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Hype Babies, and Reassurance

I would like to make it clear that I did not plan on preaching on the Primates communique.  I was pretty much over it by the time I got to Friday, and I assumed most everyone else would be too.  (A tiny amount of projection helps in preaching, don’t you know.)  As I commented to someone over the weekend, I haven’t spent this much time explaining the workings of Anglican polity since the GOEs.

But when I went to look at the lessons, there was that piece from 1 Corinthians, as if the Holy Spirit herself had planned this whole thing, and was off in a corner giggling at us.  And all day Saturday, as I was handing out food to the hungry and cold of Kansas City, parishioners asked me, “So why are the Anglicans being so mean to us?” “What happens now at church?” “Are we really being kicked out?” All the social media that flows past my eyes daily bore witness to a heightened level of anxiety about this which, frankly, really surprised me.

I think those of us who are enmeshed in church geekery assume that these squabbles are just that, and no more.  We forget that there are times when our political arguments are not just theoretical, but they do affect real people, who really care what happens.

So, dear reader, I preached about the Primates.  And parties.  And wine.

Here is what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

January 16-17, 2016

2 Sunday after Epiphany, Year C

John 2:1-11, 1 Corinthians

 

So there are good things and bad things about preaching from a lectionary.  Sometimes, it’s your week to preach, you look up the gospel, and discover that Jesus has just told a story about a servant who embezzled cash, then gets rewarded.  (Thing that happens!)  That’s a downside.

Then, sometimes, the media spends most of the week deciding that your worldwide Anglican Communion is on the verge of collapse, OMG, and the lectionary assigns this reading from 1 Corinthians.  

I haven’t decided if this is a good thing, or if the Holy Spirit is just cheerfully trolling us.  

So, a few notes for background:

If you weren’t anxiously glued to the #primates2016 on Twitter this week (and why should you have been? You have lives, you have jobs!), then you may not be aware that this week, the Archbishop of Canterbury called a meeting of the different heads of the different Anglican churches from all around the communion.  For what amounts to a very large tea party, as is their wont.  

The stated purpose of the meeting was to work through the conflict in the Communion which has been festering for some years now.  Or decades.  Or even longer, depending on how you’re measuring. The conflict can be traced to a lot of things: colonialism, western imperialism, differences in scriptural interpretation,  differences in authority, but where most of the blame has been focused is the church in the US’ openness to women’s ordination, ordination of LGBTQ folks, and willingness to bless same-gender marriage.

In the run up to the meeting, everyone was doing that whole chest-out, I’m very tough, routine.  The conservative group of primates released a statement threatening to boycott, and/or walk out.  The English media wrote a lot about how this would be the END OF ANGLICANISM, OH NO.  

It was dire.  

But you know what happened?

None of that.  Pretty much none of that.  

No one walked out, except one guy from Uganda, and he apparently forgot to tell anyone about it until Thursday.  On Thursday, the primates leaked/released a statement which affirmed the primates’ commitment to stick together–but also said that many of them were worried by what the US church had done, so it recommended that we take what amounts to a time out for 3 years–not representing the Anglican Communion on ecumenical dialogues (which we haven’t been doing anyway, since 2009) and abstaining from some internal votes.  Now, we’ve pretty much been doing those things already, so this is not actually as big a deal as it  sounds.  It has not affected our life here in Kansas City, because I daresay none of you even noticed.  

The statement went on to say that the primates were against the criminalization of homosexuality, and believed in caring pastorally for all people.

So that’s what happened. It’s not the greatest possible outcome–it would have been wonderful for the primates to have agreed, to have immediately gotten on board with what we did, when they heard our explanations.  But I don’t think that this is the worst possible outcome either.  It’s not the death knell for Anglicanism, it doesn’t mean we have been kicked out of the global church, or punished, or sanctioned, or anything like that.  We. Are. Fine.  

There’s a lot still that’s unknown.  Stan and I have been arguing about what is supposed to happen in three years–both because we don’t know, and we disagree in our theories, and because we are clergy, and so are paid to argue about things like this during the week.  What’s clear, though, is that right now a few things are true:

  1. The churches of the Anglican Communion have said they are committed to sticking this out together.
  2. The Episcopal Church isn’t changing its stance on the full inclusion of GLBTQ people.  The Presiding Bishop told the other primates that, and he reaffirmed it in his statement to the church.  We are doing what we believe God has called us to do, based on how we have experienced the Spirit at work.  And certainly, our life at St. Paul’s here in KC isn’t changing.  

It’s like all these member Anglican churches, together at a giant party.  A wedding, why not, since we are all called to the wedding of the Lamb, says Revelation.  And yet, the wedding has hit a snag.  A crisis.  And the whole thing is thrown into a shambles.

Yet we know, from today’s gospel, from that tricky lectionary, that Jesus has a thing about parties it would seem.  Parties need to go on.  *****

Running out of wine at a wedding feast may seem like an incidental problem, but it would have been a huge crisis.  People saved their whole lives long for weddings–they lasted several days, up to a week, and you invited literally everyone in town. Wedding banquets were the one time in a person’s life where you had to rub elbows with people you may not know–people different than you, because EVERYONE was invited.  To run out of food or wine was to show that you were failing in showing hospitality to these people you lived with.  It was a loss of honor–which is why Jesus’ mother is so perturbed by the situation.  The party is in danger of shutting down before it starts.  She’s looking out for the bride and groom.  And so Jesus does something unexpected.  Instead of giving a speech, or running to the wine merchant, he provides the best wine.  And a lot of it–Jesus churns out 120 gallons of it.  

An unexpected miracle.  And so the party continues.  

It’s not comfortable to be in this place where we are right now in the church.  It’s not a great place.  But I do believe that our call is to be right where we are.  Because for as uncomfortable as it is to be at this particular party we find ourselves at, with this particular guest list, I do believe that St. Paul is also right–we all need each other.  And for as painful as it is at this particular moment, I think our particular gift at this time, like our Presiding bishop has said, is to bear witness to the gifts we have received through the presence of our LGBTQ members.  That’s the gift that we–and no one else, right now!–has.  We need to share that–and we also need to listen and receive the gifts of the other Anglican churches.  Something that we, who benefit so richly from the presence of our South Sudanese community, know very well. Their presence with us and their perspective make us better able to see the God of infinity.

We need to stay at this party.  Even when it hits a bump.  Even when Real Housewives-type drama breaks out.  Because if we stay here faithfully long enough, sooner or later, there’s going to be a miracle.  

Amen.

 

****Very important NB.  At the 10:30 service, it was at this point, when I paused to let the importance of parties sink in, that a baby from the very back screamed “YAAAAAASSSSS!” at the top of her lungs.  The congregation burst out in laughter and applause.

This has given me a new idea:  I will haul a baby around with me to all future preaching appearances, in order to have Adorable Affirmation of all of my homiletical points.

 

What comes next?

For the past week, the primates from around the Anglican Communion have been meeting in England to discuss the state of the church, and drink tea. (Please note: these are the heads of regional churches, not the monkeys.)

In the run up to this meeting, the churchy media went a bit nuts with speculating.  What would happen? Who would storm out?  The conservative primates had all threatened to storm out, at one point or another.  Would so-and-so get an invite?  Would this person wear appropriate vestments?  More fussing than normally happens at a middle school party.

We found out what actually happened today.  The primates, in what seems to be an effort to quell the rumor mill, put out a statement.

And the frenzy ratcheted up another couple notches.

The secular press immediately declared that we had been SUSPENDED FROM THE COMMUNION (no, that’s not a thing that can happen.)  Some of them declared that SANCTIONS HAD BEEN IMPOSED (again, nope, not a real thing.) All in all, it was pretty breathless and frantic, and please to recall, the secular press in general has a horrendous track record of reporting on the Episcopal Church because our polity is wackadoodle.

So, some things to bear in mind, now that you’ve read that statement for yourself:

(If you haven’t, go back and do that.  Good Lord. Primary sources are important.)

  1. The Archbishop of Canterbury ‘fired’ our representatives on all Anglican ecumenical and interfaith dialogues a few years ago.  That was already a reality. (And not a great one either, but neither was it the kiss of death, because few people noticed, other than those affected.)
  2. Up until now, the previous archbishop had wanted to solve this problem by instituting that old chestnut, the Anglican Covenant.  Under the terms of the Covenant, if a province does something unpopular, they lose all representation until they repent.  So the understanding, in many quarters, had been that the suspension we’d been under was just infinite. Or until Jesus returned and sorted this out himself.  The fact that we now have a 3 year time frame WITHOUT an attached expectation of repentance is a rather big deal.
  3. It’s not altogether clear how the primates can manage what they’re proposing.  They don’t get to determine membership on the ecumenical dialogues, or on any voting groups.  Up until now, the primates met together to plan the Lambeth council. Probably, this statement is referring to a voluntary abstention from certain votes on TEC’s part.
  4. Weird how no one’s mad at Canada, huh?  Considering that Canada was blessing same-gender unions, and had legalized same-gender marriage before we did, and that New Zealand is now also doing both those things, it’s rather fascinating that the Episcopal Church alone is the one in trouble.

Let’s talk about that last one, because it’s that last one that’s really where this gets interesting.

Way back in ye olden times of 2003, when we ordained +Gene Robinson, and this whole thing kicked off in earnest, the Anglican Communion responded by issuing the Windsor Report.  Among other things, it said that Canada was also in trouble for being troublingly nice to LGBTQ people,  as well as Nigeria, Rwanda, and the Southern Cone, who had crossed into provinces that weren’t their own and stolen churches–a no-no since Nicea.  (Literally.)  The Episcopal Church got the biggest talking-to out of the report, but everyone else was also in trouble.

