Sermon by The Rev. Laura Howell
at the Funeral of Canon A. Malcolm MacMillan
September 20, 2008
Isaiah 25:6-10; Philippians 2:5-11; John 14:1-19
If some of you have come today expecting to hear about how perfect and saintly Father Mac was, you may lie back and think…about castles in Scotland for the next few minutes. I have never liked eulogies that describe someone in such glowing terms that they are unrecognizable. Mac was not a character in a romance novel. So you won’t hear that from me.
When I first began to work with Father Mac, he gave me a strict warning. I’ve heard him say it to other people, too, so I don’t think I’m telling tales out of school. He said, “You need to know that I am very stubborn and excessively willful.” He was not exaggerating. I see some of you smiling and nodding. You know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you? But apparently he didn’t think about what it would mean to take on one of the descendants of the Keiths –– Earl Marshalls of Scotland.
He was indeed a man of erudition, with high pastoral skills, and a great desire to be holy — whether or not he achieved that goal is up to his Maker to say. He was also creative, artistic — he made wonderful artwork and calligraphy. And when his hands failed him due to his Parkinson’s disease, he did amazing things on the computer. He was passionate about the causes of social justice. He loved people: his family most of all, of course, but parishioners, colleagues, soup kitchen guests, and especially children. He was tremendously gregarious and generous. But he could also be cantankerous, demanding, focused to a fault, judgmental, and a noodge. In other words, Mac was a fine priest… But also simply human, with typical human failings. Sometimes I had the suspicion that he reveled in his faults. Maybe that’s why he got along so well with a Foole.
Father Mac was particularly proud of his Scottish heritage. As if you couldn’t tell that from the kilts, plaids, harps and pipes here today. I had a struggle of conscience about leaving off my Keith scarf to put on vestments this morning. He liked to talk about the history of his clan, MacMillan. That name means “Son of the Tonsured Servant.” And he gloried in the fact that as he lived out his priestly vocation, he was also living out the clan roots in the ancient Celtic church. So it should have been no surprise when, about a week before his death, he asked his wife to read his favorite passage of the Bible to him: Philippians 2:5-11.
There is no doubt in my mind that Mac’s prime goal was to let the same mind be in him that was in Christ Jesus. His overriding passion was to emulate Christ. Beyond that, to bring others to an intimate knowledge of the Holy One. Even his Clan Macmillan activities served that end. Mac was the founder of a spiritual fellowship group called the Community of the Tonsured Servant within the Clan, and became its first Abbot. A few years ago, he bequeathed his abbatial crosier to Bishop Paul, and I believe it is present here today, since Bishop Paul could not be. The Community he founded took the clan motto as its primary object: to learn to help the distressed. This was one of Mac’s life-long commitments, which each of his children honor in their own ways: Alex as a psychologist, David as a minister, and Elizabeth as Deacon and Soup Kitchen Coordinator. And he planned well in adding another Servant to the clan by marrying Mother Patricia, one of our own priests.
Many of us looked to Father Mac as a model and guide on the road to Christian holiness. So as we read the passage from Philippians day after day near his bedside, I was prompted to consider his life, and then to consider our own situation. What does it mean for a dynamic, strong-willed, intelligent man in the prime of his young life to follow Christ and empty himself, taking on the form of a slave? To empty oneself is the consummate act of will, because everything in us fights to further our own self-interest. Even a little child will struggle to do what he or she wants to do. To choose to become a slave is terrifying. To give the power of life and death over to another, to surrender totally, is not something that we can do easily.
Father Mac was ill for a very long time. Parkinson’s disease insidiously robs people of their most cherished abilities: to walk, to read, even to talk. I watched Mac go from stage to stage until he reached the end of his life. I am certainly not one who thinks that God makes bad things happen to good people to prove a point, or to punish them. But it occurs to me that in his long illness, perhaps Mac was granted what he had longed for. Like so many other debilitating diseases, Parkinson’s empties you. Willy nilly, it makes you totally dependent. Like it or not, you are humbled, when it becomes necessary to rely on others for even the smallest things, like lifting a glass of water for a sip.
I suspect that The Reverend Canon Alexander Malcolm MacMillan found the tools he had prayed for his whole life. A couple of times he expressed the feeling that he was useless, now that he could no longer live the active life of a parish priest. Mac was not any different from most of us in wondering, “Now that I cannot fulfill the vocation I have enjoyed for so many years, why is God keeping me here? If I cannot serve God in the way God asked me to for decades, what can I do?” I am not a very nice person. So my answer to him was not a very nice one. I said that having taken the vows and heard the words, “You are a priest forever,” he was not excused from his priesthood. And there are many people in the nursing home who need a priest. If prayer needs came to his attention, he could undertake the priestly function of intercession — and I know that became his primary spiritual work during his last years. The Tonsured Servant had to find the courage to be obedient to the call of God’s people, because even in the last few days of his life when there were visitors, he still gave us his priestly blessing by moving the tips of his fingers.
Father Mac went from competent, vibrant strength in his younger years to the most extreme physical weakness. St. Paul said that Christ’s power is made complete in weakness. Even weak, Mac had a lot to teach us about the kind of emptiness that makes room for Christ.
Now that he has gone to God, we are like the disciples, saddened to know that Jesus was going to leave them. I’m not sure how well we can accept the words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” My faith is far from perfect, because when I am sorrowful, I think to myself, “Yeah, right. Easy to say, ‘Don’t be sad.’ That’s like saying ‘don’t worry.’” How effective is that?
Jesus challenges us not to let our feelings overwhelm us. Remember in the ancient world that the heart was the seat of the will, as well as of emotions. Don’t let them be troubled, he says. Make a decision to believe in God and believe in me. Our personal sorrow is real, and it can live alongside of faith. They are not mutually exclusive.
Then Jesus makes a couple of interesting statements about how he sees our relationship with him. He says, “I will take you to myself.” That fits in with the humble servant theme — he is going to take us to his dwelling place, as though he owned us. A few verses later, though, he says that he will not leave us orphaned. That’s the sort of language you use about family. We never talk about slaves being orphaned, only about children. And then he says that because he lives, we will, also, as though we were somehow equal with him. If someone receives a marvelous inheritance, it is the family who benefit from the proceeds, not the slaves. So, in a few verses, we have gone from Jesus telling us to exercise our wills and anchor ourselves in him so we do not fall into despair … to an acknowledgement that he is our chief and can bring us along … to calling us part of the clan, receiving the eternal life that he shares with us..
I believe that Father Mac has already inherited Isaiah’s promises: the last years’ veil of weakness and illness has now been removed. Tears have been wiped from his face, and there are now tears of joy at being reunited with his loved ones. I bet anything that the man who loved to eat everything — except vegetables –– is enjoying that feast of rich food and well-aged wines.
But we here are still stuck in verse nine: we are still waiting for God to save us. We are still waiting to be glad. What are we going to do while we are waiting? Our answer is the same not very nice one as Mac’s was: we are not excused from serving. There are people who need us. The lonely to be listened to, prayers to be raised, the hungry to be fed, the oppressed to be helped.