Living after the world ends

Red Shoes, Funny Shirt

My rector called me Thursday evening with the news that his mother-in-law had died, and so he couldn’t be in church on Sunday.  Could I preach?

Sure.  Theoretically, I could.  I didn’t know what I would say, or how I would say it.  I had spent most of my time since Tuesday night fielding messages from distraught parishioners and hiding under the covers myself.  Maybe we would just stare at each other in silence?

Then I started writing.  And I remembered this story about my brother from when we were toddlers.  For the record, I checked, and he has no memory of this happening at all.  But, as a friend pointed out–for him it would have been just another day of privilege.  It was only for me that the moment was significant.

Throw a tantrum, my friends.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

November 13, 2016

Ordinary Time, Proper 28

Luke 21

To…

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Reflections on [yet another] sermon on the guy who built bigger barns to store his bumper crop and other goodies.

Text: Luke 12: 13-21 (See the end of the post for the full passage.)

 

John, I did NOT take notes. Didn’t have to. You did a good job and the new mic placement helps a lot.
However, reflecting later on all the sermons I’ve heard on that gospel passage, I realized no one has ever gone beyond the micro to even mention a contemporary repercussion of storing up treasure. Sermons tend to focus on individual behavior, which is important, but ignore the macro – the environment influencing that behavior.
But we live within an economic structure that requires a certain amount of individual hoarding because there is no place within that structure for common (or public) good. I received publicly paid cancer treatment ONLY because I had a specific type that got emergency Medicaid. Had I had a different cancer, I’d be dead now and all people would say is I should have had insurance. On zero cash income, that’s a mean feat. And if I had had insurance, the copays would have bankrupted me. And “insurance” (Ponzi is a more accurate appellation) companies, which post impressive profits and screw over both medical practices and their employees, would have hounded me until I was paid up.
I am mindful of and grateful for that “emergency” program. But I also feel the terrible injustice that I got help denied others. I seriously considered refusing Medicaid for that reason.
I would love to hear someone take capitalism to task, because capitalism is predicated on accumulation of wealth without limit or social accountability. And capitalism is an economic topic, not a political one, evidence the contrary notwithstanding, so it’s fair game.
So, you see? Even when I don’t take notes, I’m paying attention.

 

[The Parable of the Rich Fool

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”]

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Good Friday Meditation 2016

Luke 23: 32-34

Two others, also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.

Good Friday meditation offered at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Oak Ridge, TN, March 25, 2016

Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.

Henri Nouwen went to St. Petersburg to see Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son.  While there, he had a misunderstanding with a museum guard.  They had no common language, but eventually it was resolved to their mutual satisfaction and Nouwen says that when he left the gallery several hours later, he looked at the guard and “…saw a man like myself: afraid, but with a great desire to be forgiven.”  (The Return of the Prodigal Son. p.11)  He continues, “Each of us wants to be forgiven.  But even admitting the desire is difficult.  It’s easier to talk about the “need” for forgiveness than it is to admit we yearn to kneel before one who embraces us even when we don’t “deserve” – haven’t “earned” – it.”(p. 12)

Who among us doesn’t “need” forgiveness?  It’s one thing for Jesus to ask God to forgive “them,” but among us humans, there is no “we” and no “they.”  Therefore, if I pray, “Father, forgive them,” I am really praying, “Father, forgive US.”  “Forgive ME.”  And that’s a hard prayer . But this is Jesus’ prayer, not mine.  And Jesus, though one of “us” is also of God.

If we look at the Bible for a moment as a series of variations on the theme of God’s ceaseless call to those beloved – that would be every created being – God consistently reminds us to welcome the stranger and to care for the poor and the oppressed.  God never instructs us to calculate their net worth before showing mercy.

