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Don’t. Panic.

I am part of a Slack group of clergy and lay people who discuss everything from evangelism to politics to what we are going to preach on Sunday.

Last week, we were agonizing over how to preach on the Sunday before this election.  What do you say when everyone is so freaked out?  I, personally, spend most of my days now frantically checking polls and lying in a prone position hoping for time to speed up.

My brilliant friend Holli Powell commented that as a person in the pews, all she wanted to hear from the pulpit was that Jesus was still Lord, and everything else was secondary.   (She actually used slightly different words, but the sentiment was the same.)  Holli is right about most things, so I tried to write that sermon.

Here’s what I said:

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

November 6, 2016

Ordinary Time, Proper 27

Luke 20: 27-38

I figured out that I did the math wrong earlier–there are actually only 2 days to the election.  So how are we feeling?  You panicking yet?  Do you find yourself checking Fivethirtyeight.com several times a day?  Have you bookmarked several polling websites to update you when something changes?  

Or have you gone in the other direction–are you one of those people who has gone full news blackout, ignoring all sources of news coverage and political advertisements until after Tuesday (or whenever this thing gets called) and focusing on calming things instead.  Rediscovered a love for cat GIFS?  

What can I say–this is stressful.  I was reading something the other day that said that psychologists are advising people to turn off the news, because they have recognized a strong uptick in ‘election anxiety’ on all sides of the political spectrum.  Regardless of who you support, because we’re so polarized right now, there’s a feeling that if THIS DOESN’T GO THE RIGHT WAY, EVERYTHING WILL END FOREVER OMG.  Trump supporters are convinced that if Clinton wins, the country will be plunged into a morass of taco trucks on every corner, open borders, and free healthcare for all that will bankrupt us.  Clinton supporters are sure that if Trump wins, we will have political opponents thrown into jail, martial law declared, and probably a nuclear war within a month.  So everyone’s biting their fingernails.  

I don’t want to downplay this–elections are important, and this one is important.  You need to do what you can.  Go vote in two days if you haven’t already.  But there’s a difference between taking something seriously and letting it overwhelm you.  This election is a big deal.  But once you have done your part, remember that it is not the most important thing .  And remembering the scale of things when we’re panicking is vital.  Especially when the world likes to hand us reasons to panic.  (Looking at you, FBI director.)  

Nothing the world likes better than to hand us things to freak out about–whether its polls or emails, or this thing that guy said, or OMG, what if?  Because here’s how anxiety and fear work, after all.

Anxiety and fear are, ironically! much like the viral videos of adorable kittens we watch on the internet to combat anxiety and fear.  For many people, our feelings of fear aren’t real until we’ve shared them with someone else…and they’ve shared them, and on and on until they go viral.  Much like the viral cat videos.  The number of shares builds exponentially.

So fear builds on itself–in order for one anxious person to feel even slightly better, they need to get someone else to feel scared.  And so on and so on.  Which is part of why, when everyone is freaked out–it’s easy to feel like everything becomes scary.  FBI!  QUOTES!  HEADLINES!  EMAILS!!!!!

Here’s the thing, though.  Take a breath.  (Seriously.  Right now.  Take a breath.)  We are Christians.  We follow Jesus, we take our cues from him.  And that will be just as true tomrrow, and Tuesday and Wednesday as it is today, no matter what happens.  

Just because the people around us right now are breathing into paper bags, does not mean we need to.  

Let me point out that when the Sadduccees come up to Jesus with their smarty-pants brain teaser, this anxiety web trick was part of what they were trying to do.  This theoretical idea about the resurrection, and what it would mean, was hotly debated at the time.  People were really into it.  So they wanted to get Jesus to side with them on this REALLY TRICKY BRAIN TEASER.  They wanted Jesus to be as invested in the thing that was driving them nuts as they were.

Jesus is having none of it.  Why?  Because first off, the question is dumb.  It’s one of those hypothetical brain teasers that doesn’t happen in real life, and doesn’t happen to real people.  And there’s another problem with it too.  

