The end of hostility

He is our peace… he has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. (Ephesians 2:14)

Although for the past couple of years the Rectory has been home to five or six members of the Servant Year community, it is still the four-footed residents of the household – canine, feline, and murine – that provide me with the best fodder for sermons.  The introduction of a new cat, after the somewhat heart-breaking demise of the last one, has provided me with new reflections on the possibilities of inter-special harmony, since Gus, the new cat, is a much more sociable creature than his predecessor.

On arrival in the Rectory, Gus identified his place in balance of power right away.  He established his dominance over the mouse population with and impressive and immediate efficiency.  And he adopted an appropriate attitude of skittish suspicion toward the two Labrador Retrievers in the house.  But Gus, who has been with us for less than six months, is turning out to be a curious, brave, and assertive cat. For a while he was equal parts nervous and inquisitive about the dogs, and he has been known to find safe perches in high places from which to observe them.

But over the weeks, Gus has steadily narrowed the distance between himself and the dogs, feeling more and more confident and comfortable with less and less space between him and them.  It helps that Gus has realized that he is both faster and more agile than either of the dogs.  He has advanced from watching the dogs safely from an upper landing of the staircase, to lurking around corners to catch glimpses of them, to parking himself on the opposite side of a door against which a dog is resting and playing with the dog’s tail in the gap under the door.  Occasionally Gus would investigate a room recently occupied by the dogs, only to make a hasty exit when they returned to that room, like after a walk.

But very recently Gus surprised me when, as I returned from a walk with both dogs and brought them into my office, I found the cat parked casually on one of the wing chairs in the room, showing no intention whatsoever of vacating the premises.

I myself had elsewhere to be, with no time for complicated social experiments.  I asked Gus if he really meant to stay there with the dogs in the same room, and he glanced at me with a look of steely but casual determination in his eyes.  I put both dogs inside the office with him, and closed the door behind me, wondering what I would find when I returned, but confident that Gus could always find refuge on the mantle or the bookshelves, to which the dogs have no access, being poor climbers of vertical planes.

Amusing as this little scenario is, it also illustrates a quite remarkable refusal on the part of the cat to inhabit an environment of endless hostility.  Despite his initial assessment of the power dynamics of the Rectory, he has apparently suspected that things could change, and that (unlike his predecessor) he need not live in a culture of hostility and fear his entire life.  This is a curious and noble insight for a cat to have.  Why, then, is it so very hard for us humans to see the world in this way?

Whoever it was who wrote the Epistle to the Ephesians, picking up on the tradition of St. Paul, saw in Jesus’ ministry of love on the Cross something like this insight: that we do not need to live our lives enmeshed in hostile relationships with one another, and that among the reasons Jesus gave his life was to make this lesson available to us.  “For he is our peace… he has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”  The writer of these words was addressing the rift between Jew and Gentile, and the question of whether it could ever be spanned, and I have to admit I wonder where his brave and insightful answer came from.

In the Gospel this morning, we hear how Jesus was followed by a large crowd.  Matthew tells us that Jesus “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”  But Matthew does not tell us what Jesus taught them.

It’s an unusual thing about the Christian faith and tradition that the central figure of our religion provided no written record of his teaching (although he could have), and that the written record about him is mostly narrative, and not much instruction on purity, rule, or commandment.  When people flocked to Jesus he taught them many things – but what were those things?  What was Jesus teaching?  And why did no one bother to write it down?  Is it all covered elsewhere in the Scriptures – like in the Sermon on the Mount?  Were his other teachings so commonplace that no one thought it was worth the time to write them down?

Or, I wonder if perhaps Jesus sat there with his followers teaching them about cats and dogs.  Maybe in a corner of the synagogue, or in someone’s house there was a cat curled up in the warm crescent of a large dog’s belly, the cat’s head snuggled under the dog’s chin. 

And maybe Jesus, inhabiting a world of hostility, as he did, and teaching in a religious tradition pockmarked with hostility, as it was, (just like ours), when he was asked questions about purity, rule, and commandment, pointed to the cat nestled in the embrace of the sleeping dog, and said, “Little children, you remember that the prophet said that the ‘wolf shall lie down with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.’  You have thought that this was poetic license, but I tell you that your heavenly Father wants you to learn to live just like that dog and that cat: without any hostility between you and any other nations, language, peoples, or tongues.”

It’s hard to teach that kind of lesson (of peace and love) while pontificating about purity, rules, and commandment.  And, as Pope Francis recently pointed out to a gathering of children, this kind of peace-nik teaching will always find its detractors, because almost no one gets rich on peace.

No wonder no one wrote it down if Jesus ever taught like this.  This is a children’s tale of puppies and kittens, that grown-ups do well to out-grow, and it is foolishness to pretend otherwise.  The world is a messy complicated place, and hostility is just a part of it.  Far better to teach your children how to stand their ground when it is threatened, how to claim their strength and their power, how to know who’s side they are on, than to point to sleeping pets and find a lesson there.

One thing about domesticated pets is that they are comfortably middle-class.  Their hierarchy of needs is generally well met, which is why they find the romantic notion of nature “red in tooth and claw” so incongruous with their existence.  No dog, no cat is looking to make any money in the military industrial complex that has become a humming engine at the center of the world we inhabit, and that depends on hostility, or at least the promise of hostility, to keep it running.

Someone was selling arms in Jesus’ day too.  Someone was getting rich by exploiting hostilities in his day – there is nothing new under the sun.

And people flocked to Jesus, and he had compassion for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.  No doubt some of them wanted to take up arms, and wave flags, and claim the heritage of the house of David that had once been mighty in battle.

And Jesus taught them many things.  We don’t know exactly what he taught them – much of it is lost to posterity.  But it seems pretty clear that he did not arm them, or give them target practice. 

It’s far more believable, I’d say, that he taught them about a brave little cat, who found his place within the balance of power, and then dared to change that balance, not by challenging the strength and size of his canine neighbors, but by asserting his desire to be close to them, to pose no threat to them, and to insist that they pose no threat to him either…

…by refusing to live in a context of permanent fear and hostility, and teaching his two new friends that if they lay quietly near him, they could hear him purr.



Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

19 July 2015

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 19, 2015 .