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The Theology of Crowd Control, and also the IRS

Donald Trump came to Kansas City on Saturday night.  My rector texted me and informed me that he was headed to the rally, to protest, and if he was thrown in jail, I had to come and visit him.  And also handle church the next morning.

The rallies in Chicago and Ohio have become increasingly violent; protestors have been beaten by rally attendees,.  Two days ago, the event in Chicago was cancelled entirely, and the two angry crowds came to blows in the streets.  I find a lot to be scary about Trump, but this is what I find most terrifying.  Even if he doesn’t win, even if most Americans listen to their better, calmer angels and vote another way–how do we put this violence that has been unleashed back in the bottle?

So I figured I should say something in a sermon.  Problem is, there are actually rules for things like this.  The IRS does not allow churches to either endorse candidates for public office, or to urge a vote against them.  (Please note:  this rule is interpreted pretty literally.  Which is why you see religious groups putting out voting guides all the time–“Those are on issues!  Not people!”–and why candidates for public office speak at religious institutions–“because they don’t ask for a vote, technically”.  I’m not arguing the rightness or wrongness of this law; I’m just stating it exists.)  All this is to say that I joked prior to the first service today that I really hoped I had threaded this needle carefully enough.  Otherwise, I would probably get some calls from a Trump lawyer, and wouldn’t that be fun to explain to the bishop?

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

March 13, 2016

Lent 5

John 13

The NY Times had a story this week about how to explain this election to your children.  And while I assumed that this would be another usual hand-wringing that parenting articles can sometimes fall into–is peanut butter killing us all?  Which is better? Organic kale or organic quinoa?–turns out, this one had a point.

Think about it–really, imagine watching these Republican debates with a 7 year old kid.  Think of the interesting topics of conversation that would arise….See?  There are unexpected landmines in the educational process this year.  The Times interviewed all these teachers, who suggested that the candidates be used as object lessons in bad manners.  Or not playing well with others.  Or not saying things nicely enough.  

One teacher opined that children would be confused to see adults behaving in ways that they were explicitly told never to behave–no making fun of people who are different than you, no interrupting, no name calling, no threatening others with violence.  

But then, in the interests of balance, I guess, the Times found one guy who was a fan of one politician in particular, and whose 10 yr old son was as well.  “My guy does those things because he is bigger and stronger than the others, and he just wants to prove it.” The kid explained.  

Seems fair.  And if you watch the news, or the internets, or the social media, then there are a lot of voices insisting exactly that– that power lies in strength.  And more strength.  In hitting harder, in yelling louder, in hating more, and in having the best, biggest, and most expensive things ever.  And if you do that, then, congrats, because you’re the best leader of all of them.   And in our world right now, the path to greatness is found after you beat everyone else up. Or at least have them locked up somewhere.  Stronger is better.

So that makes arriving at church and hearing these readings all the more strange.  From Isaiah all the way to the gospel–even including Paul!  Paul, who lists out all the many ways that he is better than absolutely everyone else–he is a Roman citizen, he is Jewish, so better religiously.  He is a Pharisee, so better educated.  He even killed Christians, so better with lions, even, probably.  But, all of those ways in which he was stronger/better/greater he has come to see as loss, because that is how Jesus has taught him.  

And then, there’s this gospel story right?  Because there’s really nothing strong or macho about this story.  It’s downright embarrassing, in fact.

Jesus goes to the home of Mary and Martha , who are probably Jesus’ best friends.  Whenever we see them, they take care of him and feed him and the disciples–they feed them, they house them, they share hospitality.  And let’s face it, they’re way less idiotic than his actual disciples.  And now, in his last days, Mary does this outrageous thing and spends all the money, wastes all her money, to buy perfume to anoint his feet.  (Really.  All the money.  Nard was the most expensive stuff you could buy.)  

It’s extravagant, it’s costly, it’s sort of borderline gross, and kinda indecent.  She’s wiping his feet.  With her hair.  This is probably the most evocative image ever, precisely because PEOPLE DONT DO THIS.  It would have scandalized everyone in the room–this wasn’t the sort of thing that happened at a dinner party.  And it’s emotionally evocative too–because nard is used for funeral rites.  And Mary, Martha and Jesus have to confront the reality of his coming death.  It’s sad!  Mary and Jesus are both vulnerable here.  


There’s a parallel here between what Mary does, and what Jesus will do later, to wash the disciples’ feet.  That, too, is vulnerable, it’s slightly disgusting, and it’s messy–and will freak out most of the people in the room.  And both are acts designed to exemplify the service Jesus calls us to; the kind of life Jesus asks us to undertake.  


And, no, they don’t make a whole lot of sense.  Logic would be in the voice of Judas, who protests that it’s wasteful.  That the money could be better spent.  That this is pointless, and weak, and a better leader would be strong and tough and not allow this sort of nonsense from his followers.


Eh, he’s right.  But that’s not the point.  Judas, actually, is the guy who is usually right, but also usually missing the point.  Like here, sure–the money could be given to the poor.  But how rich, precisely, is Jesus in this moment?  How much money does Mary have?  No one in that room is anything other than poor.  So Judas’ protestation, and Jesus’ rebuttal, is not so much a prediction, as it is a description.  They’re poor.  They’re poor for the sake of the gospel.  They’re poor, because they, like Paul, have come to see all that the world counts as strength, as barriers to the love of God that they are called to share.  


The love that Christ calls us to is vulnerable.  And costly, and wasteful.  It involves risk and danger, and most of the time, looking foolish. We aren’t called to build walls, we aren’t called to be strong at all costs, we aren’t called to protect ourselves with jeering shouts at those we imagine are weak.  


I watched the Trump rally here in KC last night on TV last night.  And what I was most struck by was not his policies, not his verbal tics or even his hair–of course, he’s entitled to all these things.  What I was struck by was how he dealt with the crowd.  Every few minutes, protesters would erupt again, and interrupt Mr. Trump, and instead of calmly waiting, Mr. Trump began to taunt the crowd, saying that the way to deal with protesters, with people who disagree with you, is to arrest them.  “That’ll ruin their lives.  They’ll never do it again.”  Each time someone stood up to chant something, Trump gestured, and yelled for the person to be arrested.  “They’re bad people.  Just bad bad people.  We have to take America back from these people!”  And he stood onstage and proclaimed that he was a great Christian.  

Look–we can talk about his policy ideas all day.  We can talk about the ethics and the effectiveness of his suggestions regarding immigration and racial and ethnic profiling.  But it is patently unChristian and wrong to urge violence against human beings like this.  It is unloving to treat people who disagree with you like this.  It’s wrong.  It’s dangerous.  It’s irresponsible.

And most of all, it is not what Jesus calls us to.  Jesus teaches us that the truest power isn’t in the greatest display of strength, but in vulnerability.  In listening to others.  In serving others.  And in costly extravagance of love.  When we’ve knelt at the feet of another, as dirty and smelly as they are, and we still care for them.

That’s where we’re called to be.  Not heaping strength upon strength, building new walls for ourselves, but knelt at the feet of one another.  Like Mary.  Like Christ.  That’s where we should be.


About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

2 responses »

  1. I’m struck by the stark question we must all face: what do we fear more – what Donald Trump will do or say or what we will not do or say? If I were a betting man, I would place my fondest wager on the latter. We must answer for it, while DT alone mus answer for the former.

  2. What a beautiful, profound sermon, Megan. Thank you for sharing it. You’ve given us a lot to reflect on today.

    Also, great minds think alike. Beth Lewis wrote about Bonhoeffer today in Lent Madness. This is one of the quotes she used: “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists of listening to them. Just as love of God begins with listening to his word, so the beginning of love for our brothers and sisters is learning to listen to them.” From Life together (DBW 5)


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