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A Long, Long time ago

Happy Fourth Day of Christmas!  I hope everyone is enjoying a well-deserved rest over these holidays.

Advent ended for me in a whirl.  I had grand plans this year of doing so much holiday baking, of discovering new cookie recipes, of wandering aimlessly through the Plaza lights, reveling in the scenery….absolutely none of that happened.

Instead, as my parish admin put it, “People just people-ed all over everything” as is wont to happen around major Church feasts, and I did absolutely no baking whatsoever.  I managed to ship off my family’s presents on the absolutely last day possible, and I did no aimless wandering anywhere.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent is always one of my favorites.  We get to read the Magnificat and talk about Mary, Mother of Jesus, who is easily one of the most kickass women in all of scripture, and a good model of the priesthood**

So despite the fact that my brain had reduced down to mush, and I was amusing myself making lists of biblical mascots for the deanery***, I wrote this.  See what you think.

December 19-20, 2015

Advent 4

Luke 1:39-47

 

So, I, like the rest of America, has been obsessed with the musical Hamilton for a few months now.  It’s the story of Alexander Hamilton–American founding father–as told through hip hop.  Believe me when I tell you that it works.  

One of the central themes of the show–all of which: book, music, lyrics, everything, is written by a young Puerto Rican man–is that who tells the story is important.  Easily the most important thing.  The show is narrated by Aaron Burr–who shot Hamilton, but it’s sort of meta-narrated by Hamilton’s wife…who, in history, survived to tell Hamilton’s story….never mind.  Just go see it.

Here is why I’m telling you this.  There are two stories about what happens to his parents before Jesus is born–one in Matthew, one in Luke.  Two versions of the annunciation.  
Matthew tells it from Joseph’s perspective.  Joseph is hanging out, minding his own business, when he hears that Mary, his fiancee is pregnant.  Joseph decides to be nice about it, and break up with her quietly, rather than make her go through the (literal!) public stoning which would otherwise ensue.  Sweet guy.  

Then, he gets an angel appearing in a dream, which tells him, not so fast.  “Do not, in fact, be afraid to marry Mary, because she’s having a special kid.”  So, Joseph changes course, and all is fine. (Until the magi and Herod, and that’s later.)

But Luke is another story.  Luke’s gospel tells us about the angel that appears to Mary, informing her of the coming birth.  It’s Mary’s story here, rather than Joseph.

And that makes a difference.

 

We see, from Mary’s perspective now, as she hears the news of the angel, processes it, consents to her role in this weird little adventure, and immediately, as our story kicks off today–races off to see her cousin.

And it’s detours like this one which are instructive.  Mary could be heading off to see her cousin for any number of reasons–we aren’t told why she’s going exactly–she misses her, she just likes visiting Elizabeth, she wanted to empathize with another relative who was also pregnant, she wants to fact-check the angel, who told her about Elizabeth’s pregnancy…but it’s worth noting too that there’s also a less cheerful possibility for her trip.  Like we saw in the Joseph story, there was a harsh penalty associated with young women turning up pregnant out of wedlock.  So Mary just might be following the age-old tradition of heading out of town until the scandal had died down, and her life was no longer in danger.

Regardless of whether this was the case–the stakes were higher for her anyway.  She was involved in this story in a different way than Joseph–she had more to lose.  No one’s going to be hurling rocks at Joseph because of what they assume about his life choices any time soon.

 

Perhaps this is why Mary plays twenty questions with the angel once she hears the news.  The angel tells Mary she’s blessed and highly favored, and Mary wants to know what on earth this means.  The angel tells her she’s about to have a baby, and Mary wants to know exactly how.  Mary, in other words, is not going into this blind or uninformed.  She’s doing her homework.  She’s asking questions, taking notes, voicing opinions.

So when she says that she’ll do it, it’s not passive–it’s the furthest thing from it.  Mary’s obedience here is active.  She actively engages with what she’s been tasked with.  All right, I’ll do it!  And we’re off to the races.

 

Because as soon as she sees Elizabeth, Mary takes the opportunity to sing out the news of what has happened.  My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior.  He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.  

 

Mary’s song recaps what has just happened to her, but it also goes a bit farther.  Mary’s song–and you can think of this as Mary’s own Broadway style show stopper, where the character becomes so filled with emotion that they have to start SINGING–basically sums up the whole gospel that she, Jesus, and the disciples will spend the rest of the gospel trying to live out.  This is the gospel message Jesus preaches.  This is the good news the apostles later tell.  But it starts here–with Mary’s agreement.  It’s Mary’s “I will” that starts the ball rolling–her consent to be an active partner in this unfolding plan.

 

God, after all, isn’t all that interested in passive obedience, in passive followers.  God wants us to think, to question, and to figure it out as we follow in the way.  Our relationship with God is a two-way street, founded on our free will, and our ability to engage with God’s mission in the world.  

When God lifts up the lowly, when God casts down the proud, and feeds the hungry, that requires our engagement.  That requires our participation.  

When Mary says that her soul magnifies the Lord–that means that she’s doing something. So when we echo her language, we’re committing to the same thing.  Both that we would be willing to be lifted up, fed and used in such a way, but also that we would give ourselves to take on this mission as well.  That we would promise to be co-agents of this mission along with God.  

