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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.


New Hobby

One of the reporters at the Hutto prayer service asked me, as serious as could be, “So, these large outdoor prayer meetings–I assume this is a weekly tradition for Episcopals?”

Oh my sweet, summer child.

“No,” I replied, quite emphatically. “We are an indoor people.  My people do not venture forth out of doors.  Do you know the Royal Wedding?  The queen, the hats, the tea?  We are the people who brought you THAT.  Today is VERY UNUSUAL.  Please consider how bad things have to be in order to force Episcopalians to go OUTSIDE.

WHERE THE SUN IS.”

However, God is quite the joker, because no sooner did I arrive back in Ithaca, then Mass on the Grass rolled around.  This is an annual tradition of St. John’s, which used to be termed “Rally Day” but because no one quite knew what a rally day was, we decided to change the name this year.  We go out to a local park, rent a big pavilion, and have one big service and picnic to celebrate summer, and to have fun.

My response to that reporter was slightly tongue-in-cheek, but mostly honest.  Because the heart of our tradition is liturgy, when we move where it happens, it feels radically destabilizing.  Sometimes, that’s healthy, and sometimes, that’s just chaotic without purpose.  But in all cases, it’s deeply felt.  So we don’t tend to just “go outside.” Outside is chaotic.  Outside there is wind and water, and whatnot.  You can’t always control things outside.

However, more and more it would seem that outside is just where Christ is calling us.  Regardless of the geese that honk while we pray, and the wind that threatens our nicely-lit candles–Christ seems to be calling us outside into this creation, so go there, we shall.

Here’s what I said.  (It’s in bullet points because I was trying to be ‘looser’ and more ‘free.’  This sort of worked?

Bread vs bread 

CAT FOOD EXPERIMENT in 4th grade 

Moral: don’t be a cat. Hold out for the good stuff. 

  • Recall now that we’ve switched from Mark to John’s gospel
  • Mark was “Just the facts” 
  • John wants to also tell you the Why. The theological background. 
  • John is Gospel 2.0 
  • Which is why he spends 3 chapters ranting about bread 
  • Bread here isn’t just bread. 
  • (as you might suspect from Jesus chiding them for wanting a snack.)
  • As usual, John is operating on several levels 
  • For one thing, John would like us to notice that Jesus is being super-Moses like here. Which is why he has told us that it is Passover. 
  • Remember how Moses, among his many accomplishments, fed a huge crowd of people? 
  • He prayed, and God gave the Israelites manna in the wilderness. 
  • Here, Jesus prays, and God feeds a crowd again.
  • But! Jesus’ bread is not like the manna, which turned bad after a day. Jesus’ bread is 1. for everyone and 2. everlasting. 
  • So Jesus is both in the footsteps of Moses, and building upon Moses. 
  • Don’t settle just for manna, John’s Jesus tells us. There’s more out there, and God wants to give it to you. 
  • Don’t just settle for surviving, Jesus tells us. Reach for an abundant life. 
  • The crowd seems to want the basics—bread! Magic! Miracles at their beck and call! And it makes sense—free bread sounds pretty great. 
  • But Jesus wants to give them something more complicated, more risky and more real. 
  • Following the way of Christ is not just survival.
  • In fact, loving God and your neighbor as yourself does not necessarily make for survival. 
  • Following Christ opens us up to a life beyond surviving— it opens us up to a life of vulnerability, and richness, and joy, and sorrow, and hope.  
  • There are times, certainly, when it seems safer to settle for bread.  We know bread! And we also don’t want to get our hearts broken. 
  • But the life that Christ offers us beckons with so much beyond our imagining—it makes the occasional heartbreak worth it. 
  • We’re here today in this park to celebrate. But not the survival of St. John’s. We are here to celebrate our thriving. Our abundant life we are finding together. 
  • Time and again, this parish has chosen to reach for an abundant life, rather than the safe one. We have chosen to follow Jesus when he led us onto the water rather than to stay on the shore. And recently, I followed Jesus and got to join you on this path. 
  • so here we are, rejoicing in the abundant life this parish has found together. And in the adventures that Christ has in store for us just over the horizon. 

 

What Happened

I am well and truly back from General Convention now.

