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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.

 

Aside from Massive, Pre-Holy Week Funeral, there was also some preaching.

I preached on Good Friday, at the noon service, which was gorgeous as usual.  Because I encouraged/bribed them last year, the choir now chants the St. John’s Passion, which means that I now start choking up about halfway through Christ’s trial.  It’s awesome.

The three days of the Triduum are always tricky to preach on because I always feel that I should just wave my hands around and point to the liturgy and just end it there.  There’s not that much more to add.

But as the ever-brilliant Amy-Jill Levine has argued, you cannot let this text just sit there. It must be explicated.

So here’s what I said.
April 3, 2015
Good Friday, Year B

I was eight years old when I realized that Jesus died.
Prior to that, I’m not entirely sure what I thought happened exactly from Good Friday through Easter morning. I think that, in my child mind, I just heard the word “crucified” repeated a lot, and I didn’t actually know what that meant. It took our local priest explaining, in fairly graphic detail, how being nailed to a cross would damage you, for me to realize that Jesus actually died.
That wonderful guy Jesus, that I knew all those stories about, who seemed so great, and loving, and wise, someone who was always there, had gone away. And it was really awful—it felt like losing a family member, a close friend.
There’s something about hearing the Passion that hits you each time—each time it is newly painful, newly tragic. Even as adults, even as seasoned Christians used to the brutality of the world, used to the trauma of this story, it doesn’t get softer, because there’s so little to soften it.
The worst in human nature, the worst motivations we see, all running rampant.
The story of the cross is the story of the ultimate in scapegoating.  The fears and anxieties of the whole population are traded on the back of Jesus.
Let’s hold onto our narrow slip of power, say the high priests –publically kill those who stir up the people and threaten what we’ve got. Let’s keep our career alive, says Pilate–avoid the possibility of going against the boss, and keep that crowd happy when I can. Let’s hand over my friend, says Judas, because I can’t go down with this ship and the pay’s pretty good anyway.
We see every craven human impulse played out.
But perhaps the most upsetting part, the most confusing of the whole thing is Jesus. Jesus doesn’t do anything. Jesus is so silent.
All through the gospels, Jesus has been taking action, doing miracles, walking on water, preaching with fire and passion and teaching with gusto, and all of a sudden, he goes so quiet.
It’s not that Jesus seems confused or out of it—in John’s telling, Jesus is clearly always present. When the guards come to arrest him, his speech is so powerful that they fall to the ground, and that’s the Jesus we expect. Jesus knows what’s going on. He just doesn’t stop it. He lets it happen.
It’s the ultimate in kenosis. The ultimate in self-emptying. Every step along the way, Jesus’ response to the humans making the worst decisions all around him is just to let it happen. Let us see the full, unmitigated consequences of our bad behavior, our worst impulses played out on the best.
“Look,” the cross shouts to the skies. “Look at what happens when human hatred, ambition, greed, fear is given free reign. Look who suffers when you cannot remember what you are called to. Look at what happens. Look at the damage done.”
The cross stands, alongside every other tragedy in human history, as a reminder of what we can do when we forget to love God and love each other. It stands as a posed question: “This was Christ’s response—what will be your response?”
We who witness these things, we who stand at the foot of the cross, what is to be our response?  We who claim to be there in spirit when they crucified our Lord, what will be our response, when we see the consequence of human sin?
Will we pick up where Christ left off, will we carry the love of Christ into our world, will we witness to the needs and concerns of the world around us and try to help where we can…
Or will we wag our heads, saying “Oh well, you know. Some things just don’t concern me.”
This is the choice that Good Friday presents to us—this is where the cross draws us. It asks that we, too, stretch forth our hands in love to the whole world. It asks that we, too, reach out in love, showing all people the unbreakable love of God. It asks that we, too, reach out in compassion and love for a hurting world, Because now we can see what can happen when we don’t.
So, we can contemplate our sorrow over the sins of humanity for today. But let us also remember, that come Sunday, God shatters the grip of these bonds, and sets us anew on the path to live his love. May we be ready.

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. 

In which Megan attacks cute animals, avoids an angry mob

I made a promise to myself when I started preaching that I would never preach about my dog.

This was partially prompted by a really traumatic sermon-experience in college, when a bishop expounded at length about his dog, Amos, whom he felt we should all emulate, and come to adore him more.

And partially it was inspired by a sense that, while I might love my dog, not everyone has met my dog, so not everyone is as enchanted with my dog and his Omega-Dog ways as I am. There’s bound to be something more interesting to talk about.

But this week, I broke that rule. And in the process, I explained the overwhelming, and sometimes problematic, allure of cute animals.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan
February 21-22, 2014
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
Matthew 5:38-48

If you’ve been watching the Olympics, then you might have heard about one of the more tangential ways NBC has been filling its time: the dogs of Sochi.
And the situation is this. It seems that Sochi has a lot of stray dogs right now, and not a lot of dog shelters to put them in. So, this being Russia, the government’s solution is to round up the dogs and do away with them.

This has sparked an international outcry. A huge international outcry. As well it should—killing dogs is bad. And people have responded accordingly. Olympians have spoken out, and one athlete has even rescued four or five dogs while he’s been in Sochi competing. A rescue agency has been set up. People are on fire about the dogs. They are mobilized.

Which is great.

What is slightly curious, however, is the slightly-less-level-of-mobilized people seem to be about how the dogs got to Sochi. Namely, the humans of Russia. According to an article on Slate.com, the dogs are there in such large numbers not because they’re strays, but because they were abandoned when their owners were forcibly evicted by the Russian government, and their houses demolished, to make way for all the sporting arenas needed for the Olympics. With almost a city full of poor people displaced, the dogs stayed behind.

But the people don’t make the headlines—the dogs do. Add that to everything else that is currently happening in Russia, human rights-wise—all of it not really making the daily news reports, and why is it really that our sympathy is so readily stirred by dogs, over people?

I mean, I have some theories. And, in full disclosure, my dog is from Ecuador, oddly, so I have some experience in this. Animals are adorable. They are open, they are trusting. You know what you’re going to get when you pet a dog, because, with some exceptions, they’re the epitome of powerlessness. They don’t even have opposable thumbs!

Animals are simple.

People, on the other hand.

People are complicated. People are demanding. Even people you like, people often show up with needs, wants, and desires of their own, that sometimes conflict with yours. People can think for themselves, and that can be a whole mess of complicated, and so our empathy doesn’t get triggered as easily,

People do such a good job of thinking on their own, of acting on their own, of being their own differentiated selves, that we have a hard time of feeling immediate empathy.

And so there develops this empathy gap, where we run the risk of getting selective with what gets our empathy. Cute animals over suffering people. Cuter, younger, more photogenic suffering people over the less photogenic suffering people!

Some living things just end up getting more empathy from us than others, in this media age.

But Jesus has some things to say about that this morning. Jesus reminds us that when we approach our relationships with other people, those relationships are built, not on what we each deserve, but how God sees us. God, who makes the rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous. And the sun shine on everyone, good and bad alike.

This loving our enemies command isn’t a tricky plot to guilt our enemies into befriending us. Jesus isn’t preaching passive-aggression here. This is about echoing the relationship God has with us, so that we can stay in right relationship with God. This isn’t about us–it’s about God.

And so, we are to treat each other as God treats us. We are to love each other as God loves us.

And in God’s love, there is no empathy gap. God doesn’t care more for certain people than for others. God doesn’t love people who follow certain rules than for those who don’t. God doesn’t love people who look a certain way, act a certain way, pray a certain way or believe a certain way more than everybody else.

Turns out, God loves everybody just the same. God has mercy on everybody just the same. God wants justice, and dignity and freedom from suffering for everyone, just the same.

And so we are called to do the same. We are called to be hands and feet and hearts of God in the world, so we have to erase that empathy gap, and learn to see with God’s eyes, so that every life becomes equally worth caring about. Not just the lives that we find relatable.

We need to learn to look at children so that each child–the cute toddler who looks like your kids at that age, and the one who looks totally different than you–becomes someone to invest in.

We need to see our neighbors in such a way so that everyone shows forth the image of God–the fine upstanding young man you assume is in college somewhere, and the one you think is dressed inappropriately and is blasting his music too loud. Both are children of God. Everyone is a child of God.

