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The Gospel of Pawnee: Theology of Parks and Recreation

This past week, my favorite television concluded its run.  “Parks and Recreation” has survived for seven seasons on network television–a staggering feat in an increasingly cookie-cutter landscape of multi-camera sitcoms, crime procedurals, and shows about doctors being very bad at medicine.

In the midst of all these things, Parks and Rec managed to stake out ground all by itself–optimistic, but not delusional; romantic, but not twee; quirky, but not so meta that you felt it should have a beard and hipster glasses.  And most of all, genuinely funny.

There’s nothing overtly religious about the show.  (Well, that’s not entirely true–there is a cult called the Reasonablists, who believe the world will end when a giant lizard god named Zorp comes to eat the planet.  As you do.)  But the world and point of view of the show is incredibly strong, which is a gift when pop culture so influential on how and what we think.

I discovered the show about halfway through the second season.  I knew I was sold during the hunting trip episode, when Leslie takes the blame for accidentally shooting her boss, Ron Swanson, in the head.  She’s questioned by the local ranger, who has decided that this accident was inevitable, because of course, women are so easily distracted that they’re prone to shooting people. Leslie sort of frowns, and goes off on a spiel of sarcastic reasons why she shot Ron, all based on sexist stereotypes.  “I just get emotional when I don’t have a boyfriend and I feel like shooting something!  I think I saw some chocolate? I’m bad at math, good at tolerating pain, and bad at concentrating.”

It was hilarious, but most of all, it introduced Leslie as someone who was passionate about lots of things most people on TV aren’t passionate about:  women’s rights, the positive role of government, public policy, the minute details of pretty much everything.  And while Leslie’s passion and intensity was frequently presented as intimidating to others, it was never presented as a psychosis or something she needed to lessen.  It was the source of her strength.  In Leslie, we had a role model for how to be passionate and effective, in the middle of a system that was confused by your presence.

Meanwhile, while Leslie sees the glories of government, one of her dearest friends is an avowed libertarian, who works for the city expressly to stop its functioning.  Eventually, her team comes to include a failed teen mayor, a misanthropic intern, a possibly-brain-damaged guy who lived in a pit, and a man who’s life’s ambition is to live inside a rap video.  These people are wildly different, with little in common.  Mostly, they’re a dysfunctional hodge-podge of Fail.  But when they unite around a common goal, each finds their own way to be effective.  Turns out, the libertarian boss was also a strong feminist.  The pit-living guy performed in a half-way decent rock band.  Over the course of the series, these odd people form a tight-knit community, based on their love and support of one another.

Which is probably the biggest thing I loved about Parks and Recreation.  The show presented a world in which the characters were motivated by love.  Despite its plethora of weird inhabitants, odd customs, atrocious history, etc, Leslie loves Pawnee like she would love a child.  Her passion for the town drives her decisions–even when the citizens are yelling at her (The frequent town hall meetings are a delight, just for the problems of the townspeople.  “I found a sandwich in one of your parks and I want to know why it didn’t have mayonnaise on it.” ) even when they make incredibly dumb choices, even when they eventually turn on her entirely.  All the characters do.  The show itself treats the characters with deep affection–even the wackiest of them.  Everyone has their quirks, but Pawnee is a place where odd ducks and weirdos are celebrated.  It was such a warm and affectionate world that gloried in the weirdness of its people.

I’m sorry to say goodbye.

 

 

 

Telling stories: Absalom Jones

Last week was the week of All Preaching, All the Time.  In addition to preaching at the UMC seminary, I also was asked to preach at the diocese’s Annual Absalom Jones celebration.**  Each year, the diocese comes together at the cathedral to remember Absalom Jones, the first African-American ordained in the US (in 1795), now remembered with a feast day on February 13.

It often surprises people, even long-time Episcopalians, to hear that the Episcopal Church has roots and traditions that transcend the WASPy stereotypes.  (And thank God for that.  As fond as I am of the BBC and British culture, if that’s all the church was, we’d be well past an Eddie Izzard monologue by now.)

