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Kinda-sorta about capitalism

At long last, we screech to the end of John 6, and the Never-Ending Ode to Bread.  I have an ambivalent relationship with the Revised Common Lectionary, but this has to be one of the stranger choices it made–to devote 6 solid weeks in midsummer to reiterating and tiptoeing through John’s sixth chapter.

As a result, it forced me (FORCED ME, I tell you) to preach on a Pauline epistle not once, but twice!  Can you even imagine!  ::hand to forehead, clutches imaginary pearls and adopts grandmother’s thick Southern accent of Doom::

Truth be told, I don’t need much encouragement to go on about corporate sin vs individual sin.  The minimizing of sin to merely moralistic failings within an individual’s soul is one of the worst ideas American Protestantism had (and remember, American Protestantism also popularized the prosperity gospel.  So the bar here is high***.) The notion that sin can be dispensed with if I figure out how to be really super nice is toxic.  The systems and societies that we build for our world can either perpetuate the injustices we commit from generation to generation, or seek to redress them–and that is not a value-neutral thing.  And because currently our society perpetuates and builds upon historic oppression, we are implicated and complicit in that sin.

One final note:  I cite Walter Wink a lot in this sermon, and his work is really amazing on this topic. One of the hopeful things he argues is that the powers and principalities of this world as we have constructed them are blind.  They are not animate of themselves; they are only know that which we have taught them.  So it is always within our grasp, with God as our aid and champion, to reform the powers of this world such that they align more properly with God’s intentions for this world.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

August 26, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 16

Ephesians

One of the little known perks of working in a church office is the occasional odd piece of mail.  For whatever reason, some people feel a need to send their conspiracy theories, their thoughts on the apocalyse, their warnings about oncoming nuclear war, whatever random thought is in their head, to all the churches in the phone book==thinking, I suppose, that we will prove helpful in their crusade.  I’ve amassed a small collection of these random end-time prophecies from different places—from the guy who insisted that Jesus was returning on the back of a nuclear warhead, to the guy this week who helpfully sent a pamphlet for me to put on my desk, so when I was raptured, whoever is left behind could find it, and feel appropriately terrified.  

I bring this up, not because I think there’s validity in these sorts of prophecies necessarily, but because today’s reading from Ephesians may strike you as something that belongs in one of those omnious tracts that people stick under your car’s windshield at the grocery store.  “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rules, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of the present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

What in the world is that about?

There is, as I’m sure many of you have heard, a notion called spiritual warfare, which holds that the creation is subject to two forces:  God, and God’s forces that work for the good, and those forces which rebel and turn away from God—which are evil.  The notion of spiritual warfare commonly holds that these diametrically opposed forces are in a constant struggle over all creation, and at any given moment, anything may be coopted by one side or another—so we have to be always vigilant, lest the wrong side win.  

That is not what the writer of Ephesians is talking about.  To be very blunt, the idea that there is any possibility that God and God’s love would ever not have the final word would have been nonsense to the early Christians.  Of course God wins.  Of course.  God has already won—That’s what had been proven once and for all when Jesus was raised from the dead—any suggestion otherwise was ridiculous.  We know how this story ends.  The powers of darkness don’t stand a chance against God; God has already won decisively.  

So we’re not talking about a pitched battle here.  We’re talking about something else.  

Remember, that Ephesians was written as basically a “Welcome to Christianity!” pamphlet for newcomers.  But it was also written at a time when Christianity was so new it didn’t have a name, and when it was illegal.  If you were considering baptism, you weren’t just considering a religious option; you were considering something that would put your life, and your family’s life, at risk.  The Roman Empire considered worshipping a god other that the emperor to be treasonous—and the Roman Empire controlled all aspects of life.  In some way, Rome controlled what you did, how you lived, what you ate, how you dressed, who you associated with, how you believed, what you valued.  Every aspect of a person’s life required them to interact with the Roman Empire, for better for worse—It was the mightiest power in the known world.  So to be a Christian at that time was to profess allegiance to something over and against the system that ran your entire world. It was major.

Walter Wink—a theologian from the late twentieth century—had a theory about systems like the Roman Empire—these inchoate, massive webs that we exist in, and that you can’t really remove yourself from.  We don’t have the massive Roman Empire nowadays; we don’t have an actual Caesar claiming to be an actual god—but we do have other sneaky systems.  Nationalism, late-stage capitalism, and that odd mix of ideologies that is American civil religion.           