Interestingly, in the ensuing years, in the ensuing statements and actions, no one ever came after Canada.  But the Episcopal Church got nailed.  We lost representation on ecumenical groups, like I said, and we were called out in document after document.  What had started out as a pretty widespread communion breakdown shifted into something we did, by ourselves.

I have a theory.

Up until very recently, there really was no Anglican Communion to speak of.  There was us, and the UK churches…and a bunch of colonies.  That was it.  Then, around the 1980s, those colonies in Asia and Africa started to gain their independence.  And all of a sudden, these people had the ability and wherewithal to express their own thoughts and ideas, independent from the mother church.  Suddenly, it became very important for them to have their own voice, their own identity, beyond that of a British colony.

Fast forward: The OTHER thing that happened in 2003 if you weren’t myopically gazing at the church was the invasion of Iraq.  American cowboy president unilaterally takes over another sovereign nation preemptively.

Now, if you are a bishop in a postcolonial state, worried about the reach of Western imperialism and global capitalism, this is pretty much the nightmare scenario for you.  Because those hot-headed Americans are now running amuck across the globe taking whatever they want with their giant military, and who knows who is next.  And by the way, those Americans also went and ordained this gay bishop in New Hampshire.

I would argue that for many in the global South, the two events were fused.  Just as our understanding of politics in South Sudan is usually without nuance, the suggestion that the American Episcopal church (which, let’s remember, was also spread around the world through the military) would have a different approach than our government might not get picked up. The refrain that is frequently heard around this is that “Those Americans are trying to force everyone else to do it their way”.  While that’s both not true and pretty impossible, it does reflect the perception of America…which got thrown back onto the church.

All of which is to say that what’s happening right now is all about the US, and not about gay marriage.  It’s about churches and people long denied a voice now finding one, and using it to express their anger.

What’s frustrating, of course, is that this is anger directed at the exact wrong thing.  Seriously, Uganda!  I hate colonialism too!  Ask me about Yorktown sometime!  Rwanda, I agree, global capitalism is horrible and we need a better option.  We should work on that.  And Nigeria, none of us like the British, so let’s just shake on that right now.

But could we name this what it is, rather than misdirect it at LGBTQ people who didn’t do anything?  This isn’t about them.  This is about the scars of our mutual history coming to the surface.

The good news is 1.) that this post is almost finished, and 2.) that it now seems like everyone will get to stay at the table to figure this out together.  Because while we may be angry with each other, it is now looking like there is definitely light 3 years out on the horizon.

And we will get to find out what we have to argue about next.

 

A Place of Animals

As is our custom, St. Paul’s Anglo congregation combined with the St. Paul’s South Sudanese congregation on Christmas Eve at the late service.

I love worshipping with the South Sudanese community.  I have found them to be funny, brilliant, faithful, and some of the best cooks around.   And one of these days, I am going to learn Dinka, because that is a really neat sounding language.

Selfishly, I love being around any community that is unlike me, because it reminds me that the salvation of the world is not solely up to me.  There are countless others in this, too, contributing things that never occur to me.  Thanks be for that.

This year, the Sudanese choir and dance team performed a series of songs about the birth of Christ at the service.  One of which, the leader of the choir announced, was translated “Jesus came in a place of animals.”

I love this phrasing so much that it ended up being the foundation of my Christmas 1 sermon.  Christ came in a place of animals–both literally and metaphorically.

See what you think.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 27, 2015

Christmas 1, Year C

John 1

 

The beginning of John’s gospel is like music, like poetry.  The words flow together so nicely that it almost doesn’t matter what they actually say.  And like poetry, the language is so evocative that it’s hard to pin down what, exactly, the writer is talking about, and it almost seems a shame to try.  

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

This lovely ephemeral poetry that just trips off the tongue.

John does that a lot.  While Matthew, Mark and Luke want to tell you the straight-ahead story about what happened to Jesus and his disciples, and how they lived and what they preached, John on the other hand, is like that emo goth boy from freshman year of college.  He wants to sit around and talk about WHAT IT ALL MEANS.  

This both means that the Fourth Gospel is profound, incredibly confusing, and very dense.

In this particular section of poetry here, in the way of all poetry, the writer is referencing a whole bunch of ideas, all at once. His community would have heard this, and immediately thought about Wisdom, which in Jewish thought, helps God to create the earth, because she (and Wisdom is personified as a She) is so powerful.  

They also would have thought about creation itself, since God creates through speaking–Let it be light, and it was.  So words are inherently creative. And there’s also that whole light/dark thing happening at creation as well.

But John takes all those ideas and moves them one step further.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  

That was the wrench in the works.  That’s the big deal.

