This weekend was the diocesan convention. On Friday and Saturday, I trooped over to Blue Springs with the rest of the clergy and lay delegates, sat in a overchilled ballroom, and took counsel together for the future of our diocese.
In West Missouri, it can now be said publicly that one thing our diocesan future will include is mediation between the diocese and bishop. For roughly 18 months, the Standing Committee and the bishop have been in a mediation process to address several longstanding issues in our common life. This weekend, it was announced that this process has resulted in an agreement on how to move forward for the next six months. Said agreement was announced to the diocese both at convention and in each parish through a pastoral letter read on Sunday morning.
That part was tense, and painful. No one, and I mean no one, likes conflict–though I retain my firm belief that this pain will yet result in new growth and life for us all. But at the same time, convention included the long-awaited reception of one of my parishioners whose call to ordination found a home in The Episcopal Church. We authorized the start of a taskforce to start a new diocesan curacy program. And I got to see friends I only see at convention.
The institutional church can be a frustrating morass of “people people-ing” as my parish admin terms it. People just doing their level best to be their worst and pettiest selves. And yet, at the same time, there’s always enough of the Holy Spirit mixed in there that it always seems worth sticking with it.
So here’s what I said on Sunday.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
November 4, 2017
Ordinary Time, Proper 26
Well, yikes. This was clearly not one of Jesus’s happy days. This was clearly one of his grumpier days.
And I realize this might seem like an odd reading for All Saints’ Sunday, when we have baptisms and Jonathan is celebrating mass with us for the first time, and we have all these joyous things happening–but bear with me.
We’ve been reading through this part of Matthew where Jesus has been fighting with the various parts of religious leadership in his time–Sadducees, temple authorities, Pharisees. Different folks in different places of power. And finally, we arrive to today’s reading where he rounds things off by basically insulting them for a good 12 verses. And not in a subtle way, either.
He says that they’re puffed up and proud, that they posture and preen and act like pious people but only so others will think well of them, but actually, it’s all an act. They aren’t really good people–it’s all for show. They aren’t concerned with love of God or love of humanity; they are concerned with keeping up appearances and maintaining power over others.
That is very harsh. To put this in context, of course, Jesus has been arguing with these guys for a while now, and he’s gotten fed up. He’s frustrated because they aren’t really having a discussion about faith with him, as they are trying to one-up him in front of the crowd.
Again, it bears repeating that Jesus, though he sounds infuriated, actually had a lot in common with the Pharisees. They both thought that religious observance was for everyone–not just the rich, not just the educated, and not just the people lucky enough to live close enough to the Temple to go worship. They thought everyone should have the opportunity to be in relationship with God, and to walk in the way God teaches us to walk–not just some of the people.
However, religious leaders then, as now, ran into the temptation that all leaders do. Leaders hold so much power as they teach, as they mold what someone believes, as they persuade–which is great if they use that to good effect in the world, but Frequently, leadership can become a power trip–and that can become an end unto itself. So what you start to focus on is not leading people to a better life, constructing the reign of God on earth, but feeling superior to others. Less good. Not good.
It is easy here, as it is through all of Matthew really, to demonize the Pharisees, but Jesus turns it around pretty fast to the disciples–who, let’s remember, were leaders too. They were headed out, preaching and teaching and healing, right? They were spreading the gospel too. They were leading. And so he tells them to remember not to call anyone father. And not to call anyone teacher–and by extension, to not let anyone call them father, or teacher–because those titles can involve an element of domination, and the role of a Christian is to always be a servant.
There is, perhaps, an element of leadership in the walk with Christ. There is an element of leadership in the baptized life, in the sense that we become salt and light for the earth, and so are set apart from the crowd–given a special calling. We are the ones, after all, who have made these promises, to follow the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers. Others have not made those promises. We promised to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to work for justice, freedom and peace. Others did not.
That does not mean we are better than other people. It does not–any more than people who all can recite Monty Python quotes about the Spanish Inquisition are better than other people. It just means we’re different. Different, not better. Not, praise God, worse, though, either. (Maybe it’s a human thing, to equate difference with a value judgement.)
Our baptism doesn’t make us better than the rest of the world, but it does give us a job to do in the world–a job to serve the rest of the world, but in so doing, we have to resist the temptation to confuse our difference with betterness. Because Lord knows, there are a lot of screwy Episcopalians. And Lord knows, there are also a lot of people of other creeds who work for the same things we do, just in a different way. Christ calls us out to be different, in order not to be better, or to be special, but in order to serve the rest of the world.
We see it, of course, clearly in ordination, where some of us odd souls are singled out to be set aside for the task of cheering on and empowering the rest of the church. Again, it would be laughable to claim that the ordained clergy are better than those who actually do the work of the church–the daily going out into the world, the daily praying and working and reconciling that you do. We’re not better; we’re just different. This week, we get to rejoice as another one is added to our company.
It is actually our differences that bring forth the reign of God. Our differences, our different callings do not make us better or worse than each other–rather they equip us to serve the world.
When we baptize these three little babies in a few minutes, we rejoice that they will grow in this community of Christ’s love, that they will have the chance to learn your own blessed differences. Babies, you will have the chance to discover your own callings, and how God is shaping you to serve the world you’re now just discovering. Today, we celebrate as you join our number of cheerfully different servants, because we know that this is what you were made for–a life to serve the world, in all your wonderful blessed uniqueness, alongside all the other saints.