RSS Feed

Baptism

We had a baptism yesterday; my first at St. John’s.  

Now, I have been talking excitedly about this particular baptism for roughly 6 weeks.  Partially because I adore baptisms in general (babies!  water!  Baptismal covenant!) and also because of who it was.  

Kang has been a parishioner here for several years.  He lives in one of the group homes in town, and makes his way here each Sunday.  He is a dedicated participant in the liturgy and the hymns, and goes to Sunday school.  One of my first impressions of St. John’s was hearing Kang’s voice ring out a beat behind the congregation’s during the prayers, and the congregation calmly waiting for him before starting each new line.  Each time I hear his voice, I think, “Ah!  This is surely the gate to the kingdom.” 

At the end of the summer, Kang’s family visited, and his sister told me that he had never been baptized, but wanted to be.  Would I be willing? “YES THAT WOULD BE GREAT CAN I PLEASE” I may have shouted at her.  (I told you–I was excited.) So we planned for All Saints Day.

On Sunday, Kang’s family arrived again, and brought him early to the church.  His Sunday school teachers came to sponsor him, and we walked him through what would happen in the liturgy–where he would stand, what he would say, where we would be in the prayer book.  “And then, I will pour water on your head, and put some oil on your forehead, and say some words,” I said.  “Yes, ok, thank you!” he responded.  This is Kang’s general response to everything.  Baptism is an overwhelming experience for anyone; there are a lot of sensory things happening, to say nothing of the spiritual stuff.  I didn’t want him to be taken by surprise.

During the liturgy, after the sermon, I asked for the candidate and the sponsors to come forward, and up they came.  Kang did perfectly during the questions and answers; he renounced Satan and the forces which rebel against God and turned to Jesus and accepted him as his Savior with aplomb.  

And then, we paused a half-second for the lay reader to step forward to read the Prayers for the Candidate, like in rehearsal.  But unexpectedly, Kang himself stepped forward, held up his bulletin, and in a loud voice, read “Deliver him, O Lord, from the ways of sin and death!” 

The congregation of St. John’s, never ones to be flapped, responded immediately, “Lord, hear our prayer!” Kang continued, “Open his eyes to your grace and truth!” “Lord, hear our prayer!”  And so on.  Kang, for the first time, reading aloud in church, unprompted, the prayers for himself.  

His family was taken aback.  I was taken aback.  His teachers were taken aback.  Kang alone seemed eternally unperturbed.  His sister asked me later if I had told him to do that–“No,” I said, “That was the Holy Spirit for sure.” 

At the baptism, as I poured water over his head, Kang emphatically responded to each line.  

“Kang, I baptize you in the name of the Father”

“YES THANK YOU”

“..and of the Son…”

“YES THANK YOU”

“..and of the Holy Spirit.”

“YES THANK YOU”

By the end, not a few of us were wiping away tears.

I’ve said before that in baptisms, I expect to see babies cry.  Not for any masochistic reasons, but because baptism is an overwhelming thing. It is a numinous experience that seems to require some loud response from us–as Annie Dilliard once wrote, if we really knew what we were about in church, we would strap ourselves onto the pews with safety belts, and show up in crash helmets.  How can it be, then, that we want little children to sleep through this most life-changing of experiences?

Perhaps the best response to the action of God in our lives is just what Kang showed us yesterday–to yell a bit, and to pray for this world God loves.  

May you have many occasions for yelling and praying.

All the Saints, All the Points

You may have noticed, I have strong opinions about preaching.  (In much the same way that Cookie Monster had a slight affinity for sweets.). 

However, this particular Sunday, I found myself throwing about 85% of my decided opinions out the window, in favor of a “I have several topics to cover today: sit back and here we go” sort of sermon.  

I have noticed that for whatever reason, All Saints’ is a big deal in most Episcopal churches, in sort of an unexpected way.  Even for people who have never experienced it, there is something about just breaking the rhythm of all-green, all-the-time, and singing about a chorus of saints guiding all of us to the kingdom of Heaven that really feels nice, right around the start of November.  We’re approaching Advent and Christmas!  We’ve almost made it through another year!  WE CAN DO THIS!***  

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

November 4, 2018

All Saints, transferred Year B 

Wisdom, John

When I worked at the college in Flagstaff, I was asked to consult on a Theater Department production of a Stephen Adly Gurguis’ play called The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.  The conceit of the play is that St. Monica has pity on Judas, who is frozen with remorse in hell, and demands a new afterlife trial to get him out.  The play is the substance of the trial, with various saints and figures from Jesus’ last week testifying either for or against.  To my non-surprise, the local community met our production with no small amount of consternation.  The language Gurguis puts in the mouths of the saints is …very adult.  He sees them as modern, lower-class, uneducated people, with the colorful language to match. Monica was presented as a Latina woman from the streets of the Bronx—Matthew was an uptight tax accountant, Simon the Zealot was an aggressive teenager, Peter was kinda slow, but cheerful. This range of character traits didn’t go over so well in some of the more traditional sectors of the town.

In one panel discussion with myself, the director, and the Catholic chaplain, the Catholic priest said he personally was offended because he believed characters like Peter, Matthew, Monica etc were saints, “and saints would never curse.  They lived good and righteous lives and would never sink to that level.” 

Me, of course, I loved the play (still love the play—although, again—not a play for kids.)  To me, sainthood is all about how the human intersects with the divine, and that’s what the play explored.  

Today, we are celebrating the feast of All Saints’—the day when the church remembers all the faithful who have gone before us to light the way.  The notion of saints is sort of well-known—it makes the news when the Pope declares someone a saint—when they’ve racked up enough miracles to be so recognized.  But the Anglican notion of sainthood—like the Anglican notion of pretty much everything—is a tad more inclusive.  All the baptized, who lived lives of faith in the world, are saints, according to our theology.  Some are just better known, and so we proclaim them publicly as worthy of being imitated.  People like the biblical saints, Matthew, Mark, Peter, Mary Magdalene.  And then, there are the more modern saints—St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Thomas Acquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Dorothy Day, St. Martin Luther King, St. Oscar Romero, who provide a glimpse of what it looks like to live a gospel life in different moments in history.

The famous saints provide a sort of case law for us to study.  A guide of what it looks like when normal people live out their Christianity in public, in the world. What happens when people like us have to put into practice all the stuff in the gospel?  How do humans—and not God Incarnate—do this stuff?

And then, of course, there are the hidden saints—those whose faith was perhaps known to God alone, or whose fame never spread, but who still showed us the light of Christ in their own time.  People who, though by no means perfect, showed the light of Christ through their actions and way of being in the world.   People like our Loaves and Fishes volunteers, like the teacher who believed in your potential, like Sarah Richtmeyer, who welcomed all to the parish office.

We remember the saints not because they were perfect all the time, and not so we can feel guilty about failing to follow their example.  We remember the saints for encouragement.  When we struggle, and when we feel overwhelmed by the darkness around us, it can help to know that people of faith have faced this before, and have gotten through it with God’s help.  We can recall the witness of Bonhoeffer and Romero when we need guides on how to speak with courage.  We can recall the witness of Maria Stoboskova when we need to recall how to protect our Jewish brothers and sisters.  We can recall the witness of the early Christian martyrs under Rome when we need to recall God’s faithfulness through all difficulties.  

And it also helps focus our vision in day to day life.  When we remember the communion of saints, of which we are a part, we recall that those around us are also a part of that great cloud of witnesses.  Old and young, rich and poor, gay and straight, white, brown and black, immigrant and native-born—everyone.  And we do not have the luxury of casting aside those whom Christ has called beloved.  All of these people we encounter may show us the face of Christ, who can say?  So in our interactions with everyone we meet, it is therefore our duty as baptized Christians, to always be searching for the image of God in every human bein, underneath, inside and through the usual veils of humanity.  

Today, we have the thrilling task of welcoming a new member into Christ’s body on earth—a new saint in this great cloud.  Baptisms are always wonderful, but this one is especially great.  We have been lucky enough to have had Kang Meng worshipping with us for several years now, and whenever he is here, he is dedicated in his participation.  He has attended Sunday School, and sent cards to people in the parish for their birthdays or when they need prayers.  In some ways, Kang has been living out his baptism before he has even received it.  And now, Kang, when people see you, when they are around you, they will see not only a quiet man who helps whenever he can, they will also see the light of Christ shining through you. 

Because today is the day when we stand around you, and officially tell the world that, besides being a generally great person, you are also a beloved Child of God, that God loves you so much, and that for the rest of your life, you belong with the whole communion of saints. 

Baptism means a lot of things—we wash away sins, we become new in Christ, we take on a new way of being, we join the community, and it’s also the moment when the community claims us.  When the communion of saints—the famous, and the forgotten—the living and the dead—those who we get along with and those we never would—look at us and say “from now on, you’re one of us.”  From now on, you can belong here.  From now on, we will figure out together how to be better at letting our Christlight shine.  But from now on?  You—in all your humanity, imperfection, uniqueness, oddities—you are our beloved child too.  

We are, each of us, a beloved child of God, claimed by Christ, and by this community.  No matter what happens in the world around us, no matter what we do! that identity does not change.  No quirk of history, no decision of humanity can shift that fundamental identity of who we are.  We are saints.  And we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.  We cannot help but be encouraged.

***(Protip:  Are you fed up with the news right now?  Cover your ears and sing “For All The Saints” at the top of your lungs.  Works like a charm!)

Law and Order: Biblical Victims Unit

I promised in my sermon last week that I would preach on Job this week, so I felt honor-bound to do it.  Job is one of my favorite books in the Hebrew Bible, ever since I took an entire class in undergrad on it.  (The professor of which now lives in Ithaca, which means I really, definitely, needed to get all my exegesis correct, lest she find out somehow I mistranslated some Hebrew and come find me.) 

I am thankful, daily, for my decision at 18 to study Religious Studies in undergrad.  My college was a secular one, so my classes didn’t have a theology bent, so much as they approached religious traditions through the lenses of sociology, history, psychology, language, and anything else you could reasonably apply.  It was glorious–it felt like candy for my brain.  But I do recall receiving the advice from several well-meaning advisors at the time to never mention anything I learned in college from the pulpit “because it will just upset and confuse people.”  

But for me, learning all this helped my faith make sense in ways it hadn’t before.  It brought the Bible to life the way no amount of purely-faith based studying had, because for the first time, I could catch a glimpse of those before me who had heard these stories and been transformed by them, and perhaps even those who had told these stories before they even had language to write them.  For me, to paraphrase the very smart Rev. Winnie Varghese, biblical criticism brought me to a deeper faith.

So this week, I went headfirst into the book of Job as a whole, and also compared ha-satan to Sam Waterston, which is perhaps my proudest homiletical moment to date.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

October 14, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 23

Job 23

As I promised last week—look, Job is still here!  (and will be here through next week, too!) So—here it is, the long awaited explanation of What Is Up with Job?  Because sadly, I cannot address the issue of why we only discuss Esther for one week every three years, and Ruth one week every three years, but Job for three weeks every year.  Such mysteries are too high for me.

Job is, on its face, a simple story.  It starts out much like a folk tale.  Once upon a time!  There was a guy named Job! Job, we are told, was perfect.  Did nothing wrong.  And the way the narrative tells us this, it seems best to take this as a given, the way we assume that of course Snow White was the fairest in the land.  He just was.  

But right away in the story, this trait gets Job into trouble and lo, as God is hanging out with Satan one day, they decide to pick on Job because he is being so perfect.   That was the reading we got last week. 

Now, right away this seems bananas—why on earth are God and Satan friends now? 

So it might help you to know, for context, that in Jewish cosmology, during the time of the Babylonian exile—so, right around the time that anyone Jewish would have been writing stories taking place in Uz, heaven was thought to be a courtroom.  And we actually see this in a lot of the prophetic literature.  God was the judge, the angels are the jury, and there is a figure who argues the opposing side, called The Adversary, or in Hebrew—the Satan.  Ha-Satan was not evil personified—just a figure whose job it was to hold humanity accountable before God, and report on stuff.  

Now, over time, maybe a few centuries, and a Hellenistic culture with a Greek god of the underworld who does really adversarial things, then ha-Satan turns into the embodiment of all that rebels against God.  But right now?  In this story?  We’re no where near that.  

So, God, the judge, and ha-Satan (again, basically the Sam Waterston of heaven, here) 

decide to give Job a test of faith: take away all his riches, his cattle and even his family, and see whether he will still praise God and do the right thing.  

He does, so Satan proposes taking it one step further—why not attack Job himself, and make him ill?  Now, Job is really suffering, but still, he holds to his faith in God, and the text says—Job did not sin with his lips.

Up until this part, scholars are generally of the opinion that this is a standard folk tale.  But what follows after—the back and forth with his friends, and Job’s considerable ranting—that appears to have been inserted somewhat later.  If only because you can make a pretty good case that some of the things Job will later end up saying today DO sound pretty faithless.

The main part of the book is a long conversation wherein Job’s 4 friends attempt to explain to him why all his suffering is His Fault.  God is just, they explain, and so you must have done something to deserve these repeated tragedies that are occurring.  They take turns, and wax eloquent, but their point is the same; God is good, God is just, therefore, you must deserve this suffering.

Meanwhile—we (and Job) know that this isn’t true.  According to the ground rules of our Folk Tale World—Job is perfect.  Job hasn’t screwed up.  So besides being really awful pastoral care (really. Don’t do this.) it’s flatly untrue. And so each time his friends try to shame and guilt him into confessing to some supposed sin, Job gets more and more angry with God, at times sarcastic, at times petulant, at times furious—for making him to suffer like this. He parodies a psalm, and taunts God.  He mocks his friends.  And all the while, he demands, pleads, begs with God to appear and explain himself.  The famous verses “I know that my redeemer liveth” are a declaration from Job that even if he dies, and rots away in the earth, still somehow he will confront God to demand an accounting of what has happened to him.  

The question of Job is really about who God is, and what faith looks like.  What does it mean to say that God is good when bad things keep happening in our world?  What does it mean to say that God is just, when tragedy strikes?  How do faithful people act in the midst of all this uncertainty?  

Job’s friends—and I would posit that a lot of religious people through the ages—clearly think that the only way to be faithful to a good and just God in a world that also has tragedy, is to try to defend God.  This all must be our fault!  We deserve this suffering—God must be punishing us deservedly.  Because surely a good God would create an ordered universe where the good are rewarded, and the bad are punished.  So, to have faith in a good God means to defend the notion of a perfectly ordered universe as well.  But that is not the question Job is asking.  Job doesn’t care ultimately about whether the universe is just; that question, for him, is settled.  His question is where God is in an uncertain universe. 

After all, it should surprise no one that the world isn’t always fair.  People who do the right thing don’t always prosper, and people who do the wrong thing sometimes get away with it scot free.  The undeserving suffer all the time—this is the nature of the broken world we inhabit.  

And yet, still the voice of faith insists that God, the creator of all that is, is just, wills our good, and loves creation dearly.  And so, if we aren’t going to lecture those in the midst of tragedy about their many sins that brought this upon them, how do we hold these two ideas together? 

We haven’t talked about how Job ends.  At the end of the book, in the midst of all this passive-aggressive pastoral care from his friends, and his own frustration, Job gets his wish.  God himself appears.  He doesn’t quite explain himself, but God still shows up and wants to know WHO EXACTLY IS TALKING ABOUT HIM.  God gives this immense speech about creating the universe, harnessing the powers of chaos, channeling the sea monsters in the deeps.

Job’s friends disappear—we don’t hear from them again—, and Job confesses himself utterly overwhelmed, and humbled, to be faced with the Creator of the Cosmos.  And pronounces himself satisfied.  

For Job, faithfulness was not maintaining an ordered universe; what Job wanted was a relationship—an enduring relationship with the God whom he had promised to follow.  Even in an uncertain, and clearly, unfair! universe, Job is comforted that the God who teaches him right and wrong also cares enough about him personally to attend personally to his suffering.  When his friends would not.  Job just wanted that good, loving, and just God to show up and validate his suffering, affirm that indeed, he, Job, was loved, and worthy, and important, and recognized.  By the one who ordered the stars of night, and confined the chaos of the oceans.  

When we say that God is good, and just, and loving—all of that is true, and it is reflected in this moment here—where God shows up.  (NOT UNLIKE THE INCARNATION, REALLY).  Because here is a God, in all sublime overwhelming power and majesty, who is loving enough and just enough to be attentive to and care about the individual experiences and concerns and tragedies of us.  Even in an utterly chaotic and uncertain world.  We have a God that shows up.  Even when we humans can’t figure out how to do it.  

God shows up to be with us, in our moments of sadness and joy.  God shows up in our moments of triumph and despair.  God even shows up when we’ve been yelling at God in frustration and anger for the past 33 chapters. God shows up in the person of Jesus to show us how to show up for each other.  When we see suffering in the world, then, perhaps our question should not be “why is this happening to them?” but “how can we show up?” Because our God shows up for us, and so we are a people of showing up.

Amen.

The Marx Brothers would not have done this to Margaret Dumont

Beloved, it has been a bit of a week.

Rather, it has been a bit of two years.  Which felt like it all arose this past week and walloped many of us this past week.  

I belong to a Facebook group of young clergywomen, which has been invaluable on so many occasions throughout my working life.  This week, we kept asking one another “Oh God, what am I going to say?”  “How am I going to stand in front of my congregation and say anything?” “I’m so furious/sad/defeated/enraged/numb/overwhelmed right now–how am I going to find the words?” 