The Sadduccees aren’t asking because they are concerned by what will happen to the woman–about her health or wellbeing, or worried about the welfare of all those brothers.  (They keep dying, for one.  Don’t tell me that’s not troubling.)  They are worried about proving a hypothetical. They are worried about being right, about satisfying their ego.  And that, though it may worry the Sadducees, doesn’t worry Jesus.

Jesus, as it turns out, is worried about other things.  Preaching the gospel.  Feeding the hungry.  Helping the sick. Freeing the oppressed.  Showing the love of God.  Those things that are real, are important, and that continue whether or not this hypothetical thing they’re scared of happens or not.

Because whether or not this Sadduccee’s brain teaser comes true or not, Jesus will still have a call.  And so will we.  No matter what happens on Tuesday, we still will have a job to do.  Jesus will still be Jesus.  God will still be God.  And we will still be called to do what we have always been called to, no matter what happens around us.  We will still need to preach the gospel, to feed the hungry, to care for the sick, to free the oppressed, to show the love of God.  No matter what.  That’s the most important thing.

So on Tuesday, go vote.  Do your part.  And then, think of those big, reassuring letters from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and “don’t panic.”  And when we get up on Wednesday, we are just going to go out and follow Jesus like we’ve been doing.  Because God will still be God.  And God does not abandon his people.

 

Amen.

Hype Babies, Part 2

I took a week off which wasn’t really a week off.  I went to the Forma conference in Philadelphia and introduced my WeMo colleagues to the joy and wonder of Wawa.  Then I took a train up to NYC for a few days because it has been over 2 years since I have been in the city, and that is just plain unacceptable.

I saw lots of friends I haven’t seen in a long time, and wandered aimlessly around Central Park and the Met.  I ate egg and cheese on hard rolls and drank cheap diner coffee (breakfast of the gods, I tell you) and rode the subway like a pro.  And oh yes, I SAW HAMILTON.  (Will probably write more about that later. Will probably also goad every single person I know into going back to see it with me for as long as it runs.)

Now, back in the swing of things, everything has picked up pace again.  Lent Madness is back up and running (go vote!  www.lentmadness.org! ) and they are foolishly letting me write for another year.  And we’re packing up the office to relocate to the 4th floor tomorrow for a series of months as the east wing is renovated.

On the preaching front, Hype Baby got some competition on Sunday.  Behold, the advent of Hype TODDLER!

I don’t know what is happening, but evidently, my manically-waving hands and odd faces attracts the attention of small children, who then feel free to chime in loudly.  Which makes for a pretty epic church experience.  Longer story at the asterisk.

Here’s what I said:

Rev. Megan L. Castellan
February 14, 2015
Lent 1
Luke 4


Conflict between Satan’s idea of who Jesus is, and how Jesus sees himself (existing to serve God/others)—Who are you?

This passage from Deuteronomy is a lot of fun, though granted it doesn’t immediately sound like it.  It’s one of the many passages that feature heavily in the traditional Seder meal, and has coordinating action that goes along with it—as a big part of that service, the people all recite the formula “My Ancestor was a wandering Aramean,” and then you dip some matzoh and trade it around.  You say it several times. (The other really fun charade-like passage is “God saved us with his mighty arm, and outstretched hand.—and overtime you talk about the mighty arm of God doing something, the leader is supposed to either point to or wave their lamb bone around emphatically.  See, liturgy is fun, y’all.)

Now, I grant you—this, like most liturgical actions, can seem slightly strange to outsiders; it’s not quite clear what this is talking about, since Abraham isn’t an Aramean insofar as we can tell, and who knows why the writer of Deuteronomy thinks he was?
But the sense of it,  the overall meaning is clear—because it neatly sums up who God wants the Jewish people to see themselves as.  When this line was recited at the Temple, and even now at the Seder meal, Jewish people recall the same story: They were descended from wanderers, had been saved from oppression, and now, their job was to protect and save others.  Bam.  There it is in one.  My ancestor was a wandering Aramean, so I might save others who wander.  

