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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.

Christ the King

And behold!  We’re at the end of the year, and Christ the King Sunday.

Here’s what I said.

Christ the King Sunday is an odd duck in the Christian calendar.  It’s sort of like Trinity Sunday—It proclaims an idea, and a good one at that—the idea that Christ is king, that Christ is in charge and is more important than ANYTHING ELSE and ANYONE ELSE on earth.

It’s a good idea.  It’s a good doctrine. 

It’s such a good idea that by now, it trips off the tongue, as it has for over two thousand years, and we say it so fast—“Christ is the King.” 

We name churches after it, schools after it.  It sounds like the name of any midsize hotel chain in the world. 

“Jesus is Lord.”  “Jesus is the Lord.”  We say it without a second thought, and it doesn’t strike anyone really, as ground breaking or earth shattering at this point, because why would it?

We say it so much, it’s lost its punch.  Its jolt, its offensive quality that it had at one time.  Christ, the king.  Jesus the Caesar.

Because it was, at one time, deeply offensive.  It got you in arguments, it got you thrown out of respectable places, it even got you killed. 

This is what Jesus was killed for, after all.  Jesus was killed for this, right here.  Jesus didn’t die, in a strictly earthly, practical sense, because he told folks to love each other (Recall, please, Hallmark gets away with that and makes much money.)

Jesus was killed in a very practical sense, because he was given a title reserved for Caesar.  Jesus was killed because he dared, and his followers continued to be killed because they dared, to publicly question the power of Rome.   

When the first Christians said out loud “Jesus is king” they were killed, because they were also saying that Caesar was not.  And that was betrayal.  That was treason.   You could do a lot of things in Rome—you can’t swear loyalty to another king. 

But then something changed. 

Constantine, even yet himself a Roman emperor, converted, and Christianity came out of the shadows, and into the halls of power. 

And suddenly, the script changed.  Suddenly, Christ wasn’t replacing the king—now, the king himself was invoking the power of Christ too.  All of a sudden, this idea of the divine right of kings floats onto the scene, and now everything’s different. 

Now you’ve got kings and governments and statuses quo everywhere claiming that they have their power because of God, and it’s a very different argument from what you had before.

After the rise of Constantine, you’ve got a whole line of people lining up, who when someone says “Christ is king” they raise their hand and chime in “So I am too.”  Because if Christ is the king, if Christ is in charge, well, Hey, I’m on Jesus’s good side, so hey, I’m IN CHARGE TOO!  Back off haters!

This is not a statement you get martyred for—but this is a statement that starts crusades. 

It is a totally different script— It’s actually from that script that we get this feast day as a feast day. 

Because it was only when the Roman Empire, which ruled the known world, shrank down into the Holy Roman Empire, which ruled half of Europe,, and then shrank into the tinier Papal states, which ruled some of Italy, that the Pope realized he was losing the power he once had, so in the mid 19th century he established this feast.  Because he felt the need to remind the world that his boss was still the real king, and therefore, so was he.  Even no current political map illustrated this with quite the flair the pope would have wished.

That’s what’s crept in when we speak of Jesus as Lord—visions of armies, thrones, governments, law and order, and power, and might, and all of the same systems that we repeat over and over today with our own systems of government.  We sculpt them over again, and we hand them to Jesus, and we imagine that he is like us, as the Psalm says. 

Yet look at the gospel.  (When in doubt, look at the gospel)

When the Son of Man comes in all his glory,he does not come with armies, and military might on display. Instead, he aligns himself with the poorest, the weakest, the least, and the oppressed.  He comes as the most un-kingly person in creation.   Jesus-as-king does not appear as our earthly systems embody kings.  Jesus does kingship entirely differently.

And that means that when we declare Jesus’s kingship IS radical.  It IS groundbreaking, it IS startling.  When Jesus is king, the status quo gets upended.  When Jesus is king, a whole lot of things that we like an awful lot get shifted into second place. 

When Jesus is king, your wealth is not.  If Jesus is king, your privilege is not either.  Neither is your intelligence. or how nice you were, or even how much you miraculously managed to get done this week, or last month.  But, if Jesus is king, then what matters is not these things, but how much you cared for the poor, the sick, the marginalized, and those who have been cast off and set aside. What matters is the justice, love, and mercy you show in your life.  And not any of the things we are used to thinking of as so important. 