For (a relatively non-controversial) example:  lending money at interest! Technically, all three Abrahamic faiths are entirely against doing this.  The Bible is clear—both Testaments, the Qu’ran is clear—you should not be doing this because it’s taking advantage of people in need.  However, it is entirely inescapable if you want to live in America today.  There’s no real way around it.  If you don’t have any credit history at all, you cannot do simple things like rent an apartment or open a bank account, because our way of life is entirely dependent on the notion of lending money at interest, such that someone should profit when another person is in need.

Of course, there are more complicated and tragic cases.  We all participate in systems that are larger than ourselves, and, for the most part, do not make for human flourishing.  The food that is most accessible isn’t healthy or sustainable, but it’s all most people can afford.  The clothing that is affordable is made by sweatshop workers in dangerous conditions, and shipped long distances, but it’s what most can afford, and so the cycle continues.  And it’s not a question of individuals making different decisions; these are entire systems set up with profit, or domination, or power as the highest good, instead of God.  

These systems are what Walter Wink called the ‘powers and principalities.’  This is what Ephesians is talking about—these massive webs that we exist within, that we know are idolatrous, that we know implicate us in actions that we wouldn’t choose for ourselves, but there is no way to exist outside of them.  And because we are wrapped up in them, our actions frequently have consequences that we would not have chosen at all.  

Now, that may sound depressing.  The notion that we are involved in sin, basically, that we can’t control and can’t escape from.  Especially if you are used to hearing about sin as an individual failing you make in your morals.  I told a lie, so I sinned.  Whoops!  If I stop doing that, hooray!  I can stop sinning.  And yet, when the Bible talks about sin, 99% of the time, it’s not talking about what I do as an individual; it’s talking about what all of us do as a collective; how we treat the poor.  How we make decisions about war and peace, and how to allot our food resources, and how the king uses wealth for everyone’s benefit.  It’s about all of us, not just us as individuals.

  And yes, corporate sin as a concept is sobering to say the least.  

However, two important facts remain.  The first is that humans built these systems.  We created these ideologies and ideas that compose our world.  And though they are bigger than us, though they are geared to ends that we don’t agree with—they are not invincible.  We constructed them; we definitely can deconstruct them.  Though they seem powerful now, the forces of greed, hatred, and division can be taken down by us as surely as they were first put in place.  

And also, and most importantly, God has already won.  In Christ, God came to earth, and decisively won against any force that would stand against humanity, and life abundant.  That is already decided—there is no system, no ideology, that will win against God—not for long.  We’re caught up in these webs of corporate sin, but God has already forgiven us.  And so now, our job, daunting as it may seem, is to work in concert with God to redirect the systems we live in—to make every choice ultimately about how much we can help each other, instead of how we could hurt one another.  Humans made these webs; we can make them better once we are aware, with God’s help.  

And so, our fight is against these powers and principalities, these forces that seem to overwhelm our individual desire to do good on every side. But the God who called us is stronger than any generational sin.  God calls us and empowers us to redeem every part of this creation has set a vision before us of what the world can be when all humanity, all creatures are honored as the images of God that they are.  And with God’s help, not even the worst earthly power we can dream up will prevent that vision from taking shape.  

Amen.

 

 

Ode to a Pelican

When I was a kid, I liked to watch for pelicans at the beach, because my grandfather would recite a poem about them.  “Oh what a bird is the pelican! His beak can hold more than his belly can!” (Same went for whenever the wind blew in the winter, at which time we were treated to

“The wind will blow, and we shall have snow,

and what will poor Robin do then?

He’ll fly to the barn, to keep himself warm,

and tuck his head under his wing; poor thing!”

Bert had a solid avian repertoire.)   Little did I know that this was in fact preparing me for ordained life.

 

This sermon is both entirely about, and not at all about, the Pennsylvania grand jury report about rampant child abuse within the Roman Catholic Church.  I tried to read the report; I got about 85 pages into a 1350+ page document and had to stop.  It was overwhelming.

What hit me, aside from the abuse itself, was how closed off from the outside the entire church structure seemed–from even their own parishioners.  The Catholic Church has nurtured and built the faith of so many countless people, who faithfully attend, and sit in the pews each week, who say the rosary, and devoutly believe the best of their clergy and hierarchy–and the hierarchy portrayed in those internal documents seems entirely uncaring about how their actions and decisions will affect those people.

