daughter. 

And all this from a Gentile?  Who does she think she is?  It’s no wonder, Jesus lapses into metaphor, and talks about children and dogs and the order in which they should be fed.  Clever as she is, (I can almost see her grin, just a little), she stays in metaphor, and responds, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 

I can almost see Jesus looking to the side, sharing her grin when he says, “For saying that, you may go.  The demon has left your daughter.”  Like I said, Jesus likes uppity women.

But he’s not done.  These interruptions seem inevitable as Jesus continues his trip to the Sea of Galilee by way of Sidon, another one of those accursed cities.  It is in Sidon, where a group of people bring a deaf man with a speech impediment to Jesus.  They asked him to heal the man.  Jesus did, and then ordered them to tell no one.  And in the words of Mark, “The more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, He has done everything well, he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

David and Jesus had travel plans; they had a clear starting place with a destination in mind.   And both experienced transformations in the unexpected interruptions in their plans.   David was transformed from a small-town king to King of all Judea and Israel, ruling from Jerusalem, growing greater and greater.  And Jesus as he traveled through Tyre and Sidon on his way to the Sea of Galilee, was transformed from an itinerant preacher to a healing, transforming Savior while transforming the lives that he touched and healed. 

That was miraculous in itself. Yet, it was Jesus’s impressions as he traveled that give us a powerful itinerary as we travel through life.  Do we travel with vision dimmed, hearing impaired and speech impeded, much like Jesus’ former neighbors in Galilee who dismissed his teachings in the temple, jeering “Isn’t this the son of the carpenter Joseph?”   Or, like the pharisees who criticized from a distance, dismissing and discrediting the miracles of Christ?   We do the same thing when we are in a state far from Tyre and Sidon, where people witnessed in gratitude, awareness, and awe the miracles of Jesus right before their very eyes

In our travels through life, what will be the next state we visit?   Will it be the state of annoyance when there is an interruption in plans?  Or when we take a wrong turn off the highway only to find ourselves in the state of Peace in a valley filled with lush fertile lands and streams giving us quiet contemplative places for spiritual, mental, and physical renewal?   Or will it be when we find ourselves in the valley of dry bones and are too impatient to wait for the miracle?  Will it be astonishment as we are drawn like Moses and the apostles to mountain top experiences, feeling the closeness to God the higher we climb?  Will it be the state of Awe, walking the beach as waves and water reach endlessly beyond us? 

Every day, we are surrounded by miracles in life and nature and people and death.  God gives us miracles, and he wants us never to take them for granted, especially the miracle of our own transformation in Christ.  He wants us to receive these miracles zealously, astounded beyond measure, thrilled, and exhilarated.  He wants us to be transformed into receptive vessels of his love and healing as we travel this life in his love and generosity. 

Let us open our eyes, find our glasses, put in the contacts!  Let us turn down the radio, the television, the stereo, the noise of life, so we can hear in the silence the voice of God.  Let us quiet our own voice when it keeps us from hearing the crying voices of those in pain and the healing words of Jesus.  Be amazed when you read the miracle accounts.  Be awe-struck when you hear the Easter story.  With wonder in your voice, sing a lullaby to the baby Jesus at Christmas.  Sing a new song every day to the sunrise and the sunset.  Let us see this miraculous world in a whole new light of awe, zealously singing, “Splendor and honor and kingly power are yours by right, Oh Lord our God, for you created everything that is.  Amen.   Bon Voyage!

A Story within a Story



A Reading from Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet, and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this and told them to give her something to eat.

A Story within a Story

I recall a comment my husband made shortly after we met.  I’m not sure what prompted it, but I do remember the comment.  He said, “I’ve always been attracted to uppity women.”

As I said, I have no idea what prompted the remark, but it came back to me as I read our lesson for today.   Mark gives us two stories, a story within a story.  The first story is about a twelve-year-old daughter, terribly ill and her desperately brave father, a leader of the Synagogue – so desperate that he was willing to be seen in public pleading with Jesus to come to his home, to heal his daughter, even telling him how to do that, “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

Personally, I think that was a bit uppity of Jairus to be calling the shots on Jesus, but he was a leader after all, used to giving orders.   And if his daughter learned anything from him, it was probably a lesson in uppity-ness.  But I should not blame anything on her dear father.  After all, she was twelve.  Most twelve-year-old’s I know are already adept at the Episodic Eyeball Rolling skill set, triggered by something intelligent, relevant, and wise that their parents just said – the first signs of uppity, with more to come. 

