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Revived

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, was in Kansas City over the past few days for a revival.

I realize this sounds highly un-Episcopalian.  As I commented to someone afterwards, I was not raised to worship outside, to sing Jesus songs while clapping, or to raise my hands unless at the altar.  These things were unseemly and altogether too Baptist to be borne.

However, yesterday afternoon found me outside, in a public city square, cheering on a sermon as the head bishop of my church urged us all to get out there and reclaim the word “Christian.”  Will wonders never cease.

I admit to being a cradle Episcopalian with some trepidation–like pandas raised in the wild, we’re increasingly rare, and that’s not a bad thing.  The more the church becomes a refugee camp for those seeking solace from the terrors of the world, then the more it’s doing its job, perhaps.  However, I am a convert to the idea that we actually need to speak openly about our faith in Jesus.  I am a convert to evangelism as being A Thing.

But I have come to realize that we need to attach words to this hope that is in us.  That we need to learn how to explain to others why we care so deeply about faith, because it is, in fact, something they need to hear.  Why is it that my little church devotes so much of its time and energy to an enormous food pantry?  Why did my youngest parishioners show up yesterday morning to eagerly hand silverware to our pantry guests so they could eat a hot meal?  Why do we pray daily for the famine in South Sudan, and write our representatives at the UN, urging them to seek an end to that situation?  Why do we care so much?

For most of my life, I thought it went without saying.  That I did just what anyone would do, if they had time, or thought about it, or slowed down, or something.  Lately, I have realized that this is not true.  I live my life this way–my church acts this way– because I believe this is what Jesus wants of me.  Jesus wants me to feed the hungry.  And to fight for the poor.  And to make sure the sick are cared for.  That’s what Jesus asked of me, and because I love Jesus, I must do that.  Because we follow Jesus, this is what we do.

This isn’t true of everyone.  And by that, I don’t mean that Muslims don’t fight for the poor.  (Boy howdy, do they ever.  I’d like to introduce you to the women who staff KC for Refugees sometime if you’d like to dispute this.) Or that Jewish people don’t worry about the hungry, or that atheists or agnostics don’t worry about the poor.  They all can and frequently do.

What I mean is that there are people who choose to live selfishly.  To live as if their personal lives and wellbeing is the most important thing in the universe, and seek to structure the world around THAT belief, rather than any other.  Let the poor starve; I have enough food.  Let the sick get sicker, my staff and I will have care. And even worse, there are times when these people cloak their selfishness in the name of the Jesus I follow, as if that makes their selfishness more palatable, instead of a grave slander.

What the presiding bishop reminded me (aside from the fact that I really should use this blog for stuff other than sermons) is that we have an important story to tell, we Jesus people.  The world needs to hear that Jesus isn’t a free pass for selfishness and hatred; Jesus wants us to live for others, and to love each other. And that’s just as easy and as hard as it’s always been.

There are times when you need someone to preach to you, so that you remember the truth, and this was one of those times.  So thanks, Bishop Curry.  Let’s go tell our story.

 

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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.

Bonhoeffer, and the death of dualism

I’ve been thinking a lot about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Listening to the tenor of the debate in this country ratchet up and up and up, as politicians call for rounding up and deporting immigrants without papers, registering Muslims in a database, closing mosques, and now, closing the borders to anyone who professes Islam, it is hard not to feel like we’re in a scary time warp.

Bonhoeffer, after all, faced similar problems.  When the Nazis began forcing Jews out of government jobs, schools and other opportunities, Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth wrote the Barmen Confession, upon which the Confessing Church was built.  Bonhoeffer would spend his life articulating the gospel in defiance of a government that was bent on evil and destruction.

The man was a brilliant theologian, and by the end, before he was arrested, he had been forbidden from speaking or publishing anything at all–so afraid of him was the German government.

Bonhoeffer is a good figure to bear in mind these days, I find, not only because we are currently being faced with similar challenges (stay or go?  Speak out or stay quiet?) but because he is so hard to classify in the ways we like to use in the church.

Bp. Dan Martins set up one of these time-worn classification systems recently, and I can’t help but wonder where on earth Bonhoeffer would have fit.  Bp. Martins describes the church as being filled with two sorts of people: those who are progressive, in favor of gay marriage, women’s ordination, and generally have little use for the Prayer Book and its language (these people, he finds, usually have an active dislike of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ), and those who believe steadily in the historic faith once received, the BCP as written, and enjoy Mel Gibson’s Aramaic epic.