I hasten to add that this opaqueness can be found to a degree in all institutions–surely the Episcopal Church at times falls into this trap as well.  But it seems particularly and painfully on display in this instance.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

August 19, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 15, Year B

John 6:51-58

in the chapel at my seminary in New York City, was a mosaic floor.  Written in the lovely mosaics, as you walked down the aisle were the traditional virtues, inscribed in Latin.  Across the front of the chapel, by the altar rail, ran the three Christian virtues—faith, hope and love.  (Love was where they crossed).  And up in the chancel area, were various symbols set into the floor.  I would stare at them whenever I lost my focus saying the daily office—which of course never happened.

But behind the altar was an image that we almost never saw.  It was of a mother pelican feeding her chicks, there behind the altar, dead center.  

We don’t see pelicans much in churches anymore, but in the early years of Christianity, pelicans were a symbol of Christ—specifically mother pelicans.  People didn’t quite understand how pelicans worked, but they witnessed the birds bending down, and dumping food into the mouths of their babies, pressing her beak to her chest to make sure it was entirely empty, and so what they thought was happening, was that the mother bird was tearing bits of her own self to give to her children.  So, they thought, pelicans were like Jesus, who also fed his people with himself.  This was a very popular idea—Thomas Aquinas wrote a hymn about how Christ was the divine mother pelican.  Queen Elizabeth I called herself the mother pelican of the Church of England.  And there’s a pelican feeding her young on the front page of the first printing of the King James Bible.  

Of course, once we figured out what pelicans were actually doing—scooping up fish in their weird mouths, and vomiting into their children’s mouths….it seemed like a way worse symbol for Christ.  So it quickly fell out of favor.

Still, I am rather fond of the image of the pelican.  For one thing, it’s one of the classical female images we have of God in Christianity, so that’s cool.  

For another, it’s a symbol that emphasizes the self-sacrificial aspect of Jesus, which is important.  Other symbols talk of Jesus as the king or Jesus as the branch of David’s royal family line—this one is not powerful at all.  It’s entirely reversed.

In the gospel today, we’re still in John’s Never-Ending-Ode-to-Bread, as we have been for the past few weeks.  Remember, John’s Jesus wants to tell you the why of things, and not just the facts, so he’s been busy explaining at great length how he is like the Bread of Life, which is both like the bread that Moses gave the Israelites in the wilderness, and not like that—because Jesus’ bread lasts longer and does not turn into maggots after 24 hours.  (That’s true about manna—Google it.) 

Anyway, that manna part was the Opening of Jesus’ Great Bread Discourse, and now we’re into the rather peculiar part—which either is or is not about the Eucharist, depending on how you look at it.  In point of fact, at no point in John’s Gospel does Jesus actually eat a last supper with his friends, and present them with the bread and wine, and declare them to be his body and blood.  That doesn’t happen here; instead, what we will get at the end is Jesus eating a last meal, and then washing their feet.  But oddly enough, smack in the middle of the gospel, we have this discussion on Jesus offering himself as food and drink….which really sounds an awful lot like it belongs at the Last Supper.  

It is possible that the writer of John is doing that thing again where he is laying out the theology of something that he is assuming his audience already knows from other sources.  It is also possible that the writer of John is driving towards a point about the nature of Christ that in later times will become the language for what we believe about the Eucharist.

Regardless, the important part for us today in what Jesus is saying is the “my.”  “The bread that I will give is my flesh, and this for the life of the world.”  Jesus isn’t going to run to the store and purchase a sandwich tray; he won’t direct his disciples to take up a collection, even.  he will give of himself so that others may be fed.  

It may be hard to remember, but the story that immediately precedes the Great Bread Discourse is the feeding of the 5,000.  In that story, Jesus redistributes the five loaves and fishes of a little boy to an enormous crowd, and they are fed in a literal way.  Jesus finds a kid, uses his lunch to feed a lot of people.  But now, Jesus says, I’m going to feed you with myself.  With my very being and presence.  I will be bread for you.  It’s a pelican moment.

The words sound strange to us in the start of the 21st century; it’s not an image that we’re used to.  But Jesus is telling the crowd that he is so committed to them, to their happiness, their life abundant, that he will not only miraculously feed them, he will give all that he is, even physically, even his flesh and blood, to that end.  He will empty himself out for these people, so that they may be safe and loved. 