And then there were the stories–not just in this group, but pouring off my computer screen, off the pages of friends near and far, out of my phone, and out of the mouths of friends and strangers everywhere I turned–“That was me, too.” “I remember the laughter.” “I can’t forget his face.” “No one believed me either.” “We told people not to go to the police because they will just make it worse and nothing will happen.” “They said it was my fault because….”.  On and on and on.  

Despite my best hopes (and really, despite my outward pragmatism, I can hope with the best of them), it would seem that there is still a great reluctance to hold powerful white men accountable for assault–or indeed, to question them on their right to do whatever they feel like. 

As Christians, we need to reckon with the indisputable fact that our abject failure to hold one portion of society accountable has resulted in the suffering of other portions. And that suffering has been on display this week in a way rarely seen.  

And in the midst of this, some of us got to preach.  On the gospel where Jesus gets mouthy about divorce of all things, because the Spirit likes to pile on.  

Here’s what I said.  

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

October 6, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 22

Mark 10:2-16

This is one of those weeks where the lectionary presents us with so much that needs unpacking that it feels like that state room the Marx Brothers rented in A Night at the Opera.  You open the door unsuspectingly and ALL THIS STUFF comes pouring down on you.  So don’t worry—don’t panic, and we’ll see what we can make of this.

Let’s start with the gospel—which might seem like an odd reading for us as Anglicans.  After all, as someone pointed out to me this week “Didn’t y’all start off because someone wanted a divorce?!”  Sort of, and not quite, and it’s complicated.  

But suffice it to say that divorce, and who gets to stay married or not, has always been a topic of conversation.  It was not invented in 1960s America by second wave feminism.  At the time Jesus is having this conversation with the crowd, divorce was just as complicated as it was in any time in history.

In Jewish law at the time, technically, only men could ask for a divorce, and they had to have an overwhelming reason to present to the priests.  Some rabbis argued that this overwhelming reason could only be adultery—some said that it could be any number of things—but as it was, the power to dissolve a marriage rested only with the man.  Which was a big problem for women, since their security—economic and otherwise—rested on a solid marriage.  If the marriage turned abusive, they had no way to leave.  And if their husband wanted to marry someone else, and leave them in the street—they had no way to stop him.  

It was not great for women—it created a situation where they were pretty powerless, and their children as well (if the woman was divorced, her kids went with her.) 

There were alternative legal theories going around, however.  Roman law—which was in place in Palestine under the occupation—held that either spouse could ask for a divorce.  So while it wasn’t strictly kosher (sorry), we have evidence that lots of Jewish couples just went to Roman courts to solve their marital woes.  Roman law was more egalitarian, as a rule, but—and this is a big but—there was also a problem here. 

 Palestine was a big melting pot of cultures; another major influence was the Hellenistic culture, which had come in with Alexander the Great, a few centuries before.  (Which is why the gospels are written in Greek.)   And Hellenistic culture was Not a Fan of women.  In the Hellenistic mindset, women couldn’t own property, couldn’t go outside alone, couldn’t really do anything, and DEFINITELY can’t file for divorce.  

So—all of that is swirling around this conversation about divorce.  Good idea?  Bad idea?  Because everyone has a very different opinion.  

And Jesus says this sort of odd thing about how God made people in the Garden and how if a man remarries after divorce he commits adultery, and same for a woman.

…huh?  At first glance, it seems pretty severe, and it has been used that way.  Make no mistake, like the verse about “God created them male and female” this verse has been used to shame and accuse people who were trying to faithfully make decisions in the best interest of themselves and their families.  

But in the context of the time, in the ears of the people Jesus is talking to, this is actually a step towards equality.   

Remember, a big part of the context here is whether women can ask for a divorce—because that’s the sticking point for rabbis, for Hellenistic culture, and for the Roman law.  Do women have equal rights to men?  And Jesus suggests that yes—it is just as bad for a man to abandon the family as it is for a woman to do so.  Thus, men and women are equal before God.    And that’s actually a fairly big deal.  For the cultural moment, this was a pretty progressive stance, because Jesus is giving rights to women and men. 

And like that situation earlier, where the Pharisees were asking him questions, Jesus is concerned here about the actual people these rulings affect, and less about the hypothetical argument.  Because during the debate, he picks up a child, and reminds the gathered group (again!)  that to welcome the kingdom of God is to welcome a child like this one.  Means to welcome and care for the powerless and the vulnerable in any given situation—whether that means children, or women deprived of legal rights.  Building the kingdom of God means having a special concern for the silenced and the disadvantaged, and making sure that everyone is safe, provided for, and able to prosper.  Not just those traditionally given legal voice.  But in the kingdom of God, EVERYONE has their needs provided for.  So his assertion about marriage being an equal partnership?  That radically upends the religious thinking of the day.  

It feels odd saying all this today, at this moment in our cultural context.  I actually held off a bit in writing this sermon because I wanted to be sure of what our context would be, so I waited later than I normally do—I waited until Saturday.  And please understand when I say that my concern over our context is not a partisan concern—it’s a pastoral one.  This past week and a half has been something like an extended support group for nearly every woman I know.  So many people, online, in person, have spoken again about their own stories of assault, and their own traumas of being ignored or brushed aside, or made to feel as if their suffering doesn’t matter.  And watching the debates in the Senate brings everything back up again. 

We can argue about the Supreme Court, and a judicial temperament, and the FBI, but what remains clear is that an incredible amount of people are hurting right now because for a long, long time, our society has failed to take violence against women seriously.  And as Christians who believe, right from Genesis 1, that all of us are created in God’s image, male and female, we need to pay attention to that.  Jesus himself tells us to pay attention to that today, as he holds men and women equally accountable for the success of marriage.  If we want to build the kingdom, we have to take violence against women, assault against women, seriously.  We do not have a choice.

