Ankle Biter Blessings
John said to [Jesus], “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
I always try to keep it short and sweet for the sake of the pets on a day like today. I realize they have a harder time than the kids, even – and some of you grown-ups – sitting still, outside, for “Worship in the Wind,” as it were. So, even though this Gospel reading is full of several sermons, we aren’t going to tackle all of it, so do not be afraid, this won’t take long.
It would be a lie to say I’ve started running again. It’s been so long since I’ve done it regularly and I’ve only hit the road again a couple of times in the last week or so, so it is what it is. But it was such a beautiful night Tuesday evening that I went for a jog. And with Worship in the Wind and Pet Blessing Sunday on the brain, I couldn’t help but notice all the dogs in the neighborhoods through which I ran. I also couldn’t help but notice them, because so many of them are obnoxious and territorial, anxious and terrifying little, ankle-biting beasts, to be honest.
I’m a dog person, for sure, don’t misunderstand me. But I’d much rather meet up with a big, clumsy bear of a dog than a tiny, little, high-pitched ankle biter any day of the week. Those little ones, until you get to know them, are so quick and unpredictable. And it seems like I encounter twice as many of the little ones, than the big ones, as I run through the streets and along the sidewalks of New Palestine.
And I’m not so much scared of these little critters, while I’m running, as I am amused by them. They come out of nowhere, you understand. Screaming off of front porches. Clawing at storm doors. Barreling out of garages. Scooting from behind bushes and trees. Always barking. And most of them, thankfully, are contained by electric fences or actual fences, chains, leashes, or the threatening calls of their embarrassed owners. One little yapper even growled and barked at me from the front window of a car as it drove by.
And it’s amusing to me, because most of them – at least in my experience – are all bark and no bite. (I know Brian Smith has had a different experience.) But they’re just marking their territory, you might say. They’re just protecting their people … or so they think. They’re just showing who they believe to be the boss. But most of them – again in my experience – are perfectly pleasant, fine and friendly little hounds once they get to know you – and even more so once they’re owners give them permission to meet someone new.
And these little you-know-whats – these little ankle-biting suburban terrors – remind me of too many Christians, in some ways; and of the disciples a little bit in this morning’s Gospel story.
See, one of these disciples, John, comes to Jesus and says, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he wasn’t following us.” Someone unexpected – some stranger, perhaps – was doing the work of the Lord without permission. Maybe they weren't commissioned. Maybe they weren't one of the twelve. Maybe they weren't part of the in crowd or simply hadn’t been given proper instruction. Whatever the case, it was unexpected and it wasn’t one of the usual leaders and it seemed like this wouldn’t, couldn’t, maybe shouldn’t be okay.
Someone was treading on unfamiliar, uncharted territory – private property, as far as the disciples were concerned – and the disciples were yapping about it to their Master. They were marking their territory; protecting their people; trying to be the boss where the ministry of Jesus and the work of the Kingdom were concerned.
But Jesus says, in a nutshell, “let it be.” If they're on our side, they can't be all bad. "Whoever is not against us, is for us." Once someone has done a deed of power in my name, they won’t be able, then, to speak evil of me …of us …of what all of us are trying to accomplish.
There’s a lot of this – too much of this, still – in the church in the world. Trying to keep the wrong people off of God’s lawn, if you will; trying to keep distance from those who aren’t from around “here,” wherever “here” might be; trying to put up fences of distinction between denominations, faith traditions, religions; letting artificial boundaries as simple as worship style and as profound as politics and polity divide us. And pretending that we’re the one’s who are called or qualified to protect the Kingdom God is working to establish and grow in our midst.
I don’t have all the answers about this, of course. But I do think there’s something else to be learned from our canine companions – even from, maybe even especially from, the ankle-biters of the bunch.
Because the other thing that seems true about so many of the dogs I know – and maybe some of the ones you’ve brought here, today – is that once they get out of their own comfort zones; once they’ve moved off of their own property; once they leave the boundaries of what they consider to be “home” or “safe” or “theirs to protect,” a lot of them change their tune. They are curious and friendly and quieter, even; and they have to rely a lot more on the instruction and protection of their master.
And I wonder if we shouldn’t practice that more often ourselves to become more like the followers God calls us to be. Let’s get out of what’s always so familiar and comfortable and safe. (Which is something like what all of this “worship in the wind” is about, in a small way.) Let’s stop pretending we own any of what we’re tempted to defend so much of the time – history, tradition, practice, polity, the Kingdom of God. Let’s stop protecting – out of fear – what belongs to God in the first place.
And by all means, let’s stop marking our territory, barking about what we don’t understand; let’s stop being afraid of the “other”; and let’s find new ways to trust in the ways of our master, Jesus – to follow his instruction and to rely on his guidance, grace and example above all the rest.