I read a review in the New York Times of a new book about cats by John Bradshaw, called Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. As an aside, I should explain that in the past I would have ordered the book immediately from Amazon, but one of my new year’s resolutions is to cut back a bit on my book buying habit, for financial and storage space reasons. So, using those “if...then” statements I talked about last week, I came up with these: “If I read about a book I want to buy, then I will get online and put a hold on it at the public library,” and “If after getting the book from the library and reading it I still want to own it, then I will order it from Amazon, assuming I’m not already over my monthly book budget.” So far, it’s been working, but it means I haven’t read the book yet.
Anyways, John Bradshaw’s book Cat Sense relies on his 30 years as a biologist studying animal behavior. The starting point of his analysis is that cats are still essentially wild animals. They wandered into our lives when we first started to store grains, because the grains attracted mice, which in turn attracted the cats. Unlike dogs, which we domesticated from their wolf ancestors, cats for the most part have not been bred for a purpose. They sort of cohabitated with us, catching mice and taking advantage of whatever other food we might try to entice them with in exchange for a little companionship. That is still the case today. Our population of so-called domestic cats is maintained in a semi-feral state because of our wide-spread practice of neutering. About the only males available for domestic female cats to breed with are the wildest and least people-friendly tomcats who have escaped into the feral cat population: 85 percents of all cat matings, Bradshaw writes, are arranged by cats themselves, meaning with feral cats.
As a result, when cats interact with people, they have to rely almost entirely on their natural social behaviors, which are not especially highly developed. Unlike dogs, cats don’t naturally get alone very well with one another. The strongest social bond in the cat population is between a mother and her kittens. Kittens purr as a signal to their mothers to stay still and feed them, and they knead their mother’s belly to keep the milk flowing. Some of their other behaviors, such as grooming and rubbing up against you, are signs that a cat is treating you as another non-hostile cat. An upright tail is a greeting sign between cats, and “is probably the clearest way cats show their affection for us,” Dr. Bradshaw writes.
Finally, there’s the cat behavior of killing small animals and bringing them into the house. I’d always heard that this behavior was either the cat’s attempt to teach us to hunt, or to feed us, but Dr. Bradshaw says that is not the case. Cats bring their prey into the house, he says, basically to keep it safe. They know there are other cats around, and once they’ve killed a mouse, they don’t want another cat to get it, so they bring it inside. However, once the cat has taken their catch into their house, they remember that canned cat food tastes so much better, and so the freshly killed rodent is dumped on the floor.
None of this is to say that cats aren’t intelligent. You may have heard about the study published about a month ago at the University of Tokyo. Two researchers studied twenty house cats in their own homes. They waited until the owner was out of sight and then played recordings of three strangers calling their names, followed by their owner, followed by another stranger. They analyzed the cats’ responses to each call by watching how their ears, head, and tail moved, whether their eyes dilated, and if they shifted their paws as if getting ready to move. The cats reacted to all of the sounds, and they reacted a bit more to the sound of their owner’s voice, but they declined to move when called by any of them. In other words, cats can recognize their name, and recognize their owner’s voices, but basically, they don’t really care that much. Bradshaw concludes that cats view us as a combination of a mother-substitute and a larger, non-hostile cat.
Now, I’ve lived with cats my whole life and none of this comes as a huge shock to me. You’ve probably heard the saying, “One day I hope to be as good a person as my dog thinks I am.” Few cat people I know would say something similar about their pet. You’ve also probably heard things about the differences between dog people and cat people, dog people are friendlier and more outgoing and cat people tend to be more aloof and standoffish. It’s all part of being human, I think, that we try to define and understand ourselves and others by all sorts of outside characteristics, what pets we have, what sports we enjoy, whether we live in the city or the country, and so on. Of course, none of these things are ultimately very important, but I think because of this tendency we have, it is the wisdom of our church’s lectionary, our annual cycle of readings from the bible, that every year on this first Sunday after Epiphany we remember Jesus’s baptism. Baptism is central to our identity as Christians, and our practice of baptism comes from this story of Jesus’s baptism. The story of Jesus’s baptism was very important to the early church, and I can say that because there is a version of this story in each of the four gospels. All four gospels have accounts of Jesus’s death, but only two of the gospels, Luke and Matthew, give us any details about Jesus’s birth. Only a handful of Jesus’s sayings and parables can be found in all four gospels, and only a couple of the miracles, a healing or two and the feeding of the crowd with loaves and fishes, appear in all four. The account of Jesus’s baptism in Matthew that we heard this morning is really a very plain account, without a lot of details. Jesus comes to be baptized by John in the river Jordan. Matthew has already told us about John, this strange guy out in the wilderness wearing clothing made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. He eats locusts and wild honey, and he says, or probably yells, to anyone who will listen, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And people do come, crowds of them from Jerusalem and all around Judah, walking out into the desert to the river to be baptized by John. John baptizes them, dunking them in the river as they confess their sins, and sending them on their way with a clean slate, a new chance, an opportunity to start over.
