RSS Feed

Mothers, others, and other mothers

I don’t ever preach on Mother’s Day.

This is because it’s a landmine of a topic, and as a homily subject, usually ends badly.  The only sermon I ever walked out on was on Mother’s Day, when I was in high school.  The priest (who absolutely should have known better) was lamenting that the holiday was not mandated in schools everywhere.  I sat there in angry tears.  My own mother had undergone another surgery for cancer the month before, and I had again been reminded that my hold on Mother’s Day was fragile.  The idea of forcing school kids into a happy Hallmark narrative seemed both insensitive, false, and borderline cruel.  So I left.

But this year, for whatever reason, I reasoned that Mother’s Day might be like those difficult texts in the Bible.  They do not improve when you ignore them–they just get co-opted by people you disagree with.  The way to deal with difficult things is to talk about them, and poke and prod at them until they become less difficult.

So here’s what I said on Mother’s Day.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

May 10, 2015

Easter 6, Year B

John, Mother’s Day

There are times when holidays sneak their way into the liturgical calendar, despite not actually being at all liturgical themselves.  Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day—these sort of snuck their way in there, even though Jesus had not very much to say on the subject of Pilgrims or on the subject of constitutional democracy. 

But, over the years, the church found good enough ideas in those holidays that we wanted to emphasize them, and so, on the calendar they went.  Not the whole thing, maybe, but Independence Day allows us to talk about how our freedom enables us to serve God and one another.  Thanksgiving, as we just sang, lets us talk about how everything we have is a gift from God, and not a product of our own ingenuity.  

So we come to today, which as I’m sure Hallmark has told you, is Mother’s Day, a day that likewise attempts to slip its way into the church calendar.

So on this day, in many places, flowers are distributed, and songs are sung, and tributes to mothers are read.   “Motherhood!” the day trumpets!  “Mothers are great!  Hooray for mothers!  We can aspire no higher!  They are PERECT GEMS!”

But in many ways, this is not the easiest fit to sneak into our church calendar. 

Because yes, mothers are great.  Parents are great.  Parents, ideally, teach us and help us grow, and provide a firm foundation our whole lives through, and help us construct our worldview from a place of safety and security.  Being a good parent is one of the most important things in the world—there’s a reason why Jesus refers to God as Father, why he invokes this parental metaphor for this foundational relationship.  It’s an immense thing to be a parent, to be a good parent.  And we absolutely should honor that, and support it, wherever we find it. 

And we should do that even more, because we recognize how rare that is.  When we recognize that not everyone has the Hallmark certified ideal of Parents.  Not everyone’s mother is fantastic.  Not everyone’s father is a pillar of strength, warmth and unconditional love.  Not everyone’s parents can manage to be what they hope to, or need to be, for their children, every second of every day. 

And really, if every parent was the Hallmark certified ideal, what would therapists spend their lives doing? 

If we’re going to slip Mother’s Day (Father’s Day too) into the calendar of the church, then it can’t just be about proclaiming all parents as paragons of virtue, when we know that this is not always the case—that the reality we live in is often much more complicated.  Because in the church, where we are called to be inclusive, and welcoming of everyone, and we are called to live in reality, to recognize where our people are.  And the reality is, not everyone had or has, families that fully reflected the love of God.   So we need to be careful.  Not to mention that not everyone is called to be a parent.  There’s that reality, too.   

And let’s also remember that we are called in the footsteps of Jesus, not of greeting cards.  Jesus, who had a slightly, less-than-greeting-card-esque relationship with his family.  He ran away from his parents at age 12, he hid for 3 days, and then, when they finally found him, instead of being apologetic, or buying them flowers or chocolate, he talked back to them when Mary merely pointed out that they had been worried sick.  Not quite the dutiful son you’d hope for.  

Once he grew up, he left home, never to return again. When Mary and his siblings came to collect him, they told the crowd outside the house where he was that he was possessed by a demon.  So they’re possibly not on the same page with his ministry at this point.  He, in turn, turns to the crowd when he hears this, and says “Who are my mother and my brother and my sisters?  Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” and proclaimed anyone who followed him to be his family.

That was actually a huge deal in 1st century Jewish society.  You didn’t leave your family—your family was quite literally who you were.  It determined your job, your marriage, your future, your faith, everything about you.  You could no more announce that you were heading out on your own then announce that you were going to walk to the moon.

Yet that’s just what Jesus did.  (Remember that, actually, next time some politician invokes Christ’s name in a discussion of family values.)

Jesus left his family of birth, and constituted for himself a new family, no longer limited to ties just of genetics.  But to ties of love.  To ties of faith.  

If we’re going to find a deeper meaning to Mother’s Day, I think it’s going to be there. 

The vocation to be a parent, when done well, involves loving another being, loving your child, in an unconditional way.  Valuing their happiness even as much as your own, and ensuring that they know themselves to be loved and safe, and protected. 

Basically, you embody the love of God for your kids.  That unconditional, here-you-are-safe, here you are known, sort of love.  Love that is undying and never ending.  You reflect the sort of love God has for us.

But when Jesus tells his disciples in today’s gospel that they are to love one another as God has loved us, he doesn’t limit it to a certain group of people.  He doesn’t limit it to women, or people with kids, or mothers, or anyone else.

 As Christians, all of us are called to this—whether we have children or not.  All of us are called to embody that sort of love for each other, for the world.  That’s how we’re supposed to love the rest of the world– all of us, all of the time.  We’re called to mother the world–with that fierce, sort of unbreakable love.

Julian of Norwich called Christ our own mother, because Christ gave of himself like a mother, and taught us how to love each other, like a mother raises children, and teaches them to talk and walk.   We then put those lessons into practice when we love one another.  Each time we baptize a new person, we commit ourselves to support them in their life in Christ.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a screaming 6 week old baby or an older 55 year old–each time, we welcome them into the household of God, and we welcome them into this new family–this bond of love.  

So, on this Mother’s Day, as you exchange cards, and flowers–give thanks for all those who have shown you that love of God in your life.  Give thanks for all those who have taught you how to love, no matter who they were.  And then, go out and mother the world.  Clean its scrapes and bruises.  Wipe its tears.  Love it in spite of its mistakes. 

 For so God does for all of us.

Amen.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ is risen; the elevator is broken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,618 other followers