Every week, we celebrate the Eucharist, and I repeat the words we find in the other gospels, and declare that the bread and wine are, for us, the Body and Blood of Christ.  Because, for us,  in this holy moment, Christ comes near again, and says to us—this is how close I want to be to you.  This is how accessible I want to be for my people:  made present in the most common, boring bits of wafer.  I want to be here in the most mundane things, so that you can be empowered to go out and do the same,  So that you can go out, and live like this. 

This is the model Jesus sets for us—for us to go into the world, and give up whatever power and privilege we have in order to serve those around us.  We are called to use our power only to empower others who are kept to the side, to use our voices to amplify those who have been silenced. Our privilege is not for our own gain, our power is not to be used for ourselves or our profit—whatever we have, is for the benefit of the world.  Whatever loaves, whatever fish we have, is for everyone.  And all we have to do, this week in particular, is look around to see what horrors self-seeking abuse of power can create—in the grand jury report in Pennsylvania.  We are called to emulate Christ, and to give away what we have.  

There is such power in this sacrificial act—in the medieval mother pelican feeding her young; in Christ coming to us in a tasteless wafer.  How much more, then, are we empowered to replicate that humility, that service, to those we meet, when we can remember that this has been done for us?  When we can remember we have been formed by love like this? When we can remember that we have been enfolded by a God who willingly stoops to enter our muddy world because it is so loveable, how much then are we inspired to reflect that sort of love to this world’s creatures?  

Let’s find out.

Amen

 

Righteous Anger

As I said before, I don’t generally preach about the Pauline Epistles.  This isn’t due to my ambivalence about Paul–it’s mostly due to the fact that Paul tends to preach fine on his own; he mostly doesn’t need my help.  (In fact, he’d probably object to it.) Paul’s letters are essentially theological discourses connecting the basics of the Jesus story with concrete experiences or problems in the life of the community he addresses.  So sermonizing on them today is slightly redundant, I feel.

However, we have now entered what feels like Week 75 in the Great Johannine Ode to Bread, and at this point, I will take whatever opportunity arises to talk about anything from the pulpit besides the benefits of carbs.  (Side-note: what does the writer of the Fourth Gospel have against the gluten-intolerant, anyway?)

So, last week, I held forth about the occasional benefits of anger.  Enjoy.

