Last week we had our first session of obedience training for Christians, taking obedience school for our canine friends as our model. Our obedience to Jesus is our grateful response to his love and care for us, and his commands lead to lives of holiness and true happiness. Jesus calls us to come to him so that he can share our burdens. We learn to sit quietly in his presence. Knowing how to stay—trusting God even when God feels far away—helps us get through the tough times. Today, in our second session of obedience school, we’re going to learn to “heel.”
Marc and I spend a good bit of time on our deck in the summer. We live on a corner, so we have a good view of the sidewalk where lots of people walk their dogs. Dogs who know how to heel walk confidently beside their masters, as though they were pinned to their master’s hip, with their heads close to their master’s body.
But I have to say that we rarely see dogs that have been trained to heel. Sometimes it looks like the dogs are walking their owners. The dogs race ahead, as far as their leashes will allow, with their owners hanging on for dear life and stumbling along behind. The dog sees something interesting, and they’re on their way! It might be another dog, an inviting garbage bag, or a squirrel racing across the street. Of course, they aren’t considering whether that irresistible object is good for them, or whether pursuing it is safe. They just see what they want and off they go, whether their owners want them to or not.
Other dogs lag behind their owners. They plant themselves in one place and refuse to budge. Some of them want to thoroughly investigate some interesting smell and aren’t ready to move on when their owners are. Some are afraid to walk toward the big, noisy Labradors across the street from us. There used to be one very old dog who did everything he could to avoid moving farther or faster than he had to. He hated walking on anything but grass—a problem whenever he came to a driveway.
In both cases, whether they’re racing out in front or determined to lag behind, these dogs pay no attention to the wishes of their master. They have no interest in what their owners want them to do. Even though the owner has the dog’s best interests at heart, the dogs are focused not on what the owner desires for them but on what has sparked the dogs’ interest. Their eyes are on the attractive temptation ahead of them or under their noses, not on their master’s face.
In our Scripture readings for today, we have some people like that. They look to their own interests rather than their master’s. First, we have the story of David and his desire to build a house for God. David was finally in a pretty good place. It was a peaceful time. There’s no conflict going on with the neighboring tribes. David has captured Jerusalem and made it his capital city. The Ark of the Covenant has been retrieved from the town where it had been kept after its rescue from the Philistines. David himself had settled into a house made of cedar.
David gets to thinking that it doesn’t seem right that the Ark—the very throne of God—is lodged in a tent while David lives in an elegant house. David decides to build a house for God—a temple. That seems like a reasonable decision, and David’s go-to prophet Nathan agrees.
But there’s a problem. Neither David nor Nathan has done anything to discern whether God wants David to build this house. They haven’t prayed about it. They haven’t searched the scriptures. They haven’t considered the history of God’s action in their lives. David has made a decision on his own, and Nathan goes along. David is ready to plunge in without waiting to see what God wants him to do, racing ahead toward his own idea.
God reins David in, speaking to Nathan with a message for David. “Have I ever suggested that I wanted you to build a house for me? During all the time I spent travelling with the Israelites, have I ever indicated that I want a house of worship to live in at all? If anyone is going to build a house,” God says, “it’s me.”
And the house God is planning to build is not a physical dwelling but a dynasty—the house of David, a house that will last forever, bringing glory to God’s name. In his excitement about building a physical house for God without looking to God first, David is like a dog following its nose, racing ahead rather than looking to its master for direction.
In our Gospel lesson, we have a different picture. We have several people who like the idea of following Jesus, but they’re distracted by other things. They’re more like the dogs that lag behind when they should be walking at their masters’ side. “Come on,” Jesus says to one man, “Let’s go for a walk. Follow me.” But the man has family business to take care of first. He wants to go home, either to bury his deceased father or to wait until after his father passes away to take up this new life with Jesus. His attachment to his old way of life is too strong to allow him to freely engage in this new ministry. He’s so focused on where he is that he can’t follow Jesus to someplace new.