The diocese I grew up in had more historically Black churches than anywhere else, partly due to the zeal of a priest named James Solomon Russell. Born right before the end of the Civil War, in Southside, Virginia, he planted around 36 churches all over the woods of south-central Virginia.  He also founded St. Paul’s College, in Lawrenceville, Virginia.  (Two different dioceses asked him to come and be bishop suffragan for them, and he refused, citing his desire to keep doing real work.  This man is my hero.)

My point is:  the Episcopal Church has long been diverse–we’ve just been in denial about it.

Part of ending denial?  Telling our stories.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan
February 7, 2015
Feast of Absalom Jones, transferred
Isaiah 61:1-4

“They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations”
It’s been said that Episcopalians are people of the book. We are a people of the Prayer book, surely—we hold it tight like a security blanket, like a child with a favorite stuffed animal. But we also belong to those who find our relationship with God, its ups and downs, its ins and outs, traced in another book—in the Bible. So there’s that, too.

But, I think, fundamentally, our love affair with books can be traced back to stories. We are a people of stories.

Stories that we tell to each other, to our children, to generations past and generations to come—to reassure ourselves, to challenge ourselves, to remind us who we are and where we come from. Stories comprise our identity as human creatures and images of God. After all, God is the one who created by speaking words into the darkness—the first story. So it has been ever since. We gather together the shards of our lives and we cobble together meaning in a story.

And we know this. We each have these stories of who we are, how we came to be, stories that we rely on. I can remember my grandfather, sitting by the fire, telling me tale after tale of our familial ancestors in Scotland—of the man who was so anxious to win a boat race and win some land promised from the English king that he chopped off his own hand. Of the first immigrants to the New World, who kept getting into bar fights, til one of them got sliced in half. Of the the later, more prosperous relatives who ran a flour mill in Spotsylvania County, and protected it from the invading Yankees, burying the silver in the backyard, and their sons, who fought for the Confederacy before ending up in a POW camp at Ft. Monroe.
The patchwork of stories that composed our family identity and told us who we were, what the world was. We were brave to a fault, we were loyal, and we were bad at decision-making.

We don’t only have stories from our families or from history books. We have these stories from our faith too, that we rehearse and we pass on from one generation to the next. Noah’s ark. Abraham and Sarah’s enduring faith. The deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. The establishment of David’s kingdom in Israel. The coming of Christ and his ministry in the world. His crucifixion, death, and resurrection.

We have these stories, these stories we love, and from these stories, we derive our identity, both as individuals and as a people. There was God, we say, God loved the world, God saved God’s people, and God sent Jesus as proof of this love and to seal this salvation and to open to us the way to heaven. That is our story.

Funny thing about these stories, though—some of them work and some of them don’t. Many of them work better for some of us than they do for others of us. In these stories, some of us appear, and some of us don’t. Some of us come off entirely as heroes, some of us come off as two-dimensional villains, and some of us are erased entirely.

Last summer, I took a trip back to Richmond, Virginia, near where my family is from–where that grandfather grew up–, and I walked the newly-constructed, I should say newly-rediscovered, Slave Trail. So named, because it traces the path that slaves took through the city, from the river landing where the slave ships first came into port, to the auction houses, and the hotels where the European tourists came to gawk, to Lumpkin’s Jail, which held recaptured runaways, or Black people who had otherwise stepped out of line. The path through downtown Richmond took me past buildings I had seen all my life, grown up seeing, and at each stop, there was a plaque, describing the sight. Here the Manchester Docks, here the site, where Willie Boxcar Brown sealed himself up for 3 days in a tobacco factory to make it to Pennsylvania and freedom. At each, my grandfather’s stories played in my head—and no where, in his stories, did he talk about these stories I was seeing. No where in his stories did he talk about the generations of enslaved people whose stories were intertwined with ours, whose lives and whose labor enabled my family to survive, to live as we had.
But now, staring me in the face, was the traces, the impact of these other stories which challenged the boundary of my family’s convenient story. It wasn’t large enough. It wasn’t deep enough. It wasn’t complex enough. Our story didn’t work any more.
When Absalom Jones and Richard Allen planted themselves in St. George’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia that fateful day, they challenged the story—the safe story the Episcopal church had been telling itself up until then. That God loves everyone equally but on the inside, in an intangible, invisible way. They questioned the story. They pushed back. And initially it didn’t go so well—Absalom and Richard and the other Black men and women were asked to leave that day. But Absalom didn’t give up, because he knew that his story was true.

