Homily delivered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Piney Parish, Waldorf, MD for Morning Prayer, April 19, 2015.
In the name of One God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I couldn’t put my finger on why, exactly, but I had been feeling far away from God lately, like he wasn’t really hearing me.
A case of the spiritual blues, I guess.
The sweltering heat didn’t help—August here in Georgia can get pretty unbearable. It was 100 degrees today, and really sticky. I turned up the air conditioner in my car full blast, ready to head home from my errands.
That’s when I saw the dog.
He lay on top of a lumpy Army-green duffel bag right on the walk outside Applebee’s restaurant. No shade. Sleeping, or at least I hoped he was. Why, he could be dead in this heat!
I pulled in and found a parking spot then I hurried over to the dog. I bent down. “Hi, fella. You thirsty?”
I love dogs and they like me. But this one—he was medium-sized, black, graying around the muzzle—opened one eye, then shut it and turned his head away from me. Deliberately. His tail didn’t budge.
He had a collar, and by the way he was guarding the duffel bag, I figured he was waiting for his owner, who was no doubt sitting inside the restaurant in air-conditioned comfort!
I stormed into Applebee’s, ready to do battle. Right away, I spotted the owner. He sat alone at the counter, a tall glass of iced tea in front of him. Longish wavy blond hair and a goatee.
Thin, like he didn’t always get enough to eat. He was wearing jeans that had seen better days, but they were clean, though his hands had what could have been faint paint stains. He seemed to sense me coming and turned on the stool to face me.
“That your dog?” I demanded.
“Yes, ma’am, he is.”
“He’s in the sun and has no water. I imagine he’s hungry too.” I must have raised my voice because some people stared at me. “Dogs like me, but he wouldn’t even open both eyes when I spoke to him.”
The man broke into a slow, easy grin. He slid off the stool. “That’s because he hasn’t been properly introduced to you. Come on. I’ll do the honors.”
Introduced? I followed him outside.
He squatted down next to the dog, who sat up and fastened his eyes onto his owner. His tail came alive.
“Ma’am, I don’t know your name.”
“Marion.” I bent close to them.
“Marion, I’d like you to meet Cheeseburger. Cheeseburger, this nice lady is Marion.” The dog looked right into my eyes and offered a paw.
I took it. “Hi, Cheeseburger,” I said.
He licked my hand and his tail shifted into high gear.
“And I’m Johnny,” the man said.
“Johnny, I’m afraid he’s thirsty.”
“Oh, he’s okay,” he said. “This spot was shady when I left him here just a few minutes ago.” Johnny picked up his duffel bag.
“We’ve been together for nine years. See, his collar has my cell phone number on it, and he’s been vaccinated.”
Johnny moved his bag beneath a Japanese maple tree and Cheeseburger settled down there beside it, in the shade. “How far do you live from here?” I asked.
“Not far,” he said. “Back in those woods across the street. We have a good tent.”
“But couldn’t you go to a shelter?”
“They won’t take Cheeseburger, and I don’t go anywhere without him,” he said.
Each time he said Cheeseburger, the dog’s tail flopped back and forth joyfully.
“Johnny, I’m not going to be able to drive off without first getting Cheeseburger some food and water,” I said. “It’s not you. It’s just, well, I have this thing about dogs…”
“Okeydokey, if it’ll make you happy,” he said. “I’m going back in now and finish up my drink. It was nice to meet you, Marion.”
I zipped into Walgreen’s across the street and came back with a bowl, a big bottle of cold water, a small sack of dog food and a bone. Then I went in and fetched Johnny from the restaurant. “I thought you should be with me when I give the food and water to Cheeseburger,” I told him.
“Okeydokey,” he said. Cheeseburger stood as Johnny and I approached. I set the food down and he nibbled at it—mostly to be polite, I think. He did lap up quite a lot of water.
“I guess he was thirsty,” Johnny said. “Thanks. I’m not going to start giving him bottled water, but don’t worry, I take really good care of him.”
“And who takes care of you?” The words flew out of my mouth before I could stop them, and I knew they sounded sharper than I intended.
Johnny didn’t seem to mind. “Here’s the way it works,” he said gently. “Every morning me and Cheeseburger step out of our tent and look up at the sky. And I say, ‘Lord, we belong to you. We trust you. Take care of us another day. Thank you.’ And then at night when we lie down to sleep, I look out at the stars and say, ‘We still trust you, God.’” He smiled again—that slow, easy grin.