None of those ideas being alluded to include the idea of incarnation.  That’s too icky.  That’s too lowly and messy.  Yet, here it is.  

The daring idea that God became one of us, in one of these weird, fleshy, leaky bodies.

That idea would have been something close to revolting to much of the ancient world, and really–it still sounds a bit weird today.  Remember, Plato had already written his philosophical treatise on the lies of the material world.  The dominant Roman culture of the time did not care overmuch for the material world.  True enlightenment, true spirituality was going to be found by working out philosophy in your head, by ignoring the material world.  And it was Plato’s Hellenistic thought that led to Gnostics running around the ancient world, promising a deliverance from the sinful world of the flesh, to the holier realm of spirit.  

Today, we don’t quite have Stoics standing on street corners, quoting Plato anymore.  However, you don’t have to look far to hear someone ignoring the material, because heaven makes it all worth it.  Or ignoring their bodies, because the spirit is what lasts.  

Yes, that’s true.  But the Incarnation means that God, in the person of Jesus, was born in a human body, here in this material world.  So, that makes these human bodies of ours important.  If God liked them so much as to get one for Godself, then they must be pretty great.  

Part of what the Incarnation did that was radical was to insist that these things ::wiggles fingers:: we have are important, are holy.  Not just souls, and not just heaven.  But all this material stuff too.  The earth.  These bodies we inhabit.  These things are precious.  These things must be cared for, and enjoyed for the gifts that they are.

Even though we grow old and we break down, there is still something of value to our physicality.  It is still a blessing to us.  It is how we can interact with the world around us, it is how we recognize each other.  It is how we interact with God, when we come to church, and take the bread and wine, smell the pine, and incense, and see the beautiful building around us.

For as much of a pain all this embodiement can be sometimes, it is still a gift we have been given. The physical creation is blessed by God’s presence in it–shining through it, and making the poetic concrete and real.  

So on this third day of Christmas, rejoice, at the poetry made flesh!  Rejoice in the poetry all around us, and the concrete, messy ways we experience the transcendent.

 

Christmas Pageants, Joseph, and Peace

We don’t have a true Christmas pageant at St. Paul’s.  What we have is a pop-up version, where all the children in attendance at the early service of Christmas Eve are given a costume upon arrival, and conscripted into being one of the characters in The Friendly Beasts, which the choir sings in the middle of the service.  They then walk forward, looking adorable, and stand there as the gospel is read.  It’s pretty foolproof.

But this year, one of our resident 5 year olds became alarmed that we were lacking a Joseph.  Deciding to take matters into her own hands, she raced out into the congregation, and cornered every boy she could find of reasonable age.  “Could you please be Joseph for us?  Because we need one VERY BADLY.” she explained to everyone, eyes wide in the do-or-die seriousness of small children.  After she had approached about 5 boys, and left one crouched in the corner of his pew in terror (she really was quite persistent), I finally figured out what she was doing, and suggested that we might leave him alone to think about it for a bit.  She brightened, “Ok, Mother Megan! He can come and find us when he’s ready. Maybe there are more people on the street outside who haven’t come inside yet!” To the front door she ran, the flock of costumed children trailing behind her, to shout an invitation to everyone outside.

I told my rector later that she should probably be put in charge of PR relations and evangelism for St. Paul’s, if not the diocese.  I was only half-kidding.  Children haven’t learned yet that religion isn’t polite to talk about in public, lest you offend someone, or that you shouldn’t tell everyone you know about this wonderful place you go to every week because you might get laughed at.  Really, we should let them do evangelizing.

Here’s what I said Christmas Eve.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve, Year C

Luke 3

 

The opening of the Christmas gospel is just plain weird.  The real opening now, not the part that Linus starts with, in A Charlie Brown’s Christmas, because he’s a kid, and he’s allowed to cheat.

The writer of Luke’s gospel starts out, not with that peaceful scene in a pasture somewhere, but with announcing a census.  Not exactly an attention-grabber. “In those days, there came a decree from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”  Well…alright.

This seems neither Christmas-y, nor very interesting, and yet, the writer is VERY CONCERNED ABOUT IT.  This census, we are told, was so important that every person had to return back to their own town and village–their ancestral home.

And so it is that Joseph and Mary hit the road for Bethlehem, along with a thousand other people.  It is this census that gets Mary and Joseph stranded in a barn for their baby’s birth.  It is this census that starts the whole thing moving in the direction we know so well.

If you know a lot about history, then you know that this emperor mentioned here was real, and really important.  Caesar Augustus reunited the Roman Empire after his uncle–another famous guy named Julius Caesar, was assassinated.  Augustus ushered in what’s been called ‘the pax romana’–those two centuries where Rome itself considered itself stable, peaceful.

Rome was the strongest thing in the world, able to conquer almost anything in its path.  From one end to another, Rome proclaimed that it had finally established peace on the earth.