And we begin here.  We begin right here.  When Jesus is talking about welcoming the children, when he’s talking about men and women—he’s not storming the halls of Rome.  He’s not filibustering Pontus Pilate.  He’s not running for political office or raising money—he’s talking to his friends.  Because before Christianity was known in the halls of power, it was known in the fields of Galilee, and the streets of Jerusalem.  By tax collectors, vagrants, and fishermen.  This was never a system that was supposed to rule anything—but early Christianity became so powerful that the empire couldn’t do anything but follow along.

So even if those in the halls of power can’t figure it out, we can.  We can, right here.  We can make this place safe for children right here.  We can make this place safe for survivors right here.  We can believe and support one another right here.  We can, in this time and place, right where we are, stand up for each other, and those whom we meet, who have been silenced and brutalised the way Jesus taught us to.  The way the Spirit empowers us to.  We can protect and care for one another and show the world a different way— a way that is so powerful, that eventually, even the mightiest empire will have to come along.  

Regarding Reputations

I have been trying to sort out my feelings about the notion of reputation for the past several years, since I first learned of the ‘ugly rumor canon’.

This canon, if you are not aware, allows the clergy person to request the bishop investigate any rumor that the clergy person deems slanderous, and then announce the findings of the investigation.  It’s a holdover from the old disciplinary process, and allows for a priest to clear his or her reputation from disparagement.

The problem here is that, because it’s a holdover,  the investigation called for is specifically differentiated from the current disciplinary process, so there’s no requirement for transparency, or a standard of fact finding.  (Also, one would hope that the bishop would address something like a diocesan clergy dysfunction as a pastoral problem, and not go all Title IV on it.). General Convention this summer deleted the canon.

But what struck me, as I pondered this canon, was how very particular the idea of “reputation” was.  I know that back in the day, clergy–when “clergy” denoted a particular sort of person– worried about reputations, but today?  If I had a dollar for every negative thing I knew someone in the church had said about me–in public–I would be fairly rich.  Or at least able to retire a significant amount of seminary debt.  Let’s consider the things said in debate about whether we should allow women clergy at all.  (“One cannot ordain a potato, thus one cannot ordain a woman” as an example.). So much of leadership in ministry is making hard choices, hoping they pay off, and working hard so your people learn to trust you.  I want THAT to be my reputation–not whatever feelings people might have about me on a given day.  This work is too important to rest on something so ephemeral.

So the notion of “reputation” and who gets to have one that society fights to preserve, has been floating in my head for a while.

Then came this week.  And the hearings for SCOTUS.  And I wrote this sermon.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

September 23, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 20

Mark 9

With the advent of social media, and the recent changes in campaign finance law, it is now possible to think of brands as personalities.  You not only can associate your favorite brand of soup, say, with an advertising campaign—you can also follow them on Facebook, or Twitter.  And so someone, somewhere, probably a low-paid intern, has to sit at a desk, and figure out what sort of personality this type of soup will have.  Will this soup be funny?  Whimsical?  Centered around family goodness or healthy eating?  DECISIONS MUST BE MADE.  

And so, in the year of Our Lord 2018, we end up in the somewhat unprecedented situation where brands will start arguing with each other online.  Seriously.  Old Spice deodorant publicly asked Taco Bell why its Spicy Hot Sauce seemed to lack heat, and they responded that Old Spice Deodorant seemed to also lack any ancient spices.  Oreo urged its online followers to sneak its cookies into a movie as a snack, and the AMC Theater people shot back “ NOT COOL, COOKIE.  NOT COOL.”  

Even public utilities do this now.  The Kansas City Municipal Water folks were well-known locally for explaining why the local tap water was the best, and picking fights with other city’s water supplies.  

I don’t know enough about marketing to know whether this is helpful to sell anything. Some of it is entertaining, certainly.  The jokes are pretty decent, and who doesn’t like the mental image of an epic throw down between public utilities?  

But there remains an inherent strangeness about so much going time and money and thought into a brand.  A corporation.  A non-human entity.  Just to make sure we all remember it, and think well of it.  It is so strange that we spend so much time energy and effort invested in a particular idea  of a person, the idea of a company.  It’s a weird spin on the old honor-shame societies.  In ye olden days, people used to fight to the death if their honor, their reputation was besmirched.  Now, we sue.  Or we launch PR campaigns.  But the basic idea—my reputation!—is still there.  

Probably, if you asked anyone, to tell you which was more important—an individual person’s well being, or the reputation of an institution.  Call it a variation on the trolley problem.  Which would you rather save: the individual or the five people about to be hit by a speeding trolley? Here, it’s the actual person, or the idea of a thing?

They would immediately tell you that the individual was of course more important.  Easy question.  No problem. People are to be held as greater over something as ephemeral and impersonal as reputations. 

But the problem with this ethical conundrum is the same as with the trolley problem—it’s not hard in the abstract.  It is hard in the specific.  It’s one thing when you don’t know the people in front of the trolley; it’s another when you do.  It’s one thing when you aren’t invested in the actual situation involved; it’s another when you are.  And so, the question of priorities, or what greatness truly means, has always been an open question.

As Jesus and the disciples are departing from Caesarea Philiippi, the disciples get into this particular debate.  Please note, that also on the road, just before this, Jesus healed a boy with epileptic fits, while the disciples stood and argued with the scribes about hypothetically, how should one best approach such a situation, and whose fault it was.  Jesus, in response, calls them a stone hearted and unbelieving generation.  So he’s a bit on edge at this point.  And his mood is perhaps not helped when he overhears them debating about who is going to be the greatest when they all come into the Kingdom.

Now, I realize I usually stand up here and tell you what bozos the disciples are.  HOWEVER, I am going to cut them a break on this one.  For two reasons.  

One: these guys had literally given up everything they had to follow Jesus.  Family, friends, jobs, houses—everything.  Now they were dirt-poor, homeless, and cast off from those they knew.  And Jesus has just told them that rather than conquering the Roman Empire, he is going to be betrayed, and killed by the state, in utterly humiliating fashion.  So, I don’t really blame them for wanting to do a little “don’t worry—just picture how great things will be when this is all over!” 