Because we can elevate other things.  And we do, every day.  But these empty kings we have, of fear, anxiety, pride, control, —they are not going to save us.  We can buy all the weapons we want, we can arm ourselves to the teeth, we can stand all the armies up and stare at each other til Jesus comes home, and we will not have a moment’s more peace.

(All you need to do to figure this out is look across at Ferguson and watch the governor and the mayor turn a city into a militarized ghost town for days over something that hasn’t even happened and may not even happen, all because they’re terrified.) 

What DOES give us a path out, is this different sort of king, with an inverted kingdom. Who draws us near as a shepherd draws in the sheep, and asks us to choose a different and unfamiliar way. We just have to follow.

Gospel according to Tree

This story about Tree** did happen in this exact way, and I’ve always wanted to get it into a sermon.  However, the exact language he used is…colorful.  In a PG-13 sense.  And I never managed it before now.

So, hooray for Tree.  May you be safe, happy, and continue to bless others as you blessed me that day.

Sermon for October 25-26

Poem by Hafiz—sufi poet in middle ages

Man goes to Hafiz because he’s been having this marvelous visions and he wants to find out if they’re divine or not

Hafiz listens to the man go on and on about these visions, listens very closely.

then he asks—how many kids do you have? 

Man is confused. 

Hafiz asks—how do you treat your wife?  Are you kind to animals?  Do you have many friends?  Do you give to the poor?  Are you fair to all you meet? 

Hafiz keeps pestering him with questions, until the man blows up at him—Look, I came here to ask you about these visions I was having, not so you could interrogate me about my life.

Hafiz replied:  You asked me if these visions were true, if they came from God.  And I’d say that they were, if they made you more human.  If they made you kinder to every living thing you met.

That’s not unlike what is occurring in the gospel today—

in a rare break in the arguing, the gathered together lawyers and Pharisees come to ask Jesus some questions, because they’re impressed he’s gotten their rival political faction to be quiet. 

So they ask him to sum up the law to its most essential point—boil it down to its cliff notes version.  Just the facts.

Jesus says:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.

Everything else is based on these two.”

Now here’s the thing—-

THEY KNEW THIS.

They knew this, of course they knew this.  Rabbinical writer Hillel says “There is no greater law than this: Love the Lord your God with all your heard, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself—the rest of the Torah is commentary.” 

What’s more—it’s in Deuteronomy.  And it’s in Leviticus.  Jesus does a lot of smart things, and he pulls a lot of stuff out of his own Messianic brain, but this is not one of them. 

Everyone he was speaking to that day knew perfectly well what the greatest commandment was—this was hardly a revelation. This wasn’t news—that’s part of why it was a test. 

But what they wanted was a different answer.

They wanted Jesus to make it easier for them.  They wanted Jesus to tell them how to shrink down this requirement so it wasn’t so hard, so they could find some loophole somewhere, because this is HARD.

I used to lead a bible study in NYC for the guests at the feeding program at the church where I worked during seminary.  One day I had a guy join us who was new.  He gave his name as “Tree”—which he confirmed wasn’t his real name, but he also confided that he couldn’t give me his real name or I might be in danger too.  So I decided that he was off whatever meds he needed to be on.

This was the passage we were supposed to discuss, and as we read this part about loving your neighbor as yourself, Tree suddenly threw his Bible to the ground, put his head in his hands and exclaimed —and this is edited for use in church—“GEEZ, That’s hard!  I mean, I thought serving out my bid at Riker’s was rough, but man, that’s some tough stuff right there.  I couldn’t do it.  I just couldn’t do it.  Man.  Tough stuff.”

I nodded mutely, and said ‘Indeed, Tree!  It is indeed difficult!” 

It is hard.  What stuns the Pharisees here is less that Jesus gives them a new answer (he doesn’t) but that he doesn’t shy away from the one they know is the right one. 

Yet even as we know what the answer is, what we have to do, we struggle, bc it’s hard, Because the world is big, and people aren’t so loveable, and so we look for an easier way.  We look for loopholes.  for watered down answers.  For limits. 