They had to announce this pretty loudly, you see, because there was a lot of fighting happening.  The way Rome held onto its empire was through constant expansion–invading and subduing new people and new territory.  And then, of course, they had to put down the constant rebellions, which they did in brutal fashion.  Stomping down the various conquered peoples until everyone was frozen into compliance.  Augustus Caesar had brought peace, all right–but it was peace at the end of a pretty bloody sword.  

The gospel writer takes pains to remind us that it was THIS emperor who is the background here…so recall Augustus Caesar, when you think about that lovely scene with the shepherds in the fields, watching by night.  Now, shepherds, despite how idyllic they seem to us busy city folk, were not popular back then.  They were dirty, smelly people at the lowest level of society, who grazed their sheep on other people’s land, and neglected their families in order to hang out with barnyard animals.  They were nobodies.  Literally.  Because while Mary and Joseph have to report for the census–the shepherds haven’t gone anywhere.  The census hasn’t included them–they literally do not count in Rome.  The pax romana, the glories of the empire do not include them.

And yet.  

And yet, it was to those who didn’t count that the angels brought the message of the holy birth.  It was to these uncounted people that the angels announced the coming of peace on earth.  

And how did that peace arrive?  Did it arrive with military might and power, crushing the weak and laying low the countryside with fear?

Not at all.  This peace arrived in the person of a tiny, helpless baby. It came born to a young couple, scared and alone, left homeless.  It came among the left behind and the lost.  

The peace the angels proclaimed was worlds away from the pax romana.  The peace that Jesus brought into the world at his birth rests, not in the power of weapons, or the rule of fear.  It rests instead in a tiny baby, born to us, into this terrible and wonderful drama of humanity.  

When God became human in that manger in Bethlehem, the human experience changed forever.  No longer would we be alone in our human joys and sorrows.  Now, God would know what it felt like to grow, to learn.  To laugh and to cry.  To love, and to grieve.  Now, there was nothing in all creation that could separate us from the love of God, because that love had come down to where we are.  And that love would prove to be stronger than anything.  Even stronger than death.

The shepherds must have been entirely confused, when they got to the stable and saw what was going on.  What sort of king was this, that was just a baby?  What sort of victory, what sort of peace could this baby, hours old, red and squalling, possibly offer?  

But it is Christ’s peace that comes to us where we are, that gathers us all in, villager, shepherd, wandering traveller alike.  It is Christ’s peace that proves more persuasive than armies, and more mighty than emperors.  It is that humble, vulnerable peace of Christ that nothing can shake.

Christmas this year finds us again facing a scary world.  Everything seems frightening and off-kilter right now–even the weather.  There’s violence on the news at night–wars around the world, and the threat of sudden catastrophe again looming here at home.  So there are many who would urge us to be afraid.  Politicians march across the screen and tell us that the only answer to an uncertain world is power, strength, and more of both.

But the truth of Christmas, the miracle of Christmas, is that neither power, nor unlimited strength, nor unending violence make for peace.  For everything that Caesar Augustus tried, lasting peace eluded Rome.  

Peace, true peace, comes to us on this night, in this way, in the shape of a helpless, tiny baby.  It comes to us as God comes to earth, becoming human, so that God might better love us.  It comes to us in humility and weakness.  It comes to us as the nameless are seen, and the poor are glorified.  It comes to us as God’s love shines bright upon the earth as the stars above. It comes to us as we embrace that love, living out our lives in the way that Jesus Christ showed us.

This is the peace the angels sang about, the peace they proclaimed to a bunch of smelly shepherds in a field.  This is the peace that nothing can shake.  This is the peace that appears in the midst of chaos, war, and brokenness.  And this is the peace that God gives to us tonight.

So glory to God, and peace to all on earth.

Amen.

 

A Long, Long time ago

Happy Fourth Day of Christmas!  I hope everyone is enjoying a well-deserved rest over these holidays.

Advent ended for me in a whirl.  I had grand plans this year of doing so much holiday baking, of discovering new cookie recipes, of wandering aimlessly through the Plaza lights, reveling in the scenery….absolutely none of that happened.

Instead, as my parish admin put it, “People just people-ed all over everything” as is wont to happen around major Church feasts, and I did absolutely no baking whatsoever.  I managed to ship off my family’s presents on the absolutely last day possible, and I did no aimless wandering anywhere.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent is always one of my favorites.  We get to read the Magnificat and talk about Mary, Mother of Jesus, who is easily one of the most kickass women in all of scripture, and a good model of the priesthood**

So despite the fact that my brain had reduced down to mush, and I was amusing myself making lists of biblical mascots for the deanery***, I wrote this.  See what you think.