Secondly: there’s a vagueness in the Greek that doesn’t show through in the English translation.  They could be arguing about who is the greatest.  They could also be arguing about WHAT is greatest—I.e. the very notion of what greatness is.  So, this could also be a profound, deep conversation sparked by what Jesus told them about his coming death, as they reconsider what they had assumed was coming for them, and how Jesus had chastized Peter.  

Nevertheless, when Jesus overhears their conversation, he decides to weigh in himself, and finds a child (gender nonspecific) and declares that to welcome the Kingdom of God is to welcome such a one.  

For those of us who either remember our own childhoods or are raising children now, this can seem alarming. Children are not especially…ethical beings.  Adorable, yes.  Occasionally profound, and excelling at unconditional love, definitely.  But unselfish?  Reasonable?  Not by a long shot

In the ancient Near East, children weren’t sources of adorable viral videos or sources of great wisdom quotes.  They were essentially non-entities.  You couldn’t get very attached to them because of the tragically high mortality rate, so children were basically seen as a way to make more adults, and nothing more.  They were legally without rights; property; and entirely vulnerable in every way.  Dependent for their survival and their wellbeing with nothing at all material to give back.  The epitome of powerless. Yet, these ones, who can contribute absolutely nothing of value as they are—these are the ones that Jesus calls the greatest.

The children.

Haruki Murakami said “Given a choice between a high brick wall and the egg that breaks against it, I will always be on the side of the egg.”  Christ wants us to side with those who break, with those who are vulnerable, with those who have no protection of money, or power, or privilege, against the high brick walls of the world.  Because Christ proclaims that to do so is to embrace the kingdom of God.  

After all, Jesus just got done telling us that the Messiah himself would become vulnerable, that the way of the Christ would involve ultimate vulnerability, and suffering, and even death, at the hands of the most powerful.  So there’s an echo of “what you to do the least of these, you to do to me.”  To embrace and side with the vulnerable and the suffering is literally to side with the crucified Savior.

But again—this is easy when it’s a thought exercise.  It is harder when we know the players.  It’s harder when it is playing out in front of us in real time.  Because our world still has so many high brick walls that proclaim themselves great and gather defenders.  So our choices become harder.  

It’s one thing to vow that the last shall be first in heaven.  It is another to listen to the victims of child sexual abuse against the allied forces of the institutional church.  And yet that is where Christ calls us.  

It is one thing to promise to welcome the vulnerable as we welcome Christ.  It is another to listen to and believe the stories of survivors of sexual assault when the reputation of a well-connected man is at stake. And yet that is where Christ calls us.

It is one thing to find Christ reflected in the faces of the suffering.  It is another to see Christ’s suffering mirrored in the pain of those women and children who historically have been ignored to preserve the reputation of the powerful.  Yet that is where Christ calls us.

When Jesus redefines greatness for the disciples, he redefines it for us as well.  He reminds us that humanity—all humanity—has to flourish in the reign of God. Not just the powerful, the mighty, the well-connected.  The reign of God seeks the flourishing of the least just as much as the most, and so we cannot let the defenders of walls blind us to the shattered eggs in front of us.  

And when we stand beside the vulnerable, the unheard, the suffering, against the walls that surround them, we do not stand alone.  They do not stand alone.  We will stand surrounded by the God who created this world to be for the good of all creation, and supported by the Christ who suffered in order to partner us through every moment of our lives.  We empowered on every side by Divine Love.  And in these brief moments, the Reign of God shines through.

Amen.

 

No gods that we know

We have now entered the one-month period wherein I will be installed officially as the rector of St. John’s (hooray!) and then get married (also hooray!).  I figured out today that this series of events is the equivalent to an out-of-season Christmas/Holy Week scenario–copiers will run out of ink, computers will die, the building will slowly collapse, and people will people, in recognition of profound oncoming liturgical events.  I warned the staff to be on their guard.  Be very nice to everyone.  Stockpile the office paper.  Winter is coming.

This means that I have noticed the occasional vestry member looking at me worriedly when I say (without thinking) “Well, we can start that project in October!  No problem!” or the parish administrator saying gleefully, “GOOD FOR YOU!” when I say I’m taking off a few minutes early.

Rest assured, that beginning next week, I will have two other preachers at my disposal at St. John’s, and they will be pitching in ably.  So in the event that a sermon doesn’t make it up here, there’s a good chance that someone else has just preached.

In the meantime, here’s what I said on the 16th.

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

September 16, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 19

Mark 

The gods we are used to

There’s a scene in that Anglican classic of modern spirituality, The Life gf Brian, where the People’s Liberation Front of Judea is having a meeting.  And someone rightly questions the continuing Roman imperial rule over Palestine, asking, “Well, what did Rome ever do for us?”

The answer immediately comes back: “Well, running water.  And plumbing.  And roads.  And transportation.  And cities, really.  And trade.  And security.  And…and…and…”  Point well made.  (Like the rest of their canon, Life of Brian is remarkably well researched regarding life in first century Palestine.)  And it does nail the socio-political milieu pretty well:  Rome did A LOT in Palestine during their rule, which is why there are several Caesarea’s all over the place.  Entire cities built by one Caesar or another.  The one we’re interested in today is up at the headwaters of the Jordan, up in the Golan Heights, where the freshwater springs are.  Caesarea Philippi.  

Traditionally—an ancient center of Roman/Greek worship.  For thousands of years, because of the continual supply of fresh water, people had gone there to worship the god of the moment.  First the gods of the Canaanities, then the God of the Israelites, then the Babylonian and Assyrian gods, then the Greek and Roman gods—Caesarea Phillippi was one of those places in the ancient world that just attracted worship.  So the springs were littered with temples to one god or another—Tons of various temples to all the gods at the springs. So when Jesus asks this question, they’re literally standing surrounded by other gods.  The location of this conversation is not coincidental at all. 

Who do you say that I am?  One like these?  

No—We say you are the Messiah, the Christ!  Hooray—50 points to Gryffindor.  Everyone is very excited—the disciples finally got one right!!! 