I have taken enough naps, petted my cats enough, knit enough, and reflected enough to be back from the headspace of 10 frantic days in Austin.

I always approach General Convention with the same sense of creeping dread.  “Oh dear God, this will be awful.  It will be an unending slog of horrible and fighting and why do I do this to myself?”  This year was the same.  This year, for the first time, I had directly contributed to many of the 517 (!) resolutions, so I felt personally invested in a new way.***

I have said several times that ordination’s closest comparison is marriage.  You have to be willing, if you want to be a priest, to fall in love with an institution, while knowing full well that this institution is fallible and broken, and prone to bad decision-making.  You have to be vulnerable to a system, while knowing that the system does not always come through.  The flip side of that, however, is that you’re bound to this erstwhile institution in love, so every time it falls short, you are able to confront it and shake the gates, and tell it to step up.

This convention, if you boiled it down, was a lot of faithful women doing a lot of gate-shaking.  Over and over again, we texted each other encouragement, we met in hallways, and over hurried lunches, and consoled each other when the path looked rockier than it did before.  We sat in committees, stood at the microphone, calmly told our stories, and outlined the change we wanted to see; we, who have been in love with this Church that at times hasn’t known how to love us back, have now started demanding better from this branch of the Body of Christ.

In the end, I think we managed to do a fair amount.  The systemic problems remain, as they do in the rest of society.  There’s still a lot of work to do.  But gone forever, I hope, is the notion that the Church can take women’s participation and presence for granted, without ensuring that we are also cherished and loved as equal members in this body.

If you want a practical list, here’s what the Special Taskforce got done:

  • asked for any prayer book revision to include expansive language for God
  • established a Truth and Reconciliation taskforce to deal with issues around gender, racial inequality
  • made discrimination in hiring forbidden under canon
  • defined and forbade retaliation under canon
  • provide confidentiality for whistleblowers in Title IV
  • create a database for Title IV matters, and resolutions
  • asked the Standing Commission for Structure, Governance, Constitution, and Canons to create a plan for a churchwide disciplinary process, including a churchwide intake officer position
  • lifted the statute of limitations on all sexual misconduct claims, beginning Jan 1, 2019 and ending Dec 31, 2021

 

***Let’s be clear:  I always feel invested in SOME way.  I am nothing if not opinionated.  But this time felt different.

Plowing for Justice

Beginning a new job carries with it many firsts:  first paycheck, first vestry meeting to lead, first major decision, etc.   Most of these get covered in seminary, or at least a nice pamphlet from Forward Movement or the Alban Institute.  (Tips: only change things you really have to at first.  This should never include the early service.  Befriend your office staff and Altar Guild.).

What they don’t cover is the first time you get up in the pulpit and preach a “our government is doing something awful, and we should do something about it” sermon in a new place.  These sermons are never the easiest to preach in general, but they become far easier, and indeed—are impossible to give without– a solid pastoral relationship with your congregation.  When you can look out over your people, and consider how what you’re about to say will hit each person, preaching tends to go better all the way around. (This person has members of their family serving in law enforcement; this person lost a parent recently; this person has adopted kids, etc.)

But, sometimes things happen.  Sometimes the Attorney General stands up and says something insane, like invoking a Bible verse last used by slaveholders in the South to justify his new policy of family separation at the border.  And, you have to jump in and hope that you’ve learned your people well enough over the few short weeks you’ve been there to talk to them about this.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 17, 2018

Proper 6, Year B

Mark 4:26-34

Earlier this week, if you were on social media, you might have noticed a lot of hubbub about a raccoon.  All of a sudden, Twitter started to get very excited about a raccoon that found itself scaling a 35 floor office building in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota.  It’s the sort of thing that happens more often in the internet age; something odd starts to happen, someone shares it, and now the whole world is watching a raccoon sit on a window ledge 25 floors above the street, and suggesting ways to help the little guy.  It was pretty strange: social media has gotten noticably grimmer since the 2016 election, but here were avowed conservatives and hardened progressives, talking to each other, expressing concern about some random raccoon, who—as several people pointed out—was probably rabid, since raccoons don’t come out in the daytime, much less try to climb a building for 2 days straight.  But here we were—people from all over the world, watching this raccoon climb with bated breath, hoping against hope.  Til finally it was over, at 3am on Monday morning, when the raccoon had finally made it to the roof, and was promptly fed some wet cat food by the fire department, and carted away by the relieved wildlife department.  We all breathed a huge sigh of relief.  HE MADE IT!  (Though, it turned out to be a girl.  SHE MADE IT!  SHE WASNT RABID!) And if she could make it, then gosh darn it, we could survive this year, too.