December 19-20, 2015

Advent 4

Luke 1:39-47

 

So, I, like the rest of America, has been obsessed with the musical Hamilton for a few months now.  It’s the story of Alexander Hamilton–American founding father–as told through hip hop.  Believe me when I tell you that it works.  

One of the central themes of the show–all of which: book, music, lyrics, everything, is written by a young Puerto Rican man–is that who tells the story is important.  Easily the most important thing.  The show is narrated by Aaron Burr–who shot Hamilton, but it’s sort of meta-narrated by Hamilton’s wife…who, in history, survived to tell Hamilton’s story….never mind.  Just go see it.

Here is why I’m telling you this.  There are two stories about what happens to his parents before Jesus is born–one in Matthew, one in Luke.  Two versions of the annunciation.  
Matthew tells it from Joseph’s perspective.  Joseph is hanging out, minding his own business, when he hears that Mary, his fiancee is pregnant.  Joseph decides to be nice about it, and break up with her quietly, rather than make her go through the (literal!) public stoning which would otherwise ensue.  Sweet guy.  

Then, he gets an angel appearing in a dream, which tells him, not so fast.  “Do not, in fact, be afraid to marry Mary, because she’s having a special kid.”  So, Joseph changes course, and all is fine. (Until the magi and Herod, and that’s later.)

But Luke is another story.  Luke’s gospel tells us about the angel that appears to Mary, informing her of the coming birth.  It’s Mary’s story here, rather than Joseph.

And that makes a difference.

 

We see, from Mary’s perspective now, as she hears the news of the angel, processes it, consents to her role in this weird little adventure, and immediately, as our story kicks off today–races off to see her cousin.

And it’s detours like this one which are instructive.  Mary could be heading off to see her cousin for any number of reasons–we aren’t told why she’s going exactly–she misses her, she just likes visiting Elizabeth, she wanted to empathize with another relative who was also pregnant, she wants to fact-check the angel, who told her about Elizabeth’s pregnancy…but it’s worth noting too that there’s also a less cheerful possibility for her trip.  Like we saw in the Joseph story, there was a harsh penalty associated with young women turning up pregnant out of wedlock.  So Mary just might be following the age-old tradition of heading out of town until the scandal had died down, and her life was no longer in danger.

Regardless of whether this was the case–the stakes were higher for her anyway.  She was involved in this story in a different way than Joseph–she had more to lose.  No one’s going to be hurling rocks at Joseph because of what they assume about his life choices any time soon.

 

Perhaps this is why Mary plays twenty questions with the angel once she hears the news.  The angel tells Mary she’s blessed and highly favored, and Mary wants to know what on earth this means.  The angel tells her she’s about to have a baby, and Mary wants to know exactly how.  Mary, in other words, is not going into this blind or uninformed.  She’s doing her homework.  She’s asking questions, taking notes, voicing opinions.

So when she says that she’ll do it, it’s not passive–it’s the furthest thing from it.  Mary’s obedience here is active.  She actively engages with what she’s been tasked with.  All right, I’ll do it!  And we’re off to the races.

 

Because as soon as she sees Elizabeth, Mary takes the opportunity to sing out the news of what has happened.  My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior.  He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.  

 

Mary’s song recaps what has just happened to her, but it also goes a bit farther.  Mary’s song–and you can think of this as Mary’s own Broadway style show stopper, where the character becomes so filled with emotion that they have to start SINGING–basically sums up the whole gospel that she, Jesus, and the disciples will spend the rest of the gospel trying to live out.  This is the gospel message Jesus preaches.  This is the good news the apostles later tell.  But it starts here–with Mary’s agreement.  It’s Mary’s “I will” that starts the ball rolling–her consent to be an active partner in this unfolding plan.

 

God, after all, isn’t all that interested in passive obedience, in passive followers.  God wants us to think, to question, and to figure it out as we follow in the way.  Our relationship with God is a two-way street, founded on our free will, and our ability to engage with God’s mission in the world.  

When God lifts up the lowly, when God casts down the proud, and feeds the hungry, that requires our engagement.  That requires our participation.  

When Mary says that her soul magnifies the Lord–that means that she’s doing something. So when we echo her language, we’re committing to the same thing.  Both that we would be willing to be lifted up, fed and used in such a way, but also that we would give ourselves to take on this mission as well.  That we would promise to be co-agents of this mission along with God.  

 

There are, after all, enough puppets in the world.  There are enough idols begging for blind faith and obedience.  God doesn’t need any more.  What God wants isn’t puppets, but Marys.  People willing to be bearers of good news on the mountain.  People willing to risk for the sake of the gospel, and participate in God’s plan of a new world.  God needs us to birth a recreated world as a teenaged girl did so long ago.

Amen.

FURTHER IMPORTANT AUTHOR’S NOTE:  This is where my original sermon ended, as given.  However, my rector commented, in the 10:30 announcements, that while he had never, in over 30 years of ministry, corrected nor challenged a fellow cleric’s preaching, wouldn’t it have been better if I had ended with “as a teenaged girl did, a long long time ago, in a Galilee far, far away”?