We need to see every person–near and far, friendly and not, just like us, and not at all like us–becomes a reflection of God, so that the light of Christ is shining out of their face.

And until we can see people like that, until we can see the world like that, we haven’t truly achieved the call Jesus sets before us,

Amen.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

On Sunday, we played host to the choir from the local Jesuit boys’ high school.  This was fun, because they are a good choir, and it really amuses me to hear people from outside the Anglican tradition sing Anglican choral music.  (It’s  like hearing British actors turn their American accents on and off.  “Ha!  Yes, we do love to pronounce the letter ‘r’!”  “Yes!  We do enjoy 4-part harmonies modelled on the peregrinus tone!  Aren’t you clever for trying!”)

I mention this, because I got the impression, from feedback on my sermon, that the congregation felt the rector and I had concocted some brilliant, crafty plan, to have me preach, and preach specifically on the Blessed Virgin Mary, the better to convince the unsuspecting choir kids that the Episcopal Church was awesome.  Lots of pats on the back, and “I’m so glad they got to hear that from you!”-type responses.

While I find this touching (also hilarious.) , I also think this is  giving us way too much credit.  My aspirations do not extend to converting an entire choir in one fell swoop, and in any case, only about 3 of the kids were willing to receive communion, so clearly, my “secret plan to enlarge the church” needs much work.

But in any case, here’s what I said.

And now, some kids who hadn’t ever heard a woman preach before, have heard one.  So I’ll take that.

 

December 14/15, 2013

Advent 3, Year A

Canticle 15/ Magnificat

 

In the cathedral in Santa Fe, there are two statutes of Mary.  One statue is called La Conquistadora in Spanish,  titled “Our Lady of Peace” in English, which is NOT what that Spanish means.  It’s the statue brought by the Spanish Jesuit monks who came to convert the natives.  Depicted in this statue, Mary is tiny, about 2 feet tall, paler than me, she’s dressed in gorgeous robes, and a real golden crown, ruler of all she surveys.

That statute was brought over by the Jesuits when they came to the New World, and they believed the Blessed Virgin Mary lent her protection to their mission to colonize the natives, and when the local Pueblo Indians rose up in revolt, they believed that it was this version of Mary that allowed them to return, and re-conquer the territory.

The statute is definitely what you might call the traditional school of Mary-stuff.  She’s really calm.  She stands there
 and looks slightly downward, eyes downcast meekly.  She’s wearing white. And she looks childlike, other-worldly, removed from time and space and context.

 

But then, there’s the other statue, on the other side of the cathedral–Our Lady of Guadalupe stands over the other altar.  She looks nothing like the first statue, the earlier one. This Mary looks like an Aztec teenage girl.  She looks fiesty–she’s staring you in the face, making direct eye contact, she’s painted in bright colors, and she’s got her foot defiantly on a snake.  Sun and moon beams coming out from behind her head,  No gold jewelry anywhere near this lady.  She’s wearing the clothing of a peasant, of a native woman, from the time the Spanish first had contact in what is no Mexico.  Very different depictions, both of–apparently! the same person.

 

And granted, I’m reading some things into these statues, but I’d argue that they play into some definite traditions around the Virgin Mary.   Because think of how Mary is usually described, how Mary is usually depicted in our Western world– think of Christmas cards, Christmas carols, for starters. Mary, as we usually see her depicted, is all white and blue and meek and mild.  As she generally is, in our Western Christian American world.  That seems to be the prevailing pop-culture take on the Virgin Mary. She was meek!  She was quiet!  She did not make a fuss!  She’s all white and blue and more than likely blonde!! (Which was definitely it’s own little miracle for a Palestinian Jewish girl, but hey.)

 

And on its own, there’s nothing wrong with any of that.  I’m an introvert myself, and on one notable occasion, the Commission on Ministry described me as ‘meek’.  (It was a mistake, and they took it back.)

 

So there is nothing wrong with any of that!  Those things are good, they are fine attributes–if you actually have them, if you come by them naturally.