How about if I exclude them?  How about if vengeance is ok?  How about if violence is acceptable if I don’t really mean it or hate really was called for or if I say it was only a joke so you should lighten up? 

We look for people it’s ok to not care so much about, since caring gets exhausting after a while.  For people who mightnotreallybepeopleafterall, so let’s only really panic about ebola when it gets into our country.

There aren’t any loopholes.  There aren’t any watered down answers.  This is hard.    

Love God.  Love your neighbor.  When you can’t manage it, God forgives you, and you try again.

Everything else flows from that. 

Amen.

**probably not his real name, but I’ve seen stranger things, so who knows.

Durkheim’s time has come

I don’t recall what was happening around the time this sermon was preached, but I do recall that my rector was very happy that someone besides him referenced Emile Durkeim in a sermon.

To wit:

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

October 11-12, 2014

Ordinary Time, Proper 23, Year A

Exodus 32:1-14

So no one really knows what religion is. 

Given that we’re sitting in a church right now, that might surprise you.  But ever since people started studying this stuff as a discrete phenomenon back in the 1800s, no one has been able to decide on a single definition of ‘Religion’ as a thing that would both include something like Buddhism and exclude something like baseball. 

And it’s not for lack of trying. 

Scholars in the academy have been arguing back and forth about this, and spilling a lot of ink to try to save ‘religion’ from the fate of other “I know it when I see it” things and one of these was Emile Durkheim, who came up with the functionalism theory of religion. 

His pet theory of religion was as follows—and this is the radically oversimplified version:

He thought that people tended to band together in groups, or tribes.  And one way each group projected their group identity in the form of religion.  Every group had their own system of gods, which then was used to justify and approve the decisions of the group—like a Divine Mascot, essentially.  As the fortunes of the tribe waxed and waned, so did the religion of the group.  When the tribe went to fight against another tribe, their gods fought against the other tribe’s gods—and a religious crisis resulted.

Now, there are some glaring problems with Durkheim’s theory.  (He came up with it based on some studies of tribes in South America back in the mid 1800s, and nowadays, most scholars of religious studies discount it as archaic, and not a little bit racist.)

But for the first part of the Exodus story, this Divine Team Mascot theory actually seems to explain what’s going on!

When the story starts, the Israelites are in dire straights, all enslaved and whatnot, their god seemingly absent from the storyline.  But then!  just when all hope seems lost, and the erstwhile Moses has run away to hide in the wilderness, God shows up on the scene again, and declares himself about to save his people, and declare his judgment upon the gods of the Egyptians. 

And lo and behold, that’s exactly what happens. 

God sends Moses back to Pharaoh, backs him up in a giant, epic showdown, and in one plague after another, illustrates the power of the Israelite God versus the Egyptian priests and the Pharoah, whom the Egyptians regarded as divine, don’t forget. 

Finally, the Israelites are free!  Everything is going great!  God has saved his people, defeated the Egyptians and their gods.  EVERYTHING IS AWESOME.  Cue the dance party.

But then, just as the Israelites start to breathe a huge sigh of relief, just as they are sure that God loves them and they are winners! and the Chosen People and everything. 

This thing happens. 

It’s hard to tell what sets them off.  Moses takes too long to come back down the mountain and they get nervous.  It’s been a while since the last crisis and they don’t know what to do with themselves.  The ever present anxiety that they might get dragged back into the trauma that they just escaped from overwhelms them again.

Whatever it is, the story of the Golden Calf is an amazing story for a couple reasons—partially because later in the story, when Moses gets back down the mountain, and demands of Aaron what on earth he could POSSIBLY have been THINKING, Aaron tries to get out of trouble by explaining that “I have no idea what happened!, the gold just JUMPED IN THE FIRE, THEN THIS COW JUST JUMPED OUT, AND IT WAS THE WEIRDEST THING, I SWEAR.’   Thus channeling every misbehaving 3 year old in history.

But mainly, because up until this point, God has been the God of the Israelites.  God has been their God.  They have been his people.  But here, God shifts into “Upset Parent, Complaining to the Other Parent about the Misbehaving Kid” mode, and dumps all responsibility for THOSE people onto Moses.