Tragically, death intervened.  Before Jesus could get to her, the daughter of Jairus died and you could almost hear the exhaled moan of grief, the gasp of lost hope in the crowd, which Jesus sensed immediately.  He spoke, “Do not fear, but only believe.”  We know the end of the story.  Witnessed by the girl’s parents and Peter, James and John, Jesus took the hand of Jairus’s daughter and said, “Little girl, wake up.”  She woke up and that wasn’t all.  She not only woke up, but she also stood up and started walking around the room, confident and determined to live.  Already uppity.

Interrupting this story, was another story, also about a daughter as Jesus called her, chronically ill with a bleeding disorder that came on about the time Jairus’s daughter was born.  The condition rendered her as unclean, leaving the woman shunned by her community for over a decade.  Like Jairus, she too was desperate after years of seeking help, spending all that she had on doctors with no improvement, only the worsening of symptoms.  She had lost everything but hope. In one desperate uppity move, she reached through the crowd to touch the cloak of Jesus, confident and determined that if she could but touch him, she would be healed.  In that moment as she wound her way through the people closest to him, her fingers reached out until she felt the rough fabric of his cloak and touched him.  At that moment, she felt a power coursing through her body and immediately she knew.  She backed away into the throng, silent, unseen, when Jesus called out, “Who touched me?”

And though she trembled in fear, she spoke, – uppity as could be, and told him the whole truth of her illness, making clear her conviction and hope in his power to heal.   Jesus’s words, forever imprinted in her memory, and also in ours, closed this second story within a story, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.” And healed of her isolation, now connected as a daughter to her savior.

Sometimes I find myself imagining the people in these stories.  The two women, both terribly ill, at two different times in life, – Jairus’s daughter just starting adolescence and adulthood; the woman Jesus called daughter, an adult looking forward to a life with friends and family, healed, no longer shunned.  And the desperate father Jairus, demanding, pleading with Jesus to come to his home, to heal his daughter. What would have happened that day had they not held on to hope; had they not reached out to Jesus, confident and determined in their faith.

But they did.  One might think they had read Paul’s letter to the Romans where he talked about hope.  Of course, that would have been impossible.  Paul would have still been Saul, and not one to follow Jesus. It would be much later on the road to Damascus before that would happen. And that is another story.

Like the people in our story today, Paul too suffered much adversity, including a chronic medical condition that was never healed.  And yet Paul wrote, “Affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). 

Paul knew the power of hope. You see, hope is not contingent on healing, not contingent on getting what you want, not contingent on getting your way, or getting rich, or famous, or fill in the blank.  It is not contingent on anything, or anyone, or any situation.  It is not a function of anything on this earth.  It is within us because the love of God has been poured into our hearts.  God’s love is the main ingredient of Hope.  And it has been freely, generously, poured by him into us!  All we have to do is get a little uppity like Jairus or the woman Jesus called daughter, who pleaded and stood up to him, demanding, yearning.  All we have to do is reach out to others in our need; while reaching within to touch the warmth and the glow of God’s love that sustains us. 

As it would if the daughter of Jairus had not been raised, had remained dead in her bed.  Her father would be left to grieve, then continue life in a new light, having reached into the reservoir of god’s love and hope, giving him new purpose in life and endurance to go on.

Or the chronically ill woman continuing to live with her “thorn in the flesh,” and yet finding purpose within a community of people seeking health, solace and inner peace.  Reaching out to others in love, nourished with love and hope, she would have found a reason to go on.  Who knows?

No one, I guess.  But what we see in these stories of hope and courage is that whatever happens in our life, good or bad,  we have hope. It never disappoints.  It is our gift from God, delivered by the Holy Spirit, and secured within our heart.  And it will sustain us in the best and worst of times.  On that, we can count. Amen