That’s part of why we have holy texts—to remind us of who we are, since we’re liable to forget.  The scriptures we have collect for us the record of other people’s relationship with God and who they were—how they struggled and what they figured out, or didn’t figure out.  The goal is that we can take all that knowledge—that huge story— and use it in light of our own story.
Problem is that scripture is confusing.  There’s some weird stuff in there—giants, sea monsters, and a dragon at one point.***  And also, scripture is contradictory.  One moment, there’s a story about being kind to the widow, orphan, and alien in the land—the next, there’s a story about driving a spike through the head of an enemy.  The idea that the Bible speaks with a unified voice on much of anything is pretty odd.
And exhibit A of this is the Gospel
Where, hello!  The devil himself quotes scripture to Jesus.  Who quotes it right back.  
Please note that neither of them quotes it incorrectly, or twists the meaning—they’re both pretty much correct.  Though, this is a good argument for why prooftexting is going to land you in trouble.  
In this episode, the devil comes to Jesus and starts to tempt him with some really nice stuff: free food!  Unlimited power!  Flying!  
And for each temptation, Jesus argues back with a nice scripture quote.  But Satan is ready with some of his own.
It’s worth noting that ‘satan’ here isn’t quite what we think of as the devil—the embodiment of all evil.  It’s pretty close, but the Hebrew ‘ha-satan’ was originally a courtroom term which meant “The accuser.”  The idea was that heaven was set up like an actual courtroom, and God needed someone to argue with, so there was this prosecuting attorney figure.  They weren’t good or bad, necessarily—they just were there to argue the other side of things.  Largely because God was always the one who judged, and interceded for humanity—something that couldn’t happen if God just talked to himself all the time.  (See, they had thought this out.)
ANYWAY.
Satan comes in, and does his arguing thing, but it’s a little more than that.  He offers stuff.  And all the stuff that he offers is predicated on the same idea—Jesus should really be way more flashy than he currently is being.  He’s the Son of God?  (Which Satan doesn’t dispute, BTW) then he should make himself some magic food!  He’s so smart and wise and loving?  Then he should take over the world and coerce EVERYONE into knowing and loving him!  He’s so holy?  Then he should make God prove how much he loves him!!!
The through-line here is that Satan has a clear idea of who Jesus is—a wonder-working, glory-seeking, magic worker who is out for himself.  Self-focused.  Self-involved. The definition of sin.
But Jesus knows better.  Jesus’ idea of himself comes not from himself alone, but from his relationship with God—from the knowledge that it is this relationship that gives him identity—not himself alone.  Jesus repeats the idea that he’s great, yet he’s still dependent on God.  
Jesus by himself is awesome, and could totally make himself a magic sandwich.  But it is through his relationship with God that he is able to become more.  Able to reach people, and realize his vocation to be the Messiah for a whole world.  It’s through being humble, and relying on God, not just himself, that he becomes more.  That’s who he is.  

As wonderful as we are,  and we are, we aren’t the be all, end all.  We need other people and we need God.  
We need other people to give us different perspectives and to challenge  our preconceptions.  We need them to be vehicles of God’s love for us.  
And we need God to remind us of who we are.  We need God to be bigger than we are, —to lift some of this weight off our shoulders, and to inspire us to do better.  We need God to knit together all of our stories.  
We are never who we are alone.  We are always who we are in connection with others, and with God.  It is these other relationships that help guide us to who we are, that help us construct our stories. In the midst of competing voices and claims about who we might be.

Lent is a time to reconnect with who we are. To recall our story, in relationship with God. In service to others. To tease out the story of ourselves as we truly are, and not as the accusers around us would have us be.

A time to reconnect with our core identity and story as beloved children of God, who don’t have to save the world, but do have to love it.  Who were chosen by God in baptism, and never have to be any more or less, than that.

Amen.

***It was at this point that a 3 year old boy in the front row turned around and loudly whispered “SEA MONSTERS!!!!!” in great excitement to his parents and assorted family members.  I didn’t hear until later that he proceeded to hush them quiet, and comment that “Wow, she really knows some deep stuff!”