So I promised that I would make the addendum on the blog.  Because Star Wars fandom is JUST AS VITAL as the Hamilton fandom.

   

**And it’s not just me saying this–it’s the pre-1920s Vatican saying it as well.  Long story–I will unpack in a later blog post.

***A real thing!  When I get punchy, I get creative and punchy.  Occasionally, the entire clergy of the metro KC area bears the brunt of it.

 

Bonhoeffer, and the death of dualism

I’ve been thinking a lot about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Listening to the tenor of the debate in this country ratchet up and up and up, as politicians call for rounding up and deporting immigrants without papers, registering Muslims in a database, closing mosques, and now, closing the borders to anyone who professes Islam, it is hard not to feel like we’re in a scary time warp.

Bonhoeffer, after all, faced similar problems.  When the Nazis began forcing Jews out of government jobs, schools and other opportunities, Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth wrote the Barmen Confession, upon which the Confessing Church was built.  Bonhoeffer would spend his life articulating the gospel in defiance of a government that was bent on evil and destruction.

The man was a brilliant theologian, and by the end, before he was arrested, he had been forbidden from speaking or publishing anything at all–so afraid of him was the German government.

Bonhoeffer is a good figure to bear in mind these days, I find, not only because we are currently being faced with similar challenges (stay or go?  Speak out or stay quiet?) but because he is so hard to classify in the ways we like to use in the church.

Bp. Dan Martins set up one of these time-worn classification systems recently, and I can’t help but wonder where on earth Bonhoeffer would have fit.  Bp. Martins describes the church as being filled with two sorts of people: those who are progressive, in favor of gay marriage, women’s ordination, and generally have little use for the Prayer Book and its language (these people, he finds, usually have an active dislike of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ), and those who believe steadily in the historic faith once received, the BCP as written, and enjoy Mel Gibson’s Aramaic epic.

The Mel Gibson thread, he argues, is actually the most important one, as these divisions mostly come down to what we believe about Christ–either you believe Christ was a person motivated by love and justice, urging us to do likewise, or you believe that Christ was the incarnate Word of God, through which all may be saved.

 

All right.

First of all, as the theologian of blessed memory Edward Schillebeeckx once said, “Any attempt to introduce a dualism here is the work of pure evil.” **
There really aren’t ever only two types of people.  There are billions of types of people, because there are billions of people.  (Or, if you’d rather, there ARE two types of people–those who believe there are two types of people, and those who realize there aren’t.)
All of which to say, people are complex.  They don’t fit neatly into either one thing or another.  And then, people frequently will change their minds on you, and then you have to reconsider your whole system.

This is actually important, because when you embrace a dualism such as this, you disallow for the possibility of people like Bonhoeffer–people who devoutly believe in the historic creeds of the church, and because of that, strive for justice, freedom, and peace.***

It is a troubling novelty in the last few decades that progressives have consigned orthodox faith to conservatives.  We, undoubtedly, have done a poor job of explaining our positions in theological terms, rather than just ideological ones.  And the tragic outcome of this failure is the common misconception that believing in Jesus’s love means you probably hate someone else.  It is a PR disaster on an epic scale, and you only have to look at the rising number of ‘nones’ to see the results.

It is more than possible to be progressive while embracing orthodox Christianity–indeed, I would even argue that it is necessary.  Taking seriously the Incarnation means that you also must take seriously the value of human existence–this tangled mess that God loved so much as to want to participate in.  To believe in Christ as God implies that you will honor each person as Christ, since God has so honored humanity with his presence.

The Christian story is one that confounds easy dualisms–God speaks alike to men and women, faithful and faithless, the hopeless screw-up, the person who manages all things well, and everyone in between.  When we accept the Christian narrative as normative, then we accept that God uses and speaks through all sorts and conditions of people; that God prizes and intensely loves all sorts and conditions of people.

I am not a feminist, an LGTBQ ally, or a believer that #blacklivesmatter in spite of my Christianity.  I am a feminist, and an ally BECAUSE of my Christianity.  It is my faith that tells me that everyone is important, that everyone matters, and that my call is for the common welfare of all.
** Know who excels at irony?  Theologians.

***It’s positively Hegelian, I tell you.

 

People get ready

My parents were here for Thanksgiving.
They traveled all the way out here for a full 3 days, and got to experience most of what Kansas City has to offer.  We went to many restaurants (including Joe’s KC for BBQ).  We went to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and the WWI museum.  I gave them a driving tour of the Plaza, all lit up.  And they tried in vain to figure out where Kansas was.
(“It’s across that street.”  “It can’t be!  That’s a neighborhood!” “Yes. That’s Kansas.” “In a neighborhood?!  With different license plates and everything?!” “Yes.  Because it’s Kansas.”  “But where’s the river?” etc.)

