Do any of you know the story of Tubby the Cocker Spaniel? Well . . . remember Tubby’s name. We’ll come back to him, but first let’s put today’s gospel lesson in perspective.

This lesson picks up where last week’s lesson ended. You’ll recall that Jesus is sending the twelve out to do missionary work. “Go,” he tells them “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel . . . proclaim the good news . . . cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”[1] In last week’s lesson, he warned them that this was not going to be easy, that they would face opposition. In this week’s reading, he continues in that vein and ups the ante, increases the volume: it won’t just be difficult, he says, it’s possibly going to be deadly!

There won’t just be arguments at the Thanksgiving table; there will be fights! Your father or your mother, your sister or your brother . . . they won’t just disagree with you; they will be your enemies; they will try to kill you. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”[2]

The Jesus to whom Matthew introduces us in these lessons is not a Jesus we are used to seeing, not a Jesus we are comfortable contemplating. This is not “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” This Jesus doesn’t seem much like the guy who says “turn the other cheek and give the other fellow your cloak and your shirt.”[3] This Jesus seems more like Inigo Montoya saying “Prepare to die!”[4] But what this Jesus is really saying is “Prepare for the consequences; prepare for the human systems you are about to disrupt to be very reactive.”

But “have no fear,”[5] he says, “Don’t be afraid!”[6]

Have you ever played on a teeter-totter? We called them “seesaws” where I grew up. It’s basically just a board laid across a fulcrum with two people (usually children) sitting on either end. If the two people weigh the same (more accurately, if they are of equal mass) and are the same distance from the center, the board will balance; it will be in equilibrium. If one weighs more than the other, you could achieve balance by taking some of the mass from the heavier person (say that bag of gold he’s carrying) and giving it to the lighter person. Or, you can achieve balance by moving the heavier person closer to the fulcrum, or the lighter person further away. The relationship between the mass of each person and that person’s distance from the fulcrum is called “torque” and so long as the two persons’ torques are equal (although although in opposite directions) the teeter-totter stays in balance.

The balanced teeter-totter is really a very simple system: it has a strong, steady, solid fulcrum holding the whole system up and two dynamic elements, the people at either end, whose torques are the same. The interesting thing, though, is that balance does not necessarily mean the two persons on the seesaw are equal or in equal positions; a balanced relationship on the seesaw is not necessarily a healthy one. A heavier person (or a person possessing more mass), being closer to the fulcrum, has more influence on the system, more power or control over the other person one might say: a small movement by the heavier person will make the lighter person at the other end swing wildly up or down. To the better endowed person, the system seems relatively stable; to the other, it may be a wild and disconcerting ride.

To be a truly equalized and balanced system, for the teeter-totter to enjoy a healthy equilibrium, the two people have to have the same mass and be equidistant from the fulcrum.

Jesus had been teaching that the religion of Israel was simple, that it was like a teeter-totter. It had two basic rules. First, love God. In her biography The Story of a Soul,[7] St. Therese of Lisieux wrote, “Our fulcrum is God.” So in seesaw terms, the first commandment is, “Trust the fulcrum.” The second rule, of course, is to love your neighbor as yourself: in teeter-totter terms, you should both be of similar mass and be just about the same distance from the center so that neither of you exercises more power or control than the other, so that the simple two-person relationship enjoys a healthy equilibrium.

Now, of course, there are more than two people in the world. If our relationship with any one person is like a seesaw, then, in a human society, we are simultaneously on multiple seesaws all of which (rather mysteriously) have the same fulcrum. And if our position or our mass, and thus our power or control (or lack of it), on any one seesaw changes, it’s also going to change on all those other teeter-totters. And there will be a reaction, probably several reactions, from the people on the other ends of all the other seesaws, and those reactions may be violent and even deadly. When systems change, this causes fear, and fear can lead to violence, injury, and death.

Which brings me back to Tubby the Cocker Spaniel.

In June of 1940 a suspension bridge was completed and opened over the Puget Sound in Washington State at a place called “Tacoma Narrows.” Designing suspension bridges, engineers have to deal with the same principles we find in seesaws: tension, mass, torque, centers of rotation, all that good stuff. Unlike teeter-totters, however, suspension bridges aren’t simple and there are a lot more forces at work on a bridge.

The builders of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge got something wrong. The bridge had a tendency to undulate dramatically in windy conditions and earned the nickname “Galloping Gertie.” In November of 1940, just five months after it opened, the bridge began oscillating so violently because of winds over 40 m.p.h. that it collapsed. Before it did so, a man named Leonard Coatsworth abandoned his car on the center span, leaving his dog, Tubby the Cocker Spaniel, in the vehicle. An engineer named Frederick Farquharson who was studying the bridge at the time tried to rescue the dog, but Tubby was so scared he bit the man and wouldn’t get out of the car. Farquharson had no choice but to leave him and when the bridge fell, Tubby’s was the only life lost.[8]

“Have no fear,” said Jesus, “Do not be afraid.”

In warning his disciples, Jesus was not prophesying. He was simply predicting what common sense was telling him and what modern science has confirmed, that all systems, not just physical or thermodynamic systems, but also human systems – biological, political, economic, and religious – strive for equilibrium and react when that balance seems to be in jeopardy. Human systems (meaning families, businesses, church congregations, and other organizations) display “a largely unconscious pattern of emotional responses to change.”[9] Human beings resist change.