When Jesus shows up, however, John hesitates; in fact, Matthew tells us he doesn’t want to baptize Jesus at all. Rather, he says, “I need to be baptized by you!” Now this is all before any of Jesus’s public ministry, before he starts teaching and performing miracles, before he gathers the disciples around him. He’s just the barely grown-up kid of Mary and Joseph, that carpenter. Matthew doesn’t tell us why Jesus goes out to the desert. Maybe he’s heard about John and he goes with the crowds to see what all the fuss is, or maybe he’s bored at home and needs a break from his father teaching him how to build furniture, or maybe he’s gotten into a little trouble, he’s been hanging out with the wrong people, and he wants to get a fresh start. And I don’t know what John sees in Jesus that gives him pause, but it must have hit him pretty hard. Maybe Jesus is one of the few people who doesn’t flinch when John reaches out to touch him, who doesn’t hold his nose because of the way John smells. Maybe Jesus is one of the only people who doesn’t look sheepish or uncomfortable there on the bank of the river when he asks to be baptized. Or maybe John is taken by the way Jesus looks him straight in the eyes without blinking, straight through his eyes right down to his heart, in a way that almost says, “I know who you are, John, I know all the good and all the bad things you’ve done, and it is all alright with me.” In any case, Jesus insists, and John baptizes him with the others. And Matthew tells us that as he comes up out of the water, Jesus sees the heavens opened up and the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And he hears a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.” And from that moment on, Jesus is on a new path. He’s not just the son of a carpenter, he’s not a kid with some rough friends and a bit of a past, he’s not a young man trying to figure what to do with the rest of his life. After hearing those words, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased,” Jesus retreats to the wilderness for a period and prayer and contemplation, and then begins his ministry of teaching, healing, and reconciliation.
Another way we know that this story of Jesus’s baptism was important to the early church was that from the very beginning, baptism became the way one officially joined the church, the way one became a Christian. Baptism was originally for adults, and generally followed long period of instruction and reflection, maybe as long as a couple of years. Then, during the season of Lent leading up to Easter, you received even more intensive instruction and engaged in spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting. Finally, at the long Easter vigil the night before Easter morning, you were baptized. You were asked a series of questions: Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? and Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? There would be a large body of water, either outside in a river or stream, or inside in a large pool. You would be taken down into the water and the bishop would literally push you down under the water, symbolizing your death to your old life. And as you came out of the water, it was as if you were sharing in Jesus’s resurrection from the dead and being born again to your new life as a Christian.
There are still some churches that practice adult baptism today, but for most part, Romand Catholic churches and mainline Protestant churches like ours practice infant baptism. The questions are the same, but they’re answered on the baby’s behalf by the parents and godparents. The water is sprinkled on the baby’s head, but the symbolism of dying to your old life and rising to a new life with Christ is still in the prayers we say over the water. And with that, we hope that the baby is started out on a path to be a faithful, caring person who will grow up knowing that she is a beloved child of God, and that God is well pleased with her. Because most of us cannot remember our baptism, we have days like today in the church year when we are reminded that we were baptized, that we are beloved children of God and that God is well pleased with us. This I think is important, because unfortunately the reality for many of us is that we don’t hear that message enough. If you are fortunate, you had parents who regularly told you in various ways that you were their beloved child and that they were well pleased with you. If you are fortunate, you have had a spouse and family and friends who have told you that you are their beloved and that they are well pleased with you. If you are fortunate, when you look in the mirror, you see someone looking back at you, a person that you love and that you are well pleased with. But this isn’t the case for everyone, and it isn’t the case for any of us all of the time. Parents are human and aren’t always at their best. Relationships go bad for all sorts of reasons. Even the most successful and confident people struggle sometimes with their self-esteem. In times like those, it can be a blessing to remember that when we were baptized, our family and friends and the whole church, said that we are a beloved child of God, that God is well pleased with us, and that their very highest hopes went with us.
I read this week about the football team at Gilman High School in Maryland. At the beginning of each practice, the coach Biff Poggi asks the young men on behalf of his coaching staff, “What is our job?” The players respond, “To love us.” Then Coach Poggi asks the players, “What is your job?” to which they respond, “To love each other.”
The coach continues, “I don’t care if you’re big or small, huge muscles or no muscles, can barely play football or you’re the star of the team. If you’re here, then you’re one of us, and we love you. Simple as that. The rest of the world will always try to separate you,” the coach says. “That’s almost a law of nature. The rest of the world will want to separate you by race, by socioeconomic status, by education levels, by religion, by neighborhood, by what kind of car you drive, by the clothes you wear, by athletic ability. You if let that happen now, then you’ll let it happen later. Don’t let it happen. If you’re one of us, then you won’t walk around putting people in boxes. Not now. Not ever.” I don’t know if that coach is a person of faith, but I know he gets it: he’s telling those young men that they are beloved children of God, and that God is well-pleased with them.
We are human beings, created with the tendency as the coach says to put ourselves and other people in boxes. This week, I wonder if we might try this experiment. In the course of our day, can we say to ourselves about the people we meet, “You are a beloved child of God, and God is well-pleased with you.” Can we figure out ways to say to our family and friends, “You are my beloved, and I am well-pleased with you.” Can we remind ourselves when we look in the mirror that we are, each of us, a beloved child of God, and that God is well-pleased with us. Amen.