They also got to hear me preach, which doesn’t happen all that often.
Preaching (or doing anything, really) in front of one’s own family is rough.  Jesus wasn’t lying with that crack about prophets not having honor in their own hometown.  The trouble with your own hometown is that this is the town that conflates grownup, professional you with the you who once was madly in love with Beanie Babies.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

November 28,-29, 2015

Advent 1, Year B

Luke 22

 

The good news which I have for you this day, is that whatever odd little subgroup of humanity you may belong to, TLC has a reality show spotlighting you!  Yea and verily, TLC has shows about people in over-large families, people who compete in child beauty pageants, people who have multiple wives at the same time, little people, little people who then get married, people who obsess over strange things, people who have psychic experiences while living in Long Island, and people who experience regrettable tattoos, and people who are mall cops.

It’s a veritable cornucopia of the strangeness of humanity.  

And, then, there is a whole OTHER subgenre of people who are concerned that the end of the world is upon us–the preppers.  

These are a group of people who are collecting supplies to prepare for the end of society as we know it–usually canned goods, potable water, generators, ammunition, things like that.  And not surprisingly, they are not generally a cheerful bunch–mostly, they grimly await the chaos they expect.  In fact, as I was researching this, the star of the biggest prepper show was arrested and put in jail on weapons charges.  

To these folks, the end is something you have to prepare for grimly, by cutting yourself off from everyone else, and hunkering down.  Since the worst is coming, best to minimize the damage to yourself, so that you can survive.  Everyone else can just fend for themselves.

That’s one way to go, certainly.

Probably not the Christian way, however.

In the gospel. we’re again in an apocalyptic section, where Jesus is again talking to the disciples about what’s going to happen to them.  Or, to be more precise–he’s talking to the community that Luke’s gospel is written to about what is currently happening to them–lots of scary things involving Roman persecutions and the fall of the Jerusalem Temple.    And again, it sounds scary to us.

But, I would like to point out that at no point in any of his apocalyptic diatribes does Jesus recommend building a bunker.  Or stockpiling food.  Or retreating to the desert.  (That was John the Baptist, and he didn’t last long.)

Jesus, on the other hand, says that when you see all this horrible stuff happening, look up!  Lift up your head!  Get ready!  Because your salvation is coming.

Be on guard, and don’t be weighted down with worries of this life.  Because that day is coming unexpectedly.

Don’t move out to a cave, and give up on the world.  The kingdom of God is still near you.  Right now.

They must have thought he was nuts.

Where’s the kingdom of God when our temple is being destroyed?  Where’s the kingdom of God when Caesar is hauling us off to the lions?  Where is my nice cave when I need it?

The kingdom of God, though, doesn’t emerge in a cave.  Or in a bunker.  Or in a top-secret, super-safe facility in an undisclosed location.  The kingdom of God emerges in community.  Where two or three are gathered together in the name of Christ, and when we share together the love of God.  That’s what the kingdom looks like, and that, we cannot do if we choose to hide in a corner, away from the world.

The kingdom of God does not come apart from the world, with all its chaos, and its turmoil–the kingdom comes in the very middle of of all of that mess.  Unlikely as it feels.

So, our response as Christians to when the world seems about to turn upside down cannot be to beat a hasty retreat to the nearest cave.  Or to batten down the hatches in fear and ride out the storm.  We cannot let fear run our lives, and cut ourselves off from each other and from the world God made and loves.  

 

Our response when everyone around us cries that The End is Near! must be to dig in our heels, and take the gospel even more seriously.  We must give even more generously, do even more good, seek even more after mercy and justice.  We must remember even more deeply to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.  We have to care for each other even more.  And maybe it is foolish, and maybe it is risky, and maybe it is even a bit dangerous–but it is in the times when the world seems the most dangerous when it most needs the kindness that Christ teaches.

 

It’s the beginning of Advent today, though we’re disguising the color a bit, due to another mass shooting.  But honestly, I think our red/blue mix is appropriate.  Because, contrary to what Hallmark tells us each year, Christ didn’t come into a peaceful world.  It wasn’t a settled world, with everything perfect, Mary, Joseph just hanging out lazily with some picturesque hipster shepherds.

That world was a mess, too.  It was violent–there were wars, rebellions, prejudice, and disease.  Jesus would become a refugee before his second birthday.  It’s not so different from our world.  And, in fact, believe it or not, there were quite a few sects of Jews who were all about hiding in caves and waiting for the end of the world back then.  That’s how bad it was.

But it was right in the middle of that mess that Christ came.  In the mud, in the straw, in the dirt and heartbreak.

And that is where he sends us too.  

So, be strong.  Lift up your heads.  The kingdom of God is near!  

 

Amen.

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