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On Floating Heads and Bodies: Sacraments in a Time of Pandemic

In seminary, our church history professor sent the class on a scavenger hunt to New York’s art museums, in order to ponder the theological shifts occurring during the Middle Ages.  “Find me Our Lady of the S-Curve!” he warbled, contorting himself into a serpentine pose.  “Look for an increase in emotional piety!” his hands held aloft like a pious Nosveratu.

We joked about it, but to this day, I cannot prevent a small, Fr. Wright-sounding voice in my head from chanting “SEATED WISDOM!” or “LADY OF THE S-CURVE!” whenever I behold any depiction of Madonna and Child.  As the theological understanding of the masses shifted, those changes could be seen in Western art.

Of course, there has always been a gap between what the religious institution teaches and what the religious faithful believe within the spectrum of Christianity—this is what the art tracked.  No religion exists in a vacuum-sealed pouch1; it is carried out in the real world, affected by real people and real circumstances, and that shifting dynamic is what makes the study of religious traditions so fascinating, enraging, and beautiful.  

In the Middle Ages, the Pope didn’t wake up one morning and decide that right-angle Jesus on a right-angle cross looking sober and stoic no longer made sense; a confluence of events pushed that image out of popularity. 

Namely, there was a big plague.

Prior to the Black Plague across Europe, images of the stoic Jesus and stoic Mary were everywhere.  Not unrelated: popular belief in a corporeal, general, physical resurrection was also widespread.  It was understood that Jesus’s resurrection brought to all of humanity the chance to physically follow where he led, and be raised on the last day.  Burial practices concentrated on preserving all of the remains, in anticipation of that glorious event.  

Then, the plague.  (Carol Walker Bynum talks about this in much greater detail.) Because the plague brought intense physical pain, as well as some deformity, popular theology began to shift, and it was here that we see the Western European church begin to talk about eternal life as not physical resurrection, but a spiritual unification with God in heaven—absent a physical body.  Gazing upon the physical destruction of the plague, European Christians couldn’t imagine bodies—which had caused such harm—being redeemed.  Bodies brought suffering, bodies brought agony.  Christ, bearer of eternal life and light, didn’t fit with that reality.  So they start to spiritualize the whole deal.

Cut to: our own plague.

What has been lingering in my mind since this has started is what theological shifts we will make during this time.  The discussion/argument/epic Internet Throwdown over “virtual communion”2 worries me for precisely this reason.  I am not concerned with Anglican eucharistic theology per se—others are handling those arguments quite well (see: the Presiding Bishop for one.)  For once, it turns out that Episcopalians actually do have somewhat of a consensus on what we believe and where the boundaries are.3  (No, priests can’t say mass by ourselves; we’re not Roman Catholic. No, saying mass doesn’t create the church; God creates the church.  Yes, everyone probably needs to spend more time playing Animal Crossing and less time fighting on Twitter.)

I am concerned, though, with a larger issue here.  Many of us are becoming increasingly aware of our physical bodies as the site of marked vulnerability and frailty.  We watch the news, we see the cooler trucks lining the streets in New York City, we see medical experts warning us that the common physical things we do every day now put us in mortal danger.  For many, it is a frightening revelation that these mortal bodies God gives us are not impervious; they fail, they suffer and they die.4

The immediate response to the crisis was to close the churches, and move everything online, which was (and remains) the correct, responsible, and loving response.  God does not will the death of anyone, and indeed, God wills even less the death of anyone to be caused by our worship.  Christ came that we might have life, and life abundant—a truth we undermine when we put people at risk by our actions. So, separating is the right thing to do.

At the same time, when the day comes when we can gather again, what will our attitude be towards the sacraments from which we have fasted?

The liturgy takes its power not only from the words we say, but also from the space and context in which we say them. That is, ritual means a different thing, communicates a different thing when I am standing in a room with you saying the words of institution than when I am in a Zoom meeting with you.  And that ritual will mean something differently entirely when we can come together again, and you and I are both conscious in a new way of the germs on my hands, on yours, and floating in the air around us.  

