The Dead Dog Sermon: A Homily
On June 11, I went before the Presbytery of North Alabama and was examined for ordination at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama. I was received into the presbytery and will be ordained on August 25 at Covenant. All are invited!
As a part of the examination, it is required to preach before the presbytery. This is the homily I wrote and preached on June 11th.
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June 11, 2019
Presbytery of North Alabama
This is not going to be a sermon, strictly speaking. I want to use this opportunity to read and reflect briefly on a piece of scripture and to share a story about my family that I hope will give you some insight into who I am. I hope that between the scripture and the story, you will catch a vision of the sort of pastor and member of presbytery I want to be so that you can call me to accountability if I fail to live up to it.
Scripture: John 3:22-30
John’s gospel is unique among the canonical gospel accounts for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is the prominent place it gives to John the Baptist in the early part of the gospel. From the very beginning, we receive hints that he is important.
The prologue to the gospel begins with this great high Christological formula: “in the beginning was the Word”; but, it is only 15 verses into the gospel when we are first introduced to the voice of John, the one crying out in the wilderness; the one who from the beginning must deny that he himself is the messiah; the one who’s mission is to gather disciples and then to give them away. All of that, we learn in John 1.
Here, in John 3, the Baptist shows up a second time. And this time, as the encore in a double-feature. The early show was Jesus’ clandestine meeting with the Pharisee Nicodemus—a man who was cautiously dipping his tows into Jesus’ messianic identity. John, on the other hand, is in with both feet. He’s at the point of seeing his mission fulfilled and is beginning to step away from his position of authority. He is making himself less so that Jesus can become more. But, mind you, that does not mean that John ends his ministry. John supremely understands that his ministry has always been and continue to be about pointing to Jesus. During his rise to fame, it was a matter of pointing to God’s future action; at the height of his popularity, at this moment, it is about transferring authority to Jesus and falling into the background. In the background, John still points people to Jesus. And this is why, later in John’s gospel, Jesus refers to the Baptist as the “lamp that burned and gave light” (5:35).
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Whenever I think of John the Baptist and this famous passage where John describes his mission as one that requires him to decrease as Jesus increases, I always think of two things.
The first is the famous altarpiece by Mattias Grünewold that the theologian Karl Barth used to describe the Christian vocation. In this piece of art, if you haven’t seen it, a very human Jesus—pockmarked and bloodied—hangs from a cross. And at his feet, off to the right stands John the Baptist with a long, lanky finger pointing toward Jesus. For Barth, this image of John the Baptists exemplifies Christian witness to the extent that it demonstrates that the goal of the Christian life is to point others away from ourselves and to Christ. We must decrease, Christ must increase. I love that image.
The second thing that always comes to my mind when I think about John the Baptist is a story my dad always tells, and one time, in particular, when he told it. The story goes something like this.
My dad is a second-career pastor. When I was in high school, my dad uprooted our family from our home in the suburbs of Chicago and moved us to a small mountain town in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, called Stuart. Sometime near the beginning of my dad’s ministry in Stuart, he received a phone call from the local funeral home director, who had an unusual request. The mayor of Stuart had this much beloved Labrador named Chuck. And Chuck had his run of the town. He wondered everywhere and everybody knew him.
One day, a fella in town got mad at the mayor over something stupid and decided that he would get back at him by killing Chuck. The mayor was heartbroken and decided he wanted to have a funeral in order to put things to rest. The church where Eddie worshiped did not think it was a proper thing to do. And it seems that other ministers in town also declined. So, when the funeral director asked my father, he was surprised that my father quickly agreed to do so.
In fact, after that my father was usually the first person the funeral director called whenever he had a funeral to conduct that had unusual circumstances. My father preached at the funerals of estranged Mormons, members of biker gangs, for decedents who had no nearby family or friends. As my dad says, he became known as the preacher who would bury anybody or anything. Whenever my dad was asked why he agreed to preach at funerals so indiscriminately, he always explained that he thought it was a good opportunity to talk about Jesus.
I was always a critical listener when my dad preached. But I became even more so after I went to seminary. My dad and I are not on the same page when it came to a number of theological and homiletic points. One time, in particular, my dad preached a sermon that I thought was particularly atrocious.
The occasion was my grandfather’s funeral. When my mother’s father died, the last of my living grandparents, I was in my first year of Ph.D. studies. I flew from California to Shreveport, Louisiana, and there, in the very church where my dad came to faith—First Presbyterian Church of Shreveport—my dad preached my grandfather’s funeral.
He began by telling the dead dog story. He spent so much time talking about that dog and why he preached the dog sermon that by the time he was done, it wasn’t clear to me that he had talked about my grandfather at all. I was livid. Was my grandfather no better than a dead dog? Was there no significant memory of my grandfather that was worth sharing? In front of hundreds of friends and family members, my father had focused instead on his quirky habit of preaching strange funerals. My grandfather decreased, my father increased.
I never confronted my dad about it. Funerals already are filled with enough familial strife; it didn’t seem wise to add to it. I did wonder if anyone else was offended. If they were, they kept their mouths shut too. To be honest, they probably were too preoccupied to pay much attention to what my dad said anyway.
A little while later, I was thinking about that sermon, and how I would have done it differently when I sort of had a eureka moment. I think, finally, I figured out what my father was up to. The point of the dead dog story is that my dad uses funerals as an opportunity to talk about Jesus. And I think that the point of the dead dog sermon was that at my grandfather’s funeral, at the funeral of someone he loved and knew intimately, he was more tempted than ever to let the sermon be about my grandfather. He had to preach my grandfather’s funeral like it was the funeral of that dead dog because if he didn’t he might never get around to talking about Jesus Christ. And if he did that, then he would not have honored my grandfather. My grandfather was the sort of person whose life personified quiet, consistent faith. He became less so that my grandmother could shine; he became less so that his children could succeed; finally, and most importantly, he became less so that his Lord, Jesus Christ, could speak through him to others. What my dad was trying to do was to pay him the compliment of letting him decrease one last time so that Christ could increase in the memories of those who loved him.
No one is more surprised than myself to stand before you today and to tell you that I want to be the kind of pastor my dad was on the day of my grandfather’s funeral. I want to be the pastor who helps us all to keep in front of us that image that Barth gives us of John the Baptist’s pointing finger.
Speaking of Barth, there is a famous passage of the Church Dogmatics where Barth talks about how God might choose to reveal himself. Barth writes, “God may speak through Russian communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. God may speak to us through a pagan or an atheist.” My dad never really read a lot of Karl Barth. He always approached him with skepticism. But I think he would find it humorous that at least on this one point, they would agree: God speaks through dead dogs.