A second man volunteers to follow Jesus, but he’s not quite ready to move along, either. He’s not ready to commit himself to walking alongside Jesus into God’s kingdom. He wants to go home and say his goodbyes first. His focus is on what’s behind him, but life with Jesus demands that he look forward to what lies ahead. He can’t go back to where he was; he needs to move forward with Jesus.
The problem with David and the men that Jesus meets on the road is that they are like dogs who haven’t learned to “heel.” We may have the same problem. We find ourselves racing ahead of Jesus, without stopping to see what he wants from us. Like David with his building project, we fix our sights on something we want to attain or achieve and go after it. It can happen in our work or in our home lives or even here at church. We get an idea, and we run with it, without checking with Jesus first to see if what our hearts desire matches his desire for the Church and the world, and for us. When we do this, we often find that our efforts are not as effective as we’d hoped. We find ourselves engaged in activities that sap our energy rather than replenishing it. Our big plans don’t deliver in the way we imagined without Jesus by our side.
Sometimes we plunge ahead in more destructive ways. We’re like the disciples who were eager to punish the unwelcoming Samaritans by raining down fire on them. We race away from Jesus when we meet someone who doesn’t act the way we think she ought to act, or look the way we think he ought to look, or live the way we think they ought to live. We rush to judgment like a dog rushes to an overturned garbage can.
The pregnant teenager? She should have said no to the boy she thought was the love of her life. The man who smokes or the woman who overeats? They should just break their bad habits. The mother at the food pantry? She ought to get a job, or a second job, or a third. That same-sex couple who want to marry? They should forget about it. The migrant family at the border? They should go back where they came from. “Should we command fire from heaven to come down and consume them, Lord?” we call back over our shoulders at Jesus as we race toward what we’ve already decided to do or say. Too often, without waiting for his answer, we pull ahead and begin raining down fire on others without waiting to hear what Jesus would have us say or do.
Sometimes we’re more like the dogs who lag behind. We’re tired, and when Jesus asks us to walk a little further, we resist. We find a comfortable spot along the way and we just want to hang out there for a while. We prefer soft grass under our feet, rather than a harder, more challenging route. Or maybe we want to return to something we’ve already passed. We like the old path and have no interest in exploring new territory. We resist when Jesus wants to move in a new direction. We sit down and won’t budge when Jesus wants to keep on walking.
Or maybe we’re afraid, like the dogs who don’t want to get too close to those intimidating Labs across my street. Walking with Jesus often means venturing into unknown territory. It may mean doing things we’ve never tried before. We want to trust Jesus, but what’s ahead or who’s ahead is unfamiliar and scary. We drag our feet. We come up with reasons why we shouldn’t go along with him. We resist Jesus’ invitation to walk together toward anything that may threaten our comfort and security.
Instead of racing ahead or lagging behind Jesus, we need to learn to heel. As I was doing my homework on obedience training, I learned that dogs who know how to heel walk so that their master’s steps are always just a bit ahead of their own. This is exactly where Jesus wants us to be. He doesn’t want us racing ahead, however noble our goals are. He doesn’t want us dragging our feet, no matter how reasonable our objections seem to be.
The problem with forging ahead or lagging behind is that we get too focused on our own agendas. Our agendas may not be bad—our desires may not be wrong per se—just as there was nothing wrong with David’s desire to honor God by building a temple or the would-be followers’ desires to take care of important family matters or even the disciples’ desire to stick up for Jesus when they felt he’d been wronged. But first we need to discern whether the direction we want to go is a direction Jesus wants us to take. We need to make sure that our actions are Spirit-inspired rather than ego-inspired. We need to test whether God is leading us or we are trying to lead God.
When we heel, we get so close to Jesus that we’re nearly walking in his own footsteps. What he sees, we see. The people he stops and listens to, we listen to. The places he goes, we go—without fear, because he’s there just ahead of us. We walk beside him, at the pace he sets, which means that we don’t hesitate to follow quickly or to take a more measured pace, depending on the cue we get from Jesus. The more we do this, the more natural it becomes. We become more Christ-like as we become accustomed to walking at Jesus’ pace and in his footsteps.