The Mel Gibson thread, he argues, is actually the most important one, as these divisions mostly come down to what we believe about Christ–either you believe Christ was a person motivated by love and justice, urging us to do likewise, or you believe that Christ was the incarnate Word of God, through which all may be saved.

 

All right.

First of all, as the theologian of blessed memory Edward Schillebeeckx once said, “Any attempt to introduce a dualism here is the work of pure evil.” **
There really aren’t ever only two types of people.  There are billions of types of people, because there are billions of people.  (Or, if you’d rather, there ARE two types of people–those who believe there are two types of people, and those who realize there aren’t.)
All of which to say, people are complex.  They don’t fit neatly into either one thing or another.  And then, people frequently will change their minds on you, and then you have to reconsider your whole system.

This is actually important, because when you embrace a dualism such as this, you disallow for the possibility of people like Bonhoeffer–people who devoutly believe in the historic creeds of the church, and because of that, strive for justice, freedom, and peace.***

It is a troubling novelty in the last few decades that progressives have consigned orthodox faith to conservatives.  We, undoubtedly, have done a poor job of explaining our positions in theological terms, rather than just ideological ones.  And the tragic outcome of this failure is the common misconception that believing in Jesus’s love means you probably hate someone else.  It is a PR disaster on an epic scale, and you only have to look at the rising number of ‘nones’ to see the results.

It is more than possible to be progressive while embracing orthodox Christianity–indeed, I would even argue that it is necessary.  Taking seriously the Incarnation means that you also must take seriously the value of human existence–this tangled mess that God loved so much as to want to participate in.  To believe in Christ as God implies that you will honor each person as Christ, since God has so honored humanity with his presence.

The Christian story is one that confounds easy dualisms–God speaks alike to men and women, faithful and faithless, the hopeless screw-up, the person who manages all things well, and everyone in between.  When we accept the Christian narrative as normative, then we accept that God uses and speaks through all sorts and conditions of people; that God prizes and intensely loves all sorts and conditions of people.

I am not a feminist, an LGTBQ ally, or a believer that #blacklivesmatter in spite of my Christianity.  I am a feminist, and an ally BECAUSE of my Christianity.  It is my faith that tells me that everyone is important, that everyone matters, and that my call is for the common welfare of all.
** Know who excels at irony?  Theologians.

***It’s positively Hegelian, I tell you.

 

In Which Megan writes an extra sermon by accident

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

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

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

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

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

November 22, 2015

Ordinary Time, Proper 29

John 18

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But love.  

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And Jesus is our only king.  

 

Amen.  

 

 

Requiem

It has been quite busy here in Kansas City. We had clergy conference, diocesan convention, and our little baseball team did pretty well for itself (more on that later.)

Our choir was also asked to join with the choir of St. Mary’s downtown to sing the Faure Requiem in an actual requiem service.  To be nice, the rector of St. Mary’s asked me to assist and preach at the service as well.

Now, our choir is awesome, and basically can do anything they set their minds to.  (For the World Series, they sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in Latin.).  So I wasn’t worried about them.

But, despite my high-church leanings, I have never participated in an outright Anglo-Catholic, please-move-into-the-eastward-facing-formation-now service.   We had to practice.  I had to study my bulletin.  It was a trip.  So much moving around, and facing inward, than outward, and bowing in unison, then talking to yourself, then bowing again!  I could feel myself steadily becoming more Protestant as the experience wore on.

(This never fails–no sooner do I start to feel overly Protestant, then I go to a low-church style event, and feel my inner Catholic look around for some icons and incense.  I’m a good Episcopalian.)

The service, however, turned out beautifully, and as expected, the choirs were great.  (WAY better than my high school choir when we sang that piece.)  I only made one mistake, and didn’t trip over myself.  I even remembered which lectern I was supposed to go to and when!  #winning!

Here’s what I said.

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

November, 5, 2015

Commemoration of the Dead

1 Thessalonians 13

            If you stand in the Old City of Jerusalem, and look towards the Mount of Olives, you will see what looks like a heap of rubble—an entire mountainside gleaming with heaps of broken rocks.  It breaks up the piles of dirty buildings, apartments, churches and mosques, stacked up on each other haphazardly which marks this section of the city—this stretch of shining, bright white.

            I assumed, when I first saw it, that it was like much else in East Jerusalem—another remnant of fighting.  The remains of something important which was no longer, and just hadn’t been cleaned up yet.

            But when I wandered over one day to investigate, I discovered that it was, in fact, an ancient graveyard. It’s the oldest in the city—at least 3,000 years old—with tombstones heaped upon each other so densely that there wasn’t room for anything else.  Any square inch of space was immediately pressed into service for another marker—which is why, from a distance, it looks like a pile of rubble.

People started to use this as a burial ground because it faced the Temple Mount, and according to Jewish thought, when the resurrection from the dead comes, it begins there.  So those buried facing the Temple Mount have front row seats, and are raised first.

So, It’s crowded.  

And, of course, the end-times obsession can be found over here, on our own shores as well.    The Walking Dead, The Last Man on Earth, The Matrix, Left Behind, The Leftovers, Kimmy Schmidt, preppers on TLC, you name it; countless TV shows, movies and books—all having to do with what happens when the world ends—either by zombie attack, or act of God.  I went to the Royals parade and rally on Tuesday with apparently, the entire population of the metro area, and as a big stream of us walked across the Broadway bridge, effectively shutting down traffic, a kid behind me marveled that it was like the world had ended.

Not that the city had momentarily stopped, not that we had done something cool—“hey, it’s like the apocalypse is here.”

We’re obsessed.  And so, it matters what we believe about the end.  It matters where our beliefs come from.  Because, as you no doubt have noticed from watching the Middle East conflicts for millennia—elbows get thrown over stuff like this.  It matters.

Much of what floats around in the American air right now is actually derived from this 1 Thessalonians text.  A guy in Scotland, named James Francis Darby was reading this passage in the mid 1800s and decided to divorce it from its surrounding verses and interpreted it in a new way.  He used it to describe an event he termed The Rapture, where those alive whom Christ deemed worthy would be physically lifted up into the air to be saved from the coming devastation when Christ returned to destroy the unworthy.

It did not catch on.  But it soon travelled across the pond, and became really popular here—because there is nothing America likes better than when something or someone gets devastated.  Darby invented the whole “Rapture” thing, and it’s entirely based on this one verse in 1 Thessalonians.

WHICH IS NOT AT ALL WHAT PAUL IS TALKING ABOUT.  (As you could probably already tell, using those helpful skills you learned in elementary school known as context-clues.)

Paul is writing to the community at Thessalonica—a city in what is now Turkey.  This community was faced with a growing problem that was causing a lot of distress—its members were dying.  Not necessarily from Roman persecutions, though there was probably some of that going on, but also from normal stuff like sickness, and old age, and the things people die from.  And the church was left wondering if that meant God had forgotten those people.  Maybe they would get left out when Jesus came back.  Maybe these people, their friends and family whom they loved, would get left behind.  Maybe something was wrong with them, so that’s why God had let this happen.

So Paul writes this to them, to reassure them.  To let them know that no one is getting left out.  In fact, God is going to work a new thing, and somehow save EVERYONE—even those who have already died.  Because God’s salvation extends even into the depths of the grave, even into death itself.  And no one is out of reach.

It is, perhaps, a testimony to how insidious the human urge to divide is, that in our times, we have taken this message of hope and turned it into a message of desolation and threat.  Instead of magnifying the good news here, somehow, we got it turned around and made it more of what surrounds us everyday.  More threat and fear and destruction–the rubble we live in daily.

That’s the stuff we’re already acquainted with, it’s the things that make up our world–and perhaps it’s because we’re so well-acquainted with it that we ascribe it to God as well.  We have become so used to being surrounded by these things, to living in rubble, that we begin to believe that it was God who did the destroying in the first place.

Yet Paul reminds us that we have it the wrong way around.  God didn’t make this mess–we have.   God doesn’t want to destroy creation–that’s us, with our weapons, and wars and disregard for the earth.  God doesn’t want to wipe out humanity–that’s our game, in our calculated collateral damage and our insistence that some are just more human than others.God doesn’t want us to overcome our material bodies–that’s our fear, with our constant overwork, and our disregard for our own health.  