The danger we are talking around, I think, in many of these debates about “virtual communion”2, is our fear of precisely that scene.  I can’t be the only one who finds herself watching TV shows, and flinching each time the characters leave their house.  We know more now, and there’s no going back.  We can’t return to the blissful ignorance of a world before the corona virus pandemic.  When we show up again in a room together, it won’t just be wonderful—it will be scary.

The best of our tradition holds an opportunity for us here. The temptation is to take the medieval approach, and further spiritualize our faith: further sever the spiritual from the physical, and declare that the fullness of a person can be communicated via their floating head on a screen. This way seems the safest, the most practical—and yet it also leaves recent events unaddressed.  If we treat people only as spirits, we cannot heal their physical wounds.  If we pretend everyone is disembodied, we cannot address the ways in which our physical nature causes us pain—a fact which is causing the whole world a lot of trauma right now.

 Yet, we hold a tradition that also promises that God came to us in this mortal flesh—as vulnerable, as frail, and as mortal as it is.  

Our sacraments involve physical objects, involve touch, because God enters our world precisely in the site of our vulnerability.  God enters our experience exactly where we find the most pain, the most suffering.  It is in our physical embodiment where we most need to experience the presence and love of God—especially in a moment when we are so aware of our physical limitations. 

We have the chance, post-pandemic, to embrace fully the physical, material nature of our sacraments.  We can brave the nervousness and fear in order to experience God made real for us in the place of our greatest weakness.  How meaningful will it be, after all this turmoil, to be able to place a wafer of bread in another human hand?  To know that in this action, God comes near to us, even as we are newly conscious of just how risky such an action can be, and how fragile our lives really are?  How powerful to rub oil into the shape of the cross on a forehead, remembering all the times we weren’t able to?  

The danger of “virtual Communion”2 isn’t just a weird understanding of eucharistic theology; it’s that it creates a gnostic split between spiritual and material that ultimately leaves the pressing concerns of our time unaddressed. To lean into the physical aspects of our sacraments (when and how it is safe to do so) communicates the reality of God’s presence into all parts of our struggling existence—and most especially the parts where we are the most broken.  

Ultimately, I think the times in which we live are far too dangerous for anything other than the fullness of the incarnate God.  Right now, we desperately need a God who comes to us in the frailty of a human body.  We need a God who saw loved ones die, feared sickness, worried over coughs.  We need a God whose power is made perfect in weakness.  We cannot offer our people anything less.

  1. A Glad bag descending from heaven, if you will. (Shout out to my GTS alums!)
  2. Not a thing; don’t @me.
  3. Pandemic miracle! Others include: a Parks and Recreation reunion episode, Ithaca getting our own Trader Joe’s.
  4.  I say “most of us”, because the disabled and chronically ill community has always been acutely aware of this.  Indeed, much of my thinking here owes a great debt to the work of disabled theologians on the critical importance of embodiment in Christian thought.

Lazarus and Grief

I did not expect to preach so much about the stay at home orders, or the pandemic. I found, to my surprise, that the experience of the pandemic was largely reflected in the Scriptures. They faced sudden calamity too! They had to struggle with isolation and fear too! Their leaders were confusing and capricious too! What do you know!

So here’s what I said the Sunday before Palm Sunday about Lazarus.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

March 29, 2020

Lent 5, Year A

Every so often these days, I find myself thinking “Oh, I need peppers for dinner tonight—I’ll just run out to the store.”  Then it takes a minute before I realize that no—I can’t just run out to the store.  Or I’ll think of something I need to tell one of you the next time I see you—only to recall a second later that “Seeing” you means something altogether different now.

This momentary forgetting is how grief works.  If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, you find that you go through times when you forget for a period that the person is dead—only to remember again a moment later.  Only right now, instead of grieving a particular person, all of us are grieving a way of life that is on hold.  

And I don’t say this to be self-indulgent.  Staying inside, self-isolating, not going to work, or to the store, or to church, or to the big celebrations we had been looking forward to is important and for extremely good reasons, and by doing these things we save people’s lives.  AND AT THE SAME TIME—it is all right to feel things about being stuck in the house all day.  It is fine to wonder how a parent who simultaneously has to work from home can also educate several squirmy kids.  It is altogether fine to wish things were different, and we could all be together in person.  It’s grief—grief is fine, and grief is human when we lose something.

Today’s gospel is all about grief.  Jesus gets word that one of his good friends, Lazarus, has died.  Now, we know Lazarus from earlier—Martha, his sister, had hosted Jesus and the disciples at her house.  This family was one of the ones that were financially supporting Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus, though, chooses to delay traveling back to Bethany, and by the time he gets there, Lazarus is dead.

Both sisters, in their turn, lay into him about this.  “Teacher, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  There’s something incredibly poignant about this scene—that’s the voice of grief right there.  Where were you, Jesus?  You could have stopped this.  You could have prevented this, and where were you?

And notice what Jesus does in the face of such sadness, grief, and even anger.  He doesn’t scold them, or tell them to have greater faith.  He doesn’t threaten them to be nicer.  He weeps.  He cries.  He joins them in their grief.

Now—of course, arguably  Jesus knows that he’s just going to raise Lazarus to life again.  He knows that he has the power to undo death itself, and so the suffering here is but temporary.  And yet, that doesn’t stop him from being so moved by the pain around him that he, too, enters into it.

If there is a better encapsulation of Jesus’ relationship to us, I don’t know what it is.  Jesus, standing with the grieving Mary and Martha beside the tomb, weeping—even as he is preparing to resurrect their brother, because he is so moved by their grief, and by the reality of what it is to be human.

Christ’s presence finds us even when we are surrounded by death.  Christ’s presence finds us even when we are buried in grief, even when we are furious with it, even when the fragility of this mortal life surrounds us on every side.  Christ’s presence finds us, just as he does when we are afraid, just as he does when we are alone, just as he always does.

Even the finality of death is no barrier to the love and presence of Christ.  Jesus resurrects Lazarus and restores him to his family.   In God, our mortal life is held secure, even amid everything that threatens it.  In the words of Paul—not even death is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

But this is not to say that the grief experienced by Jesus and the sisters wasn’t real, or wasn’t a faithful response—it was.  And more—Jesus—God incarnate—shared that grief with them.  So while we are experiencing such a time as this, such a time where our life seems intensely fragile, and grief seems all around,  I want us to hold on to two things:

The first is that death, in the sight of God, is no obstacle to Christ’s love.  For us, death means only a change, not an end, in our life in God.  God holds us so firmly in his arms of mercy that not even death can remove us.  Our state of being changes, but God loves us so deeply that through the power of Christ, no child of God is ever lost.  Ever.

The second is that God enters into our sufferings.  Even as we are assured that God has overcome death through Christ’s resurrection, God is still with us when we deal with pain and grief, because those are experiences that Christ knew too.  God enters into our sufferings, and bears it with us.  And so for us, our faithful response is not just to share our burdens with Christ, but to share one another’s burdens.  

Our grief, our sorrow, our frustration is not permanent, nor does it separate us from the God who made us and loves us.  It is a product of the love God has poured into our hearts for each other, for all that’s good in our lives.  And so God honors our grief, and asks that we treat it tenderly.

Because the love God gives us that once ached in grief will just as surely flourish in new places and in new ways.  God’s love that flows in us will bind us together, through our grief, into a new day of joy and gladness on the other side of this,  The love of God, that we have, will see us through even this.  Even this.  

Amen. 

Blind Man!

Preaching online takes some getting used to. I can’t wave my hands, for one. I can’t get instant feedback as well, for another. It’s a whole other thing.

Then there’s the issue of the blind man text. This story, like the other healing stories, tends to attract ableist interpretations like a toddler’s hands attract sticky stuff. Such interpretations from the pulpit (or the webcam) are not helpful–especially as we are currently struggling with the consequences of our refusal to adequately provide for one another.