 

But we get into trouble when that’s all that Mary is–when we restrict her to that one, white and gold La Conquistadora statue.  Because Mary is so important, because she gets an important role in the gospel narrative, she’s practically the first person we meet, because she gets touted as the ideal faithful person, when all Mary is is that quiet, meek, pale-ish girl in the corner who doesn’t say much, then that can become a problem. Because that does some weird things to faith.

 

Because that is a pretty narrow category to fit into.  Those are some pretty rigid expectations.  And while we need people like that around, holding all people of faith up to that single way of being,  especially up to that single way of being faithful, ends up excluding a lot of people.  Because it turns out, not all people are good at sitting still and benig quiet.  And what, pray tell, are they all supposed to do?  All those of us who have never been quite so good at sitting still, or quietly assenting to things.

 

It matters how we depict things.  It matters how we depict people we hold important in our faith, especially very important figures like Mary and Jesus, because in depicting them, we’re implicitly saying what we think our faith ought to look like.  We look up to Mary because Mary had faith, Mary had faith that she demonstrated when she agreed with this outlandish story Gabriel was telling her.  So it matters how we depict that faith.  It matters how we depict people–and it matters if badly informed news anchors decide that Jesus is white, JUST WHITE, all of a sudden.  That matters, and that is a problem, because it affects what faith looks like.

 

It matters, and IT IS A PROBLEM, if the only depictions out there, or if the dominant depictions out there are of Mary all meek and mild and passive.

So hooray, then, the Song of Mary, which we read today, comes as a great relief.  Because here is Mary saying quite a lot of things actually, all at once, and not sounding the least bit meek or mild.

In fact, most of the Magnificat comes out like fighting words.  He has scattered the proud in their conceit.  He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things, the rich he has sent empty, away.

That’s pretty brave talk.  And that’s AFTER this unwed pregnant teenage girl declares herself to be the most blessed among all generations.  (This is some Beyoncé level swagger, y’all.)

 

This isn’t meek or mild talk, this isn’t the talk of someone who’s primary role in life is to be passive and to obey when told.  This song of Mary is the talk of a prophet.  And in fact, when Mary has her conversation with Gabriel, she doesn’t just say Yes, whatever you say.  What she says is Here I am–the same thing that every prophet in the Jewish tradition says when God calls them. That’s a very specific word in Hebrew, and it’s what Isaiah and Amos and every other prophet says when God calls them to prophesy, and it’s what Mary says to Gabriel:  Here I am, the handmaid of the Lord.  Mary’s accepting her call.

 

Mary’s got backbone.  This Mary, the one we meet in the Magnificat, and the one we meet arguing with her Son to conjure up some more wine at a wedding, and the one who knows what’s going on when no one else does–this Mary is her own person, she has strength, and she has courage.

She doesn’t just get moved around on the chessboard of God’s larger plan.

 

And that’s important.  Because for an icon of faith, to have real faith that makes a difference, you have to have strength.  Faith takes courage.  Faith doesn’t go anywhere, faith doesn’t get off the ground without courage.

 

Think of those proclamations in the song of Mary–the hungry fed, the rich sent away empty, the proud scattered, the lowly lifted up.  To believe in a world like that, to believe a world like that is possible, while standing in the middle of this world, takes courage.  It takes courage to believe that the world could be different.  It takes real strength to see how the world is unjust and to believe that God is working out a better way.

Otherwise, you’d just give up, throw in the towel, and move to a beach somewhere.

 

But Mary’s kind of faith, this brave kind of in-your-face-faith, proclaims that even though the world is broken, and unjust now, God is working out a better way, even as we speak.  And God is calling the most unexpected people to work with him, God is lining up volunteers right now.

 

And so, to take on that call, to join in the work of God, to join in the remaking of the world into that just, good place that God wants it to be, requires bravery.  Requires a brave faith, because faith asks us to step out into the world as it is, and do something to make the world into what it should be. Faith requires us to be like Mary and do our part to help incarnate Christ in the world.

 

And so that’s what we’re called to do.  To be brave.  To be fearless.  To proclaim boldly that God has blessed us mightily and has lifted up the lowly and cast down the haughty and has fed the hungry and sent away the rich.  To be brave enough to go out into the world and give God our hands and our feet, our bodies and our flesh for his use.

 

That’s the faith we need.  And thankfully, that’s the example we have.

 

Amen.