Clarity

 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26)

Today is one of those liturgical and national days that pulls us in several different directions. We are in the final days of Eastertide. American readers of this blog will be observing Memorial Day today. And then the daily office readings give us this, in the Gospel reading, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60). That’s a pretty harsh saying on any day, but especially today, a day set aside to remember those who have died serving in their nation’s armed forces. How do we square all these different angles?

In this hard saying, Jesus is telling people not to slow down, because there was urgency. He had clarity of purpose, and that purpose was pushing him toward Jerusalem. Anything that was not in line with Jesus’ mission was to be cast aside. So often, when Jesus says hard things, it is because he leaves little room for “nice” or “convenience.” Our theme this week — that stark Woe condemning people of whom others speak well — is right on point. We can’t spend our time worrying about pleasing others for the sake of pleasing others.

So where does that leave Memorial Day? It seems to me that this day very much has an honored place in our national and even our religious life, so long as we remember its purpose. Today is not about a day off from work or a sale at the mall. Today is not a day to stir up patriotic fervor for its own sake. No, today is to remember and to give thanks for those who have died in service to their country. We Christians might also pray for peace, yearning for a day when war is a distant memory, for a day when we no longer have to mourn the loss of God’s precious people in the cause of war.

How might our Christian life change if we had Jesus’ clarity of purpose?

Scott Gunn is an Episcopal priest and executive director of Forward Movement, a ministry that seeks to inspire disciples and empower evangelists. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his spouse, Sherilyn Pearce, who is also priest, and their social media canine, George T. Dog. Scott blogs at www.sevenwholedays.org.

Dangerous and Scary Stuff

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26)

This is one of those scripture verses that cuts away at the very idea that being Christian is about being nice. I was raised in the church, and I was always taught that our behavior should be well regarded. “If you do _____, people will talk about you.” It was a warning.

But the Gospel says just the opposite. Or, rather, it applauds the idea of offending a few people. “If you do ____, people will talk about you.” It is how we followers of Jesus are meant to live.

Scandal for its own sake isn’t the point. However, the Gospel demands things from us that are almost guaranteed to be offensive to others. Talking about forgiveness in the face of evil will be offensive to some. Inviting a homeless person into a home is offensive to some. Insisting that wealth must be given to those in need is offensive to some. Focusing on grace over justice is offensive to some.

If we are living in a way that everyone around us looks on approvingly, we’re almost certainly not rocking the boat enough. If you don’t believe me, read the Gospels. Jesus was always getting himself in trouble. His followers were always getting themselves in trouble. The saints of the church were always getting themselves in trouble.

Jesus talked to the wrong people. Jesus said that might and power are the wrong way to live in the world. Jesus got chased out of the synagogue for suggesting that the kingdom of God – a complete upending of the world order – was near.

Do people speak well of you? Have you ever rocked the boat in a way that scandalized others? How did that feel?

It’s dangerous and scