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
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.
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.