After church, he approached me with great trepidation, and at his mother’s urging, told me that I did a good job.  I returned the compliment, and thanked him for listening to what I said so attentively.

Hype kids for the win, y’all.

Use your words

I’ve been at CREDO this week.

CREDO is a delightful program put on by the Church Pension Group in which clergy are whisked away for a week at a time to contemplate their vocations, their ability to care for themselves, and to get in touch again with their initial call to ministry. 

Also, to accumulate more CPG swag than you can outfit a small army with.

My CREDO is taking place about an hour northeast of Jacksonville, Florida, without cell service, or reliable internet, and so I was late to the news of the Charleston massacre.  9 people, murdered at Emmanuel AME Church, by a white gunman— a man who sat through Wednesday night bible study beside his victims before he opened fire.

It’s been three days now and I am still having a hard time with words, with language.  Thursday morning, when I saw the news on Twitter, I didn’t have words either—all I did was go to our faculty and ask that we begin in prayer.  So we had calming words.  We had soothing words, flying away, this bright morning.

They were fine, those words. We prayed for peace, for reconciliation, for comfort in times of fear.  All good things, that I am glad we prayed for. 

But perhaps this is not what we needed. 

What we needed was confession, and repentance. 

It strikes me, sitting here in the Florida sunshine that despite all these words that have been flowing, that flow so freely each time something like this happens (and let’s be honest for a moment—this happens.  This has been happening for a long, long time.  Sometimes it’s the police, sometimes it’s the neighborhood watch, sometimes it’s a man who dislikes loud music, but it happens way too often than it should in 2015 America.)

And each time it happens, there are so many words we don’t hear.  There are words we don’t say.  There are stories we don’t tell.

Yet we must.  We have to tell them.  And I say “we” very deliberately, because the problem of racism in this country isn’t a problem that the Black community needs to solve all by themselves—the problem of racism is a problem that the White community needs to solve.  Me.  People who look like me.  This heritage of hate that my ancestors built and I continue to profit from.  That’s my problem.  That’s my church’s problem.  We started this fire.

For as long as we pretend that the only people most affected by racism are also the only ones tasked with ending it, we will get exactly nowhere. 

So we need to tell the truth.  We need to tell it all.  We need confession and repentance in this country.  We need to start recognizing and naming the truth of the racism all around us, infecting the very ground of our country, the institutions we rely on.  If racism is our besetting sin, then only confession will help get us on the road to healing. 

We need to acknowledge that for generations, until the last 40 years, most white Americans did not believe in the humanity of Black people—this despite the fact that Black people literally built this country from the ground up. 

We need to tell the truth about the fact that if you have White ancestors who lived in this country prior to 1865, they either owned slaves, or profited in some way from the practice.  (This is to quietly gloss over the fact that lots of folks also profited from Jim Crow laws and redlining, by the way.)

And, we need to be honest about the fact that people are complex.  Just because someone is nice, or a good conversationalist, or makes hilarious jokes, doesn’t also mean they can’t also be virulently racist, or divide humanity into “human” and “less than human”.

We need to tell the whole truth.  We need to use all our words.  Not just the placid ones that comfort in times of trial, not just the ones that cry out for peace, but the ones that name the conflict.  The ones that bewail our aching wounds.  The ones that call for justice and lament our brokenness. 

Those are the words we need. Use them. 

Mothers, others, and other mothers

I don’t ever preach on Mother’s Day.

This is because it’s a landmine of a topic, and as a homily subject, usually ends badly.  The only sermon I ever walked out on was on Mother’s Day, when I was in high school.  The priest (who absolutely should have known better) was lamenting that the holiday was not mandated in schools everywhere.  I sat there in angry tears.  My own mother had undergone another surgery for cancer the month before, and I had again been reminded that my hold on Mother’s Day was fragile.  The idea of forcing school kids into a happy Hallmark narrative seemed both insensitive, false, and borderline cruel.  So I left.

