Three days ago, after taking a brief look at today’s gospel reading, I went for a morning jog. I’d spent maybe ten minutes reviewing how expert theologians recommend preaching this text, but to be honest not much in there really hit home. Sometimes, for me at least, jogging on the open, unpaved, rural backroads of Loxahatchee helps to get the creative juices flowing.
While jogging two thoughts kept going through my mind. First, the word “welcome” is used six times in today’s Gospel reading. Surely there must be a more concise way to drive home this point. This suggests the writer of Matthew could have used a better editor – I mean really, using one word, six times, in less than two sentences? Or, more likely, especially since this scripture is directly attributed to the words of Jesus, perhaps this concept of welcome, and the importance of it, and how we welcome others, is a notion that Christ truly wants us to fully grasp.
And the other thought going through my head while jogging? It was hot. It was really, really hot. I’d started the jog right before 10am, way too late to avoid the South Florida summer heat, and temperatures were already in the high 80s. Within minutes I was dripping with sweat.
Two miles into the jog, on a route I’ve run dozens of times before without incident, I notice a dog, a big dog, barking and running right at me. And then I hear shouting. It seems the dog had gotten out of the yard and the owner was trying to get them back.
As the dog gets closer I notice it’s a pit bull. That’s a breed that, stereotypically speaking, you just don’t want to mess with. At least not without knowing more about that particular dog. Every-so-often you’ll hear stories of pit bulls attacking runners, and that possibility definitely crossed my mind. But I reminded myself, quickly, that not all pitbulls are vicious animals. In fact most of them aren’t.
My brother Clayton and his wife Briana have a pit bull as a pet, his name, fittingly, is Tank. Our family visited my brother’s family, in Baltimore, during Christmas 2012; and I have this distinct memory of being a bit worried about having our daughter Hannah, who was two and a half at the time, be under the same roof as a pit bull. But then we got to know this particular big dog. I had the chance to see, first hand, Tank interact with Hannah, watched as she petted him, watched as he joyfully licked her from head to toe. Big dogs have big tongues it turns out, and when they use those big tongues to show love to the humans in their life, well, it’s just fun be part of.
Hannah and Tank got along so well – she calls him Tanky – that my wife Kathi gifted her this stuffed animal to remember him by. Kathi looked for a stuffed toy pit bull all over the local mall, and couldn’t find one, so we settled on a Bassett hound toy to represent Tanky instead. And since this time my brother and his wife have welcomed their own child into their home too. From that I’ve had the chance to watch their newborn baby boy, now toddler, also play with Tanky, and get lovingly licked all over as well.
All that is to say, those stories of runners being attacked by pit bulls, and my own positive experiences with Tanky, the big dog that Hannah loves, those memories were all flying through my head, at a rapid pace, as I continued to watch this pit bull, running at me while jogging, still just three days ago.
After thinking through the situation as best I could, in real time, I slowed down, stopped jogging, and stood there, motionless, hands to my side. I’d heard to take that approach from somewhere, that a dog’s instinct is to chase. And if you don’t give them anything to chase, and don’t appear to be afraid, and don’t threaten them yourself, well, often they’ll get bored.
And that’s exactly what happened.
After sniffing at me for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably closer to fifteen seconds, the big dog lost interest, and instead jaunted over to sniff some grass and the nearby canal water.
Shortly after that the owner came over, walked right up to me and shook my hand, apologizing profusely. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “my gate was open for just a few seconds to let a truck in, and Sheriff (that’s the name of the dog) ran right out. He just loves to run.” And that line, that he just loves to run, reminded me of other neighbors who would run their dogs while following them in their classic Volkswagen convertible. They liked to call that redneck dog walking, their term, not mine; perhaps that’s a story for another time.
Anyways – “No worries,” I replied to the big dog owner. “I’ve encountered all sorts of dogs out here, and yours is one of the good ones” (which is entirely true for this runner.)
We then talked, me and this new neighbor. We talked of neighborhood happenings, grass cutting schedules and a Trauma Hawk flight he took in 2007, from an accident that happened right on the street I live on, two short blocks from our home.
The big dog owner then offered me a bottle of water, which sounded great, and we began walking to his garage to get it. Along the way he shared what he does for a living, things like the mowing of lawns, the operating of big machinery, and the creating of screened porch enclosures. Manly stuff. Cool stuff.