 

There are, after all, enough puppets in the world.  There are enough idols begging for blind faith and obedience.  God doesn’t need any more.  What God wants isn’t puppets, but Marys.  People willing to be bearers of good news on the mountain.  People willing to risk for the sake of the gospel, and participate in God’s plan of a new world.  God needs us to birth a recreated world as a teenaged girl did so long ago.

Amen.

FURTHER IMPORTANT AUTHOR’S NOTE:  This is where my original sermon ended, as given.  However, my rector commented, in the 10:30 announcements, that while he had never, in over 30 years of ministry, corrected nor challenged a fellow cleric’s preaching, wouldn’t it have been better if I had ended with “as a teenaged girl did, a long long time ago, in a Galilee far, far away”?

So I promised that I would make the addendum on the blog.  Because Star Wars fandom is JUST AS VITAL as the Hamilton fandom.

   

**And it’s not just me saying this–it’s the pre-1920s Vatican saying it as well.  Long story–I will unpack in a later blog post.

***A real thing!  When I get punchy, I get creative and punchy.  Occasionally, the entire clergy of the metro KC area bears the brunt of it.

 

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In Which Megan writes an extra sermon by accident

I spent the last few days at the Gathering of Interim Bodies in Baltimore, MD, and came back Saturday night.  Contrary to the way it sounds (like a symposium of plague contagion), it was a lot of fun for those of us who enjoy thinking about church canons and governance (all 3 of us).  And we got a lot done.  For example, I succeeded in getting my commission to rename itself ‘Commission for Law and Order’, and to employ the regular use of sound effects borrowed from the show.

But, the aftereffect of these several days of continuous meetings was that I had the fixed idea that I was supposed to preach on Sunday.  So I wrote a whole entire sermon on the plane ride home, only to land at KCI and realize that no, my rector was supposed to preach.  I had a #bonus sermon on my hands.   Sort of the reverse of that clergy anxiety dream–instead of showing up with no sermon, I showed up and had an extra one.

But I’m rather fond of what I wrote, so I told Twitter I would post it here.

Happy early Thanksgiving, blogworld!  I am very grateful for you.

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

November 22, 2015

Ordinary Time, Proper 29

John 18

 

(If my kingdom WAS from this world, my followers would fight.  But as it is, my kingdom is not of this world.)

 

While I was in Baltimore, this past week, I had dinner with my (very Catholic) grandmother and aunt.  Whenever we get together, it’s basically a running ecumenical dialogue, and this time was no different.  They were telling me of this trip they had taken over the summer to York cathedral in England, with my teenaged cousin.  While on the tour, guided by an apparently-quite young English docent, they saw a tapestry of St. Peter, being handed two keys, one silver, one gold, by Jesus.  

The docent remarked that she’d been asking everyone, all the clergy she knew, what on earth the keys were about, and no one could tell her.  My grandmother fixed me with the same glare she gives her parish priest when she is displeased with the sermon, “Do YOU know why Peter would have keys?”

I was pretty sure this was a test.  “Yeah—they’re the keys of the kingdoms—signifying whatever he looses on earth will stay loosed in heaven, and whatever he binds on earth, etc.”

Grandma nodded emphatically.  “Yes!  Exactly!  And Clare knew too.  BUT THIS PIPSQUEAK OF A DOCENT HAD NO IDEA.”

 

I consoled her by pointing out that I could make no excuses for the English educational system for clergy, but clearly it was an abject failure.  But, I don’t think they’re going back to York any time soon.  

 

In thinking about it since, I’ve been wondering if in fact the docent’s ignorance of the symbology of Peter’s keys is more attributable to Englishness than an educational gap.  England, after all, is a place where there is only one operational “key”—there’s one law governing both church and state, the church is established, and no separation seen between them.  So perhaps it’s not so natural to think that Christ would pass off to Peter two keys: one for heaven, another for earth.  Perhaps it’s not so natural to think that these would be separate—another Protestant innovation to the faith once handed down.

 

The danger seeing only the one key, however, is that it lulls you into complacency.  Since the time of Constantine, Christendom has wanted to claim that it’s kingdom is THE ONLY kingdom, that it’s realm can be the only realm exists on earth.  Any other realms, any other kingdoms must either convert, or be subsumed in our wake.  And thus, in our history, we’ve been susceptible to thinking that the way of these earthly kingdoms must be the way of the heavenly.  

 

I mean, there are kingdoms which claim the name of Jesus.  There are kings all over the place speaking of their prayer life.  There are kings duking it out on the news about how all good citizens were Christians….so, it can be tempting to believe that Christ’s kingdom and our earthly kingdoms are the same.  Or at least close enough for jazz, becoming a mortifying thought, as we watch the kingdoms furiously rage together as well.  

 

And we should be aware that there are people who have staked their entire careers on continuing that line of thought.  

 

But we should also be aware of this conversation between Jesus and Pilate.  

 

Pilate, who decides to have an existential debate with Jesus at his trial, asks Jesus who he is, where he has come from, and how is it that people call him a King?  

 

Jesus replies, in typical Johannine fashion, that he is a King, but a SPECIFIC KIND OF KING.

 

There’s a political context here which is important—Pilate is the governor of a rebellious province sent to quell dissent.  (Think Hunger Games.)  For Jesus to stand before him and claim to be a king is as rebellious as you could possibly get.  It is Katniss giving that salute in the arena.  (Just watch the movies.  I think the only people following this sermon right now are tweens.)  

 

Sure!  I’m a king, Jesus says (Which means that Caesar, Pilate’s boss, is in trouble.  So that’s treason, number 1.)  But I’m a different sort of king. A different sort of Caesar.  

 

Because if I were a king from this world?  My followers would be fighting right now.  But they aren’t.  Because I’m different.  Because they’re different.  

 

And therein lies the difference.  Caesar fights.  Caesar kills.  Caesar destroys, and wastes human lives on his own behalf.  

 

Jesus doesn’t.  Jesus is different.  Jesus is a different sort of king.

 

Which means that when we claim Jesus as our king, we cannot live by the rules that make sense in other kingdoms.  The standard in this kingdom is different, because it’s measured by Jesus’ self-giving love.  Not fear, not political calculation, not what will keep everyone safe.  

 

But love.  

 

This is not a very attractive way to run an earthly kingdom, at least for long periods of time.  Not if you want to be wealthy or powerful.  Not if you want to do well, or get rich.  

 

This Sunday is called in many places Christ the King Sunday, and that’s actually because in the mid 1800s, the pope felt his earthly power slipping away, worried he was losing his grip on his empire, and created a holiday to remind Christendom who was really in charge.  (Spoiler:  The Pope.)  

 

But he wasn’t fantastic at holding an earthly kingdom either.  

 

But my sisters and brothers, we aren’t called to run an earthly kingdom.  When we are disciples of Christ, we aren’t called to figure out the least dangerous path to take, the way to live free of fear, or how to stay safe forever.  

 

Safety, for the disciples of Jesus, is not our king, and it cannot be our goal.  Love.  Love for every human under heaven.  Near and far, citizen and refugee, documented and undocumented, that is our goal.  

 

And Jesus is our only king.  

 

Amen.  

 

 

When you can’t hide under the bed

I realized, recently, that I have a habit of compulsively searching for good news.  I have a deep-seated fear of being thought of as a Debbie Downer in conversations, so whenever I vent to someone, or break some bad news, or discuss some awful aspect of the world, I try to tack on something good, however small.

Traffic was horrible, global warming threatens us all, and the American healthcare system is a waking nightmare.  (But cat vs cucumber exists!)

I have 3 conference calls in a row, hosted by people who don’t understand the value of keeping their phones on mute when not speaking. (But, know what’s awesome? The Great British Bake-Off!!)

The good things never cancel out the bad–life doesn’t work like that–but they do help keep focus on something other than the refrain of “EVERYTHING IS AWFUL” all of the time.

But lately, the struggle to find good news has been harder than normal.  My parish is dealing with several parish leaders’ health crises, one on top of another.  Couple that with the spotlighting of racism at Mizzou, and the violence around the world, and by the time word broke about the attacks in Paris, I was about done.  I was ready to crawl under my bed, and listen to Hamilton** until the world decided to get its stuff together.

Then, you know, I had to preach.

There are times, hopefully brief, when good news is difficult to find.  And I’m not a preacher who believes that the job of the pulpit is to dispense sunshine over everything.  Preaching should be truthful, since Jesus is, y’know, the Truth–so ideally, preaching should name where we are,  name where God is, then take a guess at where we’re called to go next.

So, easy stuff.

Anyway, here’s what I ended up saying.

 

November 15, 2015

Ordinary Time, Proper 28

Mark 13

 

Every year, when we approach these propers, I think that surely, this will be the year when they seem out of place.  When the world will be so quiet and blissful that the oncoming of Advent and the prophet’s lamenting and calling for justice will just seem off key, because the world will finally know a moment of peace and wholeness, and all we’ll have to worry about is actually who’s done the Christmas shopping.

 

But every year, when I read over Jesus’s warnings about the end, and the destruction of the temple, and wars and rumors of wars, I wonder again if he had access to Twitter.  Or some sort of  first-century social media.  Because every year, this idea of a world on the verge of collapse seems all too familiar.  

 

As it does today.  Yet again, we’re witnessing violence and bloodshed around the world–the attacks in Paris Friday night, the attacks in Beirut, in Syria, the earthquakes in Japan, and the hatred that seems to be fester everywhere you look these days.  Not to mention the smaller, more personal earthquakes that affect us as well.  It’s a lot.  And it’s a mess.  

And it has made me wonder several times this past week how soon we could colonize Mars, because that seems like a nice option.  

 

In this equally-scary sounding gospel, Jesus and the disciples are still hanging out in the temple, where they were last week.  And they’ve just witnessed one of those small earthquakes.  A poor widow (poorest of the poor, last of the least) came in and gave away the last of what she had, to support a rich and exploitative temple system.  Jesus is upset–wouldn’t it have been better if one of the rich priests had given more, instead of this widow giving away all she had?  

And in response, they have this conversation here.  The disciples marvel at how large, how fixed, how immovable the whole thing is–the Greek here (yeah, I know, but bear with me. Because I’m going to talk about the Greek again.)  The Greek here can be read like the disciple is frustrated, and not just in awe.  “Good grief–how big this system is!  How immense!”  How could it ever change?  It’s too big.  It’s too broken.  It’s too much to hope for.

 

And then comes Jesus’ apocalypse.

 

Here’s the thing about apocalypse.  Powerful people never write them.  Not real ones anyway.  Powerful people, who have all the money, all the power, all the control, never want the world to change in major ways, because they like the world as it is.  

The people who write apocalypses, stories where the world changes so dramatically as to seem like it’s ending, are people who have no money, no control, no power.  They’re people who have nothing, and are getting kicked around by everything and everyone. Because apocalypses are built around the idea that when everything has gone so terribly wrong that there’s no hope left, God will still come and save God’s people.  God will still turn the world back around.  Because nothing is too big for God.  

