Dog Training and Discipleship
First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, LouisianaJonah 3:1-5, 10
January 22, 2012 - Epiphany (3B)
January 22, 2012 - Epiphany (3B)
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
I would imagine that most of you have had - at some point in your life - a pet. Not everyone enjoys the burdens and blessings brought on by taking one of God’s creatures into their care. Those who do are either really good at faking it or truly appreciative of the love they receive from an animal. Owning a pet is somewhat of a luxury, of course. There are many nations and cultures that think we are nuts for treating animals as family members. Americans spent around 50 billion on their pets last year - a figure that has continued to climb regardless of the economy.
Pets, in our culture, fall somewhere between a connection with God’s creation and a hubristic expression of vanity - and sometimes it is a little bit of both. I say this as a new pet owner, having recently acquired/rescued a “designer dog” from ARF-LA.
Being a rescued dog, Emma Jane is a little short on discipline and etiquette. For those who have been through the joy of dog training, you know that it can be a frustrating process. I’m not sure how things have changed over the years - my previous dogs were outside only pets - but current schools of thought are heavily focused on affirmation and praise - much the way that many are viewing parenting.
For the uninitiated, training a dog involves: repetition, making sure the environment is correct (limit distractions, use the right kind of supplies for the given behavior), repetition, rewarding and affirming good behavior, repetition, connecting behaviors with appropriate consequences, repetition, seeking advice when things aren’t working, and more repetition. In the midst of all of that is the hope that you are doing things right, the belief that the desired behavior will eventually happen, and a fair amount of prayer (for the patience you do not have). In the end, there is the expectation that all of your efforts will not just result in particular behaviors, but in a relationship with your dog that includes some level of mutual benefit.
I say mutual benefit because I am already realizing that my dog - obviously without intention - is teaching me things about myself. My dog is teaching me that it is hard to discipline another creature without being disciplined myself. Given that we often see the worst of ourselves in the faults of others - my dog is also teaching me that I am pretty head-strong and reluctant to becoming disciplined. For example, I’ve gotten more exercise this week than I have in months.
Discipline - some of us embrace that word more fondly than others. Some of us find comfort in the routine of it while others feel smothered by it. Discipline is the elephant in the living room of Christianity, though. It’s implicit in the title of a Christian Disciple.
I think some of us tend to want that title, Disciple, to describe 12 men who lived about 2,000 years ago. Then there are some who use the term, Disciple, to describe something entirely different. Discipling, making disciples, and being discipled are words in the contemporary Christian vernacular that refer to anything from indoctrination to a specific set of beliefs to virtual Christian apprenticeships depending on the context and the group or individual using them.
In Jesus’ day, the Rabbinic tradition held that those who wanted instruction would adhere themselves to a teacher. They would become an adherent - literally bound to the teacher to become a part of the teaching - with the hopes of becoming a Rabbi in the same tradition when the teacher became to old or departed.
What was different about Jesus is that he chose his disciples. Jesus called Simon and Andrew mid cast, and they came and followed him. Jesus called James and John and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired help. I’ve always wondered how Zebedee felt about that. Obviously he was more successful than Simon and Andrew - he had hired help - but these are his sons. In the past I’ve felt bad for him, but now I am not so sure. Jesus came to tell James and John that the Kingdom of God was at hand and that he would help them to “fish for people.”
Ol’ Zeb was not called to be a disciple because someone still had to catch real fish for real mouths, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It does make me wonder, though. How many of us are called to keep fishing, and how many of us are called to let down our nets and follow Jesus as an adherent - fusing our very lives with his teachings and becoming the fulfillment of the promises that he made?
I’d like to think that it is all that simple. I’d like to think that there are those who are sent and there are those who do the sending. I’d like to simplify the gospel into practical terms that let me off the hook of the hard work of caring for someone else when it is not convenient to do so. But I don’t think that is what it means to be a disciple of Christ. In fact, I think it means that within each of us there are nets that need to be set down in order to pick up the nets we are properly called to. For if we are commanded to go and make disciples of all nations, surely we must, ourselves, be Christ’s disciples.
Unfortunately, the New Testament is a little fuzzier than we want it to be when it comes to saying who and what a disciple is. In some places it is the 12 (Mark 3:13-15). In other places it is any curious follower of the teachings of Jesus (John 6:60,66). And in still others it is used to describe those who believed in Jesus as the Messiah (Acts 6:1,2,7).
Believe it or not - and as awkward sounding as it is - I think the cryptic message Paul gives the church in Corinth can help us out. First, let’s assume that a disciple is any member of a gathered community seeking to follow Jesus and looking toward the hope of the resurrection. That is who the Corinthians were.
Paul has just written an extensive argument about ethical relationships and why you should or should not get married. Although his denial of natural feelings and relationships seem a little bizarre, the key is found in the phrases, “the appointed time has grown short” and “the present form of this world is passing away.”
Now this could easily be dismissed in the same way that recent predictions were when they did not come true. Has no one really realized that Paul was over 2,000 years and counting off the mark here? Or was he? Perhaps things have not gone the way Paul was expecting, yet I believe that God still speaks a word of truth in and through Paul’s human frailty. Even though the gospels had probably not been circulated yet, we presume it to be true (and to be part of the oral tradition of the early church) that Jesus said that “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Repent - where have I heard that before? Yes, repent! That is what the Ninevites did. They repented, they turned from self gratification toward God’s glorification. And God... changed... God’s... mind. Jonah, the reluctant prophet - all covered in fish goo, got up and spoke the word of God to them, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” End game. Boom. Your done. Thus says the Lord, and so say we all!
And they heard it. And they - as a people, from smallest to tallest and their little dogs too - repented. And God changed - God changed God’s mind.
So, it makes me wonder, could it be that the Kingdom of God has drawn near? Could it be that we are not listening to the ticking of a cosmic time bomb so much as we are being invited to lay down those nets which aren’t catching anything so that we can pick up the net that Jesus has placed at our feet? Could it be that God awaits our repentance and invites us to participate in changing the present form of this world?
Yes. The present form of this world is always passing away. The present form of our institutions, even our very buildings and structures are always passing away. The opportunity to follow Christ, to become more disciplined, and to offer discipleship is always passing away. But it is also always passing our way.
Come to think of it, repetition is pretty important in discipleship. Come to think of it, putting ourselves in places that we can experience, express, and explore God’s grace are pretty important in discipleship. For that matter, affirmations and rewards are pretty important to faith development too.
All these things are laced throughout our practices of worship and faith formation. All these things are based on the assumption that we might find a greater connection to God, to each other, and to ourselves through the assurance of faith in Christ.
Now, don’t get me wrong - in case you’ve noticed the similarities between dog training and discipleship - I’m not suggesting that a disciple is a canine companion for our best friend Jesus. I am, instead, telling you that I believe that through our adherence to the call of Jesus to repentance we have been given the opportunity to change the mind of God. We have been given the opportunity speak the word of God. We have been given the opportunity to weave the fabric of the new heaven and the new earth through our participation with the will of God.
And what does all of that look like? It looks like a world where all serve each other - a world where the voiceless are heard, the friendless have comfort, and the invitation to receive and respond to God’s grace is constant! It looks like a world that expresses the love of God for all of creation! It looks like a world where people are bent toward glorifying God over and above themselves. So, whether we fish for fish to feed people or for people to glorify God, may all that we do be an attempt to be as Jesus and proclaim the Kingdom of God - which is both present and yet to come! Amen.