Then Jesus explains what that means.  (Notable, in each gospel, as soon as a disciple figures out who Jesus is, Jesus announces he will be crucified.  Crucifixion and Messiahship are inexorably intertwined.) 

Peter reacts badly.  NO.  Messiahs don’t do that.  Messiahs are big and strong and fix things.  Messiahs can be described in easily systematized theological statements, and hypotheticals, and are not confusing.  Look at all these marble statutes!!!  Aren’t they nice!  Don’t you want to be respectable like them?!  The point, the whole point, in Peter’s mind, of Jesus being the Messiah is that Jesus, his friend, is a god just as big and as imposing as these statutes that surround them.

It never fails to be surprising and upsetting, this Messiahship of Jesus.  It is the constant tension that runs through the gospels.  

Because Jesus is unlike any god we are used to.  He is not like those statutes at Caesarea Phillippi.  Jesus is not like Zeus, not like Mercury.  He is not like those ancient Canaanite or Babylonian gods. Jesus is not like any other god we know. 

And we know that, of course we do—which is why, when Jesus forcibly reminds Peter that his job as Messiah, is not to get his face carved into marble, but to climb upon a cross to die, we nod, because we know this story.  And after all, there aren’t many temples to Ba’al left in our world.  (Outside New Jersey, because there is literally every religion current and ancient in New Jersey.) 

Though, I daresay, there is some perverse way in which it’s a lot easier having a god like those nice marble statues, whose heads crown the rocks around the springs at Caesarea Philippi.  They were predictable—you knew what to do with them.  You didn’t have to worry that they would up and die one day.  You didn’t have to worry that they would abandon you; if they proved faithless, well then make a better sacrifice the next time.  Easy.

But what does one do with this suffering God?  How does a human cope with a loving, suffering Messiah?  It’s a bit much, isn’t it?  It gives us no room to hide.  We can’t stick our own less-than-great behavior under any divine cloud, because there’s Jesus, always showing us something better. 

Jesus, sheerly by being who and what he is, draws us to something better, shows us that life can be lived better, more fully than this. 

Frustratingly, Jesus refuses to play by the same rules as the old gods—he won’t hate the people we do, or be as emotionally petty as we are, so that we can have an excuse, and feel justified.  He irritatingly will not succumb to our attempts at bribery and bargaining, much as we would want.  He doesn’t produce magic, and cannot be manipulated to our own ends—despite our best efforts, he remains just out of our reach.

We often confuse him with the other gods—not so often ones made of marble now, but fancier ones.  Ones made of ideas like the market and security, and ideology.  We, like Peter, still want to conflate the Christ standing before us with all the various gods that cry for our attention.  We project all of our own stuff onto Christ, then blame him for it.  

One of the miracles of God that I can never quite get over, is how God never allows us to get away with that entirely.  I heard Bishop Mark MacDonald compare it to growing cranberries—you have do to all this work to grow cranberries; prepare the soil just right, water them just right, plant them, tend them, do all this impossible work, still it only works half the time—-but then occasionally, you look across the road and darn it if cranberries aren’t growing wild in the forest just because.  

There are voices in our world that would tell us that really, God hates quite a lot of people.  That everything is hopeless, so we best just buckle down and hope we make it into heaven.  Or at least the Rapture.  And we have places in the institutional church that are so broken and diseased that they have been hurting and abusing vulnerable people for decades—if not longer.  

And yet.  In spite of all that—in spite of all the voices of our world that would encourage us to see Jesus as just another fallible marble figurehead—petty and changeable—somehow I meet people day after day who know—who just know—in spite of all this—that God is real, that God loves them beyond knowing, and that Jesus is different, somehow.  Somehow, despite the world’s best efforts—those cranberry seeds are still growing.  Somehow, despite all that would trick us into thinking otherwise, Jesus persists in being himself.  Persists in being Unlike all our other Gods.  

but still, quietly, consistently, and subtly, Until such time as we notice.

Funny story…

Hey Megan, why isn’t last week’s sermon up on the website yet?

Oooooh, funny story.  

See, last week, I made it back to Ithaca around 11:30pm on Saturday night.  I had been in Kansas City, finishing up wedding planning (pies ordered, BBQ selected, all set!) and I wrote my sermon on the plane.  I was so proud of myself, you see.  And that was my downfall.

I forgot to reconnect my computer to the interwebz, so my sermon didn’t upload itself to the Magic GlowCloud.  So when I arrived at church Sunday morning, all bright-eyed and full of caffeine, I discovered that Magic GlowCloud on my work computer held no sermon of any kind.  There was no sermon to print.

“No matter,” I thought to myself. “I shall reconstruct it from memory!”  And so, did I scribble the main points on a piece of paper, and scamper off to the sanctuary for the 8am service.

But then, dear reader, did disaster again strike.  For during the readings of 8am, did I then discover that I had written a sermon for the next week’s readings.  And not these.  I had a full sermon on James 2 and the Syrophonecian woman, and not James 1 or whatever Proverbs was on about.  

This could be a problem.  People tend to notice when you start harping on about a story they haven’t heard.  

So I readjusted again, and basically said some things about faith and praying and the creeds and I’m not entirely sure what else, but it seemed to work.  It ended up being a mix of half of my written sermon, and half of Things in My Head.  It is possible that at one point I compared Paul to Chidi in The Good Place.  (Because he is, and like Chidi, and moral philosophy professors in general, Paul is also generally uncomfortable to hang around.)

That’s a long explanation of why last week’s sermon never ended up on the blog; which is to say, it never quite existed at all.  THIS WEEK’s sermon, now–that both exists, and is here!  For your reading pleasure.  

Here’s what I said:

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

September 9, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 18

Mark 7

About a day’s walk away from Nazareth—less, actually, if you don’t follow the modern highways—is Mount Carmel, near today’s Haifa.  It’s lovely, relatively green, and picturesque.  It is also the site where, according to tradition, Elijah got into trouble with the court prophets of Queen Jezebel, and proposed a test.  Both he and they would pray to their respective gods to send down fire from the sky to consume an offering, and whoever succeeded—well, that was the true god of Israel.  