And later, when Absalom Jones went to William White, and asked for ordination so he could serve his community, he was doing it again–he was listening to his own story. He was listening to the story that said that Jesus saves not just in the hereafter, but Jesus came to liberate us now. Here, on this earth, in our lives, today–Jesus came to change the world.

He stood there, and through his life, he gave us not only the gift of his service, but he did something else too—he broke open the church’s story. He made this church begin to ask questions it hadn’t asked, see things it hadn’t seen. He made the church start to reconsider its story.
We have to—we HAVE to—be willing to question our stories. We have to be willing to open, to reexamine the fabric of the stories we’ve been telling. We have to be willing to enlarge them. Because a lot of these stories we tell, a lot of them don’t work–a lot of them are incomplete, because they’re too narrow. They aren’t enough.
Because the plain truth is that there’s never been just one story of the God we’re trying to reflect–no, not really.
Now, as the church, especially as the white church, (I’m going to get truthful here.) we’ve pretended that there has been for millennia, but it’s just not the case, as any one of you who remembers their bible study will tell you. There are two accounts of creation, aren’t there? Right beside each other,hitting you in the face, Genesis 1 and 2. There are two different accounts of the entrance into the Promised Land–one where the Israelites sort of meander in peaceably, and one where Joshua and co. triumph from behind, and murder everything in sight. There are even multiple texual sources telling practically every story, both in the Old Testament, then again in the 4 gospels.
So for all this time, while the white American church was comfortably telling its same story–there was God, God loved us, God came to save us, but in an inward and intangible way and definitely some more than others, and there are times the white church has been explicit about that, and times it hasn’t–Absalom had a different story that he knew. God was working in his life in a different and profound way, and when he planted himself in that seat at St. George, and when he pushed for ordination, he showed the church a new story, a story that proclaims that every human is made in the image of God. That every person under heaven is equal, not just hypothetically, not just after they die, but today, tomorrow, right now and forever, and Christ came to make sure we knew it. So our lives had better start reflecting that.

Point of fact–the church hasn’t always wanted to change its story. It wasn’t thrilled with the prospect then, and it’s not exactly thrilled now. Change isn’t enjoyable, especially to something as fundamental as your self-understanding, and few things like to admit their error less than the Church. Yet, God calls us to something greater than a simplistic adherence to that thing we’ve always thought. God calls us to honor all the stories. To watch for the hand of God at work all around us. And to be ready to admit when we’re wrong, when our story wasn’t big enough, to apologize and do better.

Because it is in the push and pull of difference, the tension of learning new ways of telling old stories, the recognition of God’s Spirit working in a stranger’s face, that we come to a truer understanding of the God who made all unique, made us all loved, and made us all one.

Amen.

**Full disclosure: we don’t have a lot of Black clergy in WeMo. We have very few. We have two, is my point, and one was, I think, getting dialysis that day, and the other was on vestry retreat.  So the poor committee was left with me preaching.