When dogs learn to heel, they listen for the master to call their names. When the master speaks the dog’s name, the dog knows to take its cue from the beloved owner at its side. We are blessed to have a Master who calls each of his beloved by name. “Lazarus, come out,” “Zacchaeus, come down.” “Simon, do you love me?” “Martha.” “Mary.” Jesus speaks the names of those who are close to him, and he speaks the names of those he wants to become close to him. We can best hear him speaking our names when we are walking close beside him—when we heel.
Jesus wants us next to him where we can feel his presence and hear his voice and see his face. He wants us to stay close, so that we can watch and listen to him for cues about where to go and how to live. In fact, this is the whole point of the incarnation—of God coming to us in the human form of Jesus. In Christ, we have someone to walk next to—someone whose face we can see and whose voice we can hear.
In the dog-training world, it’s sometimes the sad case that dogs heel because they fear being punished if they don’t. Some people feel the same way about God. They’ve been filled with stories of a vengeful punishing, judgmental God. They’re afraid that their sinfulness can only result in God’s anger. So, they try to do all the right things. They try to say all the right words. But they say and do them because they are afraid of what might happen if they don’t.
They haven’t yet comprehended the depth of Christ’s love for them and the forgiveness he offers. They don’t yet know that Jesus is a loving Master whose great desire is to pour out his grace on all those who will walk beside him. When we understand this, and walk beside Jesus out of our love and trust in him, we’re like the dog who doesn’t even need to be controlled by a leash, but heels out of a desire to be close to its master’s side.
I have to confess that I have a long way to go in learning to heel in my walk with Jesus. I pray for God’s guidance but, when I get an idea, I’m more likely to be asking Jesus for his opinion after I’ve already gotten ahead of him than waiting for him to weigh in first. Or, like the would-be followers, Jesus calls me to a task, and I come up with a list of perfectly rational reasons why I shouldn’t go along. I’m still learning to heel.
Maybe you’re like me. Maybe we, as a congregation, are like me, too. In most of our committee meetings, we make decisions about how to do ministry in this place. We start every meeting with a prayer for God’s guidance. But we mainly spend our time talking about what we want to do or don’t want to do. We don’t spend any time in our discussions actually talking about what God might want us to do, or where God wants us to go, or whom God wants us to meet. We don’t talk about what God may want for our church or our community or our world. It’s not that our ideas are necessarily bad. It’s just that we don’t take time to check with God first, to find out if our thoughts line up with God’s thoughts. Maybe it’s time for us as a congregation to learn to heel, too, as we proceed together in our walk with Jesus.
Dog training experts say that learning to heel is a long and challenging process for dogs. It requires concentration. It’s a skill that must be taught slowly. They say it’s best taught in a quiet place with few distractions.
Learning to heel at Jesus’ side is a long and challenging process for Christians, too. We, too, learn slowly, gradually growing in our ability to follow faithfully. We need to be intentional about it, though. We need to carve out quiet time, free of distractions, to pray and read our Bibles and reflect on what we find there. We need the time we spend in worship, listening for God to speak to us through the songs we sing and the words we hear. We need others to help teach us, and we can help teach others, in Bible Study and faith-sharing relationships. Day by day, as we make these activities a part of our lives, we become more attuned to Jesus’ intentions as we walk by his side. It’s a life-long process of growing in our ability to heel, this process of being “perfected in love.”
When we accept Christ as our Lord and Master, we want to learn to heel. Like a faithful canine companion at its beloved master’s hip, we want to be by Jesus’ side. We learn not to race ahead or lag behind, but to stay where we can see his face and hear his voice. We want to be in that place where we can see as he sees, speak as he speaks, and love as he loves. We look to him to see where he would have us go and what he would have us do. We obey him, freely and without fear, because of our love for him and our trust in him. As obedient and faithful disciples, we heel, and we follow, with his footsteps just ahead of ours. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young