 

So when confronted by the enormity of the corruption in the Temple system, which is basically their entire socio-political structure at the time, Jesus assures the disciples that it’s huge.  And it’s wrong.  But God is still working and God is still here.

 

In fact, there’s something weird about his little apocalypse speech that he gives.  (And here comes Greek lesson #2!)  The verb tenses start changing around from future to present to future and back to present.  Which is not really what you’d do, if you were Mark (or whoever) writing a speech trying to foretell coming events.  

Scholars think that one possible reason for this is that the writer wrote this part while the Temple was actually being destroyed, while there was a massive war on–when the Jewish people rose up in revolt against Rome, and got destroyed as a result–another small earthquake.  And so, the events described here aren’t misty in the future–they’re happening to Mark’s audience.  They’re happening now.  The audience is living through their own apocalypse–their own enormous big, bad thing.

 

So it’s in response to an actual war that Jesus gives this speech, reminding them that God is still here and God is still working, and the story isn’t over.

 

Wars aren’t new.  Violence like we’ve seen this week isn’t new.  The human capacity for brokenness isn’t new.  Suffering and death aren’t new–and we are faced time and again by problems that seem insurmountable, unfixable, and intractable–in the world and in our own lives.  

 

But what we are promised today is that we have a God who will stay with us through the earthquakes.  Through the wars.  Through the upheavals of our lives.  We have a God who will stay with us no matter what comes.  

 

Because even though this world can be scary, and it can be,  And even though we can face the worst problems imaginable, God-in-Christ promises that none of this is the end–that God will bear with us through even the worst of it to make a world that is not broken, that is not scary, but that is whole, and fully redeemed.  

 

And that is where we place our hope.  

Amen.

**Just through ‘Room Where it Happens’.  I’m not an emotional masochist.  One does not listen to ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’ or anything after, and expect to feel better about life; one listens to that and pulls the car over because you’re sobbing too hard about historical figures that you’ve become very emotionally invested in.

What we talk about when we talk about Mary

On Friday, some parishioners asked if we could hold a vigil for the Dormition–a service in honor of the Virgin Mary.  “Sure,” I said.

We have a lot of former Roman Catholics who have migrated on over to Canterbury with us, and for them, honoring the Mother of Christ is a big deal.  I like Mary, though most of the traditional forms of mariology make me want to throw something, so I thought the service could be fun.

At the group’s request, I found a reading from a female theologian on Mary–because any excuse to buy a Dr. Elizabeth Johnson book is a good one.  And I came up with a reflection.

20111213-175554.jpg

 

Here’s what I said.

Two days ago, Janelle Monae, from Kansas City!, put out a new single—pretty much a protest chant.  She released it with the other artists on her record label at a #blacklivesmatter march in Philly.

It’s not really a song—there’s a repeated chorus, and then the shouted name of one of the many people killed by police over the past few years:  Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Jonathan Ferrell, Eric Garner, and on and on and on—a litany of names.  In between, the crowd shouts—say his name, say her name.

It’s the protest form of the litany of saints:  that roll call that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches do as you run down the list of saints, asking them to intercede for you.  Like an attendance call in heaven, of sorts—running down the list of the worthy, the holy, the good.

In pretty much every religious tradition, naming has been important—more than important—naming has been holy.  God brings things into being through naming them, as the first act of creation.  To name something is to speak its essence, to control it—and to give it life.  Adam and Eve name the animals.  Jesus names when he heals.  It’s also why there’s that big aura around the name of God.

And so, because naming has this power, this effect—it is vital that we pay attention to who is named in our tradition and who gets to name them.  Who gets to say his name.  Who gets to say her name.

And when we do that, we discover that there’s a bit of an inconsistency.  Men are named—men get lots of names.  Fathers, sons, uncles, family names.  Lots of names.  Women get …fewer.

Because we not only meet Mary Magdalene with Jesus, we also meet Joanna and Salome, floating out in space, untethered by named relationship, and for Gentile women, it’s worse– the Syro-Phonecian woman (no name) and the woman at the well (no name, again.)

But that’s not so bad!  At least women are there, right?! So many women in the gospels!  So many! And yet, names themselves are less important than who says them.

In the book I just read from, Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ points out that for most of Christian history, only one group was really doing the naming.  Only one group decided what names got named. And so that affected the stories that got told.

The story of Mary. Mother of God, told this way, becomes a story about submission to authority, about purity, about self-denial, and at times, almost borderline erasure.  In many ways, the traditional telling of Mariology—all blue and white and hyperdulia, erased everything that made her unique.  Everything that made her human, so that she could be an even better story.  So that she could be a name that all women aspired to, and a name that reminded all women just how sinful we were.

But—(that never fully worked.) Did you notice?  Because all around the edges of this official, spiffed up story that the Church was telling, were these other stories.  Stories from different people, and not the people in charge.

Stories of Our Lady appearing as an Aztec princess to a Mexican man during the Spanish conquest, appearing as a grieving mother during the Plagues in Europe.  Mary being depicted as every tribe and race under the sun, even in priest’s vestments.   Mary never really seemed to get the memo on her ‘official story’.  Everywhere you look, Mary shows up in various not-exactly sanctioned guises.  One of my favorite iconographers, who’s work I borrowed for this service is Robert Lenz, who depicted Mary as a Latin American woman who lost a child to the death squads in the civil wars.  And as a woman in a Holocaust concentration camp.  And as a homeless woman.  And as a struggling woman in America’s inner cities.  Despite her official story, Mary has managed to reach out to women and the oppressed who find in her a a real person–a kindred spirit through the centuries.

