Getting the Call

Good morning and welcome to Religious Life Sunday. This is a new thing for the Episcopal Church: an official, public, church-wide recognition of the role that the Religious play in the life of the Church. Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians have been comfortable with Religious for a long time, but it’s still a fairly recent thing in the Anglican Communion, even though Anglican religious Orders have been around for quite a while. But so many people still have no idea we exist. I hope this celebration every year will correct that.

 Now, I am going to slide over a distinction that the national church makes. They make a distinction between religious orders — who take vows of poverty and live in community — and spiritual communities, who live under vows, but generally take vows of simplicity instead of poverty and are dispersed. As far as I am concerned, we are all religious orders. We all take vows and we all live under a Rule — something that guides our way of life.

There will be a lot of sermons preached today about what the religious life is like, how it feed’s one spirit and can bring one closer to God. And that’s not a bad thing, because many people just don’t know what is involved. Here at Holy Cross many of you have a better idea because you have watched me go through the various stages, from inquiry to postulancy to novitiate to life profession. And I have tried to share what was going on, and will be glad to talk about the details another time. For now, let’s just say that the religious life is a structured way of living out the Baptismal Vows, with accountability to one’s brothers and sisters.

But I am going to take a different tack this morning and talk about this concept of a “call.” This week in the Gospel we get the story of the calling of the first Apostles: Peter, Andrew, James, and John. It’s particularly appropriate for this Religious Life Sunday, because those of us who are in the religious life all feel that we are there because we are called to it.

One of the failings, I think, in our church is that we generally think of a spiritual “calling” as being a calling to the ordained ministry, to be a deacon or a priest. But that is just not true. Some, yes, are called to be ordained, but others are called to be Sunday School teachers, or Lectors, or Worship Leaders, or Acolytes, or on Vestry, or to work in the Food Pantry. There are many calls, and no one call is better, or more holy, than any other. They are just…different.

A “call” is just an indication from God that he wants you to do something. It’s really that simple.

Another thing we tend to think is that calls come as a bolt out of the blue, that you just know when you’re called. And that may happen to some. But it does’t always work that way. Sometimes the Holy Spirit has to work a little harder. And I will use my own story of discerning that call to explain.

I blame three specific people for the fact that I am in this habit now. Maybe “blame” is the wrong word. But I credit these people with being specific conduits through which I…eventually…heard the Holy Spirit urging me toward the Anglican Order of Preachers: the Reverend Annette Joseph, our former rector; my now Dominican Brother, Professor Andee Book, who teaches voice at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff; and our Presiding Bishop, the Most Reverend Michael Curry. There are people in the Order, of course, who guided me along after I got started, but these three people were instrumental in pointing the way for me.

When Rev. Annette was our rector, she one day said that she was looking for people who wanted to learn to preach. She wanted to have lay preachers in the parish. I had actually felt before this was something I might want to do, so I told her I would. I was the only taker. I wasn’t sure that I could really do it, but I felt compelled to try. She oversaw my training and got me licensed as a lay preacher in the diocese.

Later, I was feeling that I needed to look for a closer walk with God, and discovered there were these things called “Religious Orders” and “Religious Communities” in the Episcopal Church. It took some googling, but I found out that there were Orders that didn’t require you to live in a monastery, but you still lived according to a Rule.  I remember telling Kim, “I think I could do that.”

I had known Andee Book since a community theatre production of “Chicago”, where he played the piano and I played Billy Flynn. He later, at some point, became our church organist for a short time before moving to Arkansas and becoming an educator. We became Facebook friends, but I didn’t really notice that he had become a novice in the Anglican Order of Preachers. One day on Facebook I mentioned that I was looking at religious orders, and he responded with something to the effect of “If you get serious, I can hook you up.”

Well, I futzed around, still reading. I did get a copy of the book that is used by the Anglican Order of Preachers for inquirers and read through that. It seemed like a good fit – an order that focuses on study and preaching. But I didn’t take it any further for a while, although I did begin praying the Daily Office about this time.

Several months later, at the annual conference of the Vergers Guild of the Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry was our keynote speaker. His sermon at the eucharist was on evangelism. Now, let me tell you, if you can get a bunch of vergers – the original “decently and in order” folks – worked up about evangelism, you can call yourself a preacher. That man can preach. And I was feeling the pull.

I had been feeling…uncomfortable for some time. Nothing I could put into words, just…not content. Like there was something I needed to do. After listening to Bishop Curry’s sermon, I prayed about it that evening in the hotel room in Atlanta. And then I messaged Andee and said, basically, “hook me up.”

And the rest, as they say, is history. Well, maybe not history, but from that point on there were no real questions anymore about what I should do. I messaged a friend in Montana at some point, a friend who had been a verger and become a deacon, and told her about the whole thing. She said “You feel better now, don’t you? I’m not surprised.”

Was that the end of it? Oh, heck no. I had to go through a period of several months as an inquirer, where you are led through a series of readings and questions to see if you just might have a call to the Order. Then you can apply for postulancy. Postulancy takes another year of reading, prayer, and discernment and you’re not even a member yet. If you get through postulancy and are approved to become an actual brother or sister, you spend two more years as a novice before you can be approved to make lifetime vows as a full brother or sister. Every one of those steps involves studying and praying and trying discern if this life is really what you are called to do.

Now you know the whole story. The point I am making through all this is that not all calls come with flashes of lightning and peals of thunder. It’s not — at least it wasn’t for me — a matter of Jesus walking by and just saying “Follow me.” Instead, calls often come as a series of nudges toward where God wants you to be.

But it does take prayer. You have to talk to God to really understand what he wants to tell you. And most importantly, you have to listen.

If you feel that you need a closer walk with God, that you need something deeper, I would urge you to consider religious communities. Every community has a different charism, or gift of the Spirit, that it seeks to develop. The Anamchara Fellowship focuses on spiritual direction; the Dominicans, as you should know by now, focus on study, prayer, and preaching; the Rivendell Fellowship focuses on hospitality; the Franciscans…well, if you want to know more about them, I’m sure Brother Brian Sadler, who will be with us for the foreseeable future, would be glad to speak with you. On the National church’s website there is a section for religious communities. I know members of many these communities and can “hook you up,” if you want to know more.

You may have seen the University of Phoenix’s TV commercial where a man’s wife tells him she read where you could get a Master’s degree in 11 months for 11 thousand dollars. Suddenly, the man is seeing the number 11 everywhere. And there’s a wild-looking man on the street saying “The signs are all around us.”

The signs may be all around you if you pay attention. It took me months before I read the signs well enough to even inquire. Or maybe you’re not called to the religious life, but you’re called somewhere else. Whatever it is, the main thing is to have the courage to respond to the call, even when it’s something you’ve never done before, something you’re a little afraid of. The courage to trust that God will guide you to where He wants you to be. 

Believe me, you will feel so much better when you do.



Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!

Sorry, I just love saying that every year. John the Baptist is my favorite Biblical crazy man, and this is my favorite John the Baptist schtick. And today it seems appropriate, since the “brood of vipers” thing is in our Gospel for the day.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I got a little whiplash looking over today’s readings.  That happens sometimes. We start out the day with Isaiah again, and he’s talking about a time under the Messiah when 

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid, 

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them. 

The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 

It’s a beautiful bit of poetry, isn’t it? A beautiful image of a world where peace prevails.

Then we get to the Psalm. The Psalmist tells of the coming of a King:

He shall come down like rain upon the mown field,
like showers that water the earth.

In his time shall the righteous flourish;
there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.

Wow, this seems to fit right in with the reading from Isaiah. I think we’re on to something here.

Paul, in his letter to the Christians in Rome, directly connects the “stump” or “root” of Jesse spoken of by Isaiah, to Jesus:

Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name”;

and again he says,

“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;

and again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him”;

and again Isaiah says,

“The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

I think we have a theme here!

And then, we come to the Gospel and John the Baptist. It starts out fine, with John wearing his camel hair clothes, and eating bugs with wild honey. He tells everyone that the kingdom of heaven is close!

So far so good. But then John starts calling people names! He calls the Pharisees and Sadducees the children of snakes! It doesn’t seem like a good way to win friends and influence people. What is up with that?

Now, the Pharisees and Sadducees did not get along, so you’d think John might side with one group over the other. But no, he tells all of them that they need to repent, and to show that they have repented by their works.

Then, and only then, he tells them there is one who is coming to baptize the world with fire and with the Holy Spirit. He’s going to come and clean house! Repent now

This is where my whiplash starts. How did we go from the wolf living with the lamb to repenting and baptizing the world with fire? Those two themes kind of clash!

But it made me think: how do we get from the world we have — the one with hate, with violence, with starvation, with war — to the one we want, the one described by Isaiah, the one where every creature lives peacefully with every other?.

I would submit that there is going to be a lot of repentance involved. And I think this is what John was getting at.

Let’s do a little thought experiment. 

What would it be like to be presented with a world like the one described by Isaiah, but with our attitudes, our ways of acting and reacting, our relationships with everyone else exactly the way they are right now? Do you think that would work out well? Or would we just ruin things? Could we even enjoy that perfect world? Sure, God could just snap his fingers (metaphorically speaking) and fix us so we didn’t lie or cheat or steal or any of those things he told us not to do, but he doesn’t appear to want to do that. He wants us to choose that.

And this is the connection between Isaiah and John. This is what we need to do during Advent. This is part of that “preparation” I spoke of last week. We need to prepare to live in that perfect world. We need to do what John said: repent (which means “turn around”) from the way we have been doing things and do them God’s way instead. We need to be getting ourselves ready to live in that world. We are a people who believe we will live forever in a perfect world, but all too often we don’t act like it. We need to repent — yes, even we Christians, we all have things to repent of — and to “produce fruits worthy of repentance” to use John’s words.

The Pharisees and Sadducees weren’t doing what they needed to do to get ready for that new world. The people that were repenting and being baptized were on the right track.

In order to live in the world that Isaiah spoke of, we need to do what John tells us: repent and do good works. This is how we “prepare the way of the Lord.” This is how we make the crooked road straight, how we smooth out the rough places. In order to do that, we have to start with ourselves.

John was right. The kingdom of heaven really is near. So near you can taste it. So near you can almost touch it. But in order to really live in it, we have to prepare for it.


Be Prepared

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

Welcome to the First Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of the new church year. We’ve changed the altar vestments from green to purple. We have made it through the loooong green season of “Ordinary Time,” the season after the Feast of Pentecost, and we are back into seasons that will change a little more often. Advent lasts 4 weeks, Christmas 12 days, Lent 40 days, etc.

Because Advent comes immediately before Christmas, many have tended to assume that it bears the same relation to Christmas as Lent does to Easter. But make no mistake: although we have purple on the altar, the same color as we use in Lent, Advent is in no way a “little Lent.” It’s not “penitential” in the same way as Lent. There is no sackcloth, there are no ashes. No, Advent is a totally distinct season, with its own focus. In fact, many Episcopal and Anglican churches use a royal blue color instead of purple. I would love to do that, but, alas, new vestments and altar hangings are expensive.

