Playing the Game

Sermon for Proper 9, Year A, July 5, 2020

Scriptures: Genesis 24:34-38; Psalm 45:11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19,25-30

“Jesus said to the crowd, “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ 

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”

I need to tell you a secret about preaching: sometimes you don’t preach the sermon you’d LIKE to preach. There will be a lot of sermons today on the last part of the Gospel – you know, the part that ends “…you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” That’s a nice scripture. It’s easy. It’s comforting. But sometimes the easy, comforting stuff is not what grabs you. Sometimes you start writing one sermon and end up with something completely different. And that’s part of the burden of preaching. 

So instead, I’m going to talk about the first part of the Gospel. The part that’s a bit less comfortable. The part where Jesus is upbraiding the crowd for wanting him to follow their whims.

Jesus seems to be a bit put out by the way people see him – and the way they saw John the Baptist. Jesus describes the crowd as being children playing a game, each group wanting the other to play by their rules.

John was an ascetic, so he must have had a demon. Jesus is not an ascetic, so he must be a drunkard and glutton. No matter which way Jesus behaved, they could find a way to put him in the wrong. He was, in words of the stock phrase, “damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.”

The thing is, we like our religious figures to be…domesticated. We like them to play by the rules. We like them neat and pretty — certainly not hairy, wearing camel hides, and eating bugs, like John. Or telling us things we don’t want to hear, like Jesus. So we gloss over the parts we don’t like, the parts that make us uncomfortable. We focus on the nice bits, like the last couple of verses of today’s Gospel. And that’s why I think it’s important to talk about this first bit.

See, John and Jesus didn’t play the game.

Now, I will fully admit I don’t like to be made to feel uncomfortable. It might be listening to someone talk about some topic that I really need to pay attention to you — a matter of conscience, a matter of justice, something I really need to listen to. Sometimes it makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like people to make me feel uncomfortable. Then I notice that the person saying it isn’t perfect. They have flaws in their characters. Now I have an excuse to discount what they say.

Very often we know we should be listening. We actually want to listen. But those little voices and doubts creep in. “Hey, that guy sounds like a socialist.” “But what about this other thing he said?” “Who does he think he is?” We ignore the message and find fault with the messenger. Sometimes we have to work really hard to find reasons we shouldn’t listen, but we seem to be willing to make the effort. It helps keep things tame and comfortable.

The problem is, there’s a lot of stuff in the Bible that should make us uncomfortable, if we’re honest with ourselves. All that stuff about “love your enemies” and such. That makes me uncomfortable because it means I have to actually care about their welfare. And believe me, with some people it is hard. But it’s one of those bits of scripture we just can’t seem to tame.

In C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia”, the great lion Aslan, who is actually Christ in the Land of Narnia, is often described with the words “He’s not a tame lion, you know.”

We need to stop insisting that Jesus be tame, that he’ll “play the game.” Because I’ll let you in on another secret: he isn’t going to, no matter how hard we try. And by trying to tame him, we’re only stunting our own spiritual growth.

We can always find excuses not to do things we don’t want to do, not to listen to ideas that are uncomfortable to us, whether they’re coming from scripture or by someone else. Especially when they’re things we know we should do, things we should pay attention to. The we can take the safe, tame path.

But Jesus is not tame. He’s not safe. And when we follow him – really follow him, we may end up doing quite a few not-so-tame and not-so-safe things ourselves. And that is where the Kingdom of Heaven is. 

What urgings of the Spirit are we ignoring because they don’t seem safe? Because they don’t fit into the rules of the game? Because they’re too wild?

Becoming a Dominican did not seem safe or tame to me, raised as a Southern Baptist. In fact, it felt incredibly wild and scary. I wasn’t totally sure what I was getting myself into. It kind of meant becoming a religious fanatic. I’ve always been a churchgoer, it was how I was raised,  but…structure my entire life around my faith? That’s crazy! It’s not playing the game! At my age I should focus on my career and heading toward retirement, not starting a new life of praying and preaching!