This brief flash of global togetherness felt a lot like the kingdom of God.  Here we all were, brought together in this unexpected way, from all these diverse backgrounds and experiences and places, but together in solidarity for another living creature, in a way no one could have foreseen.  (Really, if you called the whole “raccoon climbs up an office building” then you need to go to Vegas.)  And that happens so rarely these days.  

When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he says that it comes suddenly, and unexpectedly—like a farmer who does the planting, sowing, weeding—then one day, when he’s not paying attention—bam!  It’s harvest time.  Or a mustard seed, that in some mysterious way grows from a tiny thing, into an enormous thing to shelter all the birds of the air.  He’s using a lot of metaphors, but there’s definitely some way in which we can prepare for the kingdom, and some way in which it is entirely beyond us.  That seems to be where he’s going with this.  We can do all the work in the world, but that will only get us partially there.  The rest is God’s doing, and that is up to God.  

What struck me as I was thinking on this sermon earlier this week is that there’s no announcement when the Kingdom arrives.  In both of these images Jesus presents to us, the final product grows organically from what has come before.  At no point is there a trumpet fanfare, and a voice from on high proclaiming, BEHOLD.  IT IS HERE NOW.  But in both examples, the growth is so incremental that you can really only see it in retrospect.  It arrives before you know it. So there is also a way in which the Kingdom sneaks up on us as well, perhaps.

In case you’re wondering, or trying hard not to wonder, the phrase Kingdom of God gets a TON of play in the gospels, but it’s a term of art—it means something very specific, which we don’t often actually define.  The kingdom of God was a phrase used in Judaism to mean when God decisively acted to rule events on earth.  It was a state of being—a thing that happened on and off, but also an occurrence that was understood to happen definitively once and for all at the end of time when the dead all arose, and God perfected the world, and all that.  So the kingdom of God both exists all the time—anytime God acts to rule events on earth, and exists in fullness at the end.  (This is not to say that in the meantime God is not entirely in charge, but the in the meantime, the human proclivity for sin keeps mucking things up.  Another sermon.) 

So, Jesus spends a lot of time, trying to explain this to disciples, so they know what it looks like when God is fully in charge of events on earth, because they have gotten used to other ways of being.  But if they know to recognize the kingdom, then they’ll know how to welcome it.  How to cooperate with it when it emerges.  

How will it look when God is fully in charge?  The last shall be first and the first, last.  How will it look when we’re all living under God’s reign?  The poor will be fed, the widow and orphan protected.  How will it look?  The meek will inherit the earth, the peacemakers will be blessed, the mournful will be joyful—the children will be cared for.  And love will be the order of the day.

Now—that’s all really great to say.  But as I stand here this morning, you and I both know that the world is a long way from this kingdom of God.  The world does not appear to be bringing forth any great harvest of righteousness—rather we appear to be salting our fields and burning whatever crops we had. 

This week, we didn’t only witness the exploits of a brave raccoon.  News also broke that between April 16 and May 31, nearly 2,000 children have been taken away from their parents, upon entry into the United States as a result of a new policy—this is all from the Associated Press, mind you.    These include children who fled here with their parents to seek asylum—which is perfectly legal—and those who were just caught at the border. 

Now–I am not so worried about which party came up with this policy.  I am not worried about whose fault this is.  I am not worried about who you voted for in the last election–this isn’t about that.  What I am worried about is that there are currently so many children in detention that a new tent city is being planned in Texas.  And what I am worried about is that on Thursday, the Attorney General defended the new policy, by saying that it was very Christian, indeed, biblical to do so.  He pointed to Romans 13:1 as justification.  

Setting aside for a moment that the Attorney General charged with safeguarding our justice system, and not our religious traditions, and so his biblical scholarship is perhaps not the strongest, a public figure did claim to be practicing a policy in the name of Christianity—and that’s us.  That’s you and me.  So no matter how you voted, no matter what you think of this present government, whether you like it or not, we, as Christians, better decide what we think about that.  Because now our name is in play.  

So how does Christianity feel about this?  Is what’s happening Christian?

There are people who take children away from their parents in the Bible—there are people who do nearly everything in the Bible, but there are definitely people who do this.  Namely, Pharaoh who ordered the death of the Hebrew boys, and Herod who ordered the death of the Jewish boys.  So this is quite biblical—but not in a positive way.

But more to the point: to be Christian is to seek the Kingdom of God on earth, to try to emulate the path of Christ in our lives and to prepare the way for God’s reign to break out among us.  

THERE. IS. NO. PART. of Christ’s life that suggests that he condoned hurting children.  None.  There is no part that suggests Christ sought draconian punishments for the law-breakers either.  

Instead, what we get is a Jesus who became a refugee himself fleeing one of those draconian leaders into a foreign land!  What we get is Jesus treated as a criminal, shamed, beaten, and killed by a law-following governor!  What we see in Jesus is someone who tells us, through his words and through his actions, and through his very being, that God is with the marginalized.  God is with the poor, the imprisoned, the scared child, the refugee, the person wanting a better life for their children—and if we want to find God, then that is where we need to be too.  

So if we want to find the Kingdom of God here on earth, if we want to prepare the way, and do our work and prepare for it to appear—if we want to plow the ground and till the soil and fertilize it and water it—then we need to be very clear about where God is.  We can’t expect God’s reign to be springing up in the courts of the powerful—if we spend our time preparing that ground, we’re bound for disappointment.  The kingdom will not burst forth in the halls of the rich and powerful.

No, our work here is to heed the cry of the suffering.  That is the ground we are called to.  And while we can’t eliminate injustice, and we can’t right all wrongs, and it isn’t our job to write government policy—but we can try.  We can do something.  We can pray, we can protest, we can call the powerful and pester them, we can send money and legal aid, we can vote—and we can keep our gaze fixed on where we know God will show up as we do our kingdom preparation.  

Because I don’t know how to solve all our immigration problems–I don’t know how to fix our laws, or write public policy, but what I do know?  I do know this: God is going to show up.  Sooner or later, when we least expect it, God is going to show up, and in that moment, the work we have done will make sense, and the God who cherishes the little children, and who makes the last, first, will bring the harvest of justice.  But until that day comes in its glory—it’s up to us to get plowing. 

Amen.

King of Pogs

I made a joke the other week that the only thing that has changed for my preaching during the Trump Administration has been that I can no longer write sermons prior to Fridays.  Nowadays, enough horror will occur later in the week that people need to hear it addressed.

This week, with the several high-profile suicides, was no different.  I wasn’t sure, however, how to talk about them in the sermon.  I found the advice for how to talk about this somewhat contradictory, and couldn’t quite see a clear way to discuss it.  And yet, in the process of writing the sermon, there it appeared anyway.

Sometimes life creeps in around the edges in spite of ourselves.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 10, 2018

Proper 5, Ordinary Time, Year B

1 Samuel 8

Do you remember Pogs?  They were a really big deal for about a split second in the mid 1990s.  I am not even sure what exactly they started out as, but when they were hitting their stride, they were little circles of cardboard, about the size of a large silver dollar, with different logos printed on them.  You played a game with them, the rules of which I don’t quite remember—I think the goal was to flip them over, then trade them?

But what I DO remember was that it was VERY Important in my childhood mind to own Pogs.  It was SO VITAL.  In the small economy of late elementary school, you were pressing your luck not to come equipped with a Trapper Keeper, or a 5 Star binder, but really, to not have Pogs was to court social disaster.  The thought of not having a plentiful supply of these cardboard discs to carry around (again—not clear on what you were supposed to do with them) was ALARMING.  Other kids had them, so I needed them—otherwise, how would I even talk to them????

Kids in my day loved cardboard circles.  I understand kids these days love….No, actually I don’t know what silly fad kids these days love.  Kids these days are probably over silly fads, and just want a sensible policy to combat climate change, and the hope of a job when they graduate.