But this year, for whatever reason, I reasoned that Mother’s Day might be like those difficult texts in the Bible.  They do not improve when you ignore them–they just get co-opted by people you disagree with.  The way to deal with difficult things is to talk about them, and poke and prod at them until they become less difficult.

So here’s what I said on Mother’s Day.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

May 10, 2015

Easter 6, Year B

John, Mother’s Day

There are times when holidays sneak their way into the liturgical calendar, despite not actually being at all liturgical themselves.  Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day—these sort of snuck their way in there, even though Jesus had not very much to say on the subject of Pilgrims or on the subject of constitutional democracy. 

But, over the years, the church found good enough ideas in those holidays that we wanted to emphasize them, and so, on the calendar they went.  Not the whole thing, maybe, but Independence Day allows us to talk about how our freedom enables us to serve God and one another.  Thanksgiving, as we just sang, lets us talk about how everything we have is a gift from God, and not a product of our own ingenuity.  

So we come to today, which as I’m sure Hallmark has told you, is Mother’s Day, a day that likewise attempts to slip its way into the church calendar.

So on this day, in many places, flowers are distributed, and songs are sung, and tributes to mothers are read.   “Motherhood!” the day trumpets!  “Mothers are great!  Hooray for mothers!  We can aspire no higher!  They are PERECT GEMS!”

But in many ways, this is not the easiest fit to sneak into our church calendar. 

Because yes, mothers are great.  Parents are great.  Parents, ideally, teach us and help us grow, and provide a firm foundation our whole lives through, and help us construct our worldview from a place of safety and security.  Being a good parent is one of the most important things in the world—there’s a reason why Jesus refers to God as Father, why he invokes this parental metaphor for this foundational relationship.  It’s an immense thing to be a parent, to be a good parent.  And we absolutely should honor that, and support it, wherever we find it. 

And we should do that even more, because we recognize how rare that is.  When we recognize that not everyone has the Hallmark certified ideal of Parents.  Not everyone’s mother is fantastic.  Not everyone’s father is a pillar of strength, warmth and unconditional love.  Not everyone’s parents can manage to be what they hope to, or need to be, for their children, every second of every day. 

And really, if every parent was the Hallmark certified ideal, what would therapists spend their lives doing? 

If we’re going to slip Mother’s Day (Father’s Day too) into the calendar of the church, then it can’t just be about proclaiming all parents as paragons of virtue, when we know that this is not always the case—that the reality we live in is often much more complicated.  Because in the church, where we are called to be inclusive, and welcoming of everyone, and we are called to live in reality, to recognize where our people are.  And the reality is, not everyone had or has, families that fully reflected the love of God.   So we need to be careful.  Not to mention that not everyone is called to be a parent.  There’s that reality, too.   

And let’s also remember that we are called in the footsteps of Jesus, not of greeting cards.  Jesus, who had a slightly, less-than-greeting-card-esque relationship with his family.  He ran away from his parents at age 12, he hid for 3 days, and then, when they finally found him, instead of being apologetic, or buying them flowers or chocolate, he talked back to them when Mary merely pointed out that they had been worried sick.  Not quite the dutiful son you’d hope for.  

Once he grew up, he left home, never to return again. When Mary and his siblings came to collect him, they told the crowd outside the house where he was that he was possessed by a demon.  So they’re possibly not on the same page with his ministry at this point.  He, in turn, turns to the crowd when he hears this, and says “Who are my mother and my brother and my sisters?  Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” and proclaimed anyone who followed him to be his family.

That was actually a huge deal in 1st century Jewish society.  You didn’t leave your family—your family was quite literally who you were.  It determined your job, your marriage, your future, your faith, everything about you.  You could no more announce that you were heading out on your own then announce that you were going to walk to the moon.

Yet that’s just what Jesus did.  (Remember that, actually, next time some politician invokes Christ’s name in a discussion of family values.)

Jesus left his family of birth, and constituted for himself a new family, no longer limited to ties just of genetics.  But to ties of love.  To ties of faith.  

If we’re going to find a deeper meaning to Mother’s Day, I think it’s going to be there. 