“”YOUR people, whom YOU brought out of Egypt, have acted perversely.  You should go down at once.  Let me alone for a while, and I’ll just destroy them, start over and we’ll start over with you or something.”  God says. 

(Really, biblical scribes are not given enough credit for their senses of humor.)

All of a sudden, the Divine Mascot is no longer on the team.  God has left Team Israel and he is somewhere else now. Far from just justifying every decision his people make, God’s allegiance lays elsewhere.  And not for the first time, and not for the last time, someone intercedes with God on behalf of the people.

But God does not seem interested in justifying every single action of God’s people. Pretty clearly, God will point out to them when they are messing up badly.  God will yell pretty loudly when they run off the rails. 

So, if God isn’t going to just cheer them on, and back them up, if God isn’t going to just protect them and enable them no matter what, what does God want with a special chosen people of God’s own in the first place? 

Because pretty clearly, if you read through the BIble, being part of the chosen people gets you precious few perks.  Usually it gets your country invaded, it gets you lost in a desert for several decades, and you personally thrown in a well, or thrown in jail, or blinded, kidnapped, or shipwrecked.  If you were lucky.

The chosen people don’t get a free pass.  They don’t win the lottery of destiny, and they don’t get a divine mascot, giving constant high-fives.

What they get is a special calling to serve the world in a specific way.  To show the world the nature of God and God’s love through their actions and through their way of being. 

The chosen people aren’t chosen to be honored, aren’t chosen to be safe and aren’t chosen to have trouble-free lives—we are chosen to be servants. 

We are chosen to show the world what God’s love looks like, in our life as a community together, and through our lives out in the world.  That’s what we’re chosen for.  Not for privileges, but for service.  For servanthood. 

This chosen people idea does not mean God loves Israel more than anyone else, it does not mean God pays more attention to our prayers or anyone else’s prayers than someone else’s. 

All it means is the same thing I stand up here and tell you every week:  We have a job.  We are called to go forth and do justice, love mercy, and walk with God into the world. 

So go and do your job!

Amen.

Salt and Light and Clergy too

I had the honor of preaching to the Annual Fall Clericus gathering of West Missouri.  It was the Feast of St. Theresa of Avila, and we were meeting at the Benedictine Abbey in Conception, MO.

I freely confess the following:

–I did indeed sneak out one night and drive half an hour away to the nearest bar so I could watch the Royals win Game 3 of the ALCS.

–Benedictine hospitality does not appear to extend to their WiFi network.  If I had a dollar for every seminary student who refused to allow me on the network, I’d be rich.

–The seminary chapel did withstand all my girl cooties when I preached there.  It appears unharmed, and even the vestments I borrowed pulled through.  Yet another mighty breakthrough in ecumenical relations!

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

October 15,2014

St. Theresa of Avila, doctor of the church

Matthew 5

Diocesan Clericus

There aren’t a lot of saintly doctors in the church.  Theresa of Avila, whom we are remembering today, is one of the four female doctors of the church—in Roman Catholicism, sort of a graduate level beyond just sainthood, into more awesomeness.  And she’s up there with Catherine of Siena, Therese of Liseux and Hildegard of Bingen. 

Clearly, she is amazing. 

A mystic from an early age, like Catherine of Siena, to experience Christ was all she wanted.  She wrote about the ascent of the soul to union with God in “The Interior Castle”—a masterwork for anyone of the time in medieval Spain.  She described her passionate love affair with God in such compelling terms that her journey has become a model for Christians seeking the Divine ever since.  From her we learn about prayer, about meditation, and the possibility of the redemption of suffering, and about God’s unceasing, undying, yearning to be with the world God made. 

Now, sometimes, we conceive of spirituality as being a discipline that draws us apart from the world, as something “other,”  something “over there”, safe and removed from the troubles that plague us, but here is the truly staggering thing about Theresa:

The more Theresa grew in union with God, the deeper she went into the Divine Presence, the more involved in the world she became.  The more troubled she became by the corruption that plagued the institutional church, the more she agonized over the poverty and need that surrounded her, and the more she worked to alleviate all of it.

During her lifetime, Theresa traveled all over Spain, and founded 17 different monasteries, for women and men, wrote a new rule of life for a new monastic order, undertook major reforms so that the clergy under her care actually lived out their vows of service and prayer, and so irritated the entrenched powers of the institutional Church that she was the subject of a couple different persecutions by the Spanish Inquisition.