In Advent, Instead of sackcloth and ashes, we have a feeling of anticipation, a knowledge that God is about to do something different. Something new. Something nobody expects to happen.

In Isaiah 43, the prophet, speaking for God, says:

“I am about to do a new thing;

   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

    and rivers in the desert.”

Something new. Something  different. And this First Sunday of Advent, we are given instructions to prepare,  instructions to be ready.

The readings today are eschatological in nature, that is, they deal with to the eschaton, a Greek word that refers to the End Times. Isaiah gives us the image of peace, of an end to war, of swords beating beaten and reshaped into plowshares. Paul tells the Christians in Rome, whom he has never met, to wake up, to get their lives right, to be ready . And Jesus tells his disciples that his return, when it comes, will be a complete surprise to everyone.

Now, when we say, the “End Times,” we’re not talking about some Tim LaHaye-Jerry Jenkins-Left Behind scenario where all the Christians – at least the ones that believe exactly the same things they do – are spirited off to heaven just before things get very bad here on Earth. And then the earth is destroyed and everybody that’s left lives happily ever after in Heaven.

The Scriptures aren’t so much about the destruction of the Earth as they are about its salvation. Its renewal. The picture we get today, from Isaiah, is not a picture of Heaven. Why would you need to beat swords into plowshares in Heaven? Instead, it’s a picture of a world restored to what it should have been, to what God intended it to be. St. Paul was all over this, talking about “New Creation,” a term that he used to refer to US, but also to the Creation as restored by God.

In the Revelation, an angel says to St. John, “See, the home of God is with men…”. God will come and live with US. We won’t have to go to Heaven, because God will be here with us.

As for exactly when it will happen…well, we don’t know. We don’t need to know. The sermon I delivered at St. James Episcopal Church in Springfield a couple of Sundays ago was titled “Don’t Worry About it,” on this very topic. I quoted today’s Gospel reading: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

But surely there are clues, right? I mean, just look at the continuation of today’s Gospel:

For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage…”

Well there you go, so it must be coming real soon, right?

Oh, but wait. People were doing those things last year. And the year before. And for as long as people have been around. And all through history we have had wars, and rumors of wars, and earthquakes, and revolts, and pestilence, and all those other “signs of the times.” All of them just part of normal experience when living here on earth

It seems that every time Jesus talked about when the end would come, when he would return, he got real…cagey. Probably because we don’t really need to know.

What we really need, he said…is to prepare. Be ready.

For the next two Sundays, we will talk about John the Baptist, and his task to prepare the way for the Messiah coming into the world.

On the last Sunday of Advent, we will learn of the angel’s visit to Joseph, to prepare him for the birth of the Messiah.

Advent is all about preparation. About preparation for the birth of the Christ. About preparation for him to come into our hearts. About preparation for his return.

It can’t wait. Do we wait to prepare our houses to keep a burglar from breaking in and steeling? We don’t want to be caught unprepared! How much more important is this?

Prepare. Get ready. God is doing something new.


Don’t Worry About It

Delivered at St. James’ Episcopal Church, Springfield, MO, November 13, 2022

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28C: Isaiah 65:17-25; Canticle 9; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

For those of you who were at the Kirkin’ last night, please forgive me as a repeat some of my introduction of myself. I am Brother Mike Malone. I am a friar in the Anglican Order of Preachers, the Episcopal /Anglican expression of Dominican spirituality. I am not clergy, I am a layman. I’m not a deacon, not a priest, and in no way a bishop (thanks be to God). I made my life profession a year and a half ago at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Puerto Rico, which is extra special to me because the Diocese of Puerto Rico is now in a Companion Diocese relationship to the Diocese of Missouri, where I am a parishioner.

There never seems to be a dearth of people predicting the end of the world. Every year, it seems, there is some new prophet either extolling some new interpretation of Scripture that points, they say, to the Parousia (that’s a technical term for Christ’s return) happening at some specific date and time. Or they point to a date and time for the “Rapture,” supposedly the event where all the faithful will be physically removed from the world.

In our modern times we have seen the explosive growth of what is called “Darbyism,” for which the technical theological term is “premillennial dispensationalism,” a 10-dollar phrase that just means that history is divided up into periods with different rules, and Christians will be raptured before the thousand-year reign of Christ. Although invented by John Nelson Darby in the 19th century, it has hit its stride in current evangelical circles, really taking hold in the 1960s and 1970s.  I went through my Southern Baptist teenage years under the influence of Hal Lindsay’s book “The Late Great Plant Earth,” a masterwork of this particular brand of interpretation.

I’m still recovering. You have no idea what this sort of thing can do to a young person’s psyche.

The most recent popularization of this school of futurism comes in the form of the “Left Behind” series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins which, truth to be told, contain mostly bad theology and worse writing, with a healthy dose of finger-pointing and schadenfreude thrown in.

The hits just keep on comin’. And we’re still waiting for that Rapture thing that they assured us would come “any day now.”

Now, I’m not going to go into a point-by-point refutation of this kind of thinking. If you’d like to have me come to St. James some time and talk about “end times prophecy” and its misuse I’ll be glad to, but that’s not really the point I want to make today. What I want to talk about is the fact that Jesus usually side-stepped the issue of when he would return.

Let’s look at what he said in today’s Gospel reading:

“’When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.’

Sounds like a great bunch of pedictors, right?

OK, so let’s look at these “Signs of the Times” as they are called, and compare them to our current era.

Wars and insurrections? Check.

Nations rising against nation? Check

Earthquakes? Check.

Famines and plagues? Check.

Signs in the heavens? Comets, novas, sunspots…check.

Seems pretty definite, doesn’t it? Jesus’ return must be just around the corner!

But let’s look back about…100 years or so.

Wars and insurrections: Russian revolution, anyone?

Nations rising against nation: You may have heard of a thing called “World War I.” You can look it up on Wikipedia.

Earthquakes: Check.

Famines and plagues: Check out the Wikipedia article on “Spanish Flu.”

Signs in the heavens: Halley’s Comet has been coming around every 75-79 years for a long time. And there have been plenty of other visible comets.

The fact is, you can find these “signs of the times” in any age of civilization that you look at. They are constantly with us. And, I would venture to say, not reliable indicators that Jesus is getting ready to come back in the next few days. I can almost picture Jesus delivering this speech with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.

Earlier in the passage, Jesus says, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and, `The time is near!’ Do not go after them.”

So, what Jesus appears to be saying is, if someone is telling you they know when he will return, or that it’s immanent…you should run the other way. This is pretty good advice as we are inundated with people who claim to perfectly understand New Testament prophecy. I can tell you right out that there are parts that I don’t understand, that I will likely NEVER understand this side of the resurrection, because they were not written to or for a 20th-century Anglican Dominican whose primary training is in Information Technology. They were written for 1st Century mostly Jewish “followers of the Way,” as they called themselves. They understood symbols that we just don’t get.

So…why does Jesus talks about it at all? Probably because people asked him. He talked about his return, but all his responses seem to point to…not letting the timing worry us.

Need more evidence that we shouldn’t fret about it? At the risk of being accused of proof-texting, I will quote Matthew 24:36: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Simply put, we are not supposed to be concerned over when Jesus is coming. We won’t really notice any difference in the world anyway, so we won’t see it coming. Nobody will. Nobody. Not you, not your rector (when you get one), not your bishop, not the Presiding Bishop, not the Archbishop of Canterbury, not the Pope. Nobody.

So what does Scripture say about his coming back?

In the 1st Letter to the Thessalonians, the writer says “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”

Who expects a thief to break into their house in the night? Nobody that I know.

In Matthew 24 Jesus says it will be like it was in the days of Noah: people will be eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.

Well, that narrows it down doesn’t it?

No, nailing down a date and time didn’t seem particularly important to Jesus.

In fact, in our Gospel today, Jesus seems more interested in preparing the Apostles for witnessing than in preparing them for his return.

“Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

In other words, don’t worry about it.

Keep your eyes in front of you, where they belong. Focus on the job, people.

What Jesus did tell us to do was “be ready.” Be ready all the time. Trust God to provide, and trust him for the words that you will say to spread the Kingdom.

How about if, instead of obsessing over when Jesus is coming, we simply act as if he is coming tomorrow? Or even this afternoon. If we really expect him any time, maybe the best thing would be to do what he told us to do: take care of the poor and oppressed, lift up the downhearted, spread the Gospel. If everything we do, everything we say, were done as if we really expect him any time now, I’d bet that our actions and our words might be very different.

I realize that this is a radical idea when we could be writing bestsellers about Christ’s return and scaring people, but I don’t think that sort of thing is what Jesus had in mind when he told us to prepare for the coming of God’s kingdom.

Writing books is not what he told us to do.

He told us to take care of the poor.

He told us to work for justice and peace.

He told us to spread the Gospel.

When is Jesus coming back?

I don’t know. Don’t worry about.

But…what should I do?

Do what he told us.

And…be ready. Amen.


Delivered at the Kirkin o’ the Tartans, at St. James’s Episcopal Church, Springfield, MO, November 12, 2022

Propers for the Feast of St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland: Proverbs 31:10-20; Psalm 146:4-9; Matthew 13:44-46

It is good to be at St. James’ again, although I find myself missing Fr. Jos, as I am sure everyone does. Our Dominican chapter next year is in the Seattle area and I am hoping that I might be able to make a side trip to Idaho for a visit. I hear that the new bishop there likes Dominicans.

But for now, we shall soldier on.

I was asked by Deacon Suzy to choose the “propers” — the scriptures we are using this evening. Of course I preferred a Scottish theme — duh. I had a couple of choices, based on the time of year. We have used both before, but it doesn’t hurt to revisit them. One option that we have used before is the celebration of the Consecration of Bishop Samuel Seabury. I believe we used this one at the last Kirkin’. But I ended up choosing the celebration of the feast of St. Margaretm, Queen of Scotland, since that feast fits so well into the real reason we are here tonight. Tradition.

Now, hold onto your seats. I often tell people that if you ask a Dominican to preach for you, you’re going to get some book-learnin’ thrown in.

So, who is this Margaret?

Well, first, to be honest, she wasn’t Scottish at all. Not Celtish in any way. She was Anglo-Saxon. She was the daughter of Edward the Exile, a descendant of Alfred the Great. Edward had lived in exile in Hungary, where Margaret was likely born in 1045. Edward preferred to stay in Hungary, but was convinced to come back to England to settle a succession crisis in the 1050s. That’s right, not very long before the Norman invasion. Unfortunately, a few months after reaching England, he died. Mysteriously. That seemed to happen a lot back then.

But Margaret soon found herself betrothed to Malcom Canmor, the king of Scotland. Remember in Shakespeare’s “MacBeth”, the two princes who were the sons of the murdered King Duncan — Malcom and Donalbain? This is that Malcom. “Canmor,” by the way, literally means “big head.” Scholars are split on whether that means he was smart, or wise, or a canny tactician, or if he just had a really big head.

There was a lot of…well, stuff…before Margaret and Malcolm were eventually married. The English called off the betrothal, Malcolm invaded Northumbria in protest, etc., etc., but eventually, in 1070, the betrothal was back on and they were married. Yes, that’s after the Normans took over the rule of England. I wonder if this was a tactic by the Normans to get Margaret out of the way. She did, after all, have a claim on the throne that might have been at least an irritant to the Norman King William whose claim was pretty sketchy.

I’ve been listening to British history podcasts a lot lately. Can you tell?

Now, for many rulers, the ancient sources disagree on whether they were good or bad, but there doesn’t seem to be any disagreement about Margaret. She is consistently referred to as “strong, pure, and noble.”

Among other things, Margaret used her influence with her husband and his heir, her youngest son David, to work toward just rule. Every day, according to the chronicles, she served orphans and washed the feet of the poor before she ate anything. She established monasteries, assisted pilgrims, and interceded for the release of Englishmen who had been put into serfdom by the Normans. In private, she spent much of her time in prayer and reading.

This past Sunday, at my home parish in Poplar Bluff, we celebrated the Feast of All Saints, which is all about tradition. Remembering and honoring tradition, especially as exemplified by the Saints, is important. And if you think that was a student jump from St. Margaret to tradition, bear with me for a minute. I promise to bring these two threads together.

We Episcopalians consider tradition to be very important. Tradition is why we get up here in church wearing medieval outfits. It’s why I am here in a getup that is not that different from the habit worn by St. Dominic de Guzman in the 12th century. It’s not because we’re heading to the Renaissance Fair after church. It’s because we think it’s important to maintain a connection to those who have gone on before us

In fact, we Anglicans consider tradition so important that we have it as one of the three “legs” that we use when considering doctrine: we use scripture, interpreted using reason, in the light of tradition.

But it is just as important to understand how that tradition applies to our personal lives. Because if it doesn’t, if we don’t give that tradition meaning, we’re just playing. Putting on costumes, going through the motions, having a good time, but not much else.

Now, the Gospel reading for our celebration of All Saints last week was the Beatitudes as found in Luke. There are things that are different about this passage in Luke that are different than the similar passage found in Matthew. Where Matthew’s Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Luke’s Jesus says simply, “Blessed are the poor.” Where Matthew’s Jesus says “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,” Luke’s Jesus says “Blessed are you who hunger.”

Where Matthew’s Jesus speaks of spiritual well-being, Luke’s Jesus is much more concerned with immediate physical needs. Like Margaret.

St. Margaret gave us a tradition of bringing the Beatitudes into reality. She showed us how. And she isn’t alone. St. Damien the Leper, St. Martin des Porres, St. Teresa of Kolkata – none of them Scots, unfortunately — also showed us the way.

Since we have been coming to the Kirkin’, my wife has been researching our respective family trees. I had always thought my heritage was almost all Irish and Welsh, but a MyHeritage DNA test says I am of mostly Scottish descent, and my wife has discovered that I have roots in Clan McLeod, Clan Buchanan, Clan Stewart, and others. I could wear a lot of different tartans, but I have settled on just one: McLeod of Lewis, because of their connection to Iona, the Holy Isle. By choosing one clan, I am intentionally connecting with those ancestors, honoring them, as flawed and imperfect as many – if not all – of them were. Because…well…tradition

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Maybe St. Margaret did not die for others, but she most certainly did dedicate her life to them. Can we not do the same? Can we not honor her tradition? Can we, like Margaret, care for the poor and needy, and work to see that those who rule do so justly?

In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Jesus says “Every Scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

What is old is…our traditions. What is new is what we do with them. And both are a treasure.

So, by all means let us uphold our traditions. They are important, and we need to remember. We need to connect with what has gone before. But rather than blindly following and going through the motions, let us work to be what many of our forebears, like Margaret, like Damien, like Martin de Porres, like Teresa of Kolkata also worked to be.

What Jesus told us we were, or at least, could be.

The light of the world. The salt of the earth. Saints.

In our case, Scottish saints.


…And the Other Was Me

Jeremiah 14:7-10,19-22; Psalm 84:1-6; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Today in the Gospel, we get a parable that most of us are all too familiar with. Two men went up to the Temple to pray (one always went “up” to the Temple, never “down”). Two men: a tax collector and a Pharisee.

The Pharisee praised God that he was better than other people. He followed Torah! He did everything that Torah commanded! Certainly he was better than that (Ick!) tax collector over there.

Tax collectors, of course, were awful people. They were reviled by most Jews. They collaborated with the Romans, with the oppressor. They took more than in taxes than was required. Pharisees, on the other hand, were respected citizens, learned men who interpreted Torah.

But the tax collector, in contrast to the Pharisee, simply asks God for mercy. And Jesus says that he, rather than the Pharisee, leaves the Temple in a right relationship with God.

In this parable, Jesus once again twists reality into a pretzel – at least in the minds of his listeners – by saying the tax collector went away justified, implying that the Pharisee…didn’t.

Now, to be honest, don’t we all have a little in common  with the Pharisee? After all, we give to the church. We worship regularly. We don’t steal. We don’t sin against each other. We try to do right. We’re good people!

And I fear that even while we are saying we see the point that Jesus is making, we still, down deep, don’t get it.

Whenever we read parables, don’t we tend to say that we identify with the underdog? I mean, we’re the good guys, right? In the story of the Prodigal Son, we identify with him, right? He comes back and is forgiven. We don’t identify with the older brother, the one who grumbles. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, we identify with the Samaritan, not with the priest or the Levite. It makes us feel good! It’s edifying to know that we’re on the right side!

The thing is…Jesus’ parables are not meant to edify. They are not meant to make us feel good about ourselves. Really, it’s quite the opposite. Jesus’ parables are meant to shake us up. They are meant to upend our way of looking at the world. Jesus’ parables are subversive. They turn good guys into bad guys and bad guys into good guys.

Parables are meant to make us question our assumptions as to how the world works – or how the kingdom of heaven works.  Jesus is saying “See, God’s kingdom doesn’t work like the kingdoms you’re used to! It’s just the opposite!” One thing I like to tell people is that if they are interpreting one of Jesus’ parables and their interpretation doesn’t make them at least a little uncomfortable, then it’s probably wrong.

We’re not meant to identify with the underdog when we listen to these types of parables. Instead, we are meant to take a good, long, hard look at the not-so-good guys – the ones that often get their comeuppance, as it were — and contemplate how much we are like them. And that’s hard. Sometimes it even hurts.

So when we look at this parable, we should not be looking for ways that we are like the tax collector. No, we should be looking for ways in which we are like the Pharisee.

Scary, isn’t it? I’ll answer for you: Yes, it is. Taking an honest look at yourself and your behavior is never ever fun. But let’s take a minute here and try.

The Pharisee praised God, yes, and that’s good! But he did it by comparing his own piety to someone else’s. And that’s bad.

How often do we do that?

How often do we decide that someone else’s piety is “not good enough?”

How often do we take it upon ourselves to decide who belongs and who doesn’t?

How often do we decide on our own authority who should be allowed into our church, instead of letting God lead the people here that He wants? Do we look at people who come in and think “Wow, they don’t look like they belong,” or “They aren’t like us,” or “What are they doing in here?”

Any time we say, “There but for the grace of God go I,” when we talk about how blessed we are, we are treading on dangerous ground. It’s not a very big leap from thanking God for his grace to saying that there is some kind of difference between us and someone else. We are close to saying that God has bestowed his grace on us, but not on that person over there. We are very close to saying that we deserve grace, but that person doesn’t.

What we need is a good dose of humility.

Even if we are doing everything God has commanded us to do, we need to realize that this doesn’t make us any better than anyone else, and I mean anyone. In Luke 17:10, Jesus says “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

See, that is humility.

Our reading from Jeremiah is a song of suffering, humility, and asking for mercy: “We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord, the iniquity of our ancestors, for we have sinned against you.” Pretty much the same prayer as that prayed by the tax collector.

We are, in the eyes of God, no better than the tax collector, or the homeless person we see on the street, or the sex worker, or the thief, or the murderer in prison. Because God doesn’t see with the same eyes that we do.

Yeah, that’s uncomfortable. But remembering that is how we stay in a right relationship with God. In the Orthodox Church, there is a favorite prayer, and it’s very simple. It’s called the Jesus Prayer, and it simply goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” No more than that. It’s a good prayer to use from time to time.

Here’s another suggestion, a way we might use today’s parable to keep ourselves in a proper state of humility. Whenever we feel tempted to compare our own devotion to someone else’s, or we feel even a little superior to someone else, let’s try using this little verse to remember who WE are in this parable:

“Two men when up to the Temple to pray.”

“One was a tax collector.”

“And the other…was me.”


I Am Making All Things New

Delivered at the Memorial Service for Claude Malone, June 8, 2022, at Whidby Presbyterian Church, Oak Harbor, Washington.

Revelation 21:2-7

“And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.”

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I get nervous about death. It’s scary, even though we know our whole lives that it’s coming for us. Maybe because we know our whole lives that it’s coming for us. It’s inevitable. And when you lose both parents within a year of each other, it really brings it home. You and your brother and your sisters are now the oldest generation in your family. Sorry, siblings, but it’s true. And we’re mortal.

I’m fairly ignorant of Presbyterian liturgy, but in the Episcopal tradition, on Ash Wednesday we take out our mortality and look it square in the face. We have ashes smeared on our forehead in the shape of a cross, and we are told “Remember you are but dust, and to dust you shall return.”

It’s pretty heavy stuff. But we also remember that returning to dust is not the end of things. It’s not. There is something after. We don’t have a lot of details about it, but we are told that we will be resurrected. Our dad had an unshakeable faith that he would see our mom again. And he was right. As Christians, this is our hope. This is our promise.

One of the things our traditions – and several others — have in common is the Apostle’s Creed, one of the oldest statements of faith we have outside of the New Testament. In a few minutes we will sing a lovely metrical version of this creed set, I believe, to the tune “Ebenezer.” In the Episcopal church we’re more likely to say this creed or chant it — because that’s how we roll — but in the spoken version of this creed, we claim:

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

I think those specific words “resurrection of the body” are important. When we say the Apostle’s Creed, we claim Christ’s promise of “the resurrection of the body.” We do expect a time of “rest and refreshment” after death, and I believe that is what Dad is enjoying now. But St. Paul was very clear on this point: Christ’s physical resurrection was the “down payment” on our own. Our ultimate destiny is to be resurrected just as Christ was resurrected, and to live forever in his new creation. “See, I am making ALL things new.”

“All things” includes us. As Christians, we have been made new. We are being made new. And we will be made new.

Like pretty much everyone else on earth, we all understand that some day we will die. It is our destiny. But unlike some, we have a hope, and a promise.
We will be resurrected. We will be resurrected in the body. That’s the promise. I will be able to take a walk with my Dad. I’ll be able to talk to my Mom. We will be physically present to each other. Our destiny is not some disembodied existence, floating around like ghosts throughout eternity.

No, our destiny is bodies like Christ’s. C.S. Lewis, one of my Dad’s favorite authors, suggested in his short novel The Great Divorce that our transformed bodies would be somehow more real than our current bodies, more solid, not less.
That seems appropriate for a people who are destined to live in a transformed and renewed Creation.

