Another Bad Decision: The Supreme Court and School Prayer

Post-game ritual with Coach Joseph Kennedy, Bremerton High School, WA, October 16, 2015 (Attribution: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals)

A recovering alcoholic reciting the Serenity Prayer, a Catholic nun telling her beads, a child crossing himself before a meal, a quaking Shaker, a meditating yogini, a Huichi Indian chewing a peyote button, a Zen monk in satori, a Lubavitcher dancing with the Torah, Saint Francis receiving the stigmata, a bookie crossing his fingers before the final race, Ebenezer Scrooge pleading for just one more chance, dear God, just one more chance: all this is the work of prayer. In this world one may sit, stand, run, kneel, fall prostrate, dance, faint, or whirl in imitation of the cosmic spheres. One may chant, sing, shout, mutter, groan, or keep silent. One may make use of nuts, beads, books, flags, wheels, shells, stones, drums, idols, icons, jewels, incense, flowers, blood, and fruit, for all these belong to the armamentarium of prayer. 

— Ann and Barry Ulanov [i]

“I wasn’t going to stop my prayer because there was kids around me.”

— Joseph Kennedy, football coach

If January 6th is the coup that failed, the Supreme Court is the one that has succeeded. The extremist majority, abandoning both precedent and good sense, has gone rogue, wreaking havoc with a barrage of malignant decisions. While the recent decisions on abortion and climate change are the most broadly calamitous, I want to address the case of Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, a poorly considered ideological gambit with unsettling implications for both politics and religion.

Joseph Kennedy was an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School, a few miles by water from my island home in Washington State. Hired in 2008, he began to kneel in silent prayer at midfield after the game. He got the idea from a televised movie about a coach at a Christian school who prays and witnesses with his team as he leads them to the state championship. 

At first, Kennedy prayed alone, but over time he was joined by most of his players, as well as members of the visiting team. At some point he began to add religiously flavored “motivational” speeches to this postgame ritual and, it seems, his prayers were no longer entirely silent. It took seven years for the Bremerton School District to take notice, but when it did, it expressed concerns about upsetting the delicate balance between private religious expression and the religious neutrality mandated by the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  

In September, 2015, the District instructed Coach Kennedy to refrain from religious talks and prayers with his players, and to keep his personal religious activity “nondemonstrative” while on duty, “to avoid school endorsement of religious activities.” At first he agreed to the terms, but while driving home after a game, he felt he had “broken [his] commitment to God” by not praying on the field after the game. So he returned to the empty stadium to kneel at the 50-yard line for a brief prayer. 

But that would not be enough for him. On October 14, two days before the Homecoming game,  he informed the District that he planned to resume his “private” postgame prayer practice, insisting that he would not invite or encourage anyone to join him. This was disingenuous, since he had been throwing gasoline on the fire through social media, complaining to the world that he was being persecuted for praying. And his choice of the well-attended Homecoming for his defiant display ensured maximum attention. 

Predictably, he was joined in “prayer” not only by players and news cameras, but also by spectators who jumped fences in a rush to midfield (knocking over some band members in their stampede). This “prayer” circus continued for another two weeks, joined by the sort of politicians who profit from religious resentment. 

By the end of October, Kennedy was out of a job. He likes to say he was fired for praying, but the record reflects a more complicated story. As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor would note in her carefully argued dissent, there were a number of reasons for Kennedy’s suspension:

“In Kennedy’s annual review, the head coach of the varsity team recommended Kennedy not be rehired because he ‘failed to follow district policy,’ ‘demonstrated a lack of cooperation with administration,’ ‘contributed to negative relations between parents, students, community members, coaches, and the school district,’ and ‘failed to supervise student-athletes after games due to his interactions with media and community’ members. The head coach himself also resigned after 11 years in that position, expressing fears that he or his staff would be shot from the crowd or otherwise attacked because of the turmoil created by Kennedy’s media appearances. Three of five other assistant coaches did not reapply.” [ii]

The head coach’s fear of being “shot from the crowd” might have raised eyebrows in 2016, but it would surprise no one today. The rise of white “Christian” nationalism in the United States has made home-grown terrorism a significant threat. And given the Trumpian swerve of so many white Evangelicals, a lot of that terrorism is tied to twisted religious rhetoric. The Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy, along with its dismantling of Roe and other radical rulings, will only encourage the Guns-and-God crowd further. Inch by inch, we are slouching toward Gilead.[iii] Lord have mercy. 

In his opinion for the Supreme Court majority, Neil Gorsuch began with a lie: “Joseph Kennedy lost his job as a high school football coach because he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet prayer of thanks.” But a lower court judge, in the ruling subsequently overturned by SCOTUS, drew a more honest picture: 

“No case law requires that a high school teacher must be out of sight of students or jump into the nearest broom closet in order to engage in private prayer, but it cannot be denied that this football coach’s prayer at the fifty-yard line, immediately after a game, under stadium lights and in front of players and spectators, objectively sent a public message.” [iv]

Joseph Kennedy poaes with a football in front of the Supreme Court. (After a photo by Win McNamee)

Personal prayer, which Jesus called praying “in secret” (Matthew 6:6), has no human spectators, and any self-consciousness about one’s appearance to others is an interruption of prayerful attention. But liturgical prayer, performed with others in public, is meant to be seen. Worshippers are strengthened and encouraged by the knowledge that they are bound together in ritually shared speech and practice. At the same time, public worship makes a visible statement to the world.

But liturgical prayer requires a common language and worldview. In a pluralistic society, such specific religious commonality is rarely possible. Worship is most authentically and effectively situated within each particular tradition. In the United States, therefore, the government should neither restrict the diversity of worship practices, nor endorse or favor one religious expression over any other. 

Given the importance of religion in American history and culture, and the large number of religious believers in public life, the separation of church and state lacks a firm and absolute boundary. There are Inaugural prayers, Congressional chaplains, funerals for public figures at the “National Cathedral,” and the frequent invocation of divinity by political speakers. Some of that is boilerplate civil religion, but no one can doubt the formative effect of religious belief and practice on our political life, for better or worse. For the record, all six justices who voted against abortion and for school prayer are conservative Catholics, although Gorsuch has been attending an Episcopal church. Sonia Sotomayor is also Catholic, with the remaining justices comprised of one Jew and one Protestant. 

For a long time, public schools have had relative clarity about the Establishment Clause. Justice Sotomayor, in her Kennedy dissent, cited the precedents:

‘The public school is at once the symbol of our democracy and the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny,’ meaning that ‘[i]n no activity of the State is it more vital to keep out divisive forces than in its schools.’ Families ‘entrust public schools with the education of their children . . . on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family.’ Accordingly, the Establishment Clause “proscribes public schools from ‘conveying or attempting to convey a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred’ or otherwise endorsing religious beliefs.

I myself went to an Episcopal elementary school where every day began with worship. From 7th to 12th grade I attended an Episcopal boys school. We had religion courses, and two chapel eucharists each week. The popular chaplain, Father Gill, conducted a gorgeous Sarum rite, and our hymns were propelled by a youthful desire to make loud sounds in a resonant space. When I returned for my 40th class reunion, I found a school mostly secularized by its merger with a non-religious girls school. When we visited the chapel in a campus tour, I asked our student guide what remained of the school liturgies. “I don’t really know,” she said. “I’ve never been in here before.”

That made me sad, since my religious schools had been so formative and joyous for my own faith. But I know that public schools are neither appropriate nor feasible venues for common prayer. Inclusivity and diversity are a part of their strength, and in matters of religion they must remain neutral ground. That is why the SCOTUS ruling in Kennedy is so unsettling. It opens the door to some very undesirable outcomes. 

The overview provided at the top of the ruling states, “Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic. Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance, based on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech.” I have no idea what is meant by “comparable secular speech.” Does it mean anything not involving religious language, or any human rituals—like football games, for example—which do not invoke the divine? The misleading fiction of competition here feels like an absurd whine: They get to be secular, but we don’t get to be religious! 

The Bremerton School District was not trying “to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance.” I can’t judge the sincerity or quality of Coach Kennedy’s initial silent prayers, but once he became the presider at a public ritual as a school employee in a school setting, eager to display himself as a visible and symbolic champion of white Evangelical grievance, it was no longer a private act. Gorsuch argued that non-Evangelical, non-Christian, or non-religious students would be mature enough to feel no pressure to join the prayer circle, whether to please their coach (and get more playing time), or to blend in with their peers. Nope, no pressure at all to conform! Apparently, Gorsuch never went to high school. 

There are many nuances to explore in this case and the Establishment Clause in general. If you want to dive deep, you can read the lower court decision here, and the Supreme Court decision here. But one question in particular interests me. When people say they want prayer back in the schools, what are they imagining? As a liturgist committed to eloquence, poetry and theological depth in verbal prayer, as well as the beauty of holiness in public rituals, I’m not sure I would want to trust an ad-libbing football coach with bad grammar to set the standard for spiritual expression in my community. I suppose that’s my elitism showing. 

But seriously, where do you draw the line? If we sanctioned prayers in schools, who would write them and who would critique them? Can you imagine the state prayers if white Christian nationalists ever seize power? In any case, who would decide what could or could not be included in officially approved forms of prayer? Would there be a government liturgical commission? How would we arrive at the government definitions of such broad and inexact terms as “religion” and “prayer”? And should SCOTUS manage to reestablish prayer in public schools, would any and all forms of religious expression then be acceptable, or only the ones favored by conservative Catholics and white Evangelicals? 

The best prayers are rooted in specific traditions. Generic prayers risk a bland vagueness. But there are occasions—mostly tragic—when some ritual spiritual expression as a nation is regarded by most as a good and necessary thing. President Obama’s singing of “Amazing Grace” during his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, murdered in a mass shooting by a white supremacist in 2015, is a powerful example. 

Might we draw inspiration from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalist vision of “unlocking at all risks [our] human doors and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through [us].” [v] (Kids, don’t try this at home!) Or is it possible to emulate the broad sweep of Martin Luther King’s elegantly inclusive phrasing?

“Whether we call it an unconscious process, an impersonal Brahman, or a Personal Being of matchless power and infinite love, there is a creative force in the universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.” [vi]

But what about the “religious speech,” say, of Allen Ginsberg, who after taking acid in the Sixties burst naked out of Timothy O’Leary’s bedroom to declare: “I am the Messiah. I’ve come down to preach love to the world. We’re going to walk through the streets and teach people to stop hating.” [vii]  How would that go over on the 50-yard line of your local high school?

The Supreme Court has lifted the lid on this rabbit hole—and many others. May we find a way to curtail the ambitions of that power-mad cabal before they drag us all into the dark. 

Luckily for us, I’m not a government official, nor are you, dear reader, under any coercion whatsoever. After so much talk about prayer as a political question, let us simply consider the nature of prayer in the wise and powerful words of Native American poet Joy Harjo:[viii]

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you
And know that there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always a sound but other 
Circles of motion
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care 
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we 
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning 
Inside us. 
We pray that it will be done
In beauty. 
In beauty.


[i] Ann and Barry Ulanov, Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer (Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 10.

[ii] Citations from the Supreme Court opinions and dissents can be found at https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/21pdf/21-418_i425.pdf

[iii] Gilead was the new name given to the former United States after a violent takeover by a patriarchal Christian theocracy in Margaret Atwood’s harrowing novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Of course the original reference for my phrase is from W. B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” where an apocalyptic beast, a hideous antichrist, is “slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.”

[iv] Judge Morgan Christen, 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. For the court’s full text: https://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2021/03/18/20-35222.pdf

[v] David R. Williams, Searching for God in the Sixties (Newark: Univ of Delaware Press, 2010), 116.

[vi] Ibid., 116.

[vii] Ibid., 109.

[viii] Joy Harjo, “Eagle Poem” from In Mad Love and War (Wesleyan University Press, 1990).

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize: Following Jesus in the Worst of Times

Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600)

Any number of things can happen when we encounter Jesus. We might be comforted—or we might be uncomfortable. We might be healed—or we might be wounded. We might be instructed—or we might be turned upside down. Jesus is a difference maker. For better or worse, he comes to interrupt—and disrupt—our lives. 

Sometimes Jesus speaks to our heart. Sometimes he speaks to our mind. But every time, he speaks to our will, as he puts the crucial question: 

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown?
Will you let my Name be known?
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me? [i]

We can always say no, of course. Many people have; many people do. Or we may profess our unreadiness or our inadequacy. “Are you kidding me?” said Moses at the Burning Bush. “Who am I to go and talk to Pharoah? I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” In the same way, the prophet Jeremiah also resisted his call: “No way, Lord! Don’t ask me to be a prophet. I don’t know how to speak. I’m only a child.” God has heard all the excuses, but the Divine Intention is not easily dissuaded. “Just do it,” God says.

When Jesus tries to recruit a few followers in Luke 9:51-62, he hears plenty of excuses. “Lord, let me first go home and bury my father,” says one. This sounds reasonable enough, if he’s talking about a corpse back at the house that needs some prompt attention. But this line can also be understood to mean, “I can’t go anywhere as long as my parents are still living. Family obligations come first.”

Another makes a similar excuse: “I will follow you, Lord, but first I must go home to take my leave. I need to get permission from my family before I can come with you. And that may take some time.”

I don’t think Luke’s gospel is telling us to walk out of important relationships. Rather, it is prompting us to ask ourselves: What is so important in my life that I need its permission before I can follow Jesus? My true master might be something as big as the security of having somewhere comfortable to lay my head at night, or as trivial as my habitual routines. I’d love to follow you, Jesus, but let me check my calendar first. 

The excuses in Luke’s passage suggest a world of expectations, obligations, and best-laid plans that prevent us from running away to join the Jesus circus. Today we may enjoy far more social mobility than a first-century Middle-Easterner, but we each have our own version of situations and circumstances that delay and distract us. Some things just won’t let us go. It might be something lingering from our past, like unhealed anger or grief. Or it might be a present concern, like a steady income, emotional needs, or personal ambition.

Jesus says: If you want to follow me, nothing can have more authority over you than the will of God. As for the things that hold you back, just let them go. Let the dead bury the dead. It’s time to move on, deeper and deeper into God. Seek ye first the kingdom of God. And once you’ve put your hand to the gospel plow, don’t look back. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!

The call to be a follower of Jesus may arrive unexpectedly. It may seem inconvenient, or even impossible. But as the saints all tell us, it’s what we are made for. To borrow a line from songwriter Bob Franke, 

I can’t really say it’s the thing I do best, 
but it’s the best thing that I do. [ii]

True vocation is not so much surrender to an outside force as it is the recognition of an internal capacity. In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer makes this point beautifully. “Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not,” he writes. “It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”

“Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about.… The word vocation … is rooted in the Latin for “voice.” Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” [iii]

When Jesus calls me, it is, as it were, “my life telling me who I am.” And Jesus has many voices. You may hear him in the Scriptures or the liturgy, or when you enter the prayerful state of “absolute unmixed attention.”[iv] He will speak through the need of your neighbor, or in your deepest longing. His voice may come as dissatisfaction with the old, or as the intuition of fresh possibility. It may proceed from the mouth of friend and stranger. It may thunder like the transcendent Other, or whisper like the intimate inward presence who has known you all your life.

However Jesus may call us, what happens if we say yes? How do we put our hands to the plow, keep our eyes on the prize, and not look back? When we decide to follow Jesus, when we consent to lose our old lives in the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising, we are born again into a new way of being. No turning back, no turning back. But what will that new being look like? How will we be different? How will we make a difference?

St. Paul gives us a good list to start with in his letter to the Galatians (5:1, 13-25). Everything that binds, enslaves, and weighs you down, forget it. Instead of indulging yourselves, start loving one another. Say goodbye to enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy and licentiousness. Practice love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Let the Spirit dance in you. 

Paul’s advice seems radically countercultural in an America so sickened by hatred, division, malice, and fear—a contagion which has spread to a degree unimaginable just five years ago. As Judge Michael Luttig recently lamented in his testimony before the January 6th Select Committee, “In the moral, catatonic stupor America finds itself in today, it is only disagreement we seek, and the more virulent that disagreement, the better.” [v]

In such a country, such a world, such a time, what is a disciple to do? Well, there’s no easy answer, no single method or path. We must figure it out as we go, the way the saints of old did amid crumbling empires, or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer did in 1930s Germany, or as Martin Luther King did in a Birmingham jail. It will certainly require steadfast faith and boundless love, but perhaps it is courageous hope we will need most of all. 

In the worst of times, hope is the engine of persistence and the antidote for despair. Never forget: God makes a way where there is no way, and as God’s friends we are called to shine with that truth every day, “planting the seeds of resurrection amid the blind sufferings of history.” [vi]


[i] “The Summons,” a song from the Iona Community in Scotland (GIA Publications, 1987).

[ii] Bob Franke, “Boomerang Pancakes” (Telephone Pole Music, 1986).

[iii] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 10, 4.

[iv] The phrase is from Simone Weil.

[v] Michael Luttig, testimony before the January 6 Select Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, June 16, 2022.

[vi] I believe I got this quote from an Orthodox theologian, but I can no longer trace the source. 

This post is adapted from a homily for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, 2022.

On the Brink of War: “Choose life.”

Matteo di Giovanni, The Slaughter of the Innocents (detail, floor panel, Siena cathedral, 1481)

A madman has brought us to the brink of war. No one can predict where we go from here. If we’re lucky, the U.S. and Iran will both back off and stand down. If we’re not, hello Armageddon. But the fact that a psychologically unstable and dangerously impulsive ignoramus is steering us toward disaster, while Congress and public seem powerless or unwilling to relieve him of his command, should both terrify and sicken us. The “shining city on a hill” has become a rogue state: cruel, murderous, and––if we allow ourselves to be drawn into a war with Iran––clearly insane. 

Politicians and pundits are debating the reasons and guessing the consequences, but who is talking about the madness of a president who commits murder during his golf vacation? Who is calling out the evil of a president who would invite apocalypse to evade impeachment? Pretending not to notice these things is a form of enabling, if not its own kind of madness. 

People say Soleimani deserved death for taking so many lives. Do we really want to go down that road? If the death toll from the administration’s dismantling of health care and environmental protections should produce more fatalities than those caused by the Iranian general, what then would Trump deserve? 

We must say no to murder, and no to war. State-sponsored assassination is both repugnant and counterproductive. And military violence has become virtually obsolete as an instrument of national policy, as we have seen over the last three decades of endless and fruitless conflict. Will we never learn?

Twenty-nine years ago this month, I preached against Desert Storm, four days after we began to assault Iraq with the terrifying technology of “shock and awe.” It was not a popular sermon––over 80% of Americans took the opposite view.

I cited a declaration of the Anglican conference of bishops in 1978: “War as a matter of settling disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ. The use of modern technology of war is the most striking example of corporate sin and the prostitution of God’s gifts.” But in 1991 our country was in love with our sophisticated weapons, and people were intoxicated by the smell of victory. 

For those who watched Desert Storm on television, it seemed like a video game. The “enemy” were just blips on the screen, bloodless and abstract, vaporized by noisy explosions. In my sermon, I tried to humanize the conflict: 

In Baghdad’s art center, there is a painting of Jesus, gazing at the world around him with an expression of profound sadness and pain. He wears a Palestinian scarf around his neck and he is handcuffed.