The strange thing is, once you give in to those wild, crazy things the Spirit is prompting you to do, you do get a reward. Once I had made the decision to approach the Dominicans, all the doubts vanished and I felt peace. I have a friend in Montana who used to be a verger. She is now a deacon. When I told her of my final decision to become a Dominican postulant, she said something to the effect of “You feel better now, don’t you?” Evidently something similar happened to her when she made the decision to work toward ordination.

Let’s not play the game. Let’s not be what people expect. Let’s be those “crazy Christians” that Presiding Bishop Curry talks about in his book. Let’s be the ones who listen to what the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us. Let’s be the ones who always follow Christ instead of playing the game. Let’s be the ones who speak up for the poor and the oppressed. Let’s be the ones who don’t seem to worry about what the neighbors think.

Let’s not be tame lions.

What Will We Do?

Sermon for Proper 7, Year A, June 21, 2020

Scriptures: Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

This past Friday was Juneteenth.  It’s a day many people outside black communities were unaware of until recently, but there is now a push to make it a national holiday. On June 19, 1865, a Union general in Texas declared all slaves to be free. The Civil War had actually been over since April and the Emancipation Proclamation, which only freed slaves in states that were “in rebellion,” was 2 years old. People in Texas hadn’t heard that the war was over. Now, by military fiat, all were free.

It’s a reason to celebrate. There have been others. Later on, Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 were certainly leaps forward. All reasons to celebrate.

But as we look back on what was gained they are also…reasons to reflect.

Over the years, we have become complacent.

Our Parish was once a church that took the lead in pushing for racial justice. This church was instrumental in getting the city pool desegregated, playing such a well-known role that someone actually snuck in and put a snake in the pulpit as a warning.

I’ve heard people tell about this and sound rightfully proud of it. But it’s not enough. It was a long time ago.

I can hear God saying ”But what have you done for me lately?”

Losing focus is like that is pretty common. We have some victories, we accomplish a short-term goal or two, and we think the job is done. We rest on our laurels. We get comfortable. Surely the fight is over.

But the fight isn’t over. When I told a black Episcopalian friend my plans for this sermon, she responded, “would you like to know how many times I’ve asked, “…but where is the church?”

Where IS the church?

It’s pretty obvious these days that the job ISN’T done. And we can’t base our reputation – or our opinion of ourselves — on something our church did a half-century ago.

It was explained to me during my postulancy that becoming a Dominican gives one a platform to speak out. Dominicans are, after all, preachers first and foremost. Preaching is our charism, the spiritual gift upon which we center our lives. But more than just a platform, becoming Dominican gives us a responsibility to speak out.

It makes me feel good that a Dominican – Antonio Montesino — preached in 1511 what was likely the first sermon in the New World on social justice, protesting the mistreatment of the indigenous people by Diego Columbus – Christopher’s son – and the Spanish settlers who had engaged in multiple atrocities including enslavement, rape, and murder.

But I can’t rest on what Dominicans did in 1511. Like many of us, I have been silent too long. I have been complacent. I have been complicit. Sure, I’ve celebrated all the advances made during my lifetime. There are many. I was in junior high school in Georgia just as the schools there were being desegregated. But somewhere along the line I stopped recognizing the grave injustices that still occur on a daily basis.

A few weeks ago we all had our nose rubbed in it. A black man was killed because he may have used a counterfeit $20 bill – something that could happen to any of us. It’s hard – no, it’s pretty much impossible to believe that a white man would have died in the same situation.

There was nothing that deserved the death penalty. And yet George Floyd died.

Others have died too. It’s painful to list their names, but I’m going to do it anyway, because we need to look this evil square in the face:

Emmett Till

Eric Garner

Michael Brown

Laquan MacDonald

Tamir Rice

Trayvon Martin

Breonna Taylor

Ahmaud Arberry

Botham Jean

Philando Castiile

Dominique Clayton

George Floyd

It’s painful to read those names, and I’m sure it’s painful to hear them. But this is only a fraction of the names we could list.

So, in the words of my friend, “Where is the Church?”

Are we out working toward justice, demanding justice? Are we taking a stand?

Or are we sitting comfortably at home watching demonstrations and wondering why people don’t behave better, why they can’t just get over it?

Or are we staying home because we’re afraid of what our friends would think?

Speaking out is hard. It’s hard for me. It rarely makes you any friends among those that need to listen. I’m lucky in that my family thinks the same way I do, but it’s not true for everyone:

“For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

It’s hard to speak out. That sermon preached back in 1511? Let’s just say that the Spanish settlers were not amused.

We are followers of Christ. We are called to something higher. In the words of our Baptismal Covenant, “Will we strive for justice and peace and promote the dignity of EVERY human being?”

In Isaiah, in the 58th chapter, we read:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.

Our brothers and sisters are still under the yoke of injustice. Will OUR light “break forth like the dawn” and “rise in the darkness?” Will we “proclaim it from the housetops?”

What will we do?

Meditation for Good Friday

Today is Good Friday. It has come at last. We have gone through the wilderness of Lent and have arrived…where?

Jesus is tried, condemned, and forced to carry the instrument of his own death to his place of crucifixion. He is nailed to the cross and the cross placed upright. Jesus hangs there for hours. And spite of all his power, Jesus dies. The disciples are in hiding, figuring they will be next. They are left heartbroken, not knowing what to do, where to go.

How can we continue? What do we do now?

In his book The Day the Revolution Began, Bishop N.T. Wright says that the early Christians were convinced that the world, at Jesus’ death, was somehow…changed. It was suddenly not the same world they were born into. Before Jesus died, Sin ruled the world. But Jesus, by his death, changed the world so that we are no longer slaves to Sin. We are free. And that is a message of hope.

Something new had come into the world in the late afternoon of Good Friday, and that new thing was Hope.

We are in the midst of a global pandemic, the like of which has not been seen for 100 years. With COVID-19 spreading through the world, we desperately need Hope. We are frightened, both for our own well-being and for the well-being of those we love. We’re not sure where to turn or what to do.

Like the disciples.

But we have an advantage the disciples did not have. We know what comes next. We know how the story ends.

We know that Christ conquered Sin. But we also know that he conquered Death.

So where do we find Hope? We find it in the same place early Christians found it:

In the fact that when Jesus died, he took on Sin and Death, and defeated them, once and for all.

In the fact that death is not the end.

In the fact that Christ is always with us.

Christ has died, yes, and we still have to live in the wilderness of Lent for a while longer.

But Hope has been born.

And Easter is coming.

Let us pray:

O Lord Jesus Christ, as we deal with pandemic and with the wilderness of Good Friday, help us to avoid despair, to keep faith, to recall that we will be resurrected with you. Help us to hope. Amen.

Kirkin’ of the Tartans, 9 November 2019

Readings: Isaiah 58:6-11; John 15:9-17


Many of you might recognize me, but not in this getup. I’ve been the verger for this service for several years now, but my life has taken a distinct turn, which I will be glad to discuss with you in a different setting. If you’re really interested, come to the 10:30 Eucharist tomorrow and plan to stay after for coffee. I’m doing a talk then.

When Bob first asked me to give this “sermon,” I will admit to being slightly apprehensive. It’s a tough service for someone who, like myself, has committed his life to a preaching and teaching ministry. One of the prime directives of preaching is “know your audience.” Now, I know my home parish very well, and I like to think that I am beginning to know St. James pretty well, but I’m willing to bet that most of you do NOT attend church here and most of you are not even Episcopalian. So, I’m up here flying blind. I’m going to assumethat the greater part of you are some flavor of Christian. And if you are not, please walk with me for a few minutes anyway. You may still find something of value.

SO…why do we have a Kirkin’ of the Tartans at all?

We could go into the folklore of the English suppression of the wearing of the tartan and people hiding their tartans under cloaks as they went to the church to get them blessed. Or we could go to the actual history of the service’s creation in the 1940s by Rev. Peter Marshall, as Fr. Tim has done in the past. But the question remains, why do we still do it?

Well, it’s become a tradition, right? Do something once, it’s a change do something three times, it’s a tradition. At least, it seems that way in Episcopal churches.

But what’s so great about tradition? It’s just doing stuff somebody else did before, right? Is that a good enough reason to do this? Or is it just an excuse for a party (not that there’s anything wrong with a party)?

I think tradition is more than just an excuse.

At last year’s in conference in Denver of the Vergers’ Guild of the Episcopal Church, the Reverend Canon Broderick Greer was giving us an talk on the possibility of reform of the Book of Common Prayer – the book that contains our Episcopalian forms of worship and much of our theology. The question of tradition was brought up. “Why do we bother with tradition?”  “Tradition,” Canon Greer said, “is giving the dead a vote.”

Tradition is our connection to what has gone on before. By honoring tradition, we give the dead a vote in how we live our lives. Because remembering is important. It reminds us of who we are, of where we came from. If we forget what has gone before, we are rootless. Most of you are probably not aware that I was raised Southern Baptist, a denomination that does not in general set a great store by tradition. Now that I am Episcopalian, I have become more and more aware of its importance.

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 she 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 will likely settle on just one. By choosing one, I will be intentionally connecting with those ancestors, honoring them, as flawed and imperfect as many – if not all – of them were. Because…well…tradition.

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. 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.

How do we live out our lives as followers of God – however we conceive Him — within our shared heritage and tradition? Well, let’s take a look at a good example from Scottish tradition: St. Margaret of Scotland, whom we are celebrating this evening.

Margaret was the daughter of an English prince and granddaughter of a king. She was born in exile in Hungary in 1045, but through many adventures she ended up in Scotland, where she eventually married the widowed king, Malcom III, in 1070.

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.

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

Luke also has Jesus include a set of challenges to this of us who have resources – who are not poor, or hungry, or downtrodden. His message is “You will be like those poor folks over there one day.”

St. Margaret of Scotland gave us a tradition of bringing the Beatitudes into reality. And she isn’t alone. St. Damien the Leper, St. Martin des Porres, St. Teresa of Kolkata – none of them Scots, unfortunately — also show us the way. That is what we need to look at when we honor our traditions.

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

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, like Margaret, care for the poor and needy, and work to see that those who rule do so justly?

In an alternate Gospel reading tonight for the Feast of St. Margaret, 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. But rather than blindly following and going through the motions, let us work to be what many of our forebears, like Margaret, also worked to be.

The light of the world.

The salt of the earth.

Let’s be Scottish saints.


Beyond the Blessings

Note: The Propers for All Saints Day can be found here: Lectionary Page — All Saints Day

You would think that writing a sermon for All Saints’ would be a piece of cake.

I mean, it’s not Trinity Sunday, is it? Trinity is traditionally the Sunday that rectors go on vacation and leave the sermon to an associate, curate, deacon, or lay preacher, who then spends sleepless nights trying to thread the need between saying something profound but orthodox and something heretical. Let’s face it: Try to delve into the meaning of the Trinity and it’s pretty much impossible not to commit one heresy or another.

Come to think of it, my very first sermon was on Trinity Sunday. Hmmm…

But All Saints’ should be easy! No tricky theology! No danger of putting a foot wrong and being taken to task! It’s just honoring those who have gone on before!  But I had a lot more trouble with this than you might think. After all, what can you say about these readings that’s new?

Let’s take a look..

The first two are great! Daniel says “the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever—for ever and ever.”

Hooray, we’ll possess kingdom! We win!

St. Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus “you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints…”

Yay! Inheritance from God, we win again!

Then there’s the Gospel reading.

The Gospel today is the Beatitudes, as found in Luke. These are found both in Mathew and Luke, part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke – even the Gospel writers couldn’t agree on where it took place.

Now, at first glance, it seems like another “Yay! We’re gonna finally get what we deserve!” passage. But congratulating ourselves is NOT what the Beatitudes are about. Especially in Luke. They’re about encouragement and a challenge. For Luke especially, they’re rules for self-examination.

If you read the version from Matthew, you will get “Blessed are the poor in spirit… and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness...” Luke’s concerns aren’t really focused on spiritual well-being. They’re physical and immediate.  And in Luke, unlike in Matthew, Jesus adds some warnings, commonly known as the “woes,” because they all begin “woe to you…”.  What does the world expect us to strive for strive for? Do we work to be rich? To be well fed? To make ourselves happy? To gain the approval of others?  But these things we work so hard for are only temporary.  Jesus says, “if you’re comfortable now, good for you. Enjoy it. It won’t last, and then you’ll be like those less fortunate folks over there.”

Which do we need to hear? The blessings? Or the woes?

The Beatitudes are often considered words of comfort, and they are comforting to those of us going through hard times. But they are also words of challenge to those of us who have resources. If we see someone who needs the comfort described, what do we do? Do we try to provide money, food, or consolation? Do we actually show them the Kingdom of God? Or do we just tell them to buck up, that things will be better…someday? Do we help them when it’s convenient, when we have a few extra bucks or maybe an hour or two to spare?

The Beatitudes have always had a special meaning for Dominicans.

The Greek word that both Luke and Matthew use in this speech, μακάριοι, can mean “blessed” or “rich”, but it can also mean “happy,” and the early Dominicans took the “happy” part seriously. So seriously, in fact, that they were often criticized by the monastic orders for being too…happy. Having now spent two Chapters with the Anglican Dominicans and several days with the Roman Catholic Dominicans in St. Louis, I can say with some certainty that Dominicans still consider the “happy” part really important. But Dominicans consider the challenge of the Beatitudes just as important. It’s how you share your joy with others.

Today, November the Third, is also the feast day of St. Martin de Porres, who just happens to be a Dominican saint. There is a shrine to him in Memphis that you can visit. Normally we would push the feast off to Monday, since Sunday always takes precedence over a saint, but since we’re celebrating All Saints today, brought forward from November 1 (yeah, the rules can be complicated) I think it’s appropriate to mention him, since he is one of the saints we’re celebrating. He’s a wonderful example of the Beatitudes in action.

Martin was the son of a Spanish nobleman and a freed black slave, born in Lima, Peru, in 1579. Because he was, in the terms of the time, a “mulatto,” he was barred by law from becoming a full member of any religious order. At the age of 15 he was received as a servant at the Dominican Convent of the Rosary, in Lima. When Martin was 24 the prior — having grown quite familiar with Martin’s devotion — essentially ignored the law and allowed Martin to become a lay brother.

Martin was always ready to put others’ needs over his own. When the convent was in financial need, he suggested that they sell him. He worked in the infirmary from the time he took vows until his death, and when an epidemic struck, he went to the quarantined parts of the convent to server the sick novices there.

He ministered to everyone who needed his help: to African slaves and to the Spanish nobility. He made no distinctions. He begged enough money to feed about 160 people every day and still hand out money to the poor. He even defied his own prior! The story is told of Martin finding an Indian with a knife wound and taking him to his own room in the convent until he could move him to a hospice, something that was not allowed. You simply did not bring outsiders into your room. The Prior reprimanded him, but Martin said “Forgive my error, and please instruct me, for I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity.” After that, the prior – wisely —  allowed him to follow his conscience.

So go figure. He was poor, and yet he gave money and food away. He took care of everyone. That, my friends, is how the Kingdom of God breaks in. That is how people see it.

Jesus was never one to tell people to sit back and watch or to tell others to sit back and watch. In order to come true, the Beatitudes must be put into action. The popular sentiment “Let go and let God” just doesn’t jibe with Jesus’ message unless it’s amended to “Let go and Let God use you in service of His kingdom.” In order to make the Beatitudes real, we are the ones who should going out to people in need and relieving that need. Just reading the blessings and sitting back thinking “oh, how nice” doesn’t cut the mustard.

But what if we could do even better than helping those in need? Could we change the conditions that put these people in need in the first place?  Could those of us who enjoy privilege, who have resources, change things? In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “We need to stop pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

We might never reach the point where no one is hungry, no one is poor, but shouldn’t we at least try?

Because that trying is also how the Kingdom of God breaks in. People will see it. And the cool thing is, the people who work toward the Kingdom of God are some of the happiest people you will ever meet. They are…blessed.



Good Friday and Earth Day

I posted this about 8 years ago on Facebook. — on Good Friday, 2011. I just reread it yesterday and decided it still holds up, so I wanted to get it on my blog. It’s just as pertinent today as it was then, if not more so. I’ve edited it a bit, because over the 8 years I’ve become better at writing this sort of thing.


I’ve been thinking a lot the last few days about the number of Facebook posts I’ve seen talking about how awesome God (or Jesus) is, and how great it is to just praise him.  How only Jesus can save the world.  The confluence today of Good Friday and Earth Day got me thinking even more.  I’ve seen posts where people say that instead of thinking about Earth Day they’re going to spend the day remembering Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  People even seem upset that something as secular as Earth Day would be scheduled on Good Friday.  The nerve!

Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to focus on Christ’s sacrifice today, but…

Two questions come to mind.

The first is, “Why don’t you remember that every day?”  We’ll let that pass, because I celebrate holy days, too.  Today is a special remembrance, beyond what we do every day.  It’s appropriate.  As human beings, special remembrances are important to us.

But the second thought is, “Why do you have to choose?”

Christ was very clear on what it takes to please him.  Check out Matthew 25:31- 46, the parable of the sheep and the goats.  It’s a pretty uncomfortable story for us, because the people who get into heaven (the sheep) are the ones who did something, not the ones who just said “I believe.”  It’s clear that Jesus is interested in action.

Matthew 7:21 also comes to mind. In the NIV, it reads “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”  It would seem that just praising God isn’t enough.  It would seem that Jesus wants more.

Again, in his Epistle James says “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” (James 2:14-18, NIV)

You don’t have to choose between faith and deeds. Why would you have to choose between praising God and caring for His Creation? The environment we have been systematically trashing for many, many years was God’s gift to us.  Does ignoring it while praising Jesus make sense? I don’t think so.

Luckily, you don’t have to stop thinking of Christ on the Cross to think about doing something to help preserve the environment that God created for us.  As long as we’re contemplating Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross for our sins, maybe we should think, “What can I do to honor that sacrifice?”  Maybe we can do something today, no matter how small, to help preserve the Earth and the future generations that he died for.  Something as simple as cleaning or changing your furnace filter — five, ten minutes, tops.  Something as simple as recycling that aluminum can — a few seconds  Something as simple as turning down the temperature on the hot water heater –thirty seconds at the most.  Something as simple as not driving somewhere just because you can.  Save the trip for when you really need to go, or walk, or don’t go at all. It doesn’t have to be anything huge.  Just intentional.  Take the moment to do something.

I don’t want to speak for God, but I have a hunch he’ll be pleased.

Good Friday, 2011

Let’s Have a Party

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

In today’s Gospel we get two parables: the lost sheep and the lost coin. Luke actually puts them into a group of three, with the Prodigal Son coming right after these two.

So often, when we look at Jesus’ parables, we are quick to assume what they’re about. Of course, they’re about what we were taught they’re about since childhood! As Christians with 2,000 years of interpretive history behind us, we immediately approach the parables from a Christian perspective. We associate the “searcher” in each story with God or Christ, just like we were taught in Sunday School. That’s the safe interpretation. It makes us feel good. If we make it about God, we don’t have to DO anything. It puts the story at arm’s length.

But we need to look a little closer. You see, parables were not meant to make anyone feel good about themselves. From the parable of the trees in Book of Judges to the prophet Nathan going after King David for the murder of Uriah right through to Jesus, parables were meant to challenge, to unsettle, or even to accuse. So, if you interpret a parable and it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, chances are…you’re doing it wrong.

And we do have to be careful. If we’re going to consider the shepherd, the woman, or the father of the Prodigal Son to be God, we may end up with some some pretty weird ideas about God.

Take the Shepherd. He actually leaves the other ninety-nine sheep there in the wilderness to go out looking for just one! What shepherd in his right mind does that? The story never even mentions him taking the one sheep back to the flock, he goes home instead and calls his friends to celebrate. As far as we know, the other 99 are still out in the wilderness. So does God abandon the 99% percent to go after one?

The woman’s story makes a bit more sense. She, at least, takes responsibility for losing the coin.

I think maybe we look at these parables the wrong way. Luke gives them to us immediately after the scribes and Pharisees criticized Jesus for hanging out with the wrong people. Jesus often told parables when provoked. And they tended to be aimed right back at the people who provoked him.

What if we’ve been looking at it wrong?  What if these parables aren’t primarily about God at all.  What if they’re about…us?  What if they’re about what we should be doing?

That might be a little uncomfortable.

The Pharisees and the scribes were complaining that Jesus was hanging out with people they didn’t like. Sinners were…well…sinners. Not good people. Tax collectors were people who collaborated with the Roman occupation. In the words of the British upper class of the early 20th century, they were “NOCD,” “Not Our Class, Dear.” And Jesus responded first with a parable that addresses them directly: “Which of YOU, having 100 sheep…” Now it’s doubtful that any of the scribes or Pharisees actually kept sheep, but they could get the point.

Jesus was telling them that these prostitutes and tax collectors, people who were not in their in-group, were exactly the people they should be concerned about. I think Jesus is telling them, “this is what you should be doing.”

In each case, when what is lost is found – sheep, coin, and later a son – a party ensues. And in each case, the party is an overreaction to the finding of what was lost! A party because you found one sheep out of a hundred? Ridiculous! This is Jesus saying, “not only should you be out looking for these people, including them, you should be throwing a party for them.”

Sometimes we lose people. They leave us for a variety of reasons. Maybe they don’t feel welcome. Sometimes they may feel we are actually hostile to them because there’s something about them we just don’t like. Something that we feel “doesn’t belong here.” They wander off (like the sheep), they just disappear (like the coin), or they leave because the grass seems greener elsewhere (like the Prodigal son).

Sometimes we go look for them. Sometimes we just wait for them to come back. Sometimes we just don’t bother. We SHOULD be looking.

Who do we lose? Who do we need to go out and look for? Is it that gay couple, or that trans woman who visited? Is it that guy who came one morning that looked like he’d slept in his clothes? Is it the woman with piercings, or tattoos all over? How did we treat them? Did we ignore them? Say something that wasn’t quite welcoming? Did we make a snide remark to a fellow parishioner that might have been overheard?

Jesus always found room for the poor and the marginalized, the people who just didn’t fit in to the “standard model” of society. That, you see, is how you build the kingdom of heaven.

We can’t build the kingdom of heaven by throwing people away. We must find them, bring them in. Whether we find them or they show up on their own, we must make sure they know they are valued, loved, accepted. That we were looking for them.

And then…let’s throw them a party.


Count the Cost: Then Go Anyway

Sermon delivered September 8, 2019 (Proper 18, Year c), at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Springfied, MO

Good morning. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Brother Mike Malone from the Anglican Order of Preachers, also known as the Anglican Dominicans. I have been to St. James several times before, but never in this getup. I am the verger at my home church – the Church of the Holy Cross in Poplar Bluff — and Bob Lanning has been kind enough to invite me to be verger for the annual Kirkin’ of the Tartans ceremony that is held here. Since the ceremony is held on Saturday evening and it’s a 3- to 4-hour drive home, I usually stay overnight and attend Eucharist here on Sunday morning before going home. So, if you’ve seen me at all, you’ve only ever seen me in verger’s garb or in normal civilian clothes. I’ve never been here in habit before. The reason for that is that I just made my novice promises and officially entered the Order in August. I’ve been preaching in my own parish for a couple of years now, but this is my first “outside” sermon. One of the things about being a guest preacher is that you don’t have to worry too much about complaints. Still, it would be nice to be asked back. I hope you will be kind.


From today’s gospel: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?”

Life is hard. We’re always saying it. When I was a young man, a popular saying whenever something untoward happened was “Life is hard, and then you die.”

Our popular music reflects the view that life is hard.

The kids in the musical Annie say, “It’s the hard knock life.”

Country singer Lynn Anderson told us, “I never promised you a rose garden.”

The rock group Queen said “It’s a hard life.”

And from the great prophet Ringo Starr, “Got to pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues, and you know it don’t come easy.”

Life don’t come easy.

Following Christ don’t come easy either.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus lays that out for us. Following him won’t be easy. He even says we actually have to hate our family! That’s harsh. But before you get upset by that, let’s realize that in the Bible, hate is often used in a comparative way, and Jesus often used figurative language to get his point across. You may not have to actually hate your family (and I hope you don’t), but you are to love God so much that your love for anything else – even family, even life –pales in comparison.

Loving God and living for Him brings…issues. When you love God that much, people are likely to get upset, because dedication to a life centered around God and Christ just don’t fit into Western culture very well. And following Christ often means taking positions that the people around us don’t agree with.  We need to be aware of that cost and go in open-eyed.

Quite honestly, well into this past week I was wondering exactly where to go with this sermon. I couldn’t seem to get a handle on what I needed to say. Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber once said that she preaches the sermon she needs to hear, but…what did I need to hear? Then, as chance would have it, someone posted something on Facebook.

I would like to tell you about someone I just learned about this week.

The Anglican Order of Preachers has brothers and sisters in the US, in Canada, in Puerto Rico, in the UK, in Australia.  We have a new Postulant who lives in India. On Facebook this week she told us the story of Sundar Singh. Sundar Singh was born in northern India, to a family of the Sikh faith. He was partially educated at a Christian high school. At fourteen, his mother died, and Sundar blamed God, going so far as to burn a page of a Bible.

Not long after this, and feeling his life no longer had any meaning, he decided to commit suicide. But he first prayed that the “True God” would appear to him and prevent it. According to his biography, he had a vision of Jesus that night. He announced to his family that he was converting to Christianity.

It didn’t go well.

His father rejected him.

His brother tried to poison him.

People threw snakes at his house.

But he was not swayed. At the age of 16 he was baptized and went on to become a famous missionary in India.

Perhaps our first instinct is to get all high and mighty about how awful his family was and how that sort of thing would never happen here but let me share a story from my own family history.

Abraham Floyd, my great-great-great-great (I think that’s enough “greats”) grandfather, was a staunch Episcopalian and Revolutionary War veteran. He had a son, Matthew, who one night went to a Methodist meeting and, horror of horrors, got baptized – by immersion, of all things. He came home still wet from the baptism, and his father would not let him back into the house.  He was disowned. Matthew Floyd went on to become a famous traveling Baptist preacher in Kentucky. I don’t think there was any snake-throwing involved, but still…

So, while most of the time it doesn’t lead to something as extreme as attempted murder, following where you believe Christ is leading can get you into hot water.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor in Germany during World War II, wrote that grace – God’s grace – while free for the taking, was still costly. “It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live.” Prophetic words. Because he vigorously opposed the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned, and later executed.

If we are following Christ, if we are really basing our life on him, we may alienate people, including friends and family and those in power. Have we counted that cost? Have we looked at everything we might lose by following Christ?

I would suggest that we (at least most of us) really haven’t. We can’t imagine what Christ might ask of us or how it will affect our lives, but the cost could be…everything, and it’s hard to imagine that. But we have to be prepared to accept whatever that cost may be.

I became a Dominican because God called me to a particular work. It meant changing the way I live my life. I will happily talk to you about those changes after church. I didn’t know what else it would cost me. I still don’t know where it will lead, or what the cost might be in the future. I only know that Christ was calling me, and I had to respond. To me, it seems a small cost. I’m one of the lucky ones: my friends and family, my rector, and my bishop all support me.

But for someone like Sundar Singh or Matthew Floyd it meant being ostracized by family and friends. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer it meant execution by the Nazis.

Christ does call each and every one of us to…something. I don’t know what your call is. I only know my own. And the call was irresistible.

If you don’t think you’ve heard God calling you, you may have to be quiet and listen. It’s hard to hear God when we’re making our own noise.  And if you listen – REALLY listen – you may find that Christ’s call to you is irresistible too.  There will be a cost. But following Christ is worth the cost, because through God’s grace we begin to really live.

May we all have the courage to say “It doesn’t matter what the cost is. I’ll pay it.”

“Here I am, Lord. I’m ready.”