I press on… because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Phil 3:12)
One of the reasons that domesticated animals show up in my sermons, and in my prayers, and in the ways I think about the church and about God, and about heaven, is that so many animals are so completely and totally dependent on us. My dog Ozzie’s dependence on me has been front and center all week, since he is recovering from surgery following a knee injury - a torn ACL. But I also spend a fair amount of time around horses: formidable creatures, who can nevertheless be astoundingly fragile and dependent on their human caretakers.
I understand that our relationship with animals - both wild and domesticated - is complicated and fraught. And it is not my intention to address the totality of that relationship from the pulpit this morning. I am of the view that, for better or worse, over the course of human history we have taken God at his word, that we should “fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion… over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen 1:28)
I am not of the view that we have in any good sense met God’s highest expectations in the ways we have taken him at his word. Nor am I of the view that we have exercised much wisdom in how we have filled the earth and asserted our dominion over it and over all living things. To be sure, we have subdued a great deal. “Give an inch: take a planet” has been our watchword, and some day we will have much to answer for.
All the same, I speak to you as a man who has just paid for his dog to have reconstructive knee surgery, so spare me a little.
It’s a cat, however, that comes to mind this morning. Or to be more precise, a kitten that I happened to see skittering across a street on a warm autumn night last year, and which was obviously a stray. I was with a friend eating at a restaurant with outdoor seating. And nothing seemed so obvious to me as the suggestion that I could entice this at-risk kitten to come to me (and hence to safety) using the French fries that remained on my plate. It worked. And to spare you the details (which involve a cardboard box, an escape, a second capture, the same box, masking tape, and an Uber ride), suffice it to say that the kitten was corralled by no less than three people, including the waitress at the restaurant who indicated a willingness to take the kitten home and welcome it into her familial feline fold. But not that night. The kitten would have to spend the night elsewhere, she said, until it could be tested for diseases that might threaten her other cats. So the kitten came home with me, since the Rectory easily allows for the quarantine of one tiny kitten at a safe distance from Gus.
The kitten fit easily in the palm of my hand. She was a dark brindle. And when I post the text of this sermon on-line, I will also post a sixteen second video of her curled up on a towel under my bathroom sink, purring contentedly. Those are sixteen seconds of bliss unless your heart is made of stone.
It is true that I was slightly smitten by this little kitten. It is true that later that night, I allowed the kitten to curl up on the bed under my arm. It is true that the result of my affection was that Ozzie, Gus, and the bedsheets all got fleas. And it is true that if the good-hearted waitress had not followed through, and had the kitten not found a home with her, then I would surely have given the kitten a home with me and Ozzie, and Gus, and the Ministry Residents (after treating her for fleas).
It was her smallness, her obvious vulnerability, and, of course, the established fact that only hours after rescue and rendition to a new and completely foreign environment she was capable of curling up and purring so beautifully that won me to her. And every moment of the twelve hours or so that she was in my care, the question lurked in the background: would I be willing to take her in? Would I be willing to make her my own?
Remember that this is not a sermon about pet adoption. My little story is mean to be a parable to put us in mind of our complete and total dependence on God.
So often, I read the Scriptures, and I wonder how I can convince you that you and I must do something. I want us to heed the call to claim the faith of the church as our own, to be willing to stand up for Jesus, to take seriously the command to take up our cross and follow him. But this morning, I hear a message from the other side of the page, when I hear Saint Paul describing something of his own repentance, his own conversion. I am reminded that the whole story of our life in God is not held in our hands, but is held in God’s hands. And our life in faith is not determined nearly so much by our footsteps, as it is by the footsteps of Jesus. And the inclinations of our hearts can only ever follow the inclination of his loving heart. St. Paul, you see, had been large and in charge (to paraphrase him a little). He had been sure of his own righteousness. He was above reproach in every conceivable way. If anyone else had reason to be confident, he had more! But something happened.
On Friday nights this Lent, Mother Johnson has been reminding us that the basic structure of narrative is conducive to describing repentance and conversion. And she’s reminded us that people in recovery are often well acquainted with that basic narrative structure, since recovery is rooted in the stories of what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.
Saint Paul would have done well in our Friday night program of digital story-telling. And indeed, his story of repentance and conversion is one of the most famous in history, notable for the acute difference between what it was like and what it is like now. But of course, the really important part of the story is not just what it was like and what it is like now. The really important part of the story is what happened.
Elsewhere, Paul has told the story of what happened to him in eloquent detail. Those details from the road to Damascus are of a kind that few of us have ever experienced or can relate to: the bright light, the voice from heaven, the fall to the ground, the scales on his eyes, etc. But today Paul has told us in a single phrase what it was that happened to him, in a way that we might pay attention to, because, unlike the bright light, the voice from heaven, the fall to the ground, the scales on the eyes, etc, this other thing that happened to St. Paul has happened to every single one of us as well.
St. Paul is writing from prison. He has realized that he is completely and totally dependent on God. And if you unpack his language, you will find that there is a basic narrative structure to what he has to tell the church at Philippi. He tells them what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now. He puts it in terms of why he is not discouraged, though he sits there in chains. And this, he tells them, is what happened: “I press on,” he says, “because Christ Jesus has made me his own!” Christ Jesus has made me his own.
That’s what happened to St. Paul: Christ Jesus made him his own. St. Paul did not go church shopping, or even synagogue shopping. He was not looking for faith. He thought he knew everything he needed to know. He thought he had done everything he needed to do. He thought he was righteous, and by nearly every measure he knew, he was correct. But he did not know that God was going to do something with him. He did not know that God was not done with him. He did not know that God had a story of repentance and conversion for him.
He knew what it was like, and he assumed that it would be like that for ever. He had no thought that he was in need of repentance or conversion. He didn’t know that something could happen. And he had no thought that he was in need of Jesus - in fact he thought he knew otherwise. But there was another side of the page. And when St. Paul turned and saw the other side of the page, then he also saw what had happened. He saw that Christ Jesus had made him his own!
The same is true of everyone here. Christ Jesus has made you his own, if you will have him. For he will not force himself on you. Jesus knows that we are small and vulnerable, but he also knows that we deeply desire to curl up under the sink and purr. He knows what it was like. And he knows what can happen. And he knows what it will be like for each and every one of us. He knows that we are strays. He knows that we have been out late and have been stranded on the street. He knows that we are in trouble. He even knows that we have fleas, if you want to put in terms of the Parable of the Stray Kitten. But never mind that; he has made us his own. Christ Jesus has made you his own.
The deeper truth of the matter, of course, is that this narrative structure is faulty at some profound level, where Jesus is concerned, since Jesus made us his own long before any one of us even drew breath. Jesus made us his own when he created our inmost parts, when he knit us together in our mother’s womb, as the Psalmist puts it. Jesus has known us since before time and will know us for all eternity, since we were his before we were anything at all. And he joined himself more perfectly to every single one of us when he became small and vulnerable, like us. But that truth is very difficult for us to see.
It’s much easier for us to see that we are strays, that we are lost, that we are small, vulnerable, and at the mercy of so much that we seem to need to escape, living, as we do, on such mean streets. And if we are to grasp the deeper truths that are found outside of conventional narrative structure, sometimes it is first helpful to lay out the story in the most basic terms of what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.
Looking at it this way, on this side of the page, bound in time as we are, what happened is that Christ Jesus made us his own. And I suspect that he wants us to know that he has made us his own so that, now and then at least, we can curl up in some warm, safe place, and purr.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
7 April 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia