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Wear heels. Dig them in.

Two weeks ago, I got an email from our campus Roman Catholic ministry inviting me to their weekly speaker series.  This week, they were hosting a speaker from San Diego, a woman who had started her own affiliate of the National Organization for Marriage.  She would be speaking on “Re-defining Marriage: How Same-Sex Marriage threatens Religious Liberty for all of us.” *

Oh joy.
My immediate reaction was confusion.  The Lutherans, and the United Christian Ministry were also invited, and all of us had had the “come to Jesus” conversation of progressive Christians with the other Christian ministries on campus over the summer.  This boiled down to:  Lookit!  Be nice to the gay kids, and if you find that you can’t pull this off, then send them to us, and we’ll do it for you, and save face for you.  If you can’t one of the Allies, then at least be Switzerland, for crying out loud.
But, clearly, the Catholics were not being all Swiss about this issue this week.  So what was I called to do in this moment?
There’s a case to be made for staying away. I could plead ecumenical unity, I could listen to the voice of my Paranoid!Bishop in my ear, asking why I was stirring up things again**, I could point out that it’s not like the Catholics had ever done anything to me personally (lately), and we’re all the church, and the church should stick together!
And sure.  Ecumenical unity is fine (though long gone) as is avoiding any theoretical confrontation with the bishop.  They are perfectly nice sorts of things.
But right now, the sorts of things this woman was saying is passing as mainstream Christian thought in much of the country, and I have not elected her my spokesperson.
So I went.
I went, and I sat towards the back in my collar, and my “I’m wearing a grown-up, respectable suit!” suit, and heels. (I had been invited, after all.)  I informed my students of what was happening, and asked if they wanted to join me.  Because they are uniformly awesome, they turned out in force, and asked if they could make t-shirts for the occasion.
I sat in the back and listened quietly and peaceably, while taking incredibly sarcastic notes.  The speaker basically achieved the perfect storm of right-wing social theory.  Marriage is for the sole purpose of creating and nurturing children.  Biological ties only create a family, and these ties cannot and should not be broken.  (This really surprised me–I don’t believe I’ve ever heard someone advocate against adoption the way she did, although she allowed it in ‘special circumstances.’)  Birth control is evil, as is gender neutral language, economic equality between the sexes, and the ‘blurring of gender roles.’  The Obama Administration is apparently out to get religious people, in its requirement that everyone (except churches and other religious institutions) have to provide birth control coverage to employees cost-free.  (The nerve!  Asking women to decide for themselves whether to purchase it or not!)
So she was very thorough.  She even threw in a condemnation of the estate tax (because I think it’s a rule at this point for speaking publicly as a conservative.)
But then came the Q&A.
The questions were pretty benign.  There was really mild pushback from the students, but none that she appeared to hear.
Then I got the mike.
I pointed out that really, her main problem seemed to be with the Kim Kardashians and the Britney Spears of the world: straight people who were extremely bad at marriage.  People who abused their kids and each other, people who were trapped in the cycle of addiction, people who were unfaithful, people who were unable or unwilling to be good parents, people who got married in elaborate weddings then divorced 72 days later, etc.
And none of those things applied to the committed gay couples I knew, people who were lined up, knocking down the doors of my church, asking to make public vows of fidelity and love to each other–the sort of thing my church preached was the sacramental self-sacrificial love that marriage signified.
And since that was the case, then why on earth not encourage these people to get married?
Well, she said, looking stormy.  Marriage isn’t about love.  It’s about children.  There are lots of different sorts of love, and lots of different sorts of relationships, but marriage is about producing and caring for children.
(……..Honestly.  I got nothing.)
That’s pretty much where it ended.
After it was over, several students unaffiliated with Canterbury came up to me and said how glad they were that I had asked my question.  The Catholic priest at the Newman Center came over, and said he was glad I had spoken up.  “I was waiting for someone to introduce the concept of real people into her speech.”
No kidding.
Theology always, ALWAYS involves real people.  Theology is never without consequences, and never exists in a bubble.
Stand in public, and proclaim that “marriage is about children, and not love” and immediately, you have sent the message that people who cannot have children, or choose not to, are not really married.
Stand up and say that biology, and not the courts, create a family, and now you’ve started casting doubt on the legitimacy of people who were adopted.  (Which, really, for a conservative Catholic– is quite a mind bender.)
And each time you say stuff like that, you’ve told people that there is something wrong with them.  You’ve told them that for some reason they may not be able to control, God is angry with them. God is seriously displeased with huge swaths of the population. “Horrible people!” God evidently says “Why can’t they live up to these impossible and unachievable standards that exist out here in the ether?”
By virtue of the Incarnation, if there is one thing in the cosmos God is concerned about, it’s actual people.  Not theories, not pretty dreams about what people should be, but actual, honest-to-Jesus, people.  People as they lived, and died, and celebrated and suffered.
Jesus called actual people to be disciples.  Peter, if you’ll note, was a complete doofus, albeit well-meaning, for much of his life.  Paul contradicted himself enough to rival a pretzel.  There were enough rough-and-tumble arguments in the nascent church to bring succor to the current watchers of the HoB/D listserv and England’s General Synod.  I’m not even going to go into the rumors and issues around the women Jesus hung around with.
The point is, he hung around with people.  Actual people.
His teaching served them; people weren’t meant to serve it.  (Wait, that sounds awfully familiar.)
The Spirit works through people.  Woe betide us when we stop paying attention.
*I’m not linking to her site.  You can Google “The Ruth Institute” if you want, but I’m not inclined to give this lady any more site views than she already has.  Aside from the many (MANY) issues I have with her espoused (ha!) policy positions, the irony is more than I can stand.  Their logo is virtually identical to that of Greendale Community College, of “Community” fame.  Really, I’ve not entirely written off the notion that we were all being punked.
**This is a song in my head now.  It is sung to the tune of “You’re making things up again, Arnold” from “The Book of Mormon.”  It is very catchy.  And features hobbits.  And Yoda.

Tebowing the Bible

I don’t follow football, or any sport, really, with the occasional exception for college basketball or the Olympics.  (This, and a specific disregard for the Phillies and the Eagles makes my parents wonder if I was switched at birth.)

Tim Tebow, circa high school, I think
However, even I have heard of Tim Tebow.  Tim Tebow, who plays for the Denver Broncos, who played for Florida in college, and who makes a habit of mentioning his devout Christian faith repeatedly during every interview.
It’s not the football, so much that attracts my attention as it is the last bit.  It’s the conflation of Tebow’s faith and his football that has gotten people’s attention, so much so that “Tebow-ing’ is now a thing–a new word to describe his habit of dropping to one knee in a prayerful pose of gratitude when he scores a touchdown.  (Which is awesome, because we needed a neologism for genuflecting.  Thanks, guy!)
When he was in college, Tebow had a habit of inscribing Bible citations in his eye black–that stuff football players smear under their eyes.  John 3:16 was his favorite.
And this got me thinking.  John 3:16 is an insanely popular one-off verse to cite.  You want a Christian pop-culture slogan or a 2 second TV ad, a specialized handshake to assure the members of your crowd that you’re ‘one of them’ then dropping the 3:16 bomb is the way to go.
But is it the best one?
John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever should believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  Bam.
Well, ok. That’s pretty good!  It’s short, it’s pithy, it’s to the point.  Strong language, no passive voice.  (Well, it’s translated from some pretty fancy Greek, which does use the aorist tense, but we’ll gloss that for now.)
But, because I like to deconstruct things (I have a ‘Team Derrida’ t-shirt, and if you got that joke, I’m going to buy you a commiserating cup of coffee.*) I have some questions.
Mainly, is John 3:16 the best verse?
Because, ok, God loved the world, that’s a good message right there.  But if I’m a newbie (and let’s assume I am, because this is who messages in eyeblack are aiming at, right?), then how am I to understand the rest of this verse?
  • I don’t know what ‘only-begotten’ means.
  • Does ‘everlasting life’ mean literal ‘you-never-die’, or something metaphorical?  (Because that actually does matter. And should be discussed/explained.)
  • And how do I believe in him?  (also, which him are we talking about?)
  • Do I believe in the historical reality of Jesus, or something more specific, and if the latter, then what, specifically?
  • And, the verse says nothing about what I should do, in the next moment.  Nothing about how I should treat the woman sitting at the desk beside mine, or the guy sitting on the sidewalk outside the door, or the kid wandering down the street, who stole my GPS last year.  None of that is addressed.
I’m just told to believe in a guy, and live forever.  I’m not told what to do about the people around me, the problems I have now, or anything else.  Hmmm.
So, is there another option for Primary Christian Slogan Verse?  Because this one seems confusing and incomplete.
Here are some options I came up with.  Now I’m just spitballing here, so bear with me.
1. Micah 6:8 “He has told you, O Mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
  • Good, pithy, strong verbs, etc.  Covers the ‘here’s what you do!’ aspect well.  But the question format might leave some doubt as to the fact that, in fact, God does want you to do the justice, kindness, humble-walking bit.
2. 1 John 4:21 “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
  • In reality, I’d nominate all of ch.4 in 1 John, mainly because it goes on at length about God=love. (Seriously.  Read 1 John, whilst skipping over the bit about the antichrist.) But entire chapters of the Bible, especially of Johannine epistles, are not pithy.
3. The entirety of Romans 8
  • Again, brevity is a problem here.  But it’s just so good…..
Any other suggestions?
Or…. is it just possible that Christianity doesn’t fit easily into a slogan?  Is it possible that it’s something that requires a conversation, a relationship, an entire lifetime to explain even close to properly?
*At which, we can discuss why Derrida would probably not have a team, so much as a collection, a smorgasbord of people, a gathering, per se, because a team would still need to be interrogated further, their motives taken apart.  “Why are they there?  Who is on this team?  Who is not on this team?  What prevents them from being there, and why?”  
Possibly, the coffee should be switched to decaf.

Hail Mary, kick some butt.

So, admittedly, I stretched the lectionary a bit here. But in my opinion, right now we could all do with two weeks together of contemplating the Magnificat. For it is awesome. As a summary of the gospel, you cannot do much better than that.
(Also, there be pictures in this sermon!).
So here:

Rev. Megan L. Castellan
December 11, 2011
Advent 3
John 1, Magnificat

All religious figures eventually develop schizophrenia. It’s quite unfortunate, but it’s a common side effect of being venerated by humans for any length of time whatsoever. Jesus Christ becomes simultaneously the figure of meek and passively love for the world, and the avenging Judge of the World, Complete WITH flaming Sword action. God becomes the all-merciful, all-compassionate, all-loving source of Endless Creativity in the Universe, and also the Gigantic Wrathful Parental Figure in the Sky who is about to send you straight to hell without supper or $200. It’s rough.

And then there’s Mary. Ah, Mary, full of projections.

If you listen to most (western, old-school) depictions of Mary, she is pretty straight-forward. Mary is meek! Quiet! Passive! Excellent at taking directions! Her claim to fame is saying ‘yes’ when an angel appeared out of the literal blue and said, “Excellent news, unwed teenage girl! You are pregnant! Sound good?” (Reading between the lines, here, Mary is also none too bright.).

She is depicted in lovely (non-threatening, very flattering) shades of blue, and pink. And she’s always paler than me. Which, to put it in perspective, makes it look usually like she’s about to die tragically in the final stages of some medieval opera of consumption– not raise a healthy Galilean kid. Extra points if she’s got blonde hair, or hair paler than mine. Double points if her eyes are blue.

Turns out, I have some problems with this Mary.

Hyperdulia (great word! Look it up!) or the elevation of the mother of Christ above other saints is something I came late to. And it was because of this version of Mary. I couldn’t understand her. She wasn’t compelling. I’ve never been able to pull off meek and mild– how am i supposed to relate to her? Yet I sat in church, and saw popular piety instruct me that I really should be like her.

Then,bored, in college, as you do, I reread the Gospel of Luke. And realized that Mary in the story of the Annunciation, was almost unrecognizable to me. The Mary who emerged wasn’t the meek and assenting milquetoast of old sermons– she was that girl from the Tanner painting– she who stares at the column of light as if God is playing a really uncomfortable trick on her, and had best be explaining himself, because what the heck, YHWH?

behold, the painting!

Her response to the angel isn’t “Of course!” Her response is “how can this be?”. In other words, “check your facts, you angelic loon.”. She’s not blindly assenting, she questions the crap out of that guy. THEN and only Then, does she agree, but when she does, she doesn’t just say Yeah, ok. It’s a conditional assent– let it be to me according to your word. This is not an “anything goes, you’re the boss,” sort of assent. The deal has been explained satisfactorily, and Mary is agreeing to its terms. (How are you, first century agency?)
And THEN. Then, Mary launches into the most kick-ass, non-meek section of scripture that there freaking is. She goes to visit Elizabeth, and in greeting, sings the Magnificat.
And spoiler alert, in so doing, she pretty much sums up the entirety of the gospel message. What Jesus will get tossed out of the synagogue for saying in his first sermon, Mary lets loose with right here.

He has looked with favor on his lowly handmaid, from this day forth all generations shall call me blessed. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts– He has shown strength with his arm, he has cast down the mighty from their seat, and has exalted the humble and weak, he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.

This is not meek language, this isn’t a submissive speech. This Mary isn’t sitting quietly in a corner, waiting for God to tell her what’s going to happen next– she’s boldly proclaiming her experience of a world flipped upside down, and her central role in it.
Right here, this is where this version of Mary takes form. Not so much the cardboard figure of purity, but the complex icon of what it means to be a human, interacting with God.

Mary is us, complexity and all. Being confused by God, being delighted by God, being frustrated by God, wishing God would stop already with the annoying little parables and just say something straight out like a normal person…Mary is the human caught up in the dance of divinity, with all the emotions, joys, and struggles that come along with it.

And as we watch Mary’s journey through the gospel, God is ok with full range emotions, Jesus is ok with normal humans. God chose the lowly, the normal, the talkative teenage girls– not the precious moments figurines. (why make her into what she isn’t, what we can’t be?). God used her as she was. God needs us as we are. Not as what someone else tells us we should be. But just as we are, in all our human complexity.

And the intriguing thing about Mary is that despite our constant tendency to shrink her down to size, when she appears in visions, it’s in the terms of those she appears to. To Bernadette at Lourdes, Mary appeared as a French teenager. To Juan Diego at Guadalupe, she appeared as an Aztec princess.

Because really? The example of Mary remains true– God doesn’t need Precious Moments figurines, or marionettes. God needs us. The angel informs Mary “With God, all things are possible”. In other words, you’re in this too, kid. Just as you are.

So hail Mary, full of grace and spunk. And teach us to sing along with you, as best we can. Amen.

This sermon was partly inspired by a series of icons by Br. Robert Lentz OFM, like this one. In Latin American liberation theology, oddly, Mary is often overlooked, despite the widespread devotion to her there. If I ever write a PhD dissertation, it will be on this. Anyway! This icon! Mary as the Mother of the Disappeared–Those taken by the death squads in the 1970s..



My God can evidently beat up your God

This past week, the governor of Texas released a television ad which revealed some startling and disturbing news:  children can no longer celebrate Christmas openly.

I’m glad he informed me of this, as I was all set to proceed as normal with Advent 3 and Advent 4, before celebrating my merry little way into Christmas Eve and Christmas 1.  (Possibly I might go nuts and break loose with the Feast of the Holy Name.  Who knows?  I’m unpredictable!)  But thank God for you, Rick Perry!  Who knows what horrors might have befallen me had I proceeded?  Fire from the sky, locusts, plagues, mass chaos, cats befriending dogs, etc, etc.  (Also, suddenly my schedule just opened way up.  Drinks, anyone?)
Is it possible Rick Perry is the Grinch and I have failed to notice up til now?
(A more pressing question: please God, does this make Rick Santorum Max the dog?  Because that would explain so. very. much.)
It’s possible that this has escaped Rick Perry’s notice til now, but there do exist people who choose to either not celebrate Christmas, or to celebrate it differently than he does.  (The same goes for Easter, actually.  Also, Maundy Thursday.  Seriously, Newt Gingrich, anytime you want to spearhead a Catholic-politician movement to widen the federal recognition of such an important religious holiday as Maundy Thursday, bring it on.)
So people celebrate it differently.  Or don’t celebrate it.  And in the mind of Rick Perry, Bill O’Reilly, etc, this creates a war on Christmas.  This is puzzling.  Do holiday trees invalidate the birth of Christ?  Does saying ‘Season’s Greetings!” one too many times cancel out the Incarnation?
What sort of flimsy, wishy-washy Christmas is that?
Once God breaks into creation, God doesn’t drift back out again, like Casper the Highly-Suggestible-and-Holy Ghost.  You can’t take the Christ out of Christmas.
Christ is in this thing permanently.
Which, if you ask me, is sort of the whole point.

And one returned

In the ordination vows, as all ordained folk know, there exists an infamous line: “you are to carry out all other duties that may be assigned to you from time to time.”  It’s in the Examination, during the Ordination of a Deacon, and, since ordination is an indelible mark, promises made here are boom!  Permanent!  It is an unassuming little promise, but as aged ordained folks will tell you, this is the promise where They Get You.  This is the promise that ends, five years later, with once-chipper-young ordinand fixing the plumbing in all 5 of the church’s bathrooms and wondering what on earth happened?

That’s the less-fun scenario.  That’s the story told by grizzled elders who, more than likely, did not go on CREDO retreats or pay attention in Fresh Start, so they did not take their most important Day Off.
The more-fun scenarios are ones like I’ve had:  improvising a funeral for a dearly-departed dead bird (RIP Davey).  Unpacking the theological significance of ‘Arrested Development’.  Being given a cat as a thank-you by a parish.
And the most rewarding of all: Periodically I get to be Official Church Presence at something.
This past week was Coming Out Week at NAU.  For the first time at NAU, the university also has an Office of GLBTQ Affairs to coordinate said week, and its activities.  (Give thanks, all readers.  Our president presumably saw a calendar, noticed it was 2011, and decided to Get somewhat With It.)  Two of my colleagues and I noticed this development with glee, and asked nicely if we could do something having to do with inclusive Christianity.  (For such a thing exists, don’t you know.)
The result was a brown-bag discussion this past Thursday, on churches that took an inclusive view of the GLBTQ community.  One of my colleagues had an emergency at the last minute, and couldn’t come, leaving me and my Lutheran colleague to hold down the fort.
I made cookies, and wore my collar, and heels.  (Because when you want to convince people that God does, in fact, love them, you should wear proof that someone thinks you capable to opine for God on occasion, and bring proof that someone loves them enough to bake them Diabetes in Disk-form.)
We expected that we’d get maybe 6 people.  We got over 20.  All talking, all engaged.  We talked for over an hour and a half.  Everything from “how do you approach that verse in Romans?”  to “how do you counteract the media image of Christians as Westboro Baptist?” It was an extremely thoughtful and earnest group of college students.
I didn’t say anything earth-shattering.  However, I did get to be the one to sit there in a collar, and say, “Hi!  I, as an Official Christian-type Person, would like to tell you that the church I represent does not believe that you are going to hell.  We believe strongly, in fact, that God loves you just as much as anyone else, and that happens to be quite a lot.  God actually created you just as you are, intentionally!   And if I am the first person to tell you this about God, then I’d sort of like to stomp on the former religious leaders in your life with the high-heeled shoes I have worn specifically for this purpose.”***
After it was over, and I was packing up the left over cookies, one girl stayed behind.  She came up to me and my Lutheran colleague and thanked us, “You’ve entirely changed my image of the church,” she said, “All I’ve heard before this was negativity and hate.  I didn’t think I would find a place that would accept me, but I heard something different today.  So I wanted to say thank you.”
Sometimes my job is complicated–budgets and funding sources and pastoral care issues and family systems theory.
Sometimes it is just simply awesome.
This was one of the simply awesome days.
***I DID NOT ACTUALLY SAY THESE THINGS.  I used other words.  And I did NOT threaten physical violence, to which I am opposed quite passionately.  PLEASE don’t actually stomp on people with high heels on.  I don’t advise it, no matter how whacked-out their theology may be.