I smiled back. There was just something about his eyes I liked. “Maybe I’ll see you and Cheeseburger again sometime,” I said.
“Okeydokey. Me and Cheeseburger come here or head over to McDonald’s most mornings. Then we walk down toward the post office. I’m a painter by trade, hoping to find some work.”
There was a genuine peace about Johnny, even in the face of my unkind accusations.
I fished around in my purse and found a twenty. “Could I give you this?” I asked hesitantly, not certain how to go about it.
He didn’t reach for the bill, just kept looking at me with that contented expression. “You don’t have to. We’re doing pretty good.”
“I’d like to. Very much.”
“Then I thank you, Marion. God’s peace be with you.”
I got back in my car and turned on the air conditioner. At the red light, I leaned forward and gazed up into the blue cloudless sky. “Lord, I belong to you. I trust you. Take care of me today. Thank you.”
The light changed. I pulled out onto the highway, feeling refreshed, not so much by the cool air but by an unmistakable peace, the same peace I had seen in Johnny’s eyes and that he had left with me.
From the gospel last week, we heard these words: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
In this week’s gospel reading are these words: “Jesus himself stood among the disciples and their companions and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
And from John 14, verse 27, Jesus says: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
The word peace appears in the bible 348 times.
Borrowing from the words of St. Paul, I say the words, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord, Jesus Christ.” as a greeting or preface to beginning the service.
Peace be with you.
We say it every week. To some, it is the most anxious part of worship. To a newcomer, perhaps worse than a visit to the dentist!
I am new here, I do not know anyone or hardly anyone and now I have to do this silly “peace” thing. They look around and spot the “Peace King”, that one person who has to give peace to every single person in the congregation. That person who makes sure, above all else, they get to the visitors and newcomers in the crowd. Their vigor and gregariousness overflowing… and all I came here to do was to worship.
And find some peace! But, that is the point, right? We are sharing the peace of God with each other! Perhaps, not what some people have in mind.
Why do we say it to each other? What does it mean? Where did this tradition start?
When we share a sign of peace with each other, we do it after the reading of scripture and the preaching of the sermon.
We offer peace in response to God’s word. The peace we share exists because it has been created by God through Jesus Christ.
Our offering and sharing of this peace with each other is an act of faith believing that God has called us and empowered us to do so.
It is a sign of our unity with each other through our commonality of what we believe.
When we greet each other with God’s peace, as we do before the Eucharist; it is to be reconciled to each other, to be at peace with each other before we come to Jesus’ table to share in the sacrament of communion.
In today’s world, it is hard to find peace. Instant news is constantly bombarding us with words, opinions, events and happenings. Most of it is not good news and everyone has to weigh in with why and what and their personal spin and blame.
As Christians, we are not blameless in the constant stream of words and opinions that very often are not message of love and peace, but rather messages of hatred and bias.
Under the banner of “Christians” there is condemnation. You hear the ultra conservatives like Pat Robertson and Bryan Fischer toss out “abomination of the Lord” in relation to anyone who believes differently than they think you should. According to their theology, Jesus does not love Muslims, homosexuals, atheists, and the list goes on and on and on. How do we find peace and how do others find peace with us as believers when this rhetoric is so prevalent?
It is a world where we often find it difficult to live into our baptismal covenant and to find that love or that peace in each other. And, even more to the point, what is the answer? How do we get along and love each other?
The answer is simple really. It parallels my secret to success in my years of youth ministry. I shared this earlier this week with some very special folks in a discussion we were having. It is, I believe, what Jesus would say to us and what kids are looking for as they begin their formation journey of faith.
The secret is this:
Listen to me. Don’t judge me. Don’t correct me or show me where I am wrong. You can help me discover that for myself but I must be the one who discovers it in my time and in my way.
Open your heart to me.
Don’t project onto me where you think I should be or what I should be doing, how I should pray, or if I should be baptized or confirmed.
Who I am and how I think, this is my reality, it is my starting point for today.
There is time for tomorrow. There is time to grow. There is time to discover and to learn.
But today, this time right now, I need you to love me for being me and all that comes with me.
My doubts, my mistakes, my victories, my understanding and my naiveté all make me a gift from God.
Let us just be grateful together
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.
Peace be with you.