A Cat Story

A Cat Story

Romans 10:9-15

by Daniel Harrell

For four years the esteemed Walker Art Museum hosted tens of thousands outside on its lawn, some traveling hundreds of miles, to watch cat videos. The Walker International Cat Video Festival earned press in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Cat Fancy and Time magazine. Copycat events sprang up in Chicago, Oakland, San Francisco, Portland, Brooklyn, Grand Rapids and as far away as Northern Ireland. Cats, it seems, are immensely popular. So on this day where I’d hoped we be lolling on the grass under the sun while I don’t have a cat video, I do have a cat story.

I tell it in response to the requests I’ve received for sermons to preach this month. One of you wrote how you’d like to hear more about sin—too tempting for an old Calvinist like me. You wrote, “I think we tend to think and do as we please, unconsciously taking God’s love and mercy for granted.” This sounded like a cat. And as every cat owner knows, nobody owns a cat. Your cat owns you.

Fourteen years ago, Dawn and I adopted an abandoned grey-haired tomcat from a local animal rescue agency and named him Briscoe. We got him because we wanted a pet, though he wouldn’t let us pet him. Whenever we’d stretch out a hand, he’d either hiss, take a swipe or take off under the bed. Dawn, being something of a cat whisperer, worked her magic: to the point of tying crumbled paper to her ankle as she walked about our small Boston apartment, a lure to draw Briscoe out of his lair. She provided food and a safe place to sleep the day, and basically adjusted our entire existence to fit his. Briscoe would emerge nightly, usually around 4AM to pounce on the dressers, eat the plants, claws the rugs and then afterwards arrogantly howl for his breakfast. I understand that thousands of years ago, cats were worshipped as gods. Apparently they have never forgotten this.

Dawn and I traveled to Montreal one weekend to celebrate our anniversary and Dawn’s sister agreed to sit our cat. Having a decidedly better-mannered feline herself, we hoped something good might rub off on Briscoe. The challenge was securing Briscoe in a bag for the trip to Dawn’s sister. To nab him meant donning ski goggles and oven mitts and arming ourselves with long handled barbecue implements: tongs and spatulas. For an hour Dawn chased that cursed cat up and down stairs, knocking over furniture and books off of shelves before finally cornering him, throwing a blanket over his head and cramming him into the bag. 

As much as we tried to enjoy Montréal, our time was tempered by the fact we’d have to go through all of this again to get Briscoe home. Dawn had the good sense to stop and purchase a fancier cat-carrier, one with plush carpeting and windows on all sides, along with a tin of the finest cat food, thinking that we could entice Briscoe into the posh accommodations and then shut the door before he realized the trap.

Briscoe went in and devoured the cat food, but as soon as Dawn tried to zip the door shut, he slashed her, bolted out and hid in the nearest closet. For the next hour the chase was on again, with a few more injuries incurred, until finally Briscoe ducked into the sisters’ cat’s litter box. It was one of those covered deals designed to contain the stink—and it hadn’t been cleaned for days. But at least we had him. Dawn grabbed a piece of cardboard and duct tape and sealed the opening, forcing Briscoe to face the consequences of his own bad choices; suffering a car ride impounded inside a box full of another cat’s crap when he could have luxuriated in a fluffy carrier full of Fancy Feast. And yet, despite his idiocy and resistance, we took Briscoe home, and fed him and continued to love him and let him run our lives.

I trust you hear in this cat saga a whisper of the gospel: All we like cats have gone astray, opting for smelly litter boxes of our own making over the plush carriers we could have enjoyed. Nevertheless, God takes us home and feeds us Fancy Feast anyway, his own very self, loving us for no other reason than love.

And yet this is not the whole gospel. God loves us just as we are, but the intention has never been to have us stay just as we are. That love is patient and kind and bears all things is not an expression of empathy but a determination to transform. Empathy too often indulges our avoidance of change, it can coddle our anxieties and stunt our spiritual growth by leaving us mired in our litter boxes. Christianity has long taught how within us all meows our own inner-cat: self-obsessed and resistant. Avoiding the daylight, our hearts can be so murky as to motive, shadowed and uncertain; our best intentions are tinged by self-interest, our good works self-serving. Human sin is the deadly cause and effect of so much evil, perverse as to purpose and averse to reason. 

As sad as this is, John Calvin insisted that only by viewing ourselves in our utter perversity and alienation can we taste the true goodness of God. It’s why we confess before we take communion. Confession makes Jesus’ bloodied body into manna from heaven. Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and tax-collector who both went to pray. The good Pharisee stood and thanked God for making him so good while the despised tax-collector bowed and bemoaned his sinfulness and prayed for God’s mercy. The one who went home righteous knew he never deserved it. This is salvation. But salvation is not a quick-fix. Sara in her recent sermon cited Bonhoeffer’s distinction between grace and discipleship. Grace is free but discipleship will cost you. But you can’t have one without the other, or like manna, it spoils in your hand. Mercy takes a moment but discipleship involves a lifetime of wrestling with God. We have been saved and are being saved every day, until that day when we finally and fully saved, our transformation complete, a new creation anchored in the resurrection of Jesus. Scripture describes this as a hope which cannot disappoint; so certain we can live as if it has happened already. 

