“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
As Jen Goltsberg mentioned earlier, our Mission Outreach Committee is selling American flags as a fundraiser for Operation Delta Dog, a non-profit group that rescues homeless dogs and trains them to work as service dogs for veterans. Whether for vets, or for the blind, deaf, and physically disabled, service dogs are trained to perform a variety of tasks: providing stability to a person who has trouble with balance; alerting their owner to night terrors or panic attacks; helping veterans acclimate to crowds by creating a “buffer” with other people; and easing safety concerns. Overall, these service dogs provide comfort and promote a sense of calm.
I like to think that ALL dogs do this to some extent – providing comfort, showering affection, calming nerves, and generally promoting joy. One of the best examples I know of is Vern and Rebecca’s Golden Retriever, Shaylah, who my family has had the honor of dog-sitting for many years. My daughter Becky once referred to Shaylah as “the Jesus of dogs.” With all due respect to Vern, Shaylah will also be greatly missed in the coming months and years.
While I recognize there are many people with an aversion to dogs, I think they’re a vital and profoundly important part of human life. The American novelist and non-fiction writer Anne Lamott has said, “Dogs are the closest we come to knowing the divine love of God on this side of eternity. They love you all the time, no matter what.”
While I’ll admit today’s sermon isn’t a deep theological reflection on our scripture lesson, I want to make at least a couple of connections with today’s passage, during which Jesus offers departing words to his disciples. He speaks about obedience, and about the comfort that the Holy Spirit brings. Mostly I want to lift up what’s most important – LOVE. God’s love. So let’s focus on the love we see around us – especially dogs.
The following are some great sayings about “man’s best friend”:
“The day God made dogs, He just sat down and smiled.”
“The Lord in his wisdom gave us three things to make life bearable: humor, hope and dogs. But the greatest of these is dogs.”
“Dogs are God’s way of apologizing for your relatives.”
“God sent angels down to earth in the form of dogs with notes saying don’t judge, JUST LOVE. They ate the notes but they keep trying to deliver the message.”
“I may not always hear when you call my name. And sometimes I miss the ball on an easy toss. But the love for you that shines in my eyes will never, ever, ever grow old.”
“God said, ‘I need somebody strong enough to pull sleds and find bombs, yet gentle enough to love babies and lead the blind. Somebody who will spend all day on a couch with a resting head and supportive eyes to lift the spirits of a broken heart.’ So God made a dog.”
The website for Operation Delta Dog features stories about various service dogs, with names like Maggie, Duke, Bo, Gunner, Dove and Ringo. What is it about dogs that prompts such a positive response in people? Imagine what our world would be like if we humans better emulated them? What would the church be like if we Christians were more like dogs? If we were to have the kind of ministry in our church and our community that service dogs have for the disabled, or that pet partners have in nursing homes, what would that look like? What would faithful obedience to the will of God, and a desire to come to the side of others as an advocate mean in the lives of those around us?
I want to reiterate that my sermon today isn’t meant as a profound theological analysis, nor can I pretend that these are my original thoughts. But let’s look at some facets of doghood – a popular top-ten list of canine characteristics that we humans can learn from.
#1 – Greet loved ones with a wagging tail. Better yet, greet EVERYONE with a wagging tail. Being loved — nothing is more important and there’s no creature on earth who does it better than a dog. The wagging tail declares that this is where we belong: This is our home, where we live, where we’re safe and where we’re loved.
#2 – Eat with gusto and enthusiasm. Just picture a typical dog with its food bowl: slobber flying everywhere, and licking the dish clean until every last morsel is gone. Dogs know that eating is a celebration of life. Breaking bread together is holy, a sacrament. Conflicts are often resolved at meals, barriers are broken down, and friendships renewed and strengthened. So, eat with gusto. Enjoy the many tastes and flavors of creation.
#3 – On hot days, drink lots of water and lie under a shady tree. In other words, relax, slow down and enjoy. Give yourself a time out – for prayer, reflection, meditation. Down time is renewing.
#4 – Run, romp and play daily. Physical exercise is as important for the soul as it is for the body. None of us can be faithful and effective when we’re run down and our health is suffering. When we learn how to play and stretch and move, we’ll feel better from the inside out.
#5 – Be loyal. Loyalty is a good thing, and it’s a critical element of discipleship, because it reflects our relationship with others: our spouse, our friends, our community and our sense of calling.
#6 – When you’re happy, dance around and wag your tail. Give thanks and celebrate! Gratitude is a gift we give ourselves. It allows us to affirm the goodness of life. Even when adversity strikes, gratitude helps us keep our perspective and carries us through tough times.
#7 – If someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by and nuzzle gently. When we’re depressed, we know that it takes only a quiet word or a gentle touch to bring us around. Dogs have an incredible instinct to know when to be dancing and jumping around and when to just be there beside you. Words aren’t always needed, or even helpful, to convey empathy. A gentle nuzzle will do.
#8 – No matter how harshly you’re scolded, don’t pout. Instead, run back and make up. Holding grudges isn’t just counter-productive, it’s draining. Expend your energy by making friends and keeping them. Overlook others’ faults and expect the best. Don’t keep a scorecard of rights and wrongs. Don’t take offense.
#9 – Avoid biting when a simple growl will do. We don’t need to injure others by what we say or do. We can be strong with love, and firm with kindness.
#10 – Bark with your buddies. Barking is an act of commonality, of community. Barking says we belong in this together. We are one.
In the three years the disciples traveled with Jesus, they had incredible experiences together and learned a lot – about faith, about affirmation, about friendship, about ministry, about eating together, about acceptance, about patience and humility. Above all, they learned about love. And dogs are really good examples of God’s kind of love.
So I’ll close with a last couple sayings I found:
“[Dogs] don’t care what car you drive. They don’t care who you know. They don’t care what you wear. They don’t care where you live. They only care that you’re there.”
“Only two beings in this world will ever truly love you unconditionally. One is God. The other is God spelled backward.” Amen.