Her spirituality was a very salty one.

This image of salt and light that Jesus gives us is very evocative—it conjures up a lot.

But in particular—salt is absolutely no good on its own. 

Salt does no one any good if you’re trying to eat it straight, or if you keep it neatly in a corner out of sight.  Salt only works when it’s suffused with something else.  Likewise, light only works when the waves reflect off of something and hit your eye. 

Spirituality needs to translate into action in the world.  The spirituality of the gospels, the spirituality the Church offers must address directly! the hurt and pain we see in the world.   

Because many times we do separate them.  How many times when we talk about ‘feeding people’ from the pulpit we’re talking about ‘feeding their souls’?  How many times when we talk about ‘healing people’ or ‘reconciliing people’ from the pulpit we’re talking about doing it on a spiritual level, on an emotional level?  How many times when we talk about ‘saving the world’ are we talking about doing it on a metaphysical level? 

And understand, Not for any malicious reason, no, we do it out of habit, I think, or because that’s how we grew up hearing these subjects addressed.  For a long time, now, that is how we have talked in this tradition of ours.  We have used spiritual language at times as an escape.  As a distancing technique from the pain that surrounds us in the world.

But Jesus reminds us, and Saint Theresa reminds us, that a true relationship with God never draws us out of the world without drawing us into it—first. 

Because When a hungry crowd came to Christ, he didn’t just tell them to pray harder, he fed them.  Then he preached. 

When sick people came to Jesus, he didn’t tell them to accept hisownself as their Lord and Savior—he healed them.  When the poor and the oppressed came to Jesus, he didn’t tell them to hope for something better in the afterlife, he condemned the religious and political systems that had left them poor in the first place.

So we cannot spiritualize our way out of our discomfort when we are confronted with the pain and brokenness of this world. 

The gospel we preach has to reach out to address the real pains the real problems of the people in our pews, in our streets and in our state—otherwise, it is not the gospel of Jesus.  It is not the gospel of the Incarnation.  It is neither salt nor light for this world.

And you know, and I know, we don’t have to look far to find the brokenness in our churches and in our community.  We know that the pain of grief is a familiar companion for many who sit in our pews.  And we see problems crying out for solutions each and every time we turn on the news or walk down the street.

My friends, we are ministering in a time of Ebola outbreaks in west Africa, threatening whole populations—and now here in the US. So what do we say?

We minister in a time of an unprecedented gap between the rich and the poor in this country, which widens by the hour, and eats away at everyone caught in the middle.  What do we say?

We minister in a time and in a place where young black people in our communities are disproportionately getting shot and killed by police.  Michael Brown.  John Crawford.  VonDerrit Meyers—and those are just the well-publicized ones, and that’s just since mid-August.  And so we are watching as our own state of Missouri is compared to 1960’s era Mississippi for it’s abject failure to carry out a clean investigation.  What do we say, as the church in this place?  How are we salt?  How are we light?

My friends, it is our call and our privilege to care for the spiritual lives of those in our charge.  But we are only doing half of that job, if we do not connect the spiritual yearnings of the people who come to us, with the practical challenges of this world. 

  That is, after all, exactly what Christ did in the Incarnation—broke down the barriers between the human and the divine, and erased forever that which separated the earthly realm from the heavenly. 

So now, our task, as we follow in the Way of Christ, is to echo his words, and echo his actions—bringing the salt and light of the Gospel of Christ to bear on every injustice and every sorrow this world can bring to us until finally, with God’s help, everything all seasoned, all darkness banished. 

We have the salt.  We have the light. 

We just have to be brave enough to use them. 

Amen.

Authority from the ground up

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

September 26, 2014

Ordinary Time

Philippians, Matthew

I have my diplomas hanging neatly on the wall in my office.  They’re both in Latin, which isn’t usual anymore, and they’re both giant, so they’re fairly intimidating. To most people, they would suggest I know things.  Hah.

But I will never forget flying home to Williamsburg to finally be ordained a deacon, during my final year of seminary, and I was so excited, because this meant that I HAD FINALLY GOTTEN THROUGH ALL THE HOOPS OF THE ORDINATION PROCESS, of which there were many.

My plane landed, and I walked up to the rental car counter, and I went to sign to pick up my car—and the charge was 4 times what I had been told over the phone.  “Well, yes.”  said the man behind the counter.  “See, you’re only 24.  You can’t rent a car without an additional $50 per day fee for being underage. So It’s 12.50 per day, plus $50 surcharge.”

Authority comes from some pretty strange places.  Is my point.

And we sort of know this instinctively, right? Some people earn authority, some people are granted it, and some people have authority thrust upon ‘em, to mess with Shakespeare.

Some people have authority by virtue of their office—if you don’t obey your general in a battle, you’ll get court-martialed.  (Or shot.) This is not because your general is necessarily smart, or a nice person, so much as that is the way the army works.  By virtue of being a general, that general gets obeyed. 

Some people, on the other hand, are obeyed because they are so gosh-darn nice about it.  The charisma just comes off of them in waves, these people.  They are what we aspire to be.  So we flock around them in droves, hoping some of the magic will rub off on us.  (This is more or less how branding campaigns work—think of any sports star or movie star selling athletic star selling shoes, or watches or cologne.  It is not that Lebron James has any expertise in how Nikes work—it is just that we all want very badly to believe we will one day be as famous and cool as Lebron James.)

These are forms of authority that work just fine for the most part.  So long as you understand and accept their limitations, they work great—you should probably not seek legal advice from Katy Perry, for example.

But they do have limitations.  There are times when they fall short.  What happens when the general gives a bad order, and we know it?  What happens when our boss asks us to do something we know is unethical?  What happens when those charismatic people we look up to, do horrible things—-yet keep being charismatic?

(And I haven’t even mentioned Congress.)

We need to be careful who we let have authority over us.  Because not all authorities can be trusted all the time.  We need to be careful and ask questions.

And in their defense, that’s what the temple authorities are doing in this conversation with Jesus.  They wanted to know where on earth his authority came from.

Because goodness knows, he didn’t have an office, and he didn’t have diplomas, and he hadn’t studied anywhere to become a learned rabbi, so he didn’t have authority of the office.

He only had a few followers, and they were a pretty rag-tag, unimpressive bunch—some people liked him, but a lot of people didn’t, and also he smelled pretty bad, so he didn’t really have authority of charisma

Yet he went around acting and speaking about God like someone who knew, deep in his bones what he was talking about, so they were curious—where did it come from?

From his feet.  it came from his feet.

Jesus could speak of God’s love and forgiveness with authority because he didn’t talk about it, he walked the walk.  He had the authority of his feet.

He doesn’t just describe God’s healing power—he healed the sick.

He doesn’t just describe God’s wish for peace—he reconciled people in conflict.

He doesn’t just describe God’s love—he included the outcast and he loved people where he found them. 

Whereever he went, whatever he did, he embodied the way he spoke about God.  His actions gave authority to his words.

So, as followers of Christ, where does our authority come from?  When we speak, do we rely on the power of roles, on do-it-because-I-say-so, on everyone-else-is-doing-it?  On authority of being the boss, being the parent, being the oldest?  Being the coolest, being the better liked?

Or does our authority stem from something deeper? Does it come from our feet?

Because as followers of Jesus, our authority should come all the way from our feet—it should come from how the words we say match our actions—how we live out what we preach.  How we daily walk in the path that Jesus trod before us.

Our authority should come all the way up from our feet, from the self-emptying, loving way of Jesus that we follow in the world. 

Because that’s the sort of authority that lasts—that counts—that hits the road and keeps walking.

In which I wonder why people complain about the lectionary not being relevant

This was the week that the end of the Joseph saga in the lectionary coincided with the Ray Rice/NFL horror show.

The long-reviled RCL lectionary has been earning its stripes this year as week after week, I wished that I could finally just preach on something relaxing, like God’s unconditional love for kittens!  Only to have another headline slam into the biblical texts with that stomach-twisting crunch that signals you have to gear up to Say the Hard Thing.

