Proverbs 4.20-27

Ephesians 3.7-13

Circe Speaks

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Many years ago I plowed straight through an anthology of O. Henry short stories.  Henry is probably best known for his Christmas fable, ’The Gift of the Magi,” about Jim and Della, a pair of poor newlyweds who can’t afford Christmas gifts for each other.  So, unknown to one another, they each decide to make a certain sacrifice: Della decides to cut off her long, beautiful hair, and sell it in order to buy Jim a chain for his prized pocket watch; while Jim sells his pocket watch to buy her combs for her long beautiful hair.  O. Henry’s stories always have that kind of wry twist at the end.  One of my favorite O. Henry stories is called “Memoir of a Yellow Dog.”  The story’s protagonist is a mutt named Lovey, who would much rather be called Pete, who connives to get himself and his henpecked master as far away as possible form the immoderately perfumed embrace of his master’s overbearing wife, who wishes Pete were an immaculately coifed purebred poodle, instead of the cur of questionable lineage he really is.  And the yellow dog succeeds – I won’t spoil the ending by telling you how – but what I like best about the story is that it is narrated by Pete himself.  It appears that O. Henry, like Rudyard Kipling before him, believes we have something to learn from the animals in our lives, and perhaps we ought to pay closer attention to what they have to say to us.  As an old high school friend of mine memorably said more than forty years ago, “Dogs are people too.”

As some of you know, a new dog recently came into the Froggatt family.  Circe was born in Gadsden, Alabama about 19 months ago, made her way to a foster family in Suffield, CT late last month, and thence to our home two weeks ago.  Circe is part Lab, part Terrier, and a sweet sweet dog.  She’s also made a couple trips to Boston with me already, and on the way home the other day, mindful of Pete’s ability to speak his canine mind, I asked Circe what she thought of her new circumstances.  “I thought you’d never ask,” she replied.  “I love the new house, I have lots of deer to bark at out in the yard, and you feed me well enough, but…”  “But?  What do you mean, but?”  “Well, I’m having a problem with you.”  “With me!?” I said.  “I walk you first thing in the morning and last thing at night, you get two solid meals a day, lots of treats and I even take you to work with me.  What’s the but about?”  “Well,” she replied, “no offense, but, you’re a minister.”  Now friends, as I’ve told you before, this happens occasionally.  When I meet someone new at a function outside the church people are friendly and sociable enough until they find out what I do.  “I’m a minister,” I say, and you can see them slowly inch away, at least mentally.  But my dog!?  “Come on Circe,” I said, “what does that have to do with anything?”  “To be perfectly honest,’ she replied, “that book you read doesn’t seem to like me very much.”  “That book I read?  It can’t be the O. Henry short stories.  Do you mean the Bible?”  “Right, that one,” she said.  “Your Bible doesn’t seem to like me very much.”  “Why in the world would you say that,” I asked her.”  She looked at me with one ear tilted:  “Have you ever read it?”  So now my dog is asking me if I’ve ever read the Bible.  Of course I had.  Or had I?

Turns out, Circe has more than a passing familiarity with scripture; in fact, she’s much better at chapter and verse than I am; must be that Alabama upbringing.  “Take Isaiah 56.10.” she said. Now friends, I’m not a chapter and verse kind of guy; I can’t tell you off the top of my head what Isaiah 56.10 says, but I’ll be darned if I let my own dog know that. “Refresh my memory,” I said.  And she did:  “Your watchmen are blind; they are ignorant; they are all dumb dogs.”  I stifled a laugh; “Come on Circe, that’s just one verse.”  “All right then:  what about II Kings 8.13?” she asked, and continued without interruption:  “What is your servant, who is a mere dog, that he should do this thing?’  Or I Samuel 24.14, ‘Against whom has the king of Israel come out..? A single flea?  A dead dog?”  I was beginning to think Circe had a point.  “And how do you explain Proverbs 26.11?” she asked.  Well now, finally here was a verse I could quote.  For some reason when I taught the Old Testament to Confirmation classes, my students always got a kick out of this verse:  Proverbs 26.11:  “Like a dog that returns to its vomit, is a fool that returns to his folly.”  Now that is some memorable imagery, isn’t it!  “Now Circe,” I said, all those verses are from the Old Testament; surely the New Testament is kinder and gentler.”  To which she replied, “From Paul’s letter to the Philippians, “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh.”

That’s when it struck me:  my dog is a biblical literalist!  Like many a southern theologian and not a few politicians before her, she thinks cherry-picking Bible verses out of context and stringing them together is the way to be a good student of the Bible!  So I tried a different, more holistic approach.