Mary, Martha, and everyone we know

This week, I was invited to guest-preach at St. Paul’s School of Theology, a local United Methodist seminary.  Hanging out with folks from other traditions is always fun, partially because I never feel so uptight as I do in a crowd of ministers who aren’t Episcopalian (I wear a collar!  I have to do and say certain things to consecrate at the altar! I am weirdly attached to a book! #oldschool)  And partially because hanging out with other Christians feels like a giant relief–thank God Episcopalians are not solely responsible for representing Christ in the world.  Look at the terrific variety of ways that these creative other people are doing it!  Pardon me while I madly scribble notes to take back home. ***

When I said I would preach, the first question the worship coordinator (Teresa, who is fantastic) had was which text I wanted, then we would plan the whole service around it. Where did I have energy?  What did I want to say? Off the top of my head, I suggested the Mary and Martha story.  Immediately, I thought “Well, that’s silly.  I’m probably the only one who finds that story and its  interpretation troubling.”  Teresa wrote back “YOU HAVE TO USE THAT TEXT. I cannot stand that Mary vs. Martha thing.”

Turns out, in talking to several of the students at lunch afterwards, the distaste towards how this story is talked about runs deep and wide.  (Like that blasted fountain the kids at the Day School sing about.)  I’ve decided I’m starting a new campaign: No More Awful Sermon Tropes. Who’s with me?

But in the meantime, here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan
February 4, 2015
St. Paul’s School of Theology, Word and Worship
Mary and Martha story

 

Prior to moving to Kansas City, I lived for four years in Flagstaff, Arizona. Arizona, as you might imagine, is not the hotbed of diversity and progressivism we all might hope for, and so frequently, when I went to supply around the state, I discovered that I was the first ordained woman the congregation had ever seen or heard from.
About a year after my arrival, I was approached by the cardinal rector of the large church in Prescott (where John McCain used to attend, before marrying Cindy and realizing that continuing to be an Episcopalian was politically toxic). He invited me to please! Come preach at his church! But specifically, preach on the Sunday that this text was read. Because, he told me, he didn’t know how to preach it, and maybe I could take a stab.
This story lives in a quiet infamy. For I don’t even know how long, it’s been preached the same way: Martha was the Busy One. Mary was the Quiet One. Martha was Too Busy to have a relationship with Jesus, and Mary, through her meekness and listening, did the Right Thing, and SHOULDN’T YOU BE A MARY, TOO, WHY YES YOU SHOULD. #alltheguilt.
If you’ve been in church for any amount of time, you’re familiar with this phenomenon: There’s Team Mary and Team Martha. Like dueling soccer teams or dueling sides in a shipper war, everyone takes sides and you’re either one or the other, ESPECIALLY if you’re a woman.
If you’re a woman, well, then, your problem is that there are precious few times that preachers address what that experience looks like. In the basic RCL lectionary that the Episcopal church follows as well as the UMC, there aren’t a whole lot of women running around in the gospels. And most of those times, we focus on Jesus or focus on the male disciples’ reaction—because unless you’re Mary, the mother of Christ, if you’re a woman in the gospel narrative, you’re either an actual prostitute, or you’ve just been called that for 2,000 years.
So it’s team Martha or Mary for life. Those are your choices, ladies. Nobody else is showing up.
It goes without saying (though I’ll say it anyway) that this is a problem. Not only because it smushes 51% of the human race into a dualism that doesn’t reflect reality,—and we’re coming back to that— but also because it does violence to the biblical text that we, on most other occasions, treat with the utmost seriousness.
For starters, Martha isn’t just bustling around doing useless tasks because she has some pathological need to avoid silence. She’s doing her job, what’s culturally expected of her at the time—she’s cooking the evening meal and preparing the house—and without women like Martha you’ve got to figure, Jesus and the male disciples wouldn’t have eaten at all.
So part of what she’s concerned about in this moment is that there literally won’t be food on the table for these guys, which is an actual issue. That’s an actual problem. But also, it’s safe to say that she is concerned with what Mary’s up to at this precise moment, because Mary is definitely not doing what she’s supposed to.
While Martha is off doing her important “make the food” work, Mary has plopped down at the feet of Jesus, and is listening to him teach. This sounds fairly innocuous, but sitting at a teacher’s feet was a very specific posture at the time. It was how male students signaled that they wanted to learn from a particular rabbi—they sat at his feet and learned.
So not only is Martha concerned about what’s going to happen with the food situation, she’s more than a little concerned that her sister is doing something that is culturally inappropriate, and not a little bit dangerous. Women weren’t disciples. Women did other stuff. They didn’t learn from rabbis, at least not openly. Martha, at the very least, wants to check in with Jesus to see how he feels about this particular turn of events, which is why she protests—and he reassures her that Mary has chosen a good part, and ’this will not be taken away from her.’
Neither of them is wrong. Neither of them is doing something that is dishonorable or sinful or unChristian. In the text, when you incorporate the historical context and you give it the attention we tend to give other parts of the gospel—Mary and Martha aren’t pitted against each other. In fact, when Martha panics that her sister might be doing something wrong, Jesus reassures her that it’s fine that Mary is doing her own thing.
So why, then, why do we preachers continually insist on shrinking this story, and stories like it into this dichotomy? Why do we fall into the trap of the good Team Mary vs the evil Team Martha, and try to shrink the rest of the world into the same mold?

The simple answer, for so long, perhaps is that preachers, and the ones who write the commentaries and the tomes of theology, have been men, concerned about an audience of men, so how the nuances of how women are presented and spoken about hasn’t been a chief concern. But my friends, it’s 2015 and that’s actually a pretty wretched excuse.
We have such enormous power when we stand in the pulpit. I know, and I believe in the priesthood of all believers, and the full empowerment of the laity, and I endeavor to live that out in my ministry, but when you speak from the pulpit, with the full emotional force of the liturgy, the music, the sacramental moment all structured to drive home what you’re saying, it doesn’t matter how approachable you might be the moment you step down—for those 10-15 moments, you are answerable to no one. You hold an enormous club in your hands, to wield as you please. And over time, your words, your presence help shape the worldview of those who listen to you.
So, as responsible preachers, we need to remember our audience, and what they hear from us. We need to make sure that they hear the gospel preached to them—all of them, all the people who come to us need to hear the good news of God’s saving action.
Our God is so big, God’s action in the Incarnation so enormous, that to shrink it down like this misrepresents just what God did. God acted to save everyone, to save all of creation in its diversity and complexity—not just the people we are familiar with, or the ones we can describe with ease, or the ones we can assign to a Team. God came to us in Christ for everyone—this is good news for everyone.
And the gospel ceases to be good news when it tells women the only acceptable way to live is to be meek, passive, and quietly sitting somewhere. It ceases to be good news when it ignores the real contributions of half of the community because of who made them. It ceases to be good news when it confines the concerns of so much of humanity to a few neat, pat stereotypes.
So when we preach, we need to preach it all. Preach it all. Preach the whole thing. Preach Martha and her dedicated hospitality and her impassioned questioning when her brother died. Preach Mary and her rebellious discipleship when the world thought she should be doing something else. Preach the Samaritan woman at the well who argued and questioned and figured out who Jesus was before anyone else did. Preach Mary Magdalene who proclaimed the resurrection to the disciples and preach Mary the mother of Christ who proclaimed the coming of a new world where the hungry would be fed, the poor satisfied and the rich sent away empty, and taught her son to believe the same.
Preach the whole damn** thing. Don’t forget anyone’s story. Don’t exclude anyone’s voice. Because the wider we draw the circle, the more stories we tell, the more people we include, the more we learn of the God who created us all, who came to save us, and who gave us to each other’s care.

Amen.

 

***This is similar to my sense of relief around people of other faiths. “Hooray! Abrahamic faiths are here! Can y’all talk about praxis because American Christianity is just the worst at that, right? Oh, thank God–we might not all die.” Seriously, anytime I imagine a world without diversity, I get very stressed, and have to go lay down.

**Not what I said from the pulpit.  I think I said something like “preach the whole blessed thing” or “preach the entire thing.”  I was on a roll when I was writing and kept it in for emphasis.

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.

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