Rev. Megan Castellan

August 12, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 14

Ephesians 4:25—5:2

  • Bless your heart as a common expression in the South
    • Denotes pity, scorn, possibly outright shaming, but all in a socially acceptable way.
    • You disapprove without disapproving.
  • There is no similar expression in the Midwest.  Closest one can come is a lengthy silence, and the suggestion that you, yourself, have failed.  Coupled with ANOTHER lengthy silence.
    • Basically, there’s really no socially acceptable way to express disagreement. It is not done.***
  • Similar to the case for many of us, in Church, I suspect.  
  • For here there is a rumor that to be a Christian is the same as being ‘nice.’ ‘Agreeable’
    • That the 11th commandment is to Be Nice at all costs, come what may.
  • I think this was based in a good place—surely the heart of being Christian is to love one another.  But over the years, we have seen the command to love be turned into a command to be polite, to be nice….And that is a very different thing. 
  • So today, as we read the letter to the Ephesians, the instruction to Be Angry, but do not sin, might take you by surprise.  It did me.  
  • The writer (we don’t think it was Paul, but it was someone claiming to be Paul, and people back then didn’t stress about copyright the way we do.) is writing a group letter to the newly-formed church in Ephesus, in what would become Turkey.  
  • Ephesus at the time was at the crossroads of several major shipping lanes, so people from all over were passing through, coming and going, and here, a new church had sprung up.
  • The letter then is basically a Welcome to Christianity! Here’s What You Can Expect! pamphlet.
  • The other letters deal with specific situations or controversies—usually Paul is telling someone why they’re wrong, or trying to solve some theological muddle.  Here, the writer is just trying to explain what a person might want to know if they were just starting out and getting their bearings.  What the church was for, what salvation looked like, how to relate to others, those sorts of things.
  • Basic Church 101
  • And of course, in any community of people, especially different people, from different places, with different expectations, there will be conflict.  So are the new believers supposed to just pretend like everything is fine?  Nope.  “Be angry, but do not sin.  Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.”
  • In other words, have disagreements, but dont’ let them run the ship.  Don’t let them fester.  And don’t let your anger control you, or force you to do something you regret.  
  • But anger, in and of itself, does not seem to be a problem.  At least not when it is controlled.
  • It’s worth noting of course that Jesus seems to have gotten angry a fair amount. 
  • There was that time he got mad at those selling things inside the Temple, and he chased them all out.  
  • There was that odd time he got mad at a fig tree that didn’t have figs on it, so he cursed it. 
  • We definitely know he ranted against the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day, and looking at the language he used (whited sepulchres! Blind guides!) he was probably pretty angry when that happened.
  • In contrast to the mild-mannered Jesus of hazy paintings, really, he got fired up a fair amount.  
  • But what’s interesting about Jesus’ anger is a few things:
    • 1. that he never directed his anger towards anyone else’s harm.  He got mad at people, and occasionally at things, but he did not hurt people.  
    • 2. He was made angry consistently by injustice.  
    • Jesus becomes angry at the religious leaders when they don’t live up to their own words; he becomes angry in the Temple when he sees people being taken advantage of
    • Jesus becomes angry when he sees injustice that hurts people
    • One way to understand anger is what emotion results when a boundary is violated. So, when someone breaks one of the understood rules, hurts someone else, violates that boundary, then anger is that feeling of frustration that results when we witness that. 
    • in that sense, i would say that there are situations where anger is called for.  
    • We are called to be angry when we witness the helpless being hurt, when we see the meek being trampled, or the rights of the poor being taken away. 
    • When we see that the justice of God is still a long way off, we are right to be angry. 
    • Some situations surely call for it.  There are times when politeness and niceness won’t cut it. 
    • Then, the question is what to do with that emotion? It can be scary, especially for those of us raised in a world where anger was discouraged at all costs.  
    • Anger is fine, but we cannot let it rule us. 
    • It is a momentary reaction, but not a trustworthy guide. 
    • Anger, channeled improperly, usually turns into resentment and bitterness. 
    • The thing we have to remember is that anger at injustice is prompted at the beginning by love. 
    • love of others. Love of the world. And hope that things could be better. 
    • Anger can flash in the moment, and provide momentary motivation, 
    • But our core must always be this love. Because this love tempers our actions, and centers us on God’s path for us and for our world. 
    • In the end, anger is not capable of bringing us to Christ. Love is. 
    • So we must allow our anger to point us back to this love, and not distract us from it.  We must use our anger as a warning and a messenger, and not as a way of life. 
    • Anger that stems from love and returns us to love; anger that ultimately inspires us to fight for all God’s children—this is a righteous thing.  
    • The path of Love that Christ calls us to doesn’t just ask us for niceness or politeness.  There are times in our broken world where, in order to reckon truthfully with what is happening, anger is called for.
    • But, in the model of Jesus—so anger at a situation, at a system.  Not at a person, and not leading to violence or hatred.  Anger as an inspiration to further work for the wellbeing of all. 
    • Its the anniversary of the events in Charlottesville, where members of the neo-Nazi and white supremacist communities killed a woman who had gone to spread a message of love for all people.  Surely, anger at her death is justified.  
      • But let that anger move us to work for greater love for all God’s children.  Let that anger move us to work for an end to hatred and an end to white supremacy.  And let that anger remind us that the path of division and bigotry ends only in death, whether it be physical or spiritual.  

And may we use our anger as the gift that it is to walk together further down the path of Christ’s love.

***ETA: This was what I said at the 8am.  However, a wise parishioner reminded me afterwards that there IS in fact a Midwest equivalent of sorts: a tight smile, and saying “Awwwwwww” then pausing for maximum effect.  The subtlety of Midwest scorn is unparalleled.  It should be studied.

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. 

 

Listen to Smart People

Several things collided this week to create a sermon.  One was the ever-wise Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney writing about David and Bathsheba. (If you don’t read her work, you should.  Stop reading this and go read Dr. Gafney.  Just go.)

Ok, I am assuming if you’re reading this then you’ve already read what Dr. Gafney wrote.

The other was that I realized I have never preached on David and Bathsheba.  Never.  And that, I realized, cannot stand.  Not in this age of #metoo and #churchtoo and all the other hashtags we are faced with.  Despite my discomfort (there are KIDS in the congregation!  Can I put a trigger warning in the bulletin? etc) I knew I needed to talk about this story.

Sure enough, so many people came up to me afterwards to thank me for preaching on it.  Not that I made the story palatable (it’s still not; it’s still a horrid story) but I think we forget as preachers how confusing it can be to hear some of these readings in the pews, and then have the most bizarre things skipped right over like they never happened.  So we can talk about bread for the 45th time.