This week, it was trying to preach about forgiveness in the middle of a domestic violence mess–in which some pretty warped concepts of forgiveness had been trotted out into the public conversation again.  The church has long been guilty of condoning (and enabling) patterns of domestic violence–both through our silence, and, at times, through our outright complicity.  So preaching about forgiveness–what it is, what it isn’t, is no small matter.

Here’s my take.

Megan Castellan

September 13-14, 2014

Ordinary Time

Genesis 50, Matthew

Desmond Tutu came to speak at my seminary the first year I was there.

What I remember most about this, is two things.  The first is that I bumped into him in the hallway of my dorm when I was taking out the garbage early that Saturday morning, and he turned to me, and said, quite chipper, “Oh,good morning!”  Like I was the person he most wanted to see in that moment. I was so freaked out, I almost dropped garbage all over the feet of the living saint who defeated apartheid.

The second is a comment he made in his speech to us. He was talking about reconciliation, and what he witnessed in South Africa post-apartheid.  He talked about the dynamics of the Truth and Reconciliation commission, and how that had worked, and everyone was impressed, but in describing the mechanics of how reconciliation and forgiveness works, he commented.

He pointed out it’s not as easy as it sounds.  “If you steal my bicycle, and later you come to me and you ask for my forgiveness, I can forgive you, but unless something changes—it’s cheap.  I need to lock up my next bike so you can’t steal it, at least.  Or I need you to give me back my bike, maybe.  Forgiveness and reconciliation only work if you give back my bike. 

—Forgiveness, like grace, is one of those words we toss around

—but Arb. is right.  We frequently use it cheaply.  I’m sorry.  Oh I forgive you!  That’s supposed to be the response to make the apologizing person feel less guilty.

—That’s not actually how forgiveness works.

—In Jesus’ parable, people are going to freakin’ jail.  Jail, guys.  JAIL. 

—And note, in Joseph’s story, as well.  It’s more complicated than a simple, I’m-a-nice-person-I-forgive-you. 

-Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery.  They beat him up, and threw him in a pit, and told his father he was dead.  That’s not great.  That’s some insane abusive behavior right there, even for the mythical characters of the ANE.

—And afterwards, Joseph’s life is not fantastic.  He is sold to Potiphar, whose wife attempts to entrap him with false accusations. 

—Potiphar sends Joseph off to jail, where he sits for a couple years. 

—So though he eventually ends up as governor of Egypt, let’s not forget his initial family situation was not pleasant.  And it came with consequences.

—Then his brothers show up and ask for 1.  Forgiveness!  They feel bad for that whole you’re dead, we almost killed our father (also a lunatic, btw), and they want to make amends.

2.  But mainly food.  They want food, since Egypt has food, and Canaan doesn’t have any.

—So what does Joseph do?

—He gives his estranged family food.  And he embraces them.  And he sends for his aged father (who, really, I’m shocked the man hasn’t had a HUGE heart attack by now.  Kid’s dead!  No he’s not! )

—But please notice:  This isn’t cheap grace.  This is bicycle forgiveness.  This is forgiveness with a change.  In both these situations—Jesus’ parable and the story of Joseph, forgiveness comes only with real change.

—At no point, in this reunion scene, does Joseph volunteer to return home to Canaan with his brothers.  At no point, does Joseph volunteer to rewind the clock, and make everything just like it was when they were little.  At no point, either, does Joseph apologize, or try to explain away what his brothers did.  They did bad things, and he says so.

—Forgiveness can happen here because something has changed. You have to move out, you have to move on, whatever that looks like.  The offense has to end, with no risk of going back, before you can forgive. 

—if nothing changes, then forgiveness doesn’t work—you’ll just keep doing the same thing over and over because it’s what you know.  it’s not until the circle breaks that you get a chance to stop and evaluate.

And it can’t be hurried.  Forgiveness only comes when it’s ready.  When you’ve stopped living in that particular moment, either literally, or just emotionally.  You have to move on, in all ways in order for forgiveness, in order for reconciliation to work. 

Because most of all, forgiveness is a gift of God.  Forgiveness is ultimately a work of the Spirit, where we can lean into the love of God for one another, and we can release the hurts done to us.  We get to forgive, in those moments where we see we have come so far due to the love of God, and there’s no longer any point in carrying the burden of anger or resentment anymore—however justified, because it’s not helpful.

[Ending]

 

 

 

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