The vocation to be a parent, when done well, involves loving another being, loving your child, in an unconditional way.  Valuing their happiness even as much as your own, and ensuring that they know themselves to be loved and safe, and protected. 

Basically, you embody the love of God for your kids.  That unconditional, here-you-are-safe, here you are known, sort of love.  Love that is undying and never ending.  You reflect the sort of love God has for us.

But when Jesus tells his disciples in today’s gospel that they are to love one another as God has loved us, he doesn’t limit it to a certain group of people.  He doesn’t limit it to women, or people with kids, or mothers, or anyone else.

 As Christians, all of us are called to this—whether we have children or not.  All of us are called to embody that sort of love for each other, for the world.  That’s how we’re supposed to love the rest of the world– all of us, all of the time.  We’re called to mother the world–with that fierce, sort of unbreakable love.

Julian of Norwich called Christ our own mother, because Christ gave of himself like a mother, and taught us how to love each other, like a mother raises children, and teaches them to talk and walk.   We then put those lessons into practice when we love one another.  Each time we baptize a new person, we commit ourselves to support them in their life in Christ.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a screaming 6 week old baby or an older 55 year old–each time, we welcome them into the household of God, and we welcome them into this new family–this bond of love.  

So, on this Mother’s Day, as you exchange cards, and flowers–give thanks for all those who have shown you that love of God in your life.  Give thanks for all those who have taught you how to love, no matter who they were.  And then, go out and mother the world.  Clean its scrapes and bruises.  Wipe its tears.  Love it in spite of its mistakes. 

 For so God does for all of us.

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.

Post-modern preferential option

Last Tuesday, my friend, the Rev. Marcus Halley–the associate at St. Andrew’s (the Other Episcopal Church in KCMO), asked me to present a talk/speech/thing on God in the digital age.  And I hardly need much convincing to talk about social media.  So I talked about Twitter, and the theology around it–what sort of theology we could construct as we become more interconnected, but in a different way than we’re used to.

Inevitably, whenever I talk about social media, someone always asks, “But how do you know that what you’re reading is THE TRUTH?”

I love this question.   LOVE it.  I want to cross stitch it on a sampler and sew it to a throw pillow, it’s so adorable.

Because, seriously, how did you EVER know that what you were reading was THE TRUTH?  My parents had a set of World Book Encyclopedias from 1965 when I was growing up.  Big set of books that someone (not entirely sure who) paid a lot of money for.

There are a lot of things in those books that are not true at all.  And that’s ignoring the pile of stuff that they ignore entirely.  (I learned after 1 try that I could not do a project for Black History Month by looking in those things.)

But for a long time, they were THE AUTHORITY.  They were books, so they were up there with Walter Cronkite (who also was Wrong on occasion, and who also left out some notable things.)

Objective truth is out there, but there’s no monopoly on it.  So the question is less–how can I find the one truth, and more–have I listened to all the stories I need to?

That’s pretty much where this sermon came from.

August 30-31, 2014

Ordinary Time, Proper 17

Exodus 3

[how do you know what you read on social media is the truth?  Walter Cronkite is dead—there is no ONE OBJECTIVE ANSWER out there waiting for us.  Everyone has their own side of the story, whether we like this or not.]

[transition to…] 

Moses just wants to be a little Switzerland right this moment.  He’s having an identity crisis, of sorts, and of all people, he gets to have one.

Because, if you think back to what you recall either of a Charlton Heston movie or from watching the Prince of Egypt—Moses, when he was born, was saved from a genocidal pharaoh by his sister, Miriam, who stuck him in a basket and floated him down the river.  The Pharoah’s daughter found him, and adopted him as her own, saving him a second time.

So Moses had grown up with a foot in both worlds—the world of the Pharoah’s palace, all prestige and privilege, and the world of the Israelite slaves who made that world possible in the first place.  He’s had access to both worlds, to both places.  So he grew up with two identities—Moses the prince and Moses the Israelite slave. 

They were in conflict, to be sure, both sides of that particular story, but he was managing to balance them, apparently.

