"Pulling Together"

Proper 21.A.2017
The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley

When most of us think of sled dog races, it’s the Iditarod that comes most readily to mind. Yet, what might have been the most important sled dog race that will ever be run in Alaska, ended in Nome on February 2, 1925, when Gunner Kaassen drove his tired dog team down an almost deserted First Avenue.

At stake were the lives of hundreds of children who had been exposed to the dread disease diphtheria. Kaassen was one of 20 drivers who volunteered to take part in the record 674 mile relay race from Nenana to Nome. It was on January 21 that Dr. Welch first diagnosed the diphtheria outbreak in Nome, and immediately sent telegraph messages to Fairbanks, Anchorage, Seward and Juneau, asking for help. The only serum in Alaska was found in Anchorage. The problem—how to get it to Nome in the shortest time possible.

The only two planes available were in Fairbanks and had been dismantled and stored for the winter. Time, being of the essence, dog teams were left as the only reliable answer.

Back in Anchorage, Dr. Beeson packed the serum in a cylinder, which he wrapped in an insulating quilt. The parcel was turned over to the first driver, William “Wild Bill” Shannon. Volunteers bravely battled temperatures that in a good moment, would rise to 40 degrees below zero, and winds that sometimes blew strong enough to knock over sleds and dogs. It was an epically amazing journey.

St. Paul, writing in his letter to the Philippians urges believers to: “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord... Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

It’s amazing what can be accomplished when both dogs and people work together—in full accord and of one mind. In order to save the children of Nome, Alaska, a team of dogs and volunteers had to cooperate together in order to work a miracle. It wasn’t one dog, nor was it one driver, who accomplished this humanitarian feat. It was all of them, working in unison. Think of it. If one link in the chain had broken, all could easily have been lost.

Take a moment to consider how sled dog teams function. Each team is generally made up of sixteen dogs. A full team is an incredibly powerful pulling machine, fully capable of dragging a pickup truck with its brakes set on the packed snow.

You may think that only a certain breed of dog is fit to serve on such a team. Yet, interestingly enough, most sled dogs are little more than mutts. ‘The dog we call the Alaskan husky isn’t a formal breed,” explains musher Joe Runyan…Rather, huskies are mixed-breed dogs that are selected “for performance, not looks.” He says. In particular, husky breeders are on the lookout for dogs with an instinctive desire to pull long and hard through the absolute toughest conditions. Runyan says: ‘You’ve got to have dogs that really want to see what is around the next corner.”

Perhaps you are wondering what any of this has to do with the Church. There are, I believe, many similarities between dog sledding and Christianity. First of all, there is no way to look at a person and tell if they are going to make a good disciple of Christ—or not. Tall or short, well spoken or communicating primarily with grunts, those with ivy league educations and others who never made it through school—none of this matters. Put us all together in a house of worship and, without doubt, God will find a way in which we can work together. And that’s true here, isn’t it. We can work with other churches here in Dedham to sponsor a refugee family, support our community through volunteer efforts at the Dedham Food Pantry, purchase computers for a school in Syria and collect school supplies for the Epiphany School in Boston.

Now, consider this. Getting dog teams to pull together, well…it’s not something that “just happens”. It takes months and years of training. Imagine the disaster that would ensue should you have a team of leaders all roped together, yet determined to pull in opposite directions. Learning how to work together takes time—and practice. And, in the words of Saint Paul, it takes a healthy dose of humility. Listen again to our patron saint’s words; “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility…let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Put it simply, being part of the Church isn’t about promoting our personal agenda—it’s about listening to and following the leader, in our case, Jesus Christ.

Over the past several weeks, storms and earthquakes, have ravaged our country and the globe. In fact, so much has befallen so many that it’s hard to imagine what effect one person might have on the whole. Given the scope of the disasters we can understand how easy it would be to say that whatever we might contribute would be so minimal that we shouldn’t bother to help at all. Yet, beyond offering money, water, food and—in time, mission teams to help rebuild; the church also has the capacity to offer the hope of spiritual healing as well. This morning’s lesson ends with St. Paul reminding the people of Philipi: for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Take a moment to imagine yourself as a member of a sled dog team—the most important thing to remember isn’t where we want to go, or what we think needs to be accomplished. What is most important is that we look to one who is infinitely more kind, and ultimately far wise than ourselves. Christ. Joe Runyan, whom I quoted earlier, ends his interview about dogsled racing by stating that once they are trained, sled dogs can remain in top form for years. Indeed, it’s not unusual to see ten year old dogs running races. He concludes by stating that the prospect of owning such dogs is not one to be taken lightly. “They take a lot of love and care.” He says. One could say the same of us humans. Thanks be to God that we have been blessed with Christ as our leader—one whose voice will not falter and whose love will never fail. In Jesus’ name. Amen.