So I tried to go another way. Here’s what I said.

Blind Man Sermon

This story essentially exists in two parts:  There’s the thing itself, then there’s the commentary about the thing.  This is a very meta story.

The initial healing of the blind man by Jesus is actually not a big deal (aside from violating every CDC guideline we have right now).  

What becomes a big deal is the fallout of the initial event—a fallout that ends up roping in all the local authorities, religious leaders, the man himself, and his parents.  Basically, by the end, you have the entire village yelling at each other. 

The clue that things are about to go pear-shaped comes at the very beginning of the story, and it’s so fast you might miss it.  When they first encounter the blind man, the disciples ask Jesus “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?”  For starters, He’s RIGHT THERE.  He’s not deaf.  Secondly, Jesus has a similar face-palm reaction.  “No one sinned—that’s not….no.  Wrong idea.  No.”

But if you pay careful attention to what happens in the rest of the story, it’s clear that this notion of ‘who sinned’ carries through to everyone else in the story.  Because no sooner has Jesus healed him, then the blind man is getting yelled at by the religious authorities, and then his parents are getting yelled at, in this sort of strange Law-and Order-esque scene.

Now, I need to say, that this scene is one of the reasons we know that the Gospel of John was written as late as 90-100 CE.  No one was getting thrown out of the synagogue anywhere—that simply wasn’t a thing—before the fall of the Temple in 70CE, and the ultimate split between Judaism and Christianity in 85CE.  John literally has to invent a word here to explain what’s happening, which indicates how unusual and novel it was.  So, please don’t hear this story as describing Jesus crusading against mean Jews who don’t like him—it really reflects a conflict that John’s community was having locally and much later.  

Anyway.  

What we do see is the religious authorities in the story acting on the belief that the disciples initially had: the formerly-blind man cannot be trusted to tell his own story because clearly, he sinned in order to end up blind.  Neither can his parents, because they might have sinned too.  So there’s a lot of yelling back and forth, for one, and the pretty harsh decision to cast them all out of their religious community.  

Bad theology, as I say to you all the time, harms people.  Theology that doesn’t heal, that doesn’t have at its core a profound love for the image of God in each person, that doesn’t see each human being as worthy of flourishing, is going to end up hurting people.

And we don’t have to look very far to see that happening around us now.  Because we live in a society that has assumed for a long time that if people are left by the side of the road, they must have done something to deserve it.  If you are poor, sick, disabled, left behind in some way, in this society, then our society tells us that you must have done something to deserve it.  Otherwise you would have worked harder.  Otherwise, you would have tried more.  Otherwise, you would have wanted it more.  

But now we are seeing that for all our glorification of individual achievement, this way of life has ended up literally killing us.  It’s fine to maintain that people should earn their way, but now, that fast food worker who is preparing your meal who doesn’t have a livable wage, and doesn’t have paid sick leave is literally endangering their life, and the lives of everyone who depend on them for food. Our philosophies of individualism and hard work alone won’t save us.

What will save us is the healing that Jesus offers, and it’s already all around us.  When we care for others, when we stop for the ones at the side of the road—that’s when we encounter the healing that Jesus gives us.  When we stand up for the vulnerable ones and we side with the left-behind.  Because while we’re witnessing the fall of so many of our beliefs, we’re also seeing so many people step up in amazing ways.  Liquor companies turning over their machinery to make hand sanitizer, businesses changing their models to protect their employees and spread wealth down the supply chain, average people running errands for those who are most vulnerable right now.  When we do these things, Jesus is with us, in powerful new ways.  Each time we come together to affirm the common worth and humanity of each person, that’s where the healing of Christ begins.

Amen.

My girl Photini

This turned out to be the last Sunday we worshipped in the building, to date. All classes were already online; services moved entirely online the next Sunday.

I wrote this as notes which are pretty sketchy, so don’t expect full sentences!

Photini in a Time of Plague

—First off, the Samaritan woman had a name.  Local Palestinian and Eastern Christian tradition names her Photini—light bearer. 

—Second, if you went on pilgrimage with me, then you know that her well is DEEP.  It’s still there, outside of Nablus, and you can drop a bucket down and drink from it still.  

But more importantly, what are we to make of this strange conversation about worship and husbands?

Because as she and Jesus are talking about the proper worship of God, all of a sudden, Jesus starts asking about her husbands, and just as quickly, she switches back to talking about where to worship God.  If you remember your Hebrew prophets, adultery is always used as a metaphor for religious unfaithfulness.  When the Israelites would wander off and worship idols, which happened roughly every 20 minutes, the prophets would say they were committing infidelity.  It was an easy allegory.  

So Jesus isn’t describing her actual marital state—he’s naming that the Samaritan people had been conquered 5 times, by 5 different empires.  Which was true.  And Photini, in turn, catches the allusion, and continues to debate theology.

Which makes this a remarkable woman indeed.  Out alone at a well, in the middle of the day, and a frustrated theologian.  

We don’t know why she was out there alone;  we do know that something was wrong, because to quote the saying “Only mad dogs and Englishmen stand in the midday sun.”  These conditions weren’t ideal for anyone.  Maybe she ran out of water at home.  Maybe she got into a fight with the other women.  Maybe there was sickness, and she was being isolated.  We don’t know.

But it strikes me that Photini was a woman who knew what it was to be isolated.  To fear.  To live unprotected by her society, her government, perhaps even by her family.  And perhaps the reason she immediately starts talking theology with Jesus is that for her, God is the only thing she has to rely on.

Yet when we see her in her isolation, we see her encountering Jesus.  Again, Jesus found Nicodemus in the night of his fear, and now Jesus has found Photini in her isolation.  The disciples, conversely, still don’t know what’s going on.  When Jesus says he has food they don’t know about, they assume he has a hidden pita in his pocket or something.  But he seeks out the frightened and the alone.

And when she encounters Jesus, she engages.  She demands answers. She asks questions.  She is ready. And the result is a woman restored to the embrace of her community at the end.  Jesus answers her questions.  He doesn’t shame her or rebuke her for her fear or isolation.  He doesn’t explain away her feelings.  He meets her where she is.  And brings her healing and wholeness of life.

In this current climate, we are facing something none of us have faced before.  It is new and it is overwhelming and it is scary.  But Christ meets us just when we are most alone and afraid.  Our fear and isolation aren’t barriers to him, and they can’t be barriers to our support for each other, either.  

Nicodemus in a time of plague

Now, reading through the sermons from a few weeks ago, I’m struck that I started mentioning the pandemic earlier in my sermons than I remembered. In this sermon, I was mostly responding to the stock market crash–but there was that whole “will we all be killed by the common cup?” controversy that was swirling back then. (We were all simple, naive creatures, I tell you. Handwringing about the chalice before all grabbing the same piece of cheese at coffee hour.)

Oddly, that’s basically what this sermon is about. That, and Ben and my’s love of a quirky British docu-series! Oh, and Jesus.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

March 8, 2020

Lent 2, Year A

Genesis 12, John 3

Ben and I like to watch a series of BBC documentaries called Hidden Killers.  It covers various historical time periods, and goes into scientific detail about the various unexpected things that was killing off the population.  Stairs, for example, as Ben and I are fond of reminding each other, were a Hidden Killer of the Edwardian home.  (Because there was a massive building boom in London, houses were now multi-story, and building codes hadn’t standardized stairs yet.  So people were falling down all over the place.)

But also, things like early electrical appliances (bare wires!  Entirely unregulated!), early gas lighting (had a tendency to seep into people’s houses while they slept because gas utilities were also not standardized.) Even wallpaper (it had arsenic in it.  That ended poorly.)  If you watch one episode, you get the sneaking suspicion that everything is slowly killing us, and one day we will be the subject of a slyly knowing documentary as future generations rue our cluelessness.  Hidden killers are everywhere.