And I don’t think that’s because the official naming of Mary by the church is so compelling.  (In fact, you can argue that the official “be good and quiet and God might love you” does a great deal of harm, but that’s another sermon.)

I think that’s because Mary does something no other woman in the Bible does.  Mary names herself.

When she greets Elizabeth, she sings the Magnificat—my soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior—from this day on, all generations shall call me blessed.  She defines herself.  THAT’s who she is.  A poor, pregnant, unwed teenage girl, in an occupied village, whom the whole world would say was anything but—She defines herself.

That’s her power, I think.  That’s her lesson.  For those of us whom the world would name as unworthy, as less than, as failed and as disposable, Mary reminds us in her witness and in her person, that in the reign of God we are all counted as beloved, all counted as worthy.  She gives us an example of naming ourselves blessed, of telling our own stories, for ourselves, in our own voices, as this is what God prizes, she assures us.  Because this is what the reign of God requires, what it is built on—this reign where the lowly are lifted up, the rich are sent away empty, and the hungry are finally fed.  In order for that to happen, all of our stories need to be told, all of us need to be named in this world.

For this naming is the work of the gospel, this naming is good news for all of us.

Amen

So long, and thanks for all the fish

Many of you already know this, but my time as Day School chaplain has come to an end.  The administration felt that a chaplain was no longer something the school required.  I’m sad, but life in  ministry is nothing if not changeable.

Needless to say, this context added an interesting flavor to the end of the school year.  I’ve been running around, trying to clean up everything at the school, so that whatever form the chapel program takes, it won’t have to be rebuilt from scratch.  And I’ve been thinking about what I want to leave the kids with.  I’ve worked with most of these kids every day for two years, and I really do like them.  (Most of them.  Most of the time.)  For some of them, I’m the sole representative of organized religion in their lives, so I thought a lot about what I wanted them to remember from this experience.

This is what I came up with–my sermon at the 8th grade graduation Baccalaureate.

Baccelaureate sermon

May 21, 2015

You know there are stories that didn’t make the bible, right?

 

In some of those stories, they talk about Jesus as a child–those mystery years of Jesus between ages 2-12, then ages 12-30.  What was he like?  What did he get up to?

 

The people who wrote the stories had some theories.  One story has Jesus bringing toy birds to life by the river, and scaring his playmates nearly to death.  One story has Jesus getting mad at the neighborhood bully, before turning him into a goat.  Then, Mary comes out, yells at Jesus, tells him that WE DO NOT TURN OUR FRIENDS INTO GOATS, and Jesus turns him back.

Another story has Jesus helpfully aiding Joseph in the woodshop.  Joseph would make a mistake, and cut the wood too short, and Jesus would stretch it back out again through MAGIC.  Eventually, Joseph got so unnerved by this that he sent Jesus to his room.

 

There’s a good reason these stories didn’t make the New Testament–they’re more than a little ridiculous, and they sound more like superhero stories than they do stories from the Bible.  But they do sort of underline something that comes through again in the Actual Gospel reading for this service–

Jesus must have been an obnoxious kid.

 

I mean it–he must have been a real pain to be around.  He must have sounded like one of those toddlers that you all were, not too long ago—asking why all the time, and rarely being satisfied.  He was into everything.  He didn’t take direction well.  And while it’s crystal clear that he had an enormous heart and was incredibly loving, I’m sure there were times (like in this story) that Mary and Joseph wondered why he couldn’t be just a little less high maintenance.    There must have been times when the two of them went to bed at night and thought about how they loved him a lot, and he was a really great kid, but man, he was tiring.

Because, all he did was ask questions.  That’s all he does when he goes to the temple with his parents in Jerusalem.  He runs away from them, hides for days on end, so he can stay in the temple asking question upon question upon question, and talking with the scribes and the priests.  So, you’ve got to figure that Jesus was one of those kids who wanted to know ‘why’ all the time and constantly.

(Do you remember being like that? Do you remember a time when all you wanted to do was figure stuff out, figure out the world around you?)

It’d wear anyone out.  Probably wore out the priests in the Temple, too, after 3 days.

But you know what?  All those questions turned out to be important.  All those questions were how Jesus learned.  They were how he figured out what parts of the world needed to be changed, and what parts were fine as they were.  They were how he came to love the people around him, by learning their stories and their weaknesses.  Asking questions, trying to learn, being curious—that was how grew in wisdom and faith.

That process, that asking questions process—that’s what we call an education.  That’s what we’re here tonight to celebrate.  Now, you graduates, you are here because we are marking together this milestone in your education.

And if there’s one thing I hope we’ve taught you it is this: questions are good.  They are, in fact, the goal of all this education, all these years of going to school, of studying books, of taking tests.  Because the best questions are not the ones that yield answers—the best questions are the ones that lead you to deeper and more profound questions.

The goal of education is to learn enough so that you can start asking the deeper, wiser questions, so that your questions can lead you further and further into that mystery we call truth.  The goal is not to teach you everything—to give you all the answers you need, so that you head out into the world knowing more than anyone else.