Yet instead of welcoming and caring, we judge.  We do to others and, frequently, to ourselves, what God does not do to those who seek succor.  For me to admit that I long to be welcomed threatens my “objectivity” and the self I project to the world.  Rather than make myself vulnerable, I maintain a careful distance.  I so want to maintain some control over my spiritual journey that I cannot unbend enough to be open to God or my neighbor.  This protects me from unwelcome opportunities.  And from  –  which might be more welcome  –  friendship, purpose,… forgiveness.

Sometimes we talk of being “co-creators” with God.  I’ve never been comfortable with that idea.  “Co” implies equal status with the Creator, and that’s a level of responsibility way beyond me.  But I do think we’re “sub-creators,” in a relationship similar to that of a sub-contractor to a contractor.  We are after all, God’s hands, eyes, and feet in this world.  As sub-creators, we work to the Creator’s plan.  We have frequent opportunities for originality, but always in a context.  Many of us work together on the project; sometimes in concert, sometimes at apparent cross-purposes.  Yet we do our best to cooperate, trusting that it will all come ‘round right.

Jesus was crucified to reify the limitlessness of God’s love.  You’d think after two millennia we would have caught on.  But still, Jesus prays from the cross, “Father, forgive them…” . And here’s the thing:  on some deep level, we get it; yet too often we choose to act as if we don’t, preferring our own plans to God’s less comprehensible ones.

So. We judge, we separate, we work at cross-purposes.  We award ourselves the status of full partner rather than journeyman.  And still we are too afraid to admit our vulnerability, even to ourselves.  And still we long for forgiveness.  For that strong, warm embrace.

Someone asked retired Bishop John Spong, “How can we forgive our enemies?  Should we, even if they have committed atrocities?”  He responded:

“Desmond Tutu’s great insight was that there are no conditions on forgiveness.  The ‘even if’ part of this question means that the questioner is not talking about forgiveness.”  He goes on to remind us that the power of unconditional forgiveness transformed the entire nation of South Africa, “in a way that can only be described as miraculous.”

This reminds me that until God gives up on Creation I certainly cannot; and that humans sometimes do Godly work.  When they do, it is awe-inspiring.

No conditions to God’s forgiveness.  Not for me.  Not for the oppressed.  Not for the oppressor.  That’s what Jesus prays.

Come.  God’s forgiving embrace awaits.

References:

Nouwen, Henri. The Return of the Prodigal Son: a Story of Homecoming. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Circle of Atonement website: https://www.circleofa.org/library/course-meets-world/power-unconditional-forgiveness/

 

 

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Encounter with the Future Present

I had my first encounter with the ITM (Interpersonal Teller Machine) last week and, while the transaction itself was successful, I left feeling depressed. Here’s why:

  1.  I’m talking to a REAL PERSON through an electronic interface! Not a robot, but someone who was likely interrupted from another task by my imperious summons. This is creepy and feels downright rude. Adding injury to insult, her image is small and fuzzy, not like the crisp graphic avatar a robotic voice might sport. 
  2.  There is no illusion of privacy; I’m talking to a screen on a wall. Anyone passing by can overhear our conversation, including my account number and details of my transaction. In a face-to-face contact, the teller reads my account number from the check while we catch up on the weather and politics.
  3.  There’s no sense of human contact. I have to repeat everything I say to her because the audio is not up to snuff and (to be fair) because I have an inhibition that prevents my shouting out personal information — like my account number and details of my transaction — in public spaces. It feels as though everyone in the lobby is forced to overhear my business. How can they not hear it? Maybe that’s why the building is made of entirely hard surfaces — so that sound bounces around so much it’s hard to distinguish individual sounds. Of course, this requires people to talk louder to be understood, which increases the sounds bouncing around, which…. An unintended consequence?
  4.  I feel bad for Jennifer. (Yes, the human teller has a name.) I’m not sure why, but I feel the enforced distance (which was a couple hundred yards of real distance) devalues both her and her work. Irrational, perhaps, but why is the poor woman sequestered? How long before she joins the surplus labor force?

 I am thrilled by online chats with people around the world, from the privacy of my home. The technology that makes Skype and FaceTime possible is beyond cool. Maybe I wouldn’t mind the ITM if I could access Jennifer from home and deposit my physical check in comfort and privacy. But driving to the bank to be stood in front of a screen (which I must address at louder volume than my street voice) just feels like exploitation. For me and for Jennifer. We are both secondary to the flashy new technology that is being foisted upon us for someone else’s profit. Today, I have a choice, though Jennifer may not, but how long before this impersonal interpersonality becomes the norm?

I’m not much for interim technology; that’s why owning a Prius doesn’t interest me. (Now, a Tesla, or even a Leaf — that’s another story!) Perhaps the ITM is the interim leading to check deposit from my recliner. What we remember as great leaps are  frequently the terminus of lots of smaller hops. And capitalism requires people buy into the interim phases in order to fund the next phase. I’m not willing to participate in exploitation of customers and workers for a few bank owners’ short-term gains.

So be it; I’ll wait patiently for the human teller behind the counter, just over there, until the HITM (home interactive teller machine) is ready for testing. I rather hope it’s a long time coming.

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Advent, Again

An Advent meditation on, “The Lord is near; do not worry about anything.” Continue reading

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A Splinter in the Brain, Part 2 – Prayers of the People

Dear Craig,

While I think I understand the impulse that inspires St. Stephen’s to pray for all members in the armed services by name I, personally, am uncomfortable with the practice. This is partly because I wouldn’t want my name, or my child’s or any family member’s  announced publicly each and every week for years and years, in any context. I can manage that as another instance of different cultural norms and, consequently, my problem.

However, there is a deeper, more disturbing issue. I don’t know who sets the details of liturgy in the parish, so I’m sending this to you.

Some of those in the U.S. military are occupying sovereign nations, confronting civilians daily with the threat of force of arms, as well as the terror inflicted by drone strikes and acts of [often unsanctioned] nastiness. Yet we don’t pray for the lands occupied, nor do we pray for a speedy and just end to the violence, except in the the most general terms. If we’re going to name names, perhaps we should include those on the receiving end of U.S. military operations: the  Iraqi people, the people of Afghanistan, the Yemeni people, the Okinawans, … 

When I hear that list of names, I am struck by how long it is for so small a parish. The only prayer I can muster is of repentance for the unwarranted violence Americans have fomented around the world, especially in the last 14 years; a plea that the hearts and souls of all – perpetrators and victims (and spectators) alike – may be healed; and that the sorry specimens running the show may, at long last, get over their hubris and accord others the respect and justice they think they deserve. I hear none of that in the reading of the list.

People of the Way calls the Church to look at the needs of those coming hard on our heels. Perhaps, even though many of us have solid careers behind us, we should be praying for those who serve to improve working conditions in Tennessee, or stop the gutting of public education and other public services. There is a link between poor educational opportunities, poor preparation, a poor job market and increased interest in military service.

I am not against military service. In fact, I believe ALL Americans should be required to contribute a year or two to public service, with the military one option among many. I am, however, against glorifying military service above other callings or jobs. Especially in a sanctuary. Especially in a litany almost as long as the rest of the Prayers of the People.

I saw this collect yesterday and thought it would fit well after that litany of local folks in U.S. military uniforms:

A prayer penned by Dionysius reads,“O God the Father, Origin of Divinity, good beyond all that is good, fair beyond all that is fair, in whom is calmness, peace, concord: Heal the dissensions that divide us from one another, and bring us back into the unity of love that resembles your divine nature.”

What do you think? Should we acknowledge the suffering of our neighbors equally with the service of our members? Should we reflect in our public prayers on what “the unity of love that resembles [God’s] divine nature” might look like?

Regards,

Victoria

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A Splinter in the Brain

Chris Visminas, Episcopal priest and Church historian, once led a discussion of Liturgy in my home parish. The usual complaint about liturgy is that because it’s the same — or practically the same — week in and week out, one can mumble one’s way through it without engaging. True, said Chris, but the beauty of it is that, on occasion, a bit of liturgy will rise up like a splinter and lodge itself painfully in the brain. And it will remain there until dealt with. I have found this to be true. Annoyingly so. No matter how hard I try, there’s always a bit of something worrying me. I’m pretty much over the creeds; they are so firmly rooted in their origins that I’ll never wrest much from them. But that leaves a whole lot.

This week, it was the Prayers of the People, Form I, as offered in the parish where I currently worship. (See photo for snippet and http://www.bcponline.org/HE/pop.htm for complete text.) It has been irritating my mind for two weeks and now it’s risen to consciousness. We use Form I during Advent. The leader gives the call and the congregations responds, “Lord, have mercy.” All perfectly ordinary. But look at these two calls, taken from their places in the litany so you can see them together:

Leader: For (insert military prayers here), let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord, have mercy.

****

Leader: That we may end our lives in faith and hope, without suffering and without reproach, let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord, have mercy.

First, let’s look at praying for the military. In this parish, everyone serving in the military is named every week, followed by a fairly lengthy prayer for their protection. I don’t care for it but I can live with it. The parish is located in a place that came into existence as a consequence of war, so maybe that’s fitting. And maybe it’s a good thing to regularly remind us how many of our young people are employed in military service. Those who know them personally can include them in their prayers, send them notes, beseech God for their safe and rapid return. Since I don’t know any of them, I listen with awe to the length of the list; this is a small church in a small denomination in a small town, after all.

Then, a few seconds later we pray that we, personally, may die in comfort (“without suffering and without reproach”). What’s that? I want to die in peace and comfort, but I’m OK with the violence and chaos our “all volunteer” military personnel give and receive? I’m OK with those who don the uniform of Empire and go to any of our 700 bases abroad to “assist” the locals and risk getting blown up or shot, many in hopes of learning a trade or funding an education thereby? How can I, with any sense of justice, demand a peaceful end when I passively acquiesce to the violence endemic to the United States’s Endless War? How can I claim peace for my own end when so many return from war physically maimed or emotionally broken? And when our support for veterans seems to end with flowery phrases about their “patriotism” and “sacrifice”?

Asking the Lord to have mercy on them — on the young men shooting into homes out of fear; on the young women living in as much fear of the men in their units as of the “enemy”; on the officers covering up soldier suicides, sexual assaults, killing of civilians (euphemistically known as ”collateral damage”); on all who suffer from the corner-cutting of greedy, unaccountable private contractors who do so much of the work formerly done by real soldiers; on the recruiters who go into our schools and misrepresent military service to poor, idealistic kids — is an abdication of our responsibility for the mess they’re in, in our nation’s name. A more appropriate response might be, “Lord, bring them home,” or “Lord, teach us peace”. I’d like to add “now” but that might be asking too much of the Church, especially in this town.

The more I reflect on “That we may end our lives in faith and hope, without suffering and without reproach…,” the more distant from recent American experience it sounds. We die slowly, expensively, consuming resources that place us beyond suffering long before our bodies fail. As pensions and good medical insurance succumb to the greed of administrative corporations (fund managers and insurance and pharmaceutical companies, for example), dying will become either faster and more painful or more stressful as our heirs worry about paying for our sedated end. Who, besides the richest among us can aspire to die “without suffering”? As for “without reproach,” who but a middle-class white man, that most endangered creature, would even consider the possibility? It’s such a shallow, selfish, and silly prayer.

Or am I missing some deep irony here? I hope not. Lord, have mercy.

The Book of Common Prayer was last revised in 1979, and those revisions are the result of years of hard work. Consequently, the language reflects norms that are almost half a century out of date. It may be time for another revision, though I don’t think that’s a particularly good use of resources at the parish level. It might be helpful for parishes, especially those lacking a cohesive public mission, to informally revise the prayers to reflect the urgency of our collective need to return to justice, peace, and the common weal.

PoP formI0001

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