Talk about the confusing bits.  Lean into the troubling parts.  If it bothers you, I will bet money that it bothers someone in the pews.

Here’s what I said–and please note–the exegesis here is all Dr. Gafney.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

July 29, 2018

Proper 11, Ordinary Time, Year B

2 Samuel 11:1-15

I find it curious sometimes at the stories we tell children.  When I was growing up, we had this VHS tape of cartoon bible stories:  One was Noah’s ark, and one was David and Goliath.  The animation wasn’t fantastic—I am too old to have been the target of Veggie Tales.  But what I remember is that both stories had some really horrific scenes of death and destruction.  Noah’s ark had a whole lot of people drowning in a flood.  And David murders Goliath in a pretty bloody way, and it’s fairly graphic.  

Yet these are stories for children!  And if you look at the Bible stories marketed for kids—those are the central ones!  I think it’s for marketing purposes, perhaps, or perhaps the people doing the marketing haven’t actually read them—and all they see is—on the one hand, a lot of cute furry animals, and on the other, a heroic kid with sheep.  

But truth be told, the Bible has some really awful, not at all G-rated stories in it.  One of which we get today. And I decided to preach about it because I think that facing that which makes us uncomfortable is often better than ignoring it, or glossing over it, and that this is doubly true when it comes to our faith.  Because the Bible often has these horrible things in it because our world also has horrible things in it, and it is only in facing them squarely that we can figure out where God is in all this mess.

To that end—just what is going on with David and Bathsheba?

The last time we saw him, David was really just a kid, fleeing from Saul, the king who quickly fell from grace. Now, he’s the king of all Israel in his own right, with all the power in the world, waging war on other kingdoms, and feeling so secure he sends his army off to battle without him!  In every way, David has the power.  And Bathsheba does not.

It is that power differential that it is vital to keep your eyes on here.  Yes, there are folk songs about this story—yes, the text gets pretty metaphorical about what exactly is happening.  But in the end it is important to remember that one of these people is literally the most powerful person in the world, and the other is not.  So choice—even the illusion of choice—does not exist for Bathsheba.

Bathsheba, though—-she’s a bit of an enigma. And here’s what I mean.  Like the folk songs written trying to romanticize what is definitely not romantic (looking at you, Leonard Cohen), there has been a lot of art trying to make Bathsheba into a scarlet woman—a woman who basically got what was coming to her. She gets the Mary Magdalene treatment in Western art—“Here is a woman, we know she’s not the Virgin Mother, ergo she must be a direct path to hell.”) But whoever wrote this text took pains to do a couple of things on her behalf.  For one, she gets a name—which is incredibly rare for a woman in the Biblical narrative, let alone for her father to also be named.  The fact that her father is named is probably an assertion that she came from a “good” family.  Her family was known enough for her father’s name to be relevant to the story.  

For another, she is depicted as adhering faithfully to the Jewish laws of purification, which was a big deal.  Bathsheba was doing what she was supposed to—she was following the law.   Meanwhile the first thing we are told in this story is that in the time kings rode forth with their armies—this king was instead lounging around breaking one of the ten commandments.  

Then breaking a few more of them. 

Bathsheba is doing what she is supposed to.  In the world of the text, she is vindicated.  

David, on the other hand, is very, very wrong.

David takes by force a woman who cannot and does not consent, and forces her to bear his child.  And when Bathsheba’s husband refuses to cover his tracks, David has him killed. We have words for those acts in this world.  

We are used to hearing this story as David’s story—as an illustration of how even a great king can make horrible mistakes—but as Bathsheba’s story, it’s even worse.  

Make this story about David, and there’s an easy-enough-light to see at the end of the tunnel.  David is still king, and though he’s in trouble, God preserves his life, and still speaks with him.  

Bathsheba, though?  Where’s the redemption for her?  Where’s God’s presence for her? 

This is one of those stories where we need to be careful how we read it, we need to be careful not to make it too spiritualized—because as horrible as it is, it is also not unfamiliar.  We are living in a cultural moment where more and more of these stories are being told, where it is becoming evident that for a long, long time, many in positions of power have felt free to behave just as David did.  And the Bathshebas in those real-life stories were left to disappear into the shadows without names or voices.  From Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer, to Bill Cosby, we’ve watched the famous and beloved figures admit to some really horrible treatment of those less powerful than they.  