And the guy cursed up a storm, which I always appreciate when meeting new people. When he asked me what I did for a living, and I replied that I’m a Pastor, he gave a sheepish look; I could almost see him mentally retracing our conversation. “No worries,” again I reply, “I’m one of the good ones, at least when it comes to that; I drop a choice four letter word on occasion too. It’s all good.” I then realized, in that moment, that this big dog owner was helping me to overcome some of my own stereotypes. Perhaps in some small way I could help him broaden his own notion of what a pastor is and how they act.
We proceeded to walk into his garage, and he pulled out that promised bottle of water, right out of an icy cooler. For a runner, who had started a jog in weather likely too hot to safely jog in, and who had just been ran at by a pit bull unexpectedly, well that’s about as welcoming as welcoming can get. As I look around his garage I notice some cans of Coca Cola, sitting alongside a half empty bottle of rum, and I smile. I, too, love a good rum and coke. The ice cold bottle of water now in hand, which really hit the spot, I thank the big dog owner and head out to complete the jog.
While jogging back home, trying to process this chance encounter, I realize that this wasn’t just some random big dog owner. And that this wasn’t just a neighbor newly met. This is someone I like. Someone I could share a rum and coke with. Someone I could talk with about the challenges our world faces. Maybe we could even try and solve a few of those world problems together too. This is someone I could call friend.
And none of that could have happened if I hadn’t been open to getting to know the man behind the big dog.
Earlier in Matthew chapter 10, before all that talk of the importance of welcome, Jesus talks about big dogs too, albeit in a different way. Matthew 10 is the first chapter in this gospel where all twelve disciples have been called and named. The remainder of the chapter consists almost entirely of the sayings of Jesus, speaking directly to the disciples. You could almost think of it as an early huddle, with Jesus as coach, saying something akin to gather around team, I’ve got a mission for you. And here’s how we’re gonna do it.
Part of that playbook Christ refers to in Matthew 10 contains three little words from verse 26: HAVE NO FEAR. The next several verses after that delve into why not. We matter deeply to God, it says. If God cares for the sparrows, then how much more value does God place on us? God knows minute details about us, down to the number of hairs on our head. With such an all-caring, and all-knowing God, what on earth do we have to fear? It’s this fear, in many ways, that keeps us from each other. And keeps us from welcoming one another, as Christ implores, in the name of our Creator.
And in this society, where fear really does sell, following those three little words HAVE NO FEAR can seem downright daunting. The concepts of fear-based marketing can be seen all over the place, with marketers trying to sell you home security systems, car alarms and computer software solutions designed to keep the bad guys out. And you’ll see it in our politics, where fear of the other, both who they are and what they stand for, is the common currency of our political identification. And our political dialogue. Or perhaps our lack of dialogue. This notion of moving past a place of fear, in our modern times, well that’s a fairly radical concept. But there it is. In scripture. Those three words. HAVE NO FEAR. Staring back at us. A precursor to how and who we choose to welcome.
What do you fear? Said differently, what big dogs do you need to make peace with? You’ve heard one of my fears, as a runner, on occasion, I fear big dogs. Kathi and I have always had terriers, little yippy fifteen pound dogs. Dogs we playfully named Salsa and Chips. I honestly haven’t had much experience around big dogs, perhaps that explains some of this big dog fear of mine. But the big dogs in our world come in many, many forms, both canine and otherwise.
Do you have a social fear? Like fear of embarrassment, fear of looking stupid, fear of screwing up? While those may seem small to some, for others those fears can be very big dogs.
Or do you fear the big dog of race? Those dogs come in many colors, be they black, white, brown, or all the hues in between.
Or is it the big dog of nationality? We use words like American, Mexican, Russian and Syrian, sometimes standing behind one big dog at the expense of another.
Or perhaps is it the big dog of religion? Those dogs go by the names of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, just to name a few.
Whatever your particular big dog may be, get to know the man, or the woman, or the person behind that big dog. And then welcome them. And be welcomed by them. For when we do we model Christ, and are rewarded with so much more than a cup of cold water. In this act of welcome we bring the kingdom of God to earth. And in no small way, in this act, of radical welcome, we catch a glimpse of heaven. Amen.