Some of you know that I come from a broken home: a household that has been characterized for years by fear, conflict, resentment, and denial. It is sometimes a dangerous thing to talk about one’s family from the pulpit, but from time to time, if it can be helpful to others, the truth must be told. An almost daily drama plays out in my household that underscores the brokenness of the world, and the fractured relationships in it, and for a long time this drama brought me some pain, but I am learning to come to peace with it.
You will recall that Leo the black cat, who some think is a figment of my imagination because he is so seldom seen by anyone, was brought to me as a kitten, found on the mean streets of this city of brotherly love. At the time I had only one dog: the charming and good natured Baxter. I have reported before from this pulpit on the strained nature of the relationship between Leo the cat and Baxter the Yellow Labrador. The tension is rooted not only in age-old animosities between cats and dogs, but in Leo’s unfortunate condition which I believe is clinically referred to as being a scaredy-cat. The addition of a second Labrador, Ozzie, did not improve the situation.
Leo has spent various periods of his life hidden in one room or another of the Rectory, behind sofas and in the back corners of closets. The past year or so has seen him confined to the second floor parlor. On taking up residence behind the sofa there, Leo decided to shun me for a time. He would come out in the dead of night, I suppose, to eat and to use his litter box, but never would he come out to see me, as he used to do when he lived in the closet of my bedroom.
The truth of the matter is that I do not spend much time in the second floor parlor of the Rectory, unless I am entertaining and I need to set up for having people over. Obviously Leo is not going to make a sortie while people are over, so months went by with hardly a sighting of Leo. My only connection to him for this time was my task of replenishing his food and water and emptying his litter box.
A couple of months ago, however, I was working on learning some music, and found myself going regularly to the parlor to sit at the piano – without the dogs in tow – to learn my notes. One day, what should I see out of the corner of my eye, but the shape of a small black cat stealthily moving toward me, his green eyes fixed for any warning of imminent danger. To make a short story even shorter, let me just say that I discovered that if I came up to the parlor and sat at the piano – without the dogs – Leo would invariably creep out from his lair to say hello. He would rub up against me, jump briefly in my lap, sometimes even call out with a little “meow” to announce his approach. I was listening for his purr, but I wasn’t hearing it.
Soon, whatever musical challenge I was working on had come and gone, and I no longer had any reason to visit the second floor. The dogs and I generally work and live on the first and third floors of the Rectory, we don’t do a lot, as I said, on the second floor. But I was now aware of Leo’s improved disposition, and it seemed unfair to stop visiting him. Once or twice I even heard Leo utter his “meow” as he heard me walking outside the closed door of the parlor. Something had to be done. So I began to organize my days so that I could take 15 minutes or so to sit at the piano and wait for Leo to come out to say hello. Sometimes Leo would even step onto the keyboard and play a tune of his own.
These days, I find Leo waiting for me when I come in – hiding in plain sight beneath a table, instead of behind the upholstered safety of the sofa. He jumps in my lap, and lets me scratch his belly, and for a couple of weeks now I have begun to hear again the distinctive hum of his purr. I am happy to have arrived at something better than détente with Leo, but I am keenly aware that our good relationship rests on the exclusion of two others, two sweet Yellow Labradors who would dearly like to make a playmate of Leo, even a friend, if he would give them a chance. But for the time being we live in the dysfunction of our disjunction – a household separated by doors, on separate floors, divided against itself.
Is it surprising to hear Jesus praying in John’s gospel, just as he is preparing to go to his passion and death, for the unity of his followers? He does not ask God the Father to give them wealth, or health, or strength, or vision, or to do anything whatsoever for them. He asks only that his followers should be one, as he and the Father are one. I suppose Jesus must already have known that the church, just like the world, would be made up of both cats and dogs; of people who would come to nurture old animosities, and who were susceptible of being scaredy-cats, driven by fear. And so we live in a world divided in which unity among human beings is an elusive idea.
We are so often animated by fear, certain that everything out there is out to get us, and that protecting our own self-interests is the only sensible plan of action. But let me tell you that living in a household that is, to this very day, divided, separate, and frankly, unequal, begins to feel a little wearisome.
I have seen cats and dogs that get along just fine. Once in Spain I saw a cat that happily rode on the back of its canine friend. This should not be an impossible dream.
It is particularly perplexing that some Christians (like some people in most religions) have been eager to forget Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity. Some have forgotten that unity was the only thing we know that Jesus prayed for that night before he died. Some people imagine that Jesus is like me: more prone to spend time with the dogs than with the cats, because some people imagine that Jesus prefers the dogs to the cats. This is foolishness.
But Jesus’ prayer shows us that God is not like that. He is not satisfied to let his people occupy separate stories of the same house, with doors to keep them from one another. Many people have mistakenly come to believe that Jesus’ principal ministry was to teach us what to do, how to act, what rules to follow. This is not true, even if we are able to glean such lessons from his life and ministry.
Jesus’ principal ministry was to bring us together to be at one with each other and with God, which is why this is the prayer on his lips the night before he is to die for that very purpose. Jesus’ ministry was, and is, to reverse the cycle of long, slow fracture that has characterized the world and the church for many thousands of years. It was, and is, to hold up for us in his life and in his death and in his resurrection the image of a God who will give anything, do anything for the people he loves, and indeed for the whole world, since he loves all people.
We live in a broken world, where people are separated by long and deeply held fears, conflicts, resentments, and denials. And so God sent his Son Jesus into the world, and his Holy Spirit, to sit with us in the parlor as we work through our fears, conflicts, resentments and denials. And it must be God’s plan to bring us together who are so suspicious of one another. But we are so very reluctant to come out from behind our upholsteries, where we have built up rationales for why it is better for us to stay there.
We would vastly prefer it if God would tend to our food and water, and especially to our litter boxes and leave us in peace without asking us to try to deal with the Labradors downstairs.
But Jesus has not forgotten his mission even if we have. He has not forgotten that there are blessings unknown to be found in unity. He has not forgotten that we are all made in the same image and likeness. So he sits with us until we come out of hiding. He gives us all the time we need. He has already given us his Body and his Blood. But still he prays that some day we may all be one, as he and the Father are one.
May it some day be true in my household, in yours, and throughout the world.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
5 June 2011
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia