Sermon: Disreputable Company

July 5, 2020
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

by Eric Anderson

As June arrived, the young ‘akepa had learned to fly, had learned to find spiders and caterpillars, had learned to clean and settle his feathers, and had learned that it is a glorious thing to be an ‘akepa. What other bird could match his reddish orange feathers with the contrasting browns, grays, and black at the tip of his tail feathers and wings. The I’iwi might be a brighter red, but orange was clearly better. He was sure as well that a short straight beak was clearly the way that a beak should be.

He had the best parents, obviously. His father, in particular, was a mighty singer in the ‘akepa style. Oh, he’d heard ‘alawi try to sing, but they lacked the variation in notes so apparent to a listening ear with some taste. The ‘alawi song was dry and unsatisfying, he thought, and not even fit to be heard in the same forest.

As for the feathering on an ‘alawi, well, that was just laughable. It was a sadly drab olive green. Their beaks were okay, and they had some nice black trim along their wings and tails, but really. Orange. That’s the way to go. Orange.

He didn’t mention that to his mother and his sister since, well, their feathers were much the same color: gray green above and creamy below. It was best not to mention these things, even if everybody knew them.

Then June came. His parents announced that it was time to leave the nest. “We’ll spend some time in a flock,” they said. Well, that sounded fine, except that he didn’t know what one was. “It’s a big group of birds,” they said, “all flying together to find food and sing and learn about things.”

“Oh,” he said. “Like a school for fish.”

They ignored the joke.

A few days later all four of them – mother, father, brother, sister – left the nest and flew to where the flock was gathered. He saw the flash of orange of male ‘akepa and the gray-green of female ‘akepa. Oh. Wait.

“This is the wrong flock,” he hissed to his parents. “There are ‘alawi in that one.”

“Why, yes,” said his mother. “We’ve flown with ‘alawi for years.”

“But that’s wrong,” he insisted.

“What’s wrong with it?” asked his sister.

“It’s just wrong!” he said. “They’re not like us. They’re not one of us. I’m not flying in any flock with ‘alawi.”

And just like that, he took off into the wood with his parents despite his parents’ pleas to come back.

He landed on an ohi’a branch covered with blossoms and sulked. He couldn’t believe that his family was so far gone as to fly with ‘alawi. He plucked a bug or two from the lehua and munched away in a foul mood. The branch bounced as another bird landed on it. He heard a voice that said, “Get out.”

He looked up to see an i’iwi perched on the branch looking at him with a very unfriendly eye. “I’m just sitting here eating bugs,” he said. “I don’t even eat nectar. Look. Those lehua are dripping with it. That’s all for you.”

“Get out,” said the i’iwi.

The next thing that the ‘akepa knew, there were black wings beating at him and a curved beak whacking at him and he was flying as fast as he’d ever flown in his life. He could hear the wingbeats of the i’iwi behind him, still shouting, “Get out!” He hardly dared glance at where he was going. He just flew.

Suddenly there were other colors in front of him – olive green, orange, and yellow. The i’iwi broke off its chase. He landed, gasping, in the tree. He looked about. There were ‘alawi there, and ‘akepa, and even an ‘amakihi or two. There was a blur of orange and green wings, and his parents and sister were there, too.

“What do you think of ‘alawi now?” asked his father.

“They’re fine birds, fine birds,” said the young ‘akepa. “I can see I’ve got a lot to learn from them.”

I only wish that people could learn about people as well as ‘akepa can learn about ‘alawi.

In this section of Matthew, Jesus comments on the way that people justify the ways that they dismiss other people, in this case two people who were both trying to spread the urgent message of God being distinctly present with them. They looked at John the Baptist, who lived in the wilderness, dressed in distinctively uncomfortable clothing, and ate wild locusts and honey (it’s not just ‘akepa and ‘alawi who like to eat bugs for lunch). “He’s too odd,” they said. “He’s too extreme. He’s too judgmental. He’s too weird. There is definitely something wrong with him.”

And if there’s something wrong with him, we don’t have to listen to him.

Jesus, on the other hand, presented himself rather differently. When he visited a community, he accepted the invitations of local leaders to join them for a meal and, one assumes, to stay the night. His followers were known for being somewhat lax. For instance, they would pluck grain on the sabbath for a snack. Even worse, some of the people Jesus attracted were downright scandalous. They included suspect women and men who had worked for the hated Roman occupiers.

He’s a glutton and a drunkard and he hangs out with the wrong people. We don’t have to listen to him.

They’ve got the wrong feathers. They’ve got the wrong color skin. They’ve got the wrong beak. They eat the wrong food. They’ve got the wrong song. They’ve got a different history. They’ve got a different set of values. They’ve got a different gender. They love someone we’ve decided that they shouldn’t.

They’re not our kind of bird. They’re not nice people. We don’t have to listen to them.

We human beings are better at this than any ‘akepa ever dreamed.

Jennifer Kaalund writes at Working Preacher, “How many times have we been misunderstood? Characterized in ways that do not truly describe who we are? How frustrating is it for someone to assume they know something about you based on where you grew up or where you went to school, your gender identity or the color of your skin, a number of factors that simply do not capture the complexity of who you really are.”

What a burden. What a terrible, terrible burden.

It’s a curious thing about a yoke. It can be burden. It can also be the difference between failure and success.

Two oxen linked with a yoke can pull heavy burdens, sometimes without showing any strain, that they cannot pull individually. For that matter, the very act of placing a yoke on the shoulders means that they can bring more of their strength to the task.

If I want to carry a heavy weight, I make sure I can get it over my shoulders. I don’t want to carry it in my hands. If I want to carry something any distance, I get it onto my shoulders. My arms won’t go the distance.

If I want to move something big, I ask people to do it with me. I don’t try to carry it alone.

Jesus didn’t promise that there wouldn’t be a yoke. He just said that it would be easier and lighter than the yokes of the world. Is it not our yoke to work together with other people for freedom? Is it not our task to relieve people of the yokes of racism, sexism, heterosexism, nationalism, and more, so that we can join into the yoke of working to free even more? Is it not our task to breathe with relief at the burdens we have shed, then to take up the lesser but critical burden of bringing that relief to others?

Is it not our task to take up the yoke of making the fine words and sentiments of the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution true for all?

That means that we are bound for disreputable company, to be among the ‘alawi and even the ‘amakihi, to be willing to lay down our expectations of leadership and our preconceptions of privilege, to be willing to follow a creaky cranky prophet wearing camel’s hair on the one hand and a friend of the wrong people on the other. May we be willing to become those wrong people. May we be willing to join them in the yoke.

May we be the disreputable company that relieves the burdens of the world.


Watch the Recorded Sermon

This video includes the complete service of July 5, 2020. Clicking on the image above will jump to the beginning of the sermon.

The sermon as preached isn’t just different. It’s better. At least, that was Pastor Eric’s opinion at the time.

Photo by Dominic Sherony – Hawaii Akepa (Loxops coccineus), CC BY-SA 2.0,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on July 5, 2020

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