But the human impulse to get the newest, shinest, toy just because someone else has it—that’s pretty ancient.  Our first reading this morning is one of my favorites because it is so very human.  The Israelites are pestering Samuel, the prophet, who in between last week’s reading and this week’s reading is all grown up and in charge of things.  And the Israelites really, REALLY, have decided they want a king.

Now, up until now, the Israelites have not had a king at all.  And this was sort of a big deal.  The understanding was that God alone was in charge of Israel, and there was a series of judges and prophets, who listened to God, and then interpreted that for the people.  But there was no king, per se, because in the ancient world of the time, kings were seen to hold absolute, and somewhat god-like power, and that would get in the way of God.  This was one of the important ways that Israel is different from the other nations—God rules Israel, while other gods didn’t care enough about their people to rule them—they sent humans to do it, and humans were constantly screwing things up.

The judges of Israel—like Deborah, and Gideon, and Barak, actually did pretty well. It was an unorthodox system, which relied heavily on whoever the high priest was at the time (which is why Samuel’s mentor got in trouble last week—he had not been holding up his end of the deal adequately.) But Israel was motoring along mostly fine—no major invasions, and no massive wars.  

Then, it somehow occurs to the gathered people of Israel in today’s periscope that you know what their problem is?  They don’t have a king,  And everyone else does.  

From then on, it really sounds like the sort of argument a tween would have with their exasperated parent.  “WE NEED A KING.  ALL THE COOL KIDS HAVE ONE.”  Ok, but you don’t really want a king.  Kings are bad news.  “NO, WE DO WANT ONE.” But a king is just going to enslave everyone, and take all your money in taxes and start a silly war.  Is that really what you want? “YES.  WE WANT A KING NOW PLEASE.” 

It’s evident that their argument to Samuel is based not on politics, or on how awesome Saul is, but on their growing consciousness that the other nations have something that they lack.  And this really bothers them.  If their God provides for them, as he keeps saying then why don’t they have this major thing everyone else does?

What we see at work here—not for the first time, and certainly not for the last time—is a growing insecurity among the people of God.  Those people over there have something and we want the Same Thing—regardless of whether the Different Thing God has provided for us is better, or more appropriate.  Because suddenly, what’s important is whether we can keep up with those other people, and less our relationship with God.  

Insecurity, this inner fear, is a driver of so much of human behavior.  We work harder because our neighbors do, we compete for the better job because we see others have it.  We want more and more money because we’re convinced that’s what we need to do.  And we do it all because somehow, we’re convinced that we are incomplete if we don’t have this one more thing.  This one new toy, this one bigger piece of the pie, this one larger mountain scaled.

It’s not that ambition is bad—ambition, when it’s aimed at serving the human race better and truer is good.  But when we allow that inner voice of fear drive us, then that’s a problem,.  Because insecurity also says “You can’t possibly have enough—so you can’t possibly share.” “Those people can’t possibly really love you if they knew you, so you can’t possibly help them.”  “Those people are probably all crooks and liars anyway, so you can’t possibly be kind to them.”  And most pernicious of all—“You cannot ever be enough as you are, so why be kind to yourself?” 

It is that root insecurity that drives so much of what we do, and often in really sad and tragic ways, as we saw this week. The thing was—Samuel was right!  Saul was a HORRIBLE king, and it basically took all of two seconds for Israel to figure that out, and to come back and complain about how horrible this king idea had been.  

Insecurity doesn’t tell the truth.  It lies.  That voice of fear?  Lies to us.  

The truth is we were created by a God who loves us entirely as we are, and roots us on everyday.  The truth is that this God has given us everything we need—if we have eyes to see it, and to share it appropriately.  The truth is that this God calls us and equips us to build a world where the voice of fear has no place.  

The church patriarchs liked to say that the original sin was pride—the pride of Adam caused him to eat the apple in the garden.  I’m inclined to think it was this insecurity and fear that has dogged us from the start.  But God, in Christ, has come to reassure us that we have enough, we are enough, and that there is nothing in the world, not even death, to be afraid of.  And in a world like that—so open, so abundant, and so full of love—who cares what other countries are doing?