In ways large and small, the story of David and Bathsheba continues to play itself out in our world, before our eyes, and so it is vital that we, as people of faith, figure out what we are called to do in response.  What is our response to be, to the Bathshebas in our time?  To those misused and abandoned by those in power?  What is our response to be to the Davids of the world?  

The story goes on, after our lectionary cuts it short.  What we see this week is David’s sin—what we don’t see is Bathsheba’s victory.  You see, after all this horribleness happens to her, and she ends up with a dead husband and kidnapped and living in the palace, she has this baby.  And Nathan, the prophet, calls David out by name, and accuses him in front of EVERYONE for his actions towards Bathsheba.  Nathan and Bathsheba sort of team up, from then on, and despite Solomon’s lowly status, they contrive to have him rule Israel, instead of the first-born.  And when Solomon takes the throne, he establishes a special role for his mother, as the queen mother, and insists that the kingdom honor her as they would a queen.  

The trauma still happened, of course.  She still suffered greatly. and what David did should never have been allowed to occur in the first place. And yet, though Nathan’s intervention, through God’s grace, in a way, Bathsheba was vindicated in a powerful way.  David’s hubris and pride caused his downfall, but God lifted up this wronged woman, and in the end, gave her a form of justice over the most powerful man in the world.  

Because in the end, God does not care about how powerful anyone is. God doesn’t care how rich anyone is, or how polite, or how outwardly moral.  God cares about how we treat one another.  And when we mistreat each other, then God is there to lift up the victims, to comfort the survivors, to assure them that even when justice and redemption seem impossible this side of heaven, that God hears the cry of the oppressed.  God hears the cry of the downtrodden.  God heard Bathsheba, God hears those who cry out today, and we as the church need to do likewise.  We must be like Nathan, ready to come to the aid of the victimized, however unpopular it might be.

The presence of stories like this on in the Bible does not mean that God condones what happens here—the presence of this story in the Bible means that God gives us a job when tragedies like this one occur in our time.  It means that God urges us to be ready to side with the Bathshebas of the world, and ready to stand with the Nathans.  God calls us to give voice to the voiceless, to give support to those who have been pushed aside; to be the Nathans of the world. And when we live into that role, no one need fear David’s power any more.

Amen.

Take a break

I feel like I preach this gospel every time I return from vacation, but guys: Vacation is a WONDERFUL thing.

This year, I broke my own precedent and took 6 days off of work after General Convention.  6 days where I could just sleep, knit, watch British murder mysteries, and sleep some more.  (And also finish unpacking my books.)  This novel approach meant that for the first time ever, I did not come down with a post-Convention sickness of some kind, neither did I subject my dear parish to my incoherent blathering after a 10 day stretch of no sleep and little food.

In short, I recommend vacation.  My heartfelt thanks to the supply preachers who showed up to give me a break, and also naps.

Here’s what I said (when I returned.)

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

July 22, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 11

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

I like to knit—I think I’ve told you this.  I started knitting when I was in college, and kept at it on and off ever since.  I have noticed that my knitting tends to increase exponentially especially in times in stress.  When I was studying for comprehensive exams at the end of seminary, I knit three sweaters in one month.  When I had to go to stressful diocesan meetings, I knit countless pairs of socks.  

This isn’t stress relief—it’s something common to most people in helping professions.  I knit because I need to do something that I can see is productive.  There are times I need to see something concrete emerge from the time and energy I apply—especially when so much of my working life is spent in ephemeral ideas, putting effort into things that matter immensely—but the effects of which cannot be seen or measured.  So, when things get stressful, I need to do something that results in something tangible.  Even if it’s a shawl I am accidentally knitting backwards.

Our world likes productivity.  We like producing things, we like doing things.  It influences so much of how we live, how we relate to each other.  One of the first things we ask, when we meet someone new is “what do you do?”  What field are you in?  Having a job, keeping a job, is an implicit requirement for being seen as an adult, or a contributing citizen in the country.  (Just think what that phrase implies—contributing citizen.)  In much of our culture’s public discourse, when we talk about people, we talk in economic terms: what people contribute, what they can produce.  And this is every side of our political spectrum, really.

Because this sort of language is so endemic (and really, once you start listening for it, it starts to spring up EVERYWHERE) it bears repeating that this is not the language we find in Scripture.  In fact, from the very start, God seems entirely disinterested in what human beings can produce.  