Fourteen years later Briscoe crashes around the house a lot less, and purrs a lot more. He has yet to sit on anyone’s lap, but he gets really close, keeping Dawn company as she writes and serving as a main character in Violet’s stories and art. He’s learned to love being loved in ways that he used to hate it. Now whenever we return from our travels, as we did just last week from Colombia with our confirmation class, Briscoe is there to greet us (having behaved for his cat-sitter), and persistently yowls his affection and desire for deficit petting, persuading Dawn to make her own bed on the floor by his side our first night back so they can enjoy all that was missed while we were gone. (This reunion was a little tougher this week as it took us 45 hours to get home from Colombia thanks to the weather and American Airlines. But that’s a long story for another sermon.)

In our text this morning the apostle Paul assures us that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” It’s a promise from the Old Testament prophet Joel, which along with passages from Isaiah and Deuteronomy (the Law and the Prophets), Paul ties together to bear witness to Jesus as Lord. Thus in Romans 10:9 we read, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Last Sunday at this time, Dawn, Violet and I were still in Colombia and on our way out to one of those idyllic Caribbean islands off the coast of Cartagena. We stayed a few extra days in Colombia following the Confirmation Class’ departure. Our small boat, packed full with forty people from every nationality, was christened Romans 10:9 for good reason. We pitched upon open sea on our way to paradise, the waves six feet and breaking, our boat doing fifty with a visible crack in its floor at our feet. “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” And we were. The boat captain gave thanks to God once we’d arrived. He should probably patch his boat too.

This is salvation’s other side. Jesus saves us from our sin and the trouble we cause, and he saves us from the troubles we suffer due to fault of others. But neither is this a quick fix. The word used for salvation implies preservation more than full rescue—our expectation is power to endure in order to deepen. As such, Paul can speak elsewhere of salvation’s benefits as being “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” The ultimate end of salvation is full participation in the resurrection of Jesus, but the road to resurrection is cross-shaped and demanding—the cost of discipleship. Salvation does not isolate us in safety behind walls of supposed security, but shores up our hearts and gives us courage to enter the struggles of others and the pursuit of liberation so that “the life of Jesus,” God’s love and compassion and power and justice might be lived out through our lives as the body of Christ in the world.

Paul goes on to conclude how there is “no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” This was an audacious statement for those who presumed being chosen had its privileges. Instead, Paul makes it clear we’re all in the same boat—which was especially true for my family last Sunday as we shared our boat with Colombians and Brazilians and South Africans and Germans and a gay couple and a rich guy and his wife from Georgia. Caught together out on the choppy, open sea—it didn’t really matter that we were all so different.

So much of what embroils the vast divides we suffer in America get fueled by our fears: fear of loss, fear of terror, fear of different nationalities, beliefs and skin colors and of losing what I value as mine. I had another sermon request for one on how we as Christians can navigate the treacherous political waters of our day, but I’m sure I can’t improve on what Sara preached two weeks back. All I might add is that if for some reason, liberal or conservative, you are looking to government to execute the ethics of God, then I would offer the words of Jesus: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Our patriotic duty as citizens heaven first is to love and embrace and do justice and righteousness as Jesus loved and embraced and brought justice and mercy, with total tolerance and zero distinction. The same Lord is Lord of all.

As we roared across that open sea together in the same boat with so many different people, the waters crashing all around us, fear didn’t divide as much as unite us. The Scriptures teach the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I think of the disciples in that boat on the stormy Sea of Galilee, Jesus asleep at the wheel when a huge storm hit and threatened to drown them all. The terrified disciples screamed at a sleeping Jesus to save them, and Jesus complied by stopping the storm, but then wondered aloud why they’d been so afraid. “Everyone who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” What’s funny was how this very salvation only terrified them more. “Who is this,” they wondered with awe, “that the winds and sea would obey?”

Every Saturday we host a congregation of French-speaking immigrants from Congo and Togo and Guinea-Bissau. Small in number, they worship loudly and thankfully and with a nouvelle chanson in their hearts. I was with them last night for their service, it was a foretaste of glory and another reminder of what church is like. The same Lord is Lord of all and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

The communion table pulls us and holds us together as one—herded cats so to speak. Confessing our sins and our fears, we taste the sure goodness of Jesus and are reoriented anew to live out our true identity as the church of Jesus Christ on earth.

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