Elijah is a bit of a smartaleck, so he taunts the prophets of Ba’al as they pray.  He asks if their god has maybe fallen asleep.  Is he tired?  Maybe he’s too tired to send down the fire?  Does he need a nap?  Should they be praying louder?  Finally, the Ba’al priests give up, after quite a lot of ceremony.

Elijah steps up, douses his offering with water several times, and calmly proceeds to summon fire from the sky in the name of God to flambé not only the sacrifice…but also all the priests of Ba’al, and those Ba’al worshippers who were standing around, watching.  It’s a gruesome moment, one of the major events of the prophet Elijah’s life.  And one of the major events in the religious history of Israel—a history that had really ambivalent feelings about its relationships to people who weren’t Jewish.  

On the one hand, you have stories like this graphic one about Elijah—getting rid of the evil foreign queen’s evil foreign priests, with fire and lots of drama.  On the other, you also have stories like Abraham being friendly with the foreign residents of Hebron, and asking for a place to bury his wife, when she dies.  Or the story of Ruth the faithful Moabite, who becomes King David’s grandmother.  

Essentially, at the time of Jesus, the Jewish culture had a lot of different, and strong, ideas about how you were supposed to deal with people who were unlike you, religiously.  And Jesus, having grown up in Nazareth, in a Jewish town, in a Jewish family, as a Jewish person, would have heard and received all of those ideas.  Would have been raised in that culture and context.  Would have been raised an easy day’s walk away from the place where tradition says the greatest prophet in Israel’s history defeated the unclean ones for God!

So when you hear this week’s troubling gospel—and it is troubling—keep all that in the back of your mind.  Keep that landscape in your mind.  

Because in this moment of whatever, when confronted by this Syro-phonecian woman when she asked for help for her daughter, Jesus unthinkingly falls back into this pattern handed to him by his culture and his country.

Jesus has ventured outside of Israelite territory, we are told to get a break from the ceaseless crowds, and then that doesn’t work, and a woman of Syro-phonecian origin accosts him and asks for his help.  And he says something pretty mean to her.  It is not fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs. 

Ok.  Now.  I should say that there are scholars who try to soften or explain what Jesus does.  There are scholars who say that comparing someone to a dog back then wasn’t as bad as it sounds, because the word used is the diminutive form, so he’s really comparing her to a puppy.  Which is sort of cute, I guess.  

There are scholars who argue that what he was doing was using the woman as an object lesson: that he was trying to illustrate all that stuff about nothing on the outside defiling us, but only stuff from the inside he had just said for the disciples, and prompt a reaction out of them—so they would correct him.  It was all a plan, you see! 

Honestly I don’t care for those explanations; because I don’t find Jesus to be someone who would verbally abuse a woman in crisis, just to prove a point to someone else.  She does not appear to be in on the lesson.  And what kind of person mocks and slanders someone else, in order to teach?  We know from other sources that to be called a dog was just as much of a slur back then as it is now—it had similar (though not identical) ethnic overtones. 

And we can spend a lot of time twisting the text around to make Jesus’ words less troubling, but the truth is, I think Jesus just didn’t think.  And I think he echoed his uncles, his grandparents, his parents, when they were tired, and griping around the table late at night.  I think he just spoke out of what he learned as a kid, from his culture, from the people around him—he gave voice to that free-floating something, and there it was.  

But two things happen—One, the woman gets sassy.  She will not take this.  This is NOT what she came for, gosh darn it.  “Yes my lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table.” Mic drop.   She will MAKE Jesus deal with her humanity, dammit. She is not content to go quietly away—she argues back.

And remarkably, Jesus changes.  His brain kicks back in.  He thinks, and plugs into all that good stuff he was just saying, and he decides to heal her daughter.

Now, maybe he was just demonstrating something for the disciples.  Maybe she was in on it and the two of them had worked it out beforehand.  But this is the one time in the gospels that Jesus appears to reverse course, and so it’s notable.   

The humanity of this woman breaks through the knee-jerk rhetoric.  Having to see her as an individual, and not a category, not a stereotype, not a cutout for a larger problem—that changed the conversation.  It is in that moment when the woman speaks for herself, pushes back against the weird aphorism that Jesus dismisses her with, that he changes his mind.

It is easy to be dismissive of others when we keep them as others.  When we keep them firmly categorized in our minds in the boxes we create for them:  “Different” “Other” “Bad” “Entirely unlike Me,  Who Is A Good Person”.  Sorting people, things, and experiences into one-dimensional categories is a safety mechanism, right?  It’s how we move through the world without our brains exploding, Malcom Gladwell tells us.  And that’s fine, insofar as it goes.

But people aren’t actually one dimensional.  People are images of God, unique and individual, and beautiful in diversity.  And the foundation of our faith is to love God, and love our neighbor—which is in fact difficult to do without knowing our neighbor, recognizing our neighbor as unique, and human and beloved.  God requires not that we sort people easily, but that we know one another.  That we meet one another as unique human beings—with our variety of experiences, histories, stories, and wisdom.  

The risk in that, of course, is that we also have to be willing to be humans ourselves.  We have to be willing to be honest about our own frailties and failings.  Which can be pretty darn uncomfortable!  I imagine Jesus didn’t feel great when he realized what he had said to the woman.  But if he was going to meet her in her full humanity, that required him to acknowledge that he had been raised in a culture that had been cruel to her.  

Dr. Catherine Meeks, a professor in Atlanta, says that in the end, the only way to truly overcome prejudice is love.  When we love ourselves with compassion for every part of our humanity, we will be able to love each other in another’s full humanity.  It is only through this sort of humble love for self and one another that the barriers between us crumble.

It is this sort of love that Christ gives to us, that he models for us, the sort of love that reaches out, that cherishes each beloved child of God, and assures us that there are shall be no outcasts in God’s kingdom.