Actually, before God even gets to figure out the true potential of these new human critters, GOD TAKES A BREAK.  God goes on vacation.  God finishes creation, creates humanity, and then…takes Sabbath.  And from then on, God tells humans to do the same—work for six days, and then on the seventh—do nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  This is the basic pattern for what becomes the Jewish tradition of the Sabbath.  It get further fleshed out in laws, and descriptions, but there’s the pattern, set by Godsownself.

The idea is that one day a week, humanity has to stop entirely and do no work.  Not just no wage-earning work, but no work entirely.  No lighting stoves for cooking, no turning on cars for running errands that didnt’ get done while you were at work, no starting up the computer to catch up on email—no work whatsoever.  It was a day just to exist and to be—and to reclaim that initial relationship with God.

Because, if you notice in that Genesis 1 story, God does not immediately create humans and then sets them to work; God creates humans and then…lets them be.  The initial relationship between God and humanity is one of pure enjoyment of each other’s existence.  They hang out with each other in a familiar and intimate way, in the cool of the evening as God comes strolling through.  

It’s only when the first humans mess up, and hide from God, that the intimacy is broken, and one of the consequences of leaving the garden is the burden of constant work.  Losing that intimacy with God now means that humanity is scared, and wants to continually prove that it’s good enough, can do enough.  And so work becomes a burden, instead of a joy.

So with ALL THAT as context: when Jesus turns to the disciples and tells them to take a break, it’s not necessarily because he’s exhausted, or he wants a vacation.  He’s calling them back to their own religious tradition’s practice of sabbath.  That there be periodic times where you don’t have to be productive, but you just get to stop and just be.  He’s reminding them that they need to stop doing and just be with God.  

So off they go—for a time of quietness and prayer, just to observe some momentary Sabbath.  It doesn’t quite work out the way they want it to, but the recognition of the Sabbath is important for a number of reasons.  

For one thing—humans need to rest.  We aren’t Energizer Bunnies; if we keep working all the time, we burn ourselves out.  And this is one of the times when our dear RCL cuts out a lot of the story.  In between the time when Jesus tells everyone to go take a break, and when the crowd discovers them, and make them go on a healing spree, two massive miracles happen: the feeding of the five thousand, and the walking on the water.  These are some pretty sizable miracles, certainly larger in scale than what he’s done up until now.  So for one thing, as a practical matter, Sabbath—reconnecting with God—enables us to recharge, so we can better concentrate on doing God’s work in the world.  

But for another, the primary reason we need Sabbath is to remember our true value.  Because we live in a world that’s so defined and fascinated with what we can produce, what we can earn, we badly need time to break free of that so that God can remind us that our value does not lie there.  Rather our value lies in our very existence as children of God—and that’s it.   Even if we never earn a dime in our lives, even if we never produce a single marketable anything,  the very fact of our existence speaks to our worth and value to God.  And the time we take away from our work is a witness to our inherent value and dignity as images of God, entirely apart from what we can produce. Sabbath is a moment to witness to who we fundamentally are, and a reminder that nothing we do or don’t do can change that ultimate relationship with God.

The miracles Jesus does (that the RCL skips here) are Sabbath-y type miracles, too.  He feeds a harassed and harried crowd, when his disciples want to send the people out to find food for themselves.  Make them do some work!  Make them earn their own food!  Jesus refuses, and just gives them lunch.  Because on their own, without working for it, or having to earn it, those people are worthy of having their needs met.  Those people are worthy of Jesus’ compassion and love.  They don’t need to do anything; just as they are, as they exist, Jesus cares for them.  Such is the Sabbath.

Honoring the Sabbath isn’t something that comes naturally to us.  We don’t have a tradition that emphasizes it and structures it weekly like Judaism.  And we live in a world that pushes us more and more towards constant connectedness and constant productivity.  But that makes it all the more important for us to consciously take time, periodically for sabbath.  Maybe not every week, but try every month.  Every two months.  Every quarter.  Just try taking one day and devote yourself to not doing anything.  Do nothing productive at all.  Don’t take care of anyone or anything.  Just spend time the God who loves you, and reconnect to your essential value as a beloved Child of God.  

Because in the end, we don’t have to do anything to earn God’s love.  We don’t have to produce great achievements for Christ to care for us, or provide for us.  God cares for us just because we are.  We are loved just because we were created in God’s love.  And in the knowledge of that love, we can rest secure in our worth, and worry less about our production.  

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.