If we believe the promise of the resurrection, that promise that we at least pay lip service to in the Creed, then we believe that we and our loved ones will be resurrected. When Christ returns, we will all be changed to be like he is now. And we will see those we love again. And that is why, even when a loved one — a mother, a father — is taken from us, we can still sing, and laugh, and rejoice.

There is a short canticle in the Episcopal service for the Burial of the Dead that I love

All we go down to the dust,
yet even at the grave we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.


Alleluia! Christ Is Risen

Preached at the Great Vigil of Easter, April 16, 2022 at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross, Poplar Bluff, MO

Genesis 1:1-2:4a [The Story of Creation]; Genesis 22:1-18 [Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac]; Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea]; Isaiah 55:1-11 [Salvation offered freely to all]; Ezekiel 36:24-28 [A new heart and a new spirit]; Ezekiel 37:1-14 [The valley of dry bones]; Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Luke 24:1-12

Well, we made it.

We made it through Lent.

We made it through the wilderness.

We have come through our forty days of fasting, our forty days of wandering, and have arrived at a land flowing with milk and honey.

This week, as it should be, has been a special week.

On Thursday, we sat with Christ and his disciples at the Last Supper and heard him tell them and us to “Love one another.”

On Friday we watched as Christ was condemned, crucified, and laid in the tomb.

On Saturday, until sundown, we live in that horrible, horrible Saturday, that in-between time, when we can’t be sure there will ever be a Sunday.

Tonight, we have listened to the old, old stories, from the story of Creation, to God’s salvation of Israel at the Red Sea, to the Valley of Dry Bones, Ezekiel’s vision of a restored Israel. We have heard Israel’s story of God’s grace throughout history. We have heard Paul tell of what Christ’s resurrection means for us. And we have heard the story of the women at the tomb. As yet, all we have is an empty tomb. We have been told he’s risen, but we haven’t seen. We haven’t met the resurrected Christ yet. Be patient, I have a feeling we’ll meet him in the morning.

Many of you know by now that my Dad died on Maundy Thursday. Earlier in the week I was kind of floundering as to what I would preach about this evening, but my Dad’s death brought it into clear focus. And this is why the sermon is coming at this point in the service, when I could have preached right after the Old Testament passages we read tonight. There’s a lot of material there for sure, but since the phone call from my Sister on Thursday I have wanted to preach AFTER we read the Gospel reading. I wanted to talk specifically about the Resurrection and what it means to us.

You see my father had a rock-solid belief in resurrection. When my Mom died, he talked about how he wasn’t heartbroken, because she was out of pain and he knew…KNEW…they would see each other again. This is the faith we should all have, the faith that we should show in our lives every day. Because with his Resurrection, Christ showed it to be true. In his Resurrection, Christ showed that Resurrection could really happen, would really happen. 

When we hear the Exsultet, when we hear the readings of God’s saving deeds throughout the ages, when we respond with psalm and canticle, and when we then declare that Christ has indeed risen front the dead, we are doing something incredibly important. We are declaring that death itself has been conquered. We are claiming that we do not have to be afraid of it anymore. We are claiming that death has no power over us. And that’s why I can stand here tonight with joy in my heart, instead of overwhelming sadness.

Because this is the night. This is the night. This is the night when everything that Jesus said was vindicated. This is the night of which every other church service is just an echo. We make a huge deal of Christmas, and rightly so. Easter Sunday is important, sure. But this night, this holy night, is the most important, most holy night of the year. We have all those Old Testament readings because we need to see the whole story. We need to feel the power and depth and sweep of the history that led up to this night

This special night is the climax of a love story that began in the depths of time before Creation. This night is prefigured by the ancient stories of the salvation of Noah and his family from the Flood, and the Israelites salvation at the Red Sea. This night was hinted at by the prophets.  The events of this night were set in motion with an announcement to Mary and the birth of a small child. This night was made possible by an arrest, trial, and execution. This night is the completion of all those bits and pieces. It’s what history was headed toward from before the beginning of time.

This is the night when Christ made the down payment on our promise of resurrection. That’s resurrection. Not a disembodied ghost-like existence after we die, but a real, physical, resurrection of the body. When Christ rose from the dead, he didn’t come back as a ghost. He came back fully alive, and that’s what is in store for us.

And even though we can’t celebrate Eucharist this year, we can still celebrate what has happened. We can still come together. We can still read the stories. And we can still shout our alleluias to the heavens for the saving work that God, through Jesus Christ, has accomplished this very night.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

New Creation

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” 2 Corinthians 5:17–19 (NRSV)

When you grow up in the White American Evangelical branch of Christianity, as I did, you end up with a lot of baggage. One of the pieces of baggage you can easily end up with is a morbid focus on the “End Times.” You can’t see it, but those two words are capitalized. I was a teenager during the heyday of Hal Lindsay and “The Late Great Planet Earth.” Lindsay was the first to really popularize the theology that was later taken up by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins in their “Left Behind” series of novels. As Young Upright Christians™, we were expected to read Hal Lindsay’s books and take them to heart. Telling people about them, about their coming doom, was how we would bring the lost to Christ.

I used the term “morbid” because there was so much attention paid to the horrible things that were supposed to happen to unbelievers during the “Tribulation” — also capitalized. There is a kind of schadenfreude baked into this worldview. Hey, look! Those non-Christians (or sometimes, “bad” Christians) are gonna get theirs when Jesus comes back! And there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth, for sure.

Unfortunately, this approach, based mostly on misreading the Revelation to John and parts of the book of Daniel, totally misses the point of Jesus coming and dying in the first place. There is often little attention paid to the real mission of Christ.

You see, Christ didn’t come to save a few people and to torture and destroy the rest. He came to redeem all of creation.

Not destroy but redeem.

A large part of Old Testament theology was the faith that God would, at some point in time, set everything right again. That everything that is now broken would be corrected, that Creation itself would be made new. That everyone, not just Israel, would become the recipients of God’s grace, so that in the words of the prophet Amos, justice would “roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

St. Paul, a Hebrew of the Hebrews as he called himself, picked up on this theme, and it flows throughout his letters. And if we look at the life of Christ, we can see him work toward redeeming the world. So often we tend to focus on the creeds, and they are important, but they only focus on a few things: The nature of God, Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection, and the Holy Spirit. Don’t get me wrong — in his death, Christ took the step necessary to redeem all Creation and begin the reign of heaven on earth. And in his resurrection, that work was vindicated.

But what is missing in the creeds is the period of time in which he was simply…living. In his life and teachings, he taught us what it was like to be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven. To live as if that kingdom has already been completely realized.

“If anyone be in Christ there is a new creation.”

I like this translation better than some others. First, it redresses the male-centric language used in earlier translations. But I also like it because it subtly moves away from the focus on individual, personal salvation and piety that has been the focus of much of modern Christianity. It gives us a more expansive view of that new creation. It describes a person who, in Christ, has become connected to the new Creation, to the giant “reset” that has been promised. A person who is in Christ becomes a part of the new creation that Christ is in the process of building.

I was taught that having people come to Christ out of fear of Hell was a valid tactic for saving souls, but over the years I have become convinced that God doesn’t want that. He doesn’t want people to come because of terror at what might happen if they don’t. He wants them to come out of love.

We are called to be part of Christ’s new creation. We are called to take our places in God’s Creation as caretakers of and priests in that Creation. We are called to come to Him in love and then show His love to the world, not try to frighten the world into obedience.

That is the invitation that Christ extends to each one of us. Come be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of love. Take your place in the New Creation.

Piety in Public

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

It was back in my youth, when I worked the counter for our local McDonald’s, that I first learned that Ash Wednesday even existed. One Wednesday a year, we’d get people coming in with a smudge on their forehead. I had no idea what was going on. I was raised Southern Baptist, and we had exactly two special days: Christmas and Easter. That was it.

Finally I asked someone what was going on. It seems that there was a church service, and a priest would smear ashes on people’s foreheads (mostly Roman Catholics), people who, evidently, had been fasting all day. By the way, Southern Baptists don’t fast either. After church, because they were hungry, they’d go out and get something to east, often fast food.

It wasn’t until several years later that I encountered the Episcopal Church and finally found out what it meant. At the time I first learned about it, it seemed like just another meaningless ritual, and all we Southern Baptist kids knew the Roman Catholic Church was just chock full of those.

But it turns out it wasn’t meaningless. I learned that Ash Wednesday is the day of the year — of every year — when we take out our mortality, the knowledge that we are going to die, and look it square in the face. When the ashes are placed on our forehead with the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” it’s a chilling reminder that our time in this world is limited.

Confronting our own inevitable deaths is a good thing. It makes us place ourselves in our proper place in space and time, and pushes us toward understanding our proper place in relation to God.

But, as with all things that can be good, we have to be careful. In this evening’s Gospel reading we hear “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” 

Some of the people I saw coming into that McDonald’s seemed…proud of their ashes. Like it was more of a tribal mark than a sign of penitence.

It’s the same with Lenten disciplines. We are told we are supposed to “give something up” for Lent. So we do. We give up something like chocolate, or alcohol. Sometimes it seems like we try to outdo each other in our disciplines. And we look for loopholes, like the fact that every Sunday is actually a feast day, even during Lent, so extending our discipline to Sunday is inappropriate. Great.

How does this square with “Beware of practicing your piety in public?”

Let’s face it, we American, with our huge revivals and our National Prayer Breakfasts, are really big on our performative piety.

We really look down on the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, who were really trying to do better in obeying God. But Jesus said that they would “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.” That they “ignored the weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faith.”

And isn’t that exactly what we do? We love our little rules and traditions and loopholes, and we forget what really matters. We abstain from carbs, from meat, from sweets, and we ignore the plight of those less fortunate than ourselves. Lent is not about giving up some thing that we like. It’s about getting rid of the baggage that holds us back in our relationship with Christ.

This morning I saw the following tweet:

“This year the performative side of Lent that turns it into a kind of Suffering Olympics feels deeply unnecessary. If suffering is the only thing bringing you closer to God, I invite you to imagine a God who suffers for us, not one who desires us to suffer.”

My challenge to you this Lent…for all of Lent, is: let’s fast from “performative Christianity,” from the “Suffering Olympics.” We can start by not making our Lent a show for all to see and wonder at. If you have been fasting all day today, great, go straight home for me the church and eat. Don’t visit a restaurant with your ashes showing. Keep it to yourself. The same with your Lenten fast, your discipline. It’s between you and God, and it’s not a competition.

If you’d like some suggestions on how to accomplish a true Lenten fast without announcing it to the world, how about this from Pope Francis:

Fast from hurting words and say kind words.

Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.

Fast from anger and be filled with patience.

Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.

Fast from worries and have trust in God.

Fast from complaints; contemplate simplicity.

Fast from pressures and be prayerful.

Fast from bitterness; fill your hearts with joy.

Fast from selfishness and be compassionate.

Fast from grudges and be reconciled.

Fast from words. Be silent and listen.