Some of you have already met Circe; as I mentioned, she has come to work with me a few times already.  And if you have, she has greeted you with love and affection and more than a few kisses, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey.  She doesn’t care how old you are or how young; she doesn’t notice the color of your skin; you may be, as we read two weeks ago, skinny as a soda straw or on the pudgy side; it doesn’t matter to her whom you love or how you dress; you may be good at math and so poor at spelling that you spell God D-O-G, and she will still be so happy to see you you would think you’re the last person on earth.  To put it in terms of our United Church of Christ, her extravagant welcome is all the evidence you need of her unconditional love.  And even if you ignore her, or attempt to reject her affection, the next time she sees you you will still be the best friend she ever had.   I pointed all of this out to her, and she did that little thing dogs do, tilt her head and look at you like you may have something in your hand for her, and she can’t wait to see what comes next.

Circe is also a great listener.  Has anyone read Garth Stein’s book The Art of Racing in the Rain?  Like Rudyard Kipling and O. Henry, Stein’s protagonist is a sentient dog – his name is Enzo - and it is a warm, tender story, not without its difficult and heartbreaking moments, but still one I think any pet-lover will appreciate and enjoy.  And say what you will about Enzo the dog, he is an attentive listener.  He never interrupts, never changes the subject, and certainly refuses to make your story all about him.  I reminded Circe that she is an equally good listener.  Granted, since she is still not even two, the puppy in her doesn’t always listen to obey, but I can ramble on for the duration of a two mile walk and she makes me feel like the sound of my voice alone is enough, regardless of what the actual words are.  (Too bad that doesn’t work from the pulpit…)

Our dogs have other qualities as well.  I read this morning’s passage from Proverbs 4 and immediately thought of how Circe reacts when I throw a tennis ball:  “Let your eyes look directly forward, keep your gaze straight ahead of you, the path of your feet will be sure and don’t swerve to the right or the left.”  Can you think of a better description of a dog chasing a ball with a singleness of purpose?  Granted, Proverbs doesn’t say anything about actually bringing the ball back, but we’re working on that one. 

I could tell she was beginning to come around, though she wasn’t yet convinced. “Well then if dogs are so great, why isn’t anyone in the Bible named for a dog?  Why isn’t there a Circe in the Bible?  You’re the minister!  And why do people keep asking you if my last name is “Lannister” when you introduce me?”  Don’t they know the difference between ‘Game of Thrones’ and The Odyssey?  I didn’t have the heart to tell her that most people would rather watch TV than read the classics, but I think she understood anyway…

So in response to her question I began to tell her a story – a Bible story - about a spy.  In the book of Numbers, after the Hebrew people escaped Egypt and made their way to the promised land of Canaan, Moses needed to know how strong the Canaanite army was, how formidable they would be, and whether Israel stood any chance of overcoming them.  So Moses sent spies to reconnoiter:  Joshua and Caleb.  Under cover of darkness these two infiltrated the border, moved clandestinely among the Canaanites, and assessed their readiness for war.  It was a risky mission, because the Canaanites were on their guard and knew that Moses and the Hebrews were somewhere out there in the wilderness.  After they learned what they needed to know, Joshua and Caleb returned, and brought the report that, although the enemy appeared mighty, the land was perfect and they were confident Israel could overtake it.  And sure enough, under the subsequent command of Joshua, Israel prevailed and took the land God had promised their ancestors.  “And so what do you think,” I asked Circe, “the Hebrew name Caleb means?”  Her ears perked up and she couldn’t have been more attentive if a squirrel had crossed her morning walk.  “Caleb,” I told her, “the hero spy who risked his life to insure the Hebrews’ successful entry into the land God promised them, means dog.”  And a big smile crossed her snout and her tail started to wag and she licked my hand like it was a fist of rare prime rib.

But my points for her and for us this morning are two.  The first we already heard.  You can’t take a collection of random Bible verses and build a theology around them.  It just doesn’t work that way.  But the deeper one comes from what Deb read for us from Ephesians:  “The gift of God’s grace was given me by God’s own work.  Even though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring the news of the boundless riches of Christ.”  The twin notions of grace and humility are bound up in these words of Paul.  Grace is that power that reveals to us through our own experience, what unconditional love can be.  It is what gives you and me purpose, an aim higher than ourselves, and when laced with humility it reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously.   It reminds us that we are loved with a love beyond love.  And let’s face it, sometimes we need a good lick across the cheek to be reminded how deeply we are loved, and how blessed life is.  The simplicity and carefree attitude that we see in creatures like Circe and Enzo and Pete help us remember that life is meant to be a celebration.  Like our canine companions, grace is indiscriminate:  not a respecter of person or privilege, but poured out over rich and poor alike, on saints and sinners, on the most abject materialist and the most spiritually attuned.  And because grace is freely given by God to any and all, it contains within itself the power of the universal, it brings favor wherever it lands, goes where it wants to and is entirely beyond our control.

Not unlike some of our dogs.

Amen.

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