We’ve certainly been experiencing the dog days of summer in the past several months, and I’m not just referring to hot weather. Did you know that the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (the great dog) is Sirius, which is also the brightest star in the entire night sky? In late July, Sirius, the “dog star,” rises and sets with the sun, prompting ancient peoples to believe that the heat of Sirius added to the heat of the sun, causing hot, humid weather. The 20 days before and after this conjunction are referred to the “dog days.” Of course, the heat comes because of the tilt of the earth and not the heat of Sirius.
During the dog days this year, premier NFL quarterback Michael Vick of the Atlanta Falcons felt the heat and gave new meaning to the phrase, “It’s a dog eat dog world out there”. During an April drug raid of a home owned by Vick, officials discovered evidence of a dog-fighting operation. This operation also included gambling and the vicious killing of dogs that did not fight well: killing by hanging, drowning, and electrocution.
Vick, who has been one of the most popular players in the NFL and signed a $130 million ten year contract two years ago, pleaded guilty several weeks ago to a felony charge of conspiracy to sponsor a dog fight. Suspended indefinitely by the NFL, Vick will be sentenced on December 10 and could face up to five years in prison. This is truly a world with which I am not familiar. The cruel and brutal treatment of dogs for the purpose of entertainment and gambling is simply mind-boggling.
Then we heard details of the will of Leona Helmsley. Helmsley, former president of the Helmsley chain of hotels, who died this summer at her Connecticut home, became a symbol of greed and arrogance in the 1980’s and was nicknamed, “The Queen of Mean.”
Helmsley had a volatile temper and was quick to chew out employees who did not perform to her exact standards. She and her husband Harry are remembered most for their conviction of income tax evasion by fraudulently claiming as business expenses million of dollars in extravagant personal purchases. She spent 18 months in prison.
The highlight of Leona Helmsley’s will was that she left her white Maltese dog, Trouble, a $12 million trust fund. My children have often talked about friends at the University of Michigan who are “trust fund babies.” But I’ve never heard of a trust fund dog before. She designated her brother, Alvin Rosenthal, to care for Trouble and wrote, “I direct that when my dog, Trouble, dies, her remains shall be buried next to my remains in the Helmsley mausoleum.”
Two of her four grandchildren by her late son, Jay Panzirer, received just $5 million, provided they visit their father’s grave at least once every calendar year. The other two grandchildren received nothing for “reasons that are known to them.” Everything else, including cash from sales of the Helmsley’s residences and belongings, reported to be worth billions, she ordered sold and the proceeds given to the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.
It certainly is a dog eat dog world out there. When I ponder these very different stories – both sad – and both centering around extreme treatment of dogs and the temptation of wealth, I think of two words: entitlement and redemption. Both Helmsley and Vick believed that their money and fame somehow exempted them from obeying the law and entitled them to do whatever they wanted. A housekeeper remembers Leona Helmsley once saying to her, “Only the little people pay taxes.” And one of Michael Vick’s teammates said that Vick thought there would never be consequences for his actions. Isn’t that the heart of Luke 14:7-11, last Sunday’s lectionary gospel lesson? Jesus says never assume you are entitled to the place of honor at a wedding banquet, for those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
At times, we pastors get caught in the entitlement trap as well. How many of us expect that each succeeding appointment of necessity has to be a larger church with a higher salary? With the changing face of ministry in the United Methodist Church, those expectations may not longer be a reality. But the larger question is: Are we in ministry in order to advance our careers or advance the kingdom?
The other word is redemption. Can there be grace, forgiveness, transformation and restoration? YES!!!! If we did not have that hope, our faith would be in vain. It did not seem as if Leona Helmsley’s experience in prison transformed her abrasive, vindictive personality. On the other hand, many people will benefit from the money she left in her charitable trust. I am convinced that God’s bottomless love and mercy extended to Helmsley, but I am still perplexed at what Trouble is going to do with $12 million.
In contrast, in a press conference a few weeks ago, Michael Vick apologized by saying, “I totally ask for forgiveness and understanding as I move forward to bettering Michael Vick the person, not the football player.” He concluded with, “I offer my deepest apologies to everyone. And I will redeem myself. I have to.”
I hope Vick will learn from his experience, be redeemed, serve his sentence and continue his career. But my message to Vick is this, “You can’t redeem yourself. Only the transforming power of Jesus Christ can change your life.”
Are you preaching redemption? Are you preaching transformation? Are you preaching that there is always a second chance? The dog days are over, and a new program year begins this Sunday. May you be a channel of God’s grace in all that you say, do and are.