So one day an atheist was taking a walk through the woods. He heard some rustling in the brush, and turning to look, he saw a 7 foot grizzly charging towards him. He ran as fast as he could up the path, but the bear was gaining ground. The atheist then tripped and fell on the ground. He rolled over to pick himself up but saw the bear raising his paw to take a swipe at him. At that instant the atheist cried out: ‘Oh my God!…’ Time stopped. The bear froze. The forest was silent. It was then that a bright light shone upon the man and a voice came out of the sky saying: ‘You deny my existence for all of these years, teach others I don’t exist and even credit creation to a cosmic accident. Do you expect me to help you out of this predicament? Am I to count you as a believer?’ The atheist looked directly into the light. ‘It would be hypocritical of me,” he said, “to suddenly ask you to treat me as a Christian now, but perhaps, could you make the BEAR a Christian?’ ‘Very well,’ said the Lord. The light went out, and the sounds of the forest resumed. And then the bear lowered his paw, bowed his head and said: ‘Lord, bless this food which I am about to receive and for which I am truly thankful, Amen.’
I might not be a bear lover, but I love the Blessing of the Animals. Our choice of pet can be rather telling; it can reveal a lot about who we are and what we value. Pets supply companionship and comfort, not a little bit of joy and satisfaction, and in many cases, protection. Bordentown has a thriving animal culture, a culture that helped save our Griffin, who, with the help of Bordentown City Cats went from half-starved stray to honorary Archdeacon of all Bordentown. Other animal cultures are not so bright: if you root for the Eagles, you can’t avoid the NFL’s own living symbol of animal abuse. Michael Vick has been rightly demonized for his dog-fighting activities, though it is time to forgive him, and not just because he might be the single greatest athlete to ever play quarterback. Vick’s case highlights the relationship we have with pets, even the dangerous ones: domestic animals are, for the most part, vulnerable; they are, whatever they are, underdogs.
The parable we just heard, the Parable of the Tenants, is not beloved, in particular, among parables. The tenants, those farmers who have leased the land of the owner and have charge over the land, would be repugnant even to your average biker gang. They are greedy and murderous, thieves really, they steal property and lives. Jesus told this story against the Pharisees, who had charge over God’s people but had led them astray, effectively stealing the faithful from God. In the parable, the last straw is placed when those nasty tenants kill the landowner’s son, and we start leaning forward to hear what punishment the landowner will dole out, what the fire from Heaven will look like. But Jesus never gets there. Instead He gives us the single most quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament.
“The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” Have you not heard, Jesus was saying, that in God’s Kingdom, the underdog always wins. “Out of all the thousands of verses in the Old Testament, this little nugget about the rejected stone becoming the head of the corner wins the prize for most frequent New Testament citation.”1
We all love a good underdog story. My father-in-law’s favorite movie is Babe, the one about the pig making good despite the odds (and very convenient for my animal-based sermon). We love Rudy and Billy Elliot and G.I. Jane and all those stupid movies in which the least among us, the least likely to succeed, come out on top.
And, apparently, a good underdog story is not lost on God, either. We don’t often think of Jesus as an underdog, but there’s this fancy Greek term kenosis; it means empty or emptiness. The Bible tells us that Christ emptied Himself; He left behind His place and His glory and made Himself vulnerable, mutable, mortal. Jesus became the underdog, the least likely; born in a dirty stable, raised blue-collar at best, His cousin was a raving madman and His mother was a local scandal. He was, to put it lightly, the stone which the builders rejected, and yet, and yet, He was and is and always will be chief cornerstone, He by whom all things were made, the God from whom angels hide their faces.
The good Lord gave us our very lives and He has given us all of creation to take care of. We are now the tenants of God’s vineyard, the vineyard of the Church and all she is responsible for. The Son comes to us still, His arms opened to us love, to collect the first fruits for His Father. He might not always look like much; He may look like a guy who was born in a cave, but in His Kingdom, the underdog always wins.
1. Scott Hoezee, This Week