Everything was going fine it seemed, until one day when Moses was grown up and he ran into an Egyptian task master beating an Israelite slave. 

All of a sudden, these two identities are in conflict, these two sides of the story are standing opposed to each other.

Moses intervenes and kills the guard.

Well, whoops.

He panics, and flees out to the wilderness, because Moses does not want to pick a side.  Moses wanted to hang onto being a prince, but being a sort of cool prince who understood what was really going on, but still with all the power and money, and stuff.  Moses wanted the best of both worlds, but killing someone was probably going to mess that plan up.

Now, Wilderness is where the people of God go in the scriptures when something weird is going on.  It’s the neutral space, it’s the space of retreat and where you head to rebuild, even though it’s not hospitable.  But it’s also where God usually came and found you.

Which is what happens.

As we hear in the reading today, Moses is tending some sheep when he sees the burning bush, and he hears God call his name.  And God sends him back to Egypt—not as a prince in a palace this time, but as something entirely different.  As the leader who will save the Israelites from oppression. 

In other words, God wants him to pick a side.  And God wants him to give up some things, like power and privilege and some things that go along with it.

Hiding out in the wilderness of neutrality doesn’t cut it—you have to figure out where you stand.  Where God is calling you to go in the stories of today.

because yes, there are always many sides to each story. And yes, God loves us all, everyone.  God loves everybody.  And that has always been true.  God loved the Egyptians and the Israelites. God loved Pharaoh and Moses and Miriam and Aaron and their mother.

And it is God’s love that calls on them.  It is that very love that makes God receptive when the beloved Egyptians start enslaving the beloved Israelites.  It’s that very love that causes God to say to Moses— “I have heard the cry of my people Israel, and I have come down here to set them free.”

God’s love means God comes down, means God picks sides.  God loves the Israelites, so God calls Moses to free them from slavery.  God loves the Egyptians, so God calls Moses to convince them that holding people in bondage is not the way to go.  God’s love for humanity means God gets involved in the story.  God doesn’t stay neutral—that’s not how love works.  Love wants the fullness of human life.  Love wants the fullness of justice and righteousness and peace for everyone involved—and that’s not a thing that’s neutral—and so that meant the Israelites couldn’t be slaves anymore.   Because God’s love forces God to come down on the side of the oppressed, the powerless and the helpless.

Desmond Tutu said once If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse is not going to appreciate your neutrality.

Our pretended neutrality doesn’t serve the love of God.  It doesn’t serve God’s call to us.  And God doesn’t let us stay there. 

God called Moses out of his desert of neutrality, out of having the best of both worlds.  Out of his Egyptian palace and into his role as a leader for an oppressed people. 

And God calls us the same way.  God calls us to take sides, to take sides thoughtfully, to take sides in love.  To side with the poor, the powerless and the oppressed when we see injustice in this world.

So what we have to ask ourselves is where is God calling us now?  Here in Kansas City, here in Missouri, where is God calling us to go?  What desert is God calling us to leave behind? 

For starters, I can tell you that although the tanks are gone from the streets in Ferguson, the basic situation hasn’t changed.  The officer who shot Michael Brown still hasn’t been charged, the original prosecutor remains in charge of the case, the police still have a whole mess of riot gear and tanks and tear gas at their disposal, and not a whole lot has changed. 

Except, in the three weeks since he died, two more young black men who were also unarmed have been killed by police officers around the country.

So what is it that God is calling you to do in this situation? 
Do you need to sign a petition, do you need to have a hard conversation with your friends, with your coworkers, do you need to go to a march, do you need to email the governor?  Do you need to do some research into the history and context of race relations in St. Louis and law enforcement? Do you need to listen to people with first hand experience of dealing with the police while being Black in America?

What are you being called to do here in this moment?

Because we are being called to something. Whenever we as people of faith find injustice, we are called to do something.  We are not called to complacency, we are not called to run to the wilderness, we are called to do something. 

We just have to listen for God’s voice, remember God’s love, and know that God is with us.