If a Christian bomber pilot knew Christ was in Baghdad, would he deliver his payload? Of course, war is not run by the personally motivated decisions of soldiers. War is organized from above. Soldiers just play their assigned part. But they can only function as long as the enemy remains a mere target, rather than a brother or a sister. They must practice indifference to the stories of their victims. Don’t see. Don’t feel.

But you and I cannot let this war be a video game. Instead, let us see and know that it is Christ being crucified in every victim. Let us watch Christ’s hands being pierced; let us hear his cry of anguish. Let us witness the Madonna and Child blown to bits in the air raid. 

As I said, it was not my most popular sermon. 

We pray every day to be delivered from evil. May that be so in our present danger. But if war comes, may we have the courage and the faith to choose Christ over the “powers” of this world, and say no to the violence. As Martin Luther King reminded us, “Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.” Ironically, Desert Storm began on Martin Luther King Day, seeming to mock the way of nonviolence. But faith takes the long view. Violence has no future. 

Today I give you the choice of life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life.

                         –– Deuteronomy 30:19 

Festo Kivengere, the Ugandan bishop whose people suffered greatly under the unspeakably barbaric rule of Idi Amin, was once asked: “If you were sitting in Idi Amin’s office with a gun in your hand, what would you do?”

“I would give him the gun, “Kivengere replied. “I would tell him, ‘This is your weapon. My weapon is love.’”

For all the saints

Fra Angelico saints

Dorothy Day, the feisty co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, has been called the most interesting and significant figure in the history of American Catholicism. Deeply nourished by a discipline of liturgy and prayer, she devoted her life not only to serving the poor on a daily basis, but also to challenging the very forces that create poverty in the first place. She was a pacifist and activist who sometimes practiced civil disobedience to resist militarism. racism and systemic greed. For her faithful witness to the way of Jesus, she was investigated, jailed, and even shot at. Basically, she understood that the Christian life not only produces thoughts, feelings, and beliefs; it also produces actions that make a difference. It produces people who make a difference.

But “don’t call me a saint,” she warned. “When they call you a saint, it means basically that you’re not to be taken seriously.”

The same sort of neglect has been applied to the Beatitudes, and all the other teachings of Jesus: they are dismissed as unattainable ideals rather than guides to the way we might actually live our lives.

And what do you say? Is it enough for the friends of Jesus, the friends of God, to sit on the sidelines and cheer on the great athletes of sanctity whom we ourselves could never hope to imitate? Or is it about time for the rest of us to get in the game?

When we gather for worship, we may be consoled, we may be inspired, we may be refreshed. Sometimes some of those things happen, sometimes all of them happen, sometimes none of them happen.

But what always happens is, God speaks to us in Word and Sacrament, and then sends us out into the world with an assignment: to do the work we have been given to do.

So what exactly is our assignment, on this Feast of All Saints, 2014? It’s right there in the gospel. First of all, Jesus says, you need to turn the world’s values upside down. You need to look at everything in a new way.

The poor will be blessed with the gift of the kingdom,
while the rich will have to learn the hard way that life can’t be owned.

Everyone who weeps will find out what grace and comfort mean,
while those who are smug and self-satisfied
will be unable to grasp their deepest need.

And if you are marginalized and scorned because you follow me, says Jesus,
you are in such good company,
for that is exactly how the saints were treated.

Jesus never gives easy assignments. Discipleship isn’t kindergarten. It’s graduate school. And if you want to get your PhD, here’s the deal:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
If anyone needs something, give it to them;
and if anyone should relieve you of your attachments,
don’t make a fuss.
Just let it all go.

When Jesus says such things, is he really talking to us? The saints have always thought so, and they have responded accordingly.

So many of their biographies begin with them giving all their money to the poor, and then the rest of the story tells how they keep giving themselves away to God. Saints are the ones whose discipleship knows no limits. They can seem extravagant, immoderate, audacious, even a little weird.

Risking everything. Pouring out everything. Holding nothing back.
Trusting completely the One they follow, even when the way is rough and steep.
No longer looking out for number one,
but giving themselves away in works of love and mercy.

And you mean to be one too, don’t you?

You never know when you’re going to get the call. It could come in a sudden flash of revelation, or it could come on the freeway when someone cuts you off and you must decide whether to respond with anger or with love.

But when the call does come, you know what to say.
People in the Bible said it all the time.
The saints said it all the time.
Here I am.

Here I am. At your disposal. Your will be done.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about how the call came to him: “Almost out of nowhere I heard a voice. ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’” After that, King said, “I was ready to face anything.”

And some of you will remember Dag Hammarskjöld, elected Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1953, who was a tireless worker for world peace. In 1961 he died in a plane crash on his way to deal with a crisis in Africa, and it was only after his death that the world learned that he was not just a famous and effective public figure, but a Christian mystic as well, with a profound and faithful inner life.

Hammarskjöld wrote this about his own call:

I don’t know Who – or what – put the question. I do not know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, life, in self-surrender, had a goal.

Most of us don’t get such a definitive summons. Sometimes it comes as gradually as the dawn, making its way slowly into our awareness. But wherever we are in that process of awakening, we are being called every day, every hour, to sanctify the moment with a word or an action that makes God visible to others, and plants another seed of resurrection in the soil of ordinary time.

It doesn’t always have to be extraordinary or monumental. Henri Nouwen, in a short list of questions, shows just how simple the work of a saint can be:

Did I offer peace today?
Did I bring a smile to someone’s face?
Did I say words of healing?
Did I let go of my anger and resentments?
Did I forgive?
Did I love?

But you may be thinking: What’s it going to cost me to follow Jesus?
Well, that’s the tricky part. It will cost no less than everything.
But it will also bring perfect joy.

Whatever saints need to give up, whatever their ordeals, whatever their sufferings, saints are not, by and large, a gloomy lot. Even under the most extreme duress, they manage to sound a note of joy.

Sheila Cassidy, a British physician, forged a striking image for this saintly joy in her own experience in a Chilean prison in the 1970’s. She had been imprisoned for treating a wounded revolutionary, and for a while she was tortured. When the torture finally stopped, and she was able to collect herself, her first impulse was to scream out to God for deliverance, begging to be released.

But then another response rose up in her. In her words, it was “to hold out my empty hands to God, not in supplication, but in offering. I would say, not ‘Please let me out’ but ‘Here I am, Lord, take me. I trust you. Do with me what you will….’ In my powerlessness and captivity there remained to me one freedom: I could abandon myself into the hands of God.”

And the image that emerged for her from that moment was of a bird in a cage, which could either “exhaust itself battering its wings against the bars, or else learn to live within the confines of its prison, and find, to its surprise, that it has the strength to sing.”

And how does it go – the song of the caged bird?
I believe it sounds something like this:

I see God in … the marks of … love in every visible thing and it sometimes happens that I am seized by a supreme joy which is above all other joys.

These are the words of a Dutch priest. He wrote them in the concentration camp at Dachau, before he was killed for preaching in defense of the Jews. Such profound joy under duress is not unique among the friends of Jesus. Saints and martyrs have sung this song in every age. Even in the hour of trial, even at the brink of the grave, they have sung this song, because they knew the secret.

They knew that beneath everything, within everything, beyond everything,
there is a Love which is stronger than suffering,
stronger than evil, stronger than death.
It has brought all things into being
It sustains us on our journey
It will guide us safely home.

This Love calls us in every moment – indeed, it is calling right here, right now – to follow, to serve, to embody, to manifest, to surrender. All the saints before us said yes to this call, over and over again. And they are cheering us on to do the same.

Will you say yes to Jesus, yes to God?
Will you stand with the saints today?
Will you join their song?
Will you share their work?
Will you bear their sacrifice?
Will you embrace their perfect joy?