About Me

My photo
Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Dogs and Cats

Date: 07/09/2006
Feast: 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Church: Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
Bible text: Mark 6:1-13
Theme: Rejection
James McTyre

Acceptance. Many of you are dog owners. You understand acceptance. Because a dog’s first assumption is that whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it for their benefit. If you’re going for a walk, it’s because you want Barky to get exercise. If you’re grilling steaks, who else could they possibly be for? Even if you’re taking your dog to the vet, if you call him with a happy voice and throw a doggie treat in the back seat, he’ll go with the same excitement as when you’re going to get ice cream. (And don’t think nobody knows you take your dog for ice cream.) A dog’s first instinct is to be trusting and loving. Mark Twain – in a rare, theological moment – said, “If [heaven] were by merit, your dog would go to heaven and you would stay out.” Dogs are optimistic. Dogs accept.

Cats, on the other hand, assume nothing. If you’re a cat owner, you understand rejection. Cats, in fact, thrive on rejection. They toy with the very people who want to reject them. If you visit a cat-owner’s house, and you don’t like cats, or if you’re allergic to cats, you are guaranteed to be the one person whose legs the cat rubs on. If you’re trying to ignore the cat, your lap is guaranteed to be the one lap little Fluffy jumps into. And the cat owner, amazed and amused by the hijinks, will say, “Well, look at that. Fluffy hasn’t jumped on anyone’s lap since that little boy who had to get all those stitches. Just don’t make any sudden movements. Would you like some tea?” Cat owners are used to walking that fine feline line between acceptance and rejection. They know that some days, their cat will graciously accept their acts of kindness. And they also know that some days the same attempts at kindness will result in nothing more than a turned back, or a hand covered with scratches.

Howard Baker – a good Presbyterian, and a good Tennessean, too – wrote that being leader of the Senate was like herding cats. Anyone who has owned multiple cats and tried to take said cats to the vet on the same day understands the nuance in the senator’s words. Baker said, “It is trying to make ninety-nine independent souls act in concert under rules that encourage polite anarchy and embolden people who find majority rule a dubious proposition at best.”

Herding cats. A lot of the time we have this romanticized idea that the people Jesus ministered to must have been more like dogs. Tongues out and tails wagging, they bounded up to the master, leaped and played in his presence. Because they knew this was Jesus, for heaven’s sake. They assumed the best. They knew he was only there to help them. They knew he was there to cure them. They knew he was only there to save them. They trusted Jesus would only act in their best interest. Some people did. Some people accepted him, accepted him fully. Dropped their nets and followed him without hesitation, without question.

But the truth is a little more feline. Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, but in truth his work looked a lot more like herding cats. His ministry reads as if on any given day he was trying to reach out to ninety-nine independent souls who mistrusted, who disbelieved, whose first inclination was to reject him – far more than they believed. Even in his own home town, with the people he knew the best, he received a turned back or a scratched hand, or worse. “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.” Turning away from good news. Turning away from salvation. Turning away from the Son of God in the flesh. Rejection. Jesus understood. And he made sure his disciples were ready for it.

He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”

Reading Jesus’ instructions carefully, he sounds like someone who has experienced rejection. He sounds like someone who is training his students to assume the best, but expect the worst. He doesn’t give the disciples detailed instructions on how to behave with polite manners. He doesn’t coach them on attractive gifts to bring their hosts, or how to write thank-you notes for the bedside table when they leave. At least if he did, that didn’t make Mark’s final edit. No, what makes the cut is his instruction on what to do if the disciples aren’t accepted. What we remember is the instruction on what to do if they’re rejected – to shake off the dust that’s on their feet as a testimony against them. Rejection – the experience of rejection, the probability of rejection – is the lesson behind the lesson. It’s as if he’s telling these missionaries – and that’s exactly what they were, going two-by-two into the unknown – he’s telling the missionaries to hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst. Because somewhere along the way, maybe even in their own hometown, they’re going to be rejected.