But the truth is–God cares deeply for this world.  God has no wish to threaten or destroy us.  Instead, God works through our very rubble to recreate what is, into what God wills it to be.  Every bit of this present brokenness.  All of it–all of our grief, our sadness, our anger, our hurt–God works, bears it with us, through it to bring about the healing of this entire creation.  It is out of the rubble of this world that God brings about redemption.  

Because there is nothing, no brokenness that we can dish out, no hardship that we can imagine, no rubble so great, that God in Christ will not accompany us through.  Not even death itself.  

And so, we can stand at the very center of our rubble, and the edge of the grave, and be confident in the love of Christ, enough to make our song:  “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia”

Amen.

Christ is risen; the elevator is broken

One thing I learned from my mother, the hospice nurse, is that chaos never goes it alone.  Chaos is seasonal, and the full moon has that reputation for a reason.  Ask any emergency room nurse (ignore the ER doctors–they’re sweet, but only the nurses know what’s actually going on.)–nothing brings out the chaos and the outright weirdness like a full moon.  Or the holiday season.

In the church, the same is true.  Is it Christmas?  Batten the hatches–the boiler will probably die.  Is the bishop about to visit?  Then your alb, which you always put back in the same place every time, will mysteriously vanish on you.  Is it Holy Week?  Then the copier will most certainly give up the ghost, just as you must print All The Bulletins in 2 days.  And at least one parishioner will probably need a funeral by the time Easter-week is out.

People new to working in the church are unprepared for this phenomenon.  Perhaps because it has few parallels (outside of a MASH unit, and there are few carryovers from the church to a MASH unit).  A friend of mine was lamenting to me that he had plans for such an organized Holy Week–bulletins all printed 2 weeks ahead, services all planned, everything all finished–only to discover that the day before Maundy Thursday, the rector wanted to change the order of something. Cue the usual mad panic.

I’ve been working in churches now, in one way or another, for about 14 years.  Here is what I’ve learned:

All Holy Weeks are stressful.  All of them are chaotic.  All of them will go sideways at one point or another.  People, for whatever deep, primal reason, go through transition around these times.

You cannot prevent the chaos, you can only survive it.

And really, that’s pretty much the case for ministry in the Church as a whole.  It’d be great if the Church could be predictable, if it could always act like it’s supposed to and hold to its boundaries and always conduct itself like a community of spiritually and emotionally mature adults.

It, however, doesn’t do that.  And instead we’re left with what we have:  an institution full of fallible people.  People who frequently panic, and confuse brick walls for tunnels, and act out and reverse themselves, and fall apart, and do everything except what the gospel calls us to.

However, that’s also the glory of ministry.  I, for one, have little interest in a predictable church, or a church where people always have things figured out.**  I want the church to continue to be a haven for the confused, the restless, the broken, and the disenchanted.   Church works best as a refugee camp, not as a country club.

To that point–St. Paul’s Holy Week started off a bit early, when a parishioner died suddenly and we hosted his (large.  complex.) funeral.  Everyone from all over Kansas City came.  The choir he founded sang.  The three foundations he started collected donations.  The Roman Catholic priest his family insisted on led the rosary the night before, Fr. Stan and I did the service, and an ELCA pastor did the committal at the graveside.   It was a gorgeous service, and went off beautifully, but behind the scenes, from a logistics standpoint, it was a waking anxiety dream.  (Literally.  The mayor and his entourage walked into the packed, standing room only church just as the opening hymn was starting.  I HAVE NIGHTMARES ABOUT THIS.)

But what made me happiest was not when the deceased’s partner commented to us that it was the service he would have loved, and it wasn’t when wave after wave of Catholic Kansas Citians came up to receive communion from me.  It was when I ran downstairs to stick a sign on our decrepit elevator declaring it broken.  Our usher for the day greeted me, “Ok, Megan!  I got it!”

It was Jack.  Who started coming to our parish when he was sleeping on our front steps last summer, and now works in the food pantry, was baptized on Sunday, and is the proudest church usher in the history of ushers.

Who better to welcome the elite of Kansas City into the church than Jack?

Welcome to our messy camp here, friend.  We got you.

 

**Full disclosure: I have to repeat this to myself each time the church makes me angry.  Which is often.

 

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.