If there ever was a word that can best describe the mystery of Easter, it is the word love. For, make no mistake about it, the whole concept of the bodily resurrection of Jesus defies our experiential belief system that is too often dulled by the human experience of the five senses—taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell. Certainly the resurrection of Jesus is relegated to the mystery of that which cannot be proven by science, metaphysics, or the unimaginable dullness of the secular, post modern world; a world in which human life is impaired, much like the dim light of a flickering candle flame, trying to illuminate the darkness; a darkness sustained by war, the global financial crisis, disparities between the haves and the have nots and those who see their lives caught up in the endless swirl of an unknown and frightening future. Recent polls show an alarmingly high percentage of Americans losing faith in the future as they slog through the mud of the hard times of the present. Yet, in all of this stuff that surrounds us and complicates the challenges our earthly journey, the one constant is love. For like God, love can never die.
The mystery of the resurrection is removed by the power of love that is ingrained in the human psyche and soul, as are the heart and lungs that empower our mortal life, and our brain that gifts us with memory, reason, and skill. My good, and now departed friend, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin of Yale and the Riverside Church, who preached at my consecration as the eighth bishop of Washington, once said: “Easter is the victory of what appeared as powerless love, over loveless power.” And so today if the seasonal changes that bring us out of the death of winter into the flushed beauty of springtime flowers and the earthy scents of new life, the excited singing of returning birds, and the promise of new life in all that surrounds us doesn’t trigger in us at least an awareness that God is certainly up to something—even if we’re having trouble understanding or even believing in the resurrection—then let me tell you a true story about the gift of God’s love in another form.
When our children started to grow older, went off to college, got jobs, and moved far away to the other coast with families and their children, Karen and I were left with Sammy. Actually his real name was Samuel Seabury. No, not the first bishop of the Episcopal Church, but a loveable, personable, new child; an English bulldog, a third son, and one forever locked in at the human age of about four. Sammy identified himself as more than what the world saw him to be: a four-legged canine. Sammy was one of those splendid and mysterious gifts from God. A gift that made life better, happier, and more fulfilling than life could ever have been without him. For in him, God had implanted the gift of unconditional love—much in the same way he has implanted that gift in you and me.
I believe with all my heart that God created Sammy to bring joy, comfort, love, and companionship into the lives of our extended family, our children, and grandchildren and all who crossed our threshold in our California home as well as our Washington home. Even Bill Coffin, a great American preacher and writer, loved Sammy. He often spent time with us and Sammy in California when he was preaching or teaching there.
Whenever he would call, or write, or send us cards in the mail, he would always say “to John, Karen, and Sammy, with all my love.” When we visited Bill at his home in Thetford, Vermont, not long before his death, there in the living room of his old, weathered New England home was a framed picture of Sammy. Not a picture of John and Karen Chane, but a picture of Sammy, along with pictures of his family and precious other photos defining his life’s earthly journey.
As a bulldog living the life of a four-year-old human, Sammy never saw the inside of a kennel or a cage. I honestly believe he thought he was a person.
Sammy was there for the dedication and ground-breaking of the new cathedral parking garage and was treated as a dignitary. Following the invocation and ground-breaking, where he was asked to be present for “photo-ops,” he was spoiled at the reception by the invited guests who fed him copious doggie treats and a few sips of champagne. Sammy loved receptions!
Sammy was the first English bulldog on record ever to preach at Washington National Cathedral at the annual Beauvoir School Grandparents Day service. His sermon topic, delivered by nose rubs and licks for the children, was “Never Judge a Book by Its Cover.” A lesson well-taught and well-learned! Several years thereafter, Beauvoir children and faculty would present Sammy with an annual Christmas gift. Sammy loved Christmas!
At the request of our Diocesan Episcopal Schools, Sammy would travel with me when I would visit student assemblies for a short service and sermon. In the years that followed, often a parent, teacher, or a student would come up to me at a parish or diocesan function and ask me, “How’s Sammy these days? We think he’s just wonderful.”
In an article that appeared in the Washingtonian magazine about the new Episcopal Bishop of Washington, the photographer thought it a great idea to have a picture for the article of me and Sammy, seated on the steps at the entry way of the beautiful little chapel in Church House. The article appeared in the magazine and I personally thought it wasn’t all that bad a picture of me, but for months thereafter people would come up to me on the street and say, “Bishop that was a great picture of your dog Sammy! How is Sammy these days?”
But, like all of life on this earth, the years began to take their toll on beloved Sammy. Arthritis had finally caught up with him, and he moved much more slowly and cautiously than he did when he was younger. It became much harder for him to go up and down stairs. Some nights Karen and I would have to carry him. And it was hard to see him as a once proud and spritely creature becoming slower, grayer, and less independent. No longer the personality, the showman, the center of attention, or the “cock of the walk,” Sammy became clingy as he instinctively knew he was becoming more fragile. At night he would sit by the back door, not sleeping until we came home from a diocesan or family function. Without us in the house, he seemed to become frightened and restless.
Karen and I knew that Sammy’s time with us was now limited by the mortal factors of age and that he would more than likely not be with us for his thirteenth birthday. So we looked forward to what would be his last Christmas with us and dutifully hung his stocking by the fireplace along with ours.
Four days before Christmas, Sammy woke up in the middle of the night, walked over to Karen’s side of the bed from his place before the fireplace, and wanted to be patted on the head and to have his silky, soft ears rubbed. And then when all was accomplished, he lay down next to the bed and fell asleep, snoring soundly as only a bulldog can.
The next morning, Karen frantically woke me and said, “I can’t hear Sammy breathing, can you?” Sure enough, the bedroom was deathly quiet. And there on the floor, next to the bed as if sleeping soundly, body relaxed with eyes closed, was beloved Samuel Seabury. Four days before Christmas, God had finally called him home and Sammy had finally said “Yes!” He had lived life well, gone home, and given back to God the gift of life he had been given for his earthly journey.
Karen and I sat on the floor together and cried, patting the still, tired body of an animal that had, over twelve years, defined for us what it means to be unconditionally loved and how precious trust, faithfulness, and companionship are. We prayed in thanksgiving for his life and then painfully had to accept giving him back to the power of life and love from whence he came. It was a hard day!
So what of Easter and the resurrection? What of Sammy, you, and me in this maze-like, holy mystery walk through Easter and the resurrection?
I believe that God gives us the Sammys of this world to remind us about what Easter is ultimately about, given the short lifespan that each of us has as beings on the face of this beautiful earth. Easter is all about life. That life is a precious gift. But in order for it to have validity, life must be lovingly given away and shared with others. It is in sharing, loving, and caring for one another that we are able to be touched by the very hand of God. By the story of Jesus, his life, his horrid death on the cross, and the miraculous gift of his resurrection, we are embraced by God with the truth that love never dies. It never does with God, or us, or even with our Sammy’s.
On Easter Sunday we promise to end our relationship with those things that bring darkness and despair and that crucify. We recommit our lives in love to do the things that draw us to a promise that has never ever failed—God’s love for us and for each other.
If Sammy could speak to any of us today, it would be to say that each one of us has far more than the value of the sparrows and the lilies of the field that Jesus so often talked about in his teaching to his disciples.
As Bill Coffin wrote, “God’s love doesn’t seek value; it creates it. It’s not because we are loved that we have value. Our value is a gift, not an achievement. Just think; we never have to prove ourselves; that’s already been taken care of. All we have to do is to express ourselves—return God’s love with our own—and what a world of difference there is between proving ourselves and expressing ourselves.” Happy Easter to you all, and a may God’s blessing be with each and every one of you on this holy and precious day.