The goal of education is to illustrate exactly how much you don’t know, and exactly how much there is out there to learn.  Hopefully, over these past years here at St. Paul’s, your teachers have inspired you with curiosity to learn more, to ask more, to find out for yourselves.

Because your education, really, is just beginning. You are just now approaching the starting line of life–we’re waving the checkered flag at you now.

Going forward from this moment, you will be faced with a whole wide world to explore.  A wide world that you can confront in one of two ways—you can either hold on tight to the answers that you’ve been given, keep to the paths, and stare at your feet as you go, or you can let your curiosity lead you into new and winding paths, you can ask more and more, learn more and more, and gaze up at possibilities above your heads that no one ever saw before.

It’s your world out there.  Yours to explore, yours to uncover.  So as you head on out there, recall Jesus heading to the temple.  Remember this enthusiasm, remember this excitement.  And never be afraid to ask your questions.  It’s those questions that will make you wise.

 

Amen.

 

Telling stories: Absalom Jones

Last week was the week of All Preaching, All the Time.  In addition to preaching at the UMC seminary, I also was asked to preach at the diocese’s Annual Absalom Jones celebration.**  Each year, the diocese comes together at the cathedral to remember Absalom Jones, the first African-American ordained in the US (in 1795), now remembered with a feast day on February 13.

It often surprises people, even long-time Episcopalians, to hear that the Episcopal Church has roots and traditions that transcend the WASPy stereotypes.  (And thank God for that.  As fond as I am of the BBC and British culture, if that’s all the church was, we’d be well past an Eddie Izzard monologue by now.)

The diocese I grew up in had more historically Black churches than anywhere else, partly due to the zeal of a priest named James Solomon Russell. Born right before the end of the Civil War, in Southside, Virginia, he planted around 36 churches all over the woods of south-central Virginia.  He also founded St. Paul’s College, in Lawrenceville, Virginia.  (Two different dioceses asked him to come and be bishop suffragan for them, and he refused, citing his desire to keep doing real work.  This man is my hero.)

My point is:  the Episcopal Church has long been diverse–we’ve just been in denial about it.

Part of ending denial?  Telling our stories.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan
February 7, 2015
Feast of Absalom Jones, transferred
Isaiah 61:1-4

“They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations”
It’s been said that Episcopalians are people of the book. We are a people of the Prayer book, surely—we hold it tight like a security blanket, like a child with a favorite stuffed animal. But we also belong to those who find our relationship with God, its ups and downs, its ins and outs, traced in another book—in the Bible. So there’s that, too.

But, I think, fundamentally, our love affair with books can be traced back to stories. We are a people of stories.

Stories that we tell to each other, to our children, to generations past and generations to come—to reassure ourselves, to challenge ourselves, to remind us who we are and where we come from. Stories comprise our identity as human creatures and images of God. After all, God is the one who created by speaking words into the darkness—the first story. So it has been ever since. We gather together the shards of our lives and we cobble together meaning in a story.

And we know this. We each have these stories of who we are, how we came to be, stories that we rely on. I can remember my grandfather, sitting by the fire, telling me tale after tale of our familial ancestors in Scotland—of the man who was so anxious to win a boat race and win some land promised from the English king that he chopped off his own hand. Of the first immigrants to the New World, who kept getting into bar fights, til one of them got sliced in half. Of the the later, more prosperous relatives who ran a flour mill in Spotsylvania County, and protected it from the invading Yankees, burying the silver in the backyard, and their sons, who fought for the Confederacy before ending up in a POW camp at Ft. Monroe.
The patchwork of stories that composed our family identity and told us who we were, what the world was. We were brave to a fault, we were loyal, and we were bad at decision-making.

We don’t only have stories from our families or from history books. We have these stories from our faith too, that we rehearse and we pass on from one generation to the next. Noah’s ark. Abraham and Sarah’s enduring faith. The deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. The establishment of David’s kingdom in Israel. The coming of Christ and his ministry in the world. His crucifixion, death, and resurrection.

We have these stories, these stories we love, and from these stories, we derive our identity, both as individuals and as a people. There was God, we say, God loved the world, God saved God’s people, and God sent Jesus as proof of this love and to seal this salvation and to open to us the way to heaven. That is our story.

Funny thing about these stories, though—some of them work and some of them don’t. Many of them work better for some of us than they do for others of us. In these stories, some of us appear, and some of us don’t. Some of us come off entirely as heroes, some of us come off as two-dimensional villains, and some of us are erased entirely.

Last summer, I took a trip back to Richmond, Virginia, near where my family is from–where that grandfather grew up–, and I walked the newly-constructed, I should say newly-rediscovered, Slave Trail. So named, because it traces the path that slaves took through the city, from the river landing where the slave ships first came into port, to the auction houses, and the hotels where the European tourists came to gawk, to Lumpkin’s Jail, which held recaptured runaways, or Black people who had otherwise stepped out of line. The path through downtown Richmond took me past buildings I had seen all my life, grown up seeing, and at each stop, there was a plaque, describing the sight. Here the Manchester Docks, here the site, where Willie Boxcar Brown sealed himself up for 3 days in a tobacco factory to make it to Pennsylvania and freedom. At each, my grandfather’s stories played in my head—and no where, in his stories, did he talk about these stories I was seeing. No where in his stories did he talk about the generations of enslaved people whose stories were intertwined with ours, whose lives and whose labor enabled my family to survive, to live as we had.
But now, staring me in the face, was the traces, the impact of these other stories which challenged the boundary of my family’s convenient story. It wasn’t large enough. It wasn’t deep enough. It wasn’t complex enough. Our story didn’t work any more.
When Absalom Jones and Richard Allen planted themselves in St. George’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia that fateful day, they challenged the story—the safe story the Episcopal church had been telling itself up until then. That God loves everyone equally but on the inside, in an intangible, invisible way. They questioned the story. They pushed back. And initially it didn’t go so well—Absalom and Richard and the other Black men and women were asked to leave that day. But Absalom didn’t give up, because he knew that his story was true.