Were the people of First Century Palestine to follow Jesus into a simpler understanding of their contemporary Judaism …

… into a religious practice centered on two commandments – love God, love your neighbor, in which the wealthy “sell [their] possessions, and give the money to the poor;”[10]

… into a social order in which the powerful feed the hungry, satisfy those who thirst, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the imprisoned;[11]

there would have been incredible change to the existing social system and, in response, incredibly powerful, possibly even violent, resistance.

Were the people of Twenty-First Century America to do so … there would have to be incredible change to the existing social system and, in response, there would likely be incredibly powerful, possibly even violent, resistance.

Those closest to the centers of power would feel threatened by unaccustomed changes and movements in the system and, like Tubby on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, they would fight and bite those whom they rightly or wrongly perceive to be responsible. Those with less power would be swinging wildly at the other end of the social teeter-totter, and might find themselves flung off and collapsing, again like Tubby. There will be a lot that is frightening, said Jesus, but “don’t be afraid.”

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” he said; in other words, don’t be frightened by the people on the other ends of your teeter-totters. “Rather,” he continued, “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”[12] He’s talking about God here, God the fulcrum. He is not saying that God is scarier than the things that can threaten or injure us in this world. The word translated as “fear” in these passages is the Greek word phobeo which, like its Hebrew equivalent yirah, has two different meanings. When applied to earthly things, it means to be frightened or afraid; when used in the sense of “fear of the Lord,” it refers to reverence, awe, and worship, the essential attitude of mind and spirit in which we stand before the Almighty.

Kirk Schneider, a humanistic psychologist who champions what he calls “depth spirituality” and an “awe-based life philosophy,” describes awe as characterized by “taking mystery seriously … recognizing our place between our creatureliness and our godliness … [and] finding hope [and] trust in the vast unknown.” Awe, he says, is “our fundamental relationship to mystery.” It orients us, he says, to “the very fulcrum of our … lives.”[13] Our fulcrum – remember what St. Therese wrote – is God with whom our fundamental relationship is love.

Moses equated awe of God with love of God. In Deuteronomy he says:

[S]o that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, . . . I am commanding you . . . You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.[14]

Similarly, in his poetic parallelism, the Psalmist equated awe with love of God:

[God] fulfills the desire of those who fear him;
he hears their cry and helps them.
The Lord preserves all those who love him….[15]

In summary then, Jesus has sent the disciples out with instructions to do what each of us has promised to do in every baptism or confirmation service we have been part of: (1) “proclaim by word and example the Good News;” (2) “seek and serve … all persons, loving … neighbor as … self;” and (3) “strive for justice and peace among all people.”[16] And he has warned that when we do that, there is likely to be (almost guaranteed to be) resistance and reaction. But, he says, don’t be afraid when that happens. When the folks at the other ends of your teeter-totters oppose you and rise up against you, and the seesaws start swinging wildly, don’t be like Tubby the Cocker Spaniel on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, who just might be the patron saint of how not to behave in a crisis. Don’t respond yourself with snarls and bites and refusals to budge.

Rather than surrendering to that kind of fear, rely instead on the other kind, find strength in awe. Trust the fulcrum that underlies and supports all our human seesaw systems, on which all of our human relationships balance. Take the mystery of God seriously; recognize your place in creation; and find hope by trusting in the vast unknowable. As the Psalmist wrote, “Put [your] trust in God’s mercy [and your] heart [will be] joyful because of [God’s] saving help.”[17] Amen.


This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 25, 2023, to the people of Harcourt Parish, Gambier, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was supply preacher during that parish’s rector’s sabbatical.

The lessons were from Proper 7A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; and St. Matthew 10:24-39. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

The illustration is from This Month in Physics History – November 7, 1940: Collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, APS News, Vol. 25:10, November 2016.


Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] Matthew 10:6-8 (NRSV)

[2] Matthew 10:34 (NRSV)

[3] Luke 6:29; cf. Matthew 5:39

[4] Rob Reiner (Director). (1987). The Princess Bride [Film]. Act III Communications.

[5] Matthew 10:26 (NRSV)

[6] Matthew 10:31 (NRSV)

[7] Therese of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul (TAN Books, Charlotte, NC:2010)

[8] See This Month in Physics History – November 7, 1940: Collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, APS News, Vol. 25:10, November 2016, accessed 24 June 2023; see also Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Wikipedia, accessed 22 June 2023

[9] Rudi Dallos and Ros Draper, An Introduction to Family Therapy: Systemic Theory and Practice (Open University Press, New York:2010), p. 41

[10] Matthew 19:21 (NRSV)

[11] See Matthew 25:31-46

[12] Matthew 10:28 (NRSV)

[13] Kirk J. Schneider, Rediscovering Awe: A New Front in Humanistic Psychology, Psychotherapy, and Society, Canadian Journal of Counselling, Vol. 42:1 (2008), 67-74.

[14] Deuteronomy 6:2,5 (NRSV)

[15] Psalm 145:20-21 (BCP Version)

[16] Holy Baptism, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 305

[17] Psalm 13:5 (BCP Version)