I Googled “rejection” on the Internet, and one of the first items that came up was a for-profit service organization called, “The Rejection Hotline.” The Rejection Hotline has been set up in over 30 cities nationwide to help people reject other people, but with compassion. Say you’re a young lady, and someone, say, a young man, asks for your phone number. Say also the young man is still wearing his outfit from the Star Trek convention and you don’t want to crush the young Klingon. Instead of giving him your own number, you simply give him a local phone number from The Rejection Hotline. Then, when he gets back to his parents’ basement and calls you, he’ll get a delightfully humorous message saying, thanks for the call, but I don’t date outside my own species.

To Rejection Hotline developer Jeff Goldblatt, such services are good for everyone involved.

“We'd like to think about it as a public service both to the rejecter and the rejectee,” Goldblatt said. “The person giving out the number can escape a potentially uncomfortable or awkward situation if they're just not interested in the person, and the rejectee is spared the humiliation of a public rejection and can find out about the other person's non-interest from the privacy of their own home.”

The Rejection Hotline even sells business cards that the uninterested can hand over when pressed for contact information. The cards include a name, identify the person as working for The Noitcejer Group and have a noitcejer.com e-mail address and a phone number that turns out to be for the local Rejection Hotline. The kicker? "Noitcejer" is "rejection" spelled backward.

(Only in America. Someone’s making a pretty good living off other peoples’ rejection.)

The truth is that rejection only approaches funny if it’s happening to someone other than you. No doubt the people who’ve called the Rejection Hotline don’t see the humor. The fear of rejection is one of the strongest forces on earth. And the pain of rejection is one of the cruelest hurts. In one way or another, we’ve all faced the fear, we’ve all felt the pain. The Bible says Jesus was “amazed” at the unbelief in his own home town. I wonder. Was he also hurt by the rejection?

“So,” he tells his disciples, “Go. Go out into the neighboring towns and preach the gospel, cure the sick. Share the good news of the kingdom of heaven. But don’t be surprised,” he tells them, “don’t be surprised if the hand you extend in help comes back scratched. Or worse. Don’t be surprised that it hurts. Don’t be surprised by the rejection.”

In two thousand years, I doubt Jesus would say that very much has changed. I think of all the times in my own life I’ve rejected God. I think of all the times I’ve rejected Jesus’ claim on my life. Think of all the people everywhere who claim to be members of Jesus’ household of faith, members of his church, people who have known him and loved him since they were kids. Think of how it must still hurt, when we reject Jesus’ outstretched hand.

It hurts us. We hurt ourselves when we ignore the love and guidance of the Master. We hurt ourselves when salvation becomes just another pretty word. We hurt ourselves when we mouth the words of the gospel, but our actions speak the exact opposite. Our rejection of our Savior hurts us.

But I also have a feeling that our rejection of Jesus as daily Lord and Savior over our lives hurts him, too. The Lord who died for us, who prays for us, who intercedes for us – is the Lord who cares for us. You know, yourself, if you lose anything you care for, if anything you love turns away from you, it hurts. The living Lord is living, and nursing the wounds we still put on his hands.

In our sinful lives, God reaches out to us. In our failures as well as in our triumphs, God reaches out in compassion. In our actions and in our lack of action, in our speech and in our lack of speech, God reaches out a hand to help pull us out of the ditches we dig for ourselves. What does the hand of God look like? Is it big and strong? Is the hand of God soft and tender? We don’t know. We only know one thing for sure. The hand of God is covered in scratches. Scratches we’ve put there. But scratches and all, the hand of God is there for us. God knows our rejection. Jesus knows the rejection of those he loved and loves the most. And the hand’s still there.

In the way we treat each other – in the way we treat God – we’re all a bit more catty than we’d want to be. Rejection comes easily to us. And from us. Jesus knows that. He’s known it for a long time. Just look at his hands.