And later, when Absalom Jones went to William White, and asked for ordination so he could serve his community, he was doing it again–he was listening to his own story. He was listening to the story that said that Jesus saves not just in the hereafter, but Jesus came to liberate us now. Here, on this earth, in our lives, today–Jesus came to change the world.

He stood there, and through his life, he gave us not only the gift of his service, but he did something else too—he broke open the church’s story. He made this church begin to ask questions it hadn’t asked, see things it hadn’t seen. He made the church start to reconsider its story.
We have to—we HAVE to—be willing to question our stories. We have to be willing to open, to reexamine the fabric of the stories we’ve been telling. We have to be willing to enlarge them. Because a lot of these stories we tell, a lot of them don’t work–a lot of them are incomplete, because they’re too narrow. They aren’t enough.
Because the plain truth is that there’s never been just one story of the God we’re trying to reflect–no, not really.
Now, as the church, especially as the white church, (I’m going to get truthful here.) we’ve pretended that there has been for millennia, but it’s just not the case, as any one of you who remembers their bible study will tell you. There are two accounts of creation, aren’t there? Right beside each other,hitting you in the face, Genesis 1 and 2. There are two different accounts of the entrance into the Promised Land–one where the Israelites sort of meander in peaceably, and one where Joshua and co. triumph from behind, and murder everything in sight. There are even multiple texual sources telling practically every story, both in the Old Testament, then again in the 4 gospels.
So for all this time, while the white American church was comfortably telling its same story–there was God, God loved us, God came to save us, but in an inward and intangible way and definitely some more than others, and there are times the white church has been explicit about that, and times it hasn’t–Absalom had a different story that he knew. God was working in his life in a different and profound way, and when he planted himself in that seat at St. George, and when he pushed for ordination, he showed the church a new story, a story that proclaims that every human is made in the image of God. That every person under heaven is equal, not just hypothetically, not just after they die, but today, tomorrow, right now and forever, and Christ came to make sure we knew it. So our lives had better start reflecting that.

Point of fact–the church hasn’t always wanted to change its story. It wasn’t thrilled with the prospect then, and it’s not exactly thrilled now. Change isn’t enjoyable, especially to something as fundamental as your self-understanding, and few things like to admit their error less than the Church. Yet, God calls us to something greater than a simplistic adherence to that thing we’ve always thought. God calls us to honor all the stories. To watch for the hand of God at work all around us. And to be ready to admit when we’re wrong, when our story wasn’t big enough, to apologize and do better.

Because it is in the push and pull of difference, the tension of learning new ways of telling old stories, the recognition of God’s Spirit working in a stranger’s face, that we come to a truer understanding of the God who made all unique, made us all loved, and made us all one.

Amen.

**Full disclosure: we don’t have a lot of Black clergy in WeMo. We have very few. We have two, is my point, and one was, I think, getting dialysis that day, and the other was on vestry retreat.  So the poor committee was left with me preaching.

Palestine, corporate sin, and #blacklivesmatter. Also, Advent.

I’d been trying to crack this sermon all week.  After the events of Wednesday, and another non-decision from a grand jury, I knew what I wanted to talk about–about corporate sin, and systemic racism, and how the Kingdom lay on the other side of us facing truthfully our own complicity in a really broken and unjust system.

(None of this makes for a really joyful pre-Christmas sermon, if you can’t already tell.)

I had about 2/3rds of a draft finished on Saturday afternoon, when I got home from the Advent Clergy lunch  and realized it wasn’t working at all.

The opening was a short discourse on the Essenes.  It was fine, but it was fairly unemotional, and it ran into a wall pretty quickly. (I get fired up about 1st cen religious sects.  Me and maybe 10 other people. We’re not a demographic you want to rely on for numbers.)

Instead, what had been going through my head since Wednesday was this runner about the Prayer of Humble Access. I hadn’t put it in initially because I figured that the sermon was already messing with a few Principles of Good and Decent Preaching (1. Don’t get political. 2. Don’t get angry 3. Don’t be thoroughly depressing, etc)   Generally speaking, I try to restrict myself to knocking over one or two of those at a time, but not all of them, not all at once.  Throwing in the crowd-pleaser known as Israeli-Palestinian politics was probably just going to heap fuel on the fire.

But I tried it.  I sat down, and within 45 minutes, I had a complete second draft.

Here’s what it said.

December 7-8, 2014

So let’s be unEpiscopalian today and let’s talk about sin a little bit.

I didn’t really used to believe in sin.  Or, rather, I did, but not as a major, concept in the singular.  Sin, I thought, as a thing wasn’t something to be too concerned about—sins in the plural, now—those were those mistakes you made as a person each day in the course of normal daily events.  You told a white lie, someone cut you off in traffic so you swore at them, you hold onto that grudge against someone when you really should have forgiven them.