Nicodemus would have been very on board with this idea.  He comes to Jesus in the dead of night, because he’s afraid.  He’s afraid for his position, for his reputation.  So rather than ask Jesus questions in public, like we see other Pharisees do, he approaches at night. 

Rabbi, he tells him, we know you clearly are in good with God, because we’ve seen what you can do.  He wants to know what that’s like—what is that experience of being close to God is like.  

Jesus tells him that a person can only enter God’s reign if they are born again.  Or born from above.  This Greek word can be translated both ways. Jesus is making a funny pun here.  Which is why Nicodemus gets confused and asked about literal birth.  

(As a sidenote:  In John’s gospel, Jesus is something of a frustrated comedian.  He makes these puns a lot, and the crowds always take him literally. Must have driven the poor guy nuts.)

Anyway,  Jesus tells Nicodemus that a person has to be born again/from above.  They have to be connected in some deep, material way to the realm of God.  Jesus compares it to the wind—it comes, it goes, and you can’t really define it or see it, but you know it when you see it.  It’s like that, basically.

We aren’t told what Nicodemus is afraid of exactly. Context can provide a lot of options.  It was a dangerous time—and not just because no one knew about germ theory or antibiotics yet.  The Roman Empire didn’t like threats to its power, especially not from religious middle managers like Nicodemus evidently was.  And they didn’t just arrest you if they decided they didn’t like you—they arrested you, your family, and probably every able-bodied man in your village.  Just to prove the point.  Jesus lived during a time of unease and danger, with revolutions and revolts coming fast and furious.  Many religious leaders, like political leaders in tumultuous times throughout history, were all the more cautious to protect what little power they had, because the alternative looked so awful.

So, Nicodemus is correct to be afraid, here.  That’s a lot of terrifying stuff, even in theory.  And it’s notable that Jesus doesn’t chew him out for scheduling a middle-of-the-night interview.  He meets him in the middle of his fearful place, and talks with him.  Assures him.  “Indeed, God sent the son into the world not to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  

We aren’t told if this convinces Nicodemus.  Or if Jesus’ gentle jibe about teachers of Israel not understanding simple things convinces him.  But we do see him later; he shows up after Jesus’ death to take custody of Jesus’ body for burial.  So he does clearly resonate with something Jesus says.  Something got through.

It’s an understatement to say that we are living in an anxious time.  If you weren’t having palpitations while watching the news before this virus started spreading, then I’m guessing you do now.  It’s a sobering thing to hear yourself calmly discuss the prospect of avoiding other people for weeks on end, stockpiling food, and whether our healthcare system is up to this.  

There is a lot, right now, to be afraid of.  A lot of very real things.  Just as Nicodemus had.  The stock market is tumbling.  The economy is shuddering.  Those numbers of sick people on the news keep going up.  Our leaders seem at times overwhelmed or confused. 

But here’s what I know.  I know that fear is no barrier to Jesus.  Jesus met Nicodemus in his fearful night, and he will meet us here as well.  So we’re afraid.  So things look dim right now.  That’s ok. We are allowed to be afraid.

But our fear cannot stop us from following Jesus.  We are still called to be the church, still called to be the Body of Christ in the world.  Nicodemus was afraid, but he still sought Jesus out, and still took care of him after his death on the cross.  Our mission is the same as it has ever been, and in fact, it is even more important now.  

This anxious world needs us to be a place of calm and respite.  The world out there needs us to quietly embody Jesus’ way of love and self-giving, even as so many give into scarcity and isolation.  The world needs us to do now what the church has always done in times of trial: care for the sick, care for the needy, and steadfastly shine the light of God into a shadowy place.  

At St. John’s, we’ve been here for nearly 200 years.  In this place, we will continue to hold services to worship God, and we will continue to help Loaves and Fishes feed the people who need food.  The shape, and the details of how that happens might change, but that part won’t, because that is who we are and that is what we do.  And when we do what God calls us to, then Jesus meets us there.  Even if it is the dead of the scariest night.

Amen.