Of Threats & Promises

You may listen to Father Mullen's Sermon here

Friends of mine have a doggie-cam set up in their house so they can keep track of their two dogs while they are away.  It’s like a video-baby monitor.  Their dogs are full-grown, two Labradors, like mine, and as far as I know they are not especially mischievous, so I am not sure why they have the surveillance system set up, but there you have it.  And recently when we were out one night, my friends wanted to demonstrate to me both how well it worked, and how boring and predictable their dogs are.  They can check the feed from the video monitor on their cell phones of course, and they assured me that their dogs would be napping contentedly on their bed, where the camera is aimed.  This is not a sophisticated, multi-camera system.  So they opened up the app and consulted the screen, and showed me the perfectly clear image of their bed: rumpled covers, pillows re-arranged for canine comfort, but, to their surprise, not a dog in sight.  Where could the dogs be…?  We watched for a while, expecting them to return from the water bowl or wherever, but of course we didn’t wait too long, and I never actually caught any sight of the dogs on the little screen that night.  I have no doubt that the dogs eventually returned to the bed and snuggled there together until my friends returned home.  But the image of the unoccupied bed allows me to imagine another possibility, along somewhat biblical lines.

It allows me to consider the possibility that the two dogs had identified a location that they knew to be out of sight of the camera where they could meet in secret – maybe under the bed, or behind the hamper.  During these secret meetings the dogs would grumble to one another about the long absences of their owners.  Most days my friends are out of the house for the entire work-day and a dog walker comes in to make sure the dogs are taken out for exercise and to relieve themselves. 

But during their secret meetings the dogs express their dissatisfaction with this arrangement.  Sure, our owners have made certain that our needs are cared for:  we are well fed, always taken to the vet when required, up to date on our shots, surrounded by plush squeaky-toys, included in weekend plans, and even given the bed of our masters as our very own domain to do with what we will throughout the day.  But why are our masters gone all day long, they ask each other?  Why do they abandon us for such long periods?  They would not do this if they really cared about us, if they really had our best interests at heart, if they really loved us… or so the dogs’ thinking goes as they discuss the matter under the bed, or behind the hamper, confident that their gripes cannot be detected by the watchful eye of the camera.

Over time, these complaints begin to grow in significance in the minds of the dogs.  Although the pattern of life remains more or less the same, mere repetition seems to magnify the intensity of the insult the dogs have decided they are the object of, quite unbeknownst to their owners.  And so their meetings under the bed or behind the hamper grow in length as the intensity of their disgruntlement grows.  And if my friends had invested in a slightly better surveillance system that included sound, they could detect, if they tuned in at the right times, a low and sustained growling coming from behind the hamper for at least short periods of time.

Meanwhile my friends decide to upgrade the dogs’ food to one of the costly limited-ingredient varieties made with sweet potatoes and venison.  And they add more pillows to the bed, and they keep a regular supply of stuffed squeaky-toys on hand, since both the stuffing and the squeakers are regularly removed from those that are supplied, requiring constant clean-up and, of course, replacement.  But during their secret meetings, the dogs conclude that these steps have been taken only so their masters can assuage their own guilt – well-deserved guilt, in the dogs’ opinions.  And the dogs’ moods are turning darker and darker as time goes by.

And one day, while they meet and grumble behind the hamper or under the bed, the two dogs hatch a plan.  They are fed up with being treated this way, and they would be better off if they could be left to their own devices, rather than suffer at the hands of their absentee masters.  The plan is this: when the dog-walker comes they will resist him and refuse to go out for a walk.  Should he insist, they will become belligerent: they will bare their teeth, and raise their hackles.  They will put the fear of God in him.  They will advance on him and snap their jaws, and jump up on him and push him right back out the door before he can get their leashes on them.  They will give him what for, as the saying used to go.

But they will save their energy.  For, at the end of the work-day when their masters return, they will revolt, and they will use their teeth and their claws for the purposes for which God gave them to them.  They will rise up with righteous indignation and they will seize the house from their owners and have it for themselves so they can come and go freely.  And they will stop at nothing to accomplish their goal, even if it should mean tearing their masters apart with their teeth.

The flaw in this dark little fantasy is, of course, that dogs don’t think like this – certainly Labradors don’t.

Judging by the way they greet you when you get home, dogs – especially Labradors - think that it is marvelous to see you, and don’t trouble yourself with whether or not I was bored all day, that’s behind us now, and isn’t it grand that we have the evening together, and even if you can’t stay for more than a few minutes at least we can enjoy these few minutes together, and aren’t you marvelous for filling that bowl with food for me, and did I mention how lovely it is to see you again, as I bury my snout in this bowl of food?

Dogs, when they plot secretly, do not plot about insurrection, rather, they call to mind the last time they were swimming in the Wissahickon, and they suggest to each other that surely it will not be too long before we are taken there again, and if it is, well then, we shall have to make the best of it, which surely we can do, since there will be something fabulous in the world before too long, even if it is only a third of a discarded bagel that we can pick up off the street and devour without chewing, with or without cream cheese.

No, plotting insurrection is not the way dogs think; it is the way adolescent boys think during that period of their lives when they are sure the whole world is against them, and they have been deprived the rights and privileges that are justly due to them, all because their elders do not recognize them for the remarkable creatures that they surely are, or at least will shortly become; which thoughts they nurture while playing on-line video games on their iPads in their messy rooms, using the wifi provided by their parents.

Eventually, most adolescent boys will outgrow this way of thinking.  But it is also the way so many people nowadays think about God.  God is thought of as an absentee landlord at best, and religion is the NSA of God’s complex and annoying surveillance system while he keeps his distance.  God is checking on us from afar while he tends to other matters (who knows what?) but certainly he is not paying sufficient attention to us, goes this way of thinking.  Sure, we have been provided for, more or less, but does God really appreciate us for the marvelous creatures that we are, or at least we might become?

These thoughts we nurture while pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, drilling every last drop of oil and gas out of the shale that we can possibly find, polluting the seas with islands of trash, ruining our fresh-water supply with wild abandon, burning anything that will burn, fattening ourselves with the most creative processed foods, and waging war against one another with an expertise and technical precision heretofore only dreamt of by generations of warriors long gone.

Along comes Jesus, long after the dog walker has been rebuffed.  And he finds that we have been huddling secretly to plot the insurrection, to declare our independence from him, to dispose of him as we dispose of all those who get in the way of us getting what we want: our fangs are sharpened, our teeth are bared, our claws are out.  Jesus knew what it was to be treated like this when he walked throughout Palestine, and he knows what it’s like to be treated like this now.   And he asks, “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do?”

Please note that in this morning’s Gospel reading it is the Pharisees who supply the answer from their own imaginations: “He will put those miserable wretches to death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants….”

How do you like that for divine justice?  How do you like that for divine righteousness?

It’s not entirely clear how Jesus likes it – for it was not his answer to the question (although he does not argue the point).  But to my ears it sure doesn’t sound like good news, and maybe not to your ears either.

But I also think that there is a secret to understanding Jesus, and it is a very simple secret, so simple, in fact, that it is surprising to me that it is not more widely suspected, not more broadly counted on.  It is a secret that you must keep in mind, when you hear Jesus talk about those who are cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  It is a secret you must keep in mind when you hear him suggest that the door will be locked to those who are unprepared when the bridegroom comes.  It is a secret that you must keep in mind when Jesus answers the Pharisees, not by promising death to those miserable wretches, but by threatening them that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you….”

Here is the secret:  Jesus’ threats are empty, but his promises are full.

Jesus’ threats are empty, but his promises are full.  You hear in Jesus’ response to the Pharisees a threat and a promise:  The kingdom of God will be taken away from you (empty threat)… but it will be given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom (fulsome promise).

I can’t speak for the dogs of my friends, but I can certainly speak for my own two Labradors, who seem to live their lives absolutely certain that nearly all threats are empty, and most promises are full.  And I believe that Jesus is challenging us, asking us, trying to convince us to live our lives the same way; to stop living like adolescent boys who feel the need for insurrection at every turn, like dogs who plot insurrection under the bed or behind the hamper… to turn from our fear that God is out to get us, and that his threats are loaded with brimstone and fire, and instead to begin to suspect that his promises are full.

Yes, God wants us to hear his call to amend our foolish ways  - and if shouting threats is the only way to get our attention, then I suppose he is willing to let us hear the threats we seem to need so badly to hear.  But God has a long history of making empty threats, but keeping fulsome promises.   And Jesus seems to pick the pattern seamlessly.

It’s a difficult truth that you can learn a lot from a dog.  And one of the things we could learn is the fruitlessness of cultivating our resentment of an absentee God, huddled under the bed, so to speak, or behind the hamper.  By all means, be frustrated, or confused, or unclear about what kind of God this is who can feel at times so horribly far away… but do not overlook the countless times he has been nearer to hand than you could bear or than you ever expected.  Like the dogs, do not fail to call to mind the last time you were swimming in God’s grace.

And do not fail to learn this secret about God, so wonderfully demonstrated in the life and ministry and teaching of his Son Jesus: that his threats are largely empty, and his promises always full.  For when we have learned this, we can go, together with our dogs, out to work in the vineyard, where the fruit is already on the vine.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

5 October 2014

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia




Posted on October 5, 2014 .