These, I thought, were sins.  They weren’t GOOD, but they could be dealt with.  I could fix them.  Just, y’know—I should not do that thing any more.  Don’t lie.  Don’t cheat.  Don’t swear (where kids can hear you.)

What I couldn’t quite understand was why our liturgy occasionally exulted in confession, especially the Prayer of Humble Access—do you know that one?  We don’t really say it anymore.  It’s in Rite 1, used to be said right before Communion.  “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.”

That, I thought, was complete and total overkill.  Sins weren’t good, but I didn’t see how my telling someone off in rush hour traffic equated to crumb collection.

 

Then I went to Palestine.

 

In the diocese of Jerusalem, at St. George’s cathedral, the Prayer of Humble Access starts the service off.  It’s the first thing you say.  “We do not presume to come to this thy table, oh merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness.”

I didn’t like it. I gritted my teeth and I got through it, but barely.

But then something happened.  Then,  I spent week after week volunteering and living in occupied East Jerusalem.  Week after week listening to stories from my Palestinian coworkers.  Week after week listening and watching the unequal treatment they received at the hands of the Israeli soldiers who patrolled the streets, who were barely older than my baby brother.  Week after week of lying to Israeli cabdrivers about where I worked and lived, so that I could get back home, and they wouldn’t refuse to take my fare because they thought I was “one of them.” Week after week of walking through checkpoints unmolested, because I flashed my magic blue American passport, while my coworkers waited in lines in the sun hours long. Week after week of hearing and seeing hatred, violence, and the day-to-day illogical grind of oppression.

By week three, I welcomed Sunday morning, and for the first time, it made emotional sense to me to proclaim that humanity was in absolutely no way worthy to come to any table of God’s.  Not with our current track record.  Not with what I was seeing.

Because here was sin.  But sin in a new way—Sin singular.  A sin so great, and so massive, so systemic, that no one person could undo it, yet all of us living there were caught up in it.  We were all living in a total system that entirely and utterly held the children of God as worthless, as something less than human—on both sides of the conflict—Palestinian and Israeli.

 

All too often we assume sin is that plural category that I once did—those easy, personal, sins to identify and absolve.  Those sins we can list and quantify, then cross off the list as taken care of.

Yet, take a look at what John the Baptist is yelling about in the gospel today.  He’s preaching a gospel of repentance, for the kingdom of God has come near.  The way John is positioned in the desert here, scholars suspect he might be an Essene.  The Essenes were one of several  separatist groups of devout Jews who thought the whole temple system, and all of Jerusalem was corrupt, so they left and went to the desert to form their own communal society.

So John isn’t just talking about personal sins—John’s talking about sin, singular, too.  The big sin in the system that we can’t escape from on our own. The corruption in the system.  For them, in their time, it was the funneling of money through the temple to support the lavish lifestyle of the priests, and King Herod, and the Roman occupation.  all the while neglecting the poor.

Big systemic corporate sin.  Can’t be solved by one person alone.

But these singular sins are the hardest ones to face.  Precisely because they’re so big, so awful they become hard to see, it’s like trying to discern the color of the air you’re breathing.  It’s all around you at once and it’s all you’ve known, so how would you know any different—right up until something shifts, and suddenly it’s all you can see.

Fr. Stan and I have stood here and talked about the events in Ferguson several times since the death of Michael Brown back in August.  But what has been made clear in the weeks and months since then, and what was again thrown into sharp relief this week, is that this isn’t just about this one case in one small community in Missouri.  Instead, it’s about case after case after case after case, as black people are killed in disproportionate numbers by police, time and again, and time and again, it seems that accountability is slow in coming.

So there is protest after protest, and wave after wave of hurt, and frustration, and sorrow and pain flooding the streets right now from many in the Black community, because Michael Brown’s case, Eric Garner’s case, Tamir Rice’s case, John Crawford’s case—all contribute to a situation that’s been in place for a while, and has finally boiled over, finally shifted into sharp relief.

It’s that systemic sin.  Singular sin.  The ghost in the machine.  This problem of racism in policing in the justice system is bigger than any one person—this problem, and that’s what makes it so hard, and so inexorable.  We are not where we are because the police chief in Ferguson has an outsized collection of white sheets, or because grand juries are universally bad at their jobs. If that were the case then this would be so easy to fix!

But we’re here because  because the institutions of this country were founded on a bone-deep distrust of anyone who doesn’t look like me, and I mean that quite literally.

And until we call out that ghost in the system, until we repent of that big, systemic, unspeakable sin we’re all entrapped by, we aren’t ever going to be able to move past this.  We aren’t ever going to be free to step fully into the Kingdom of God.

But we have to listen.  We have to listen to the stories of those who are hurting, of those who are upset of those who are angry.  Even when, and especially when, those stories make us angry and defensive.  We need to push past our own defensiveness, our own need to be right, and to be comfortable, and we need to listen to the people who are being hurt by this sin we’re caught in.

Then we need to name it.  We need to name it when we see it.  We need to have the courage to call it out—because God does not intend for God’s children to live in a world where some lives matter, and some lives don’t.  God does not intend for us to live in a world where some lives seen as criminals waiting to happen.  God created us so that if white lives matter, then black lives matter too.

 

And lastly, we need to remember that as broken, as corrupted as this world may be, we belong to a God whose property is always to have mercy.  And no matter what, God will empower us with courage, and enliven us with compassion, once we take that first step out of the city, into the desert of repentance where new life and a new Kingdom await.

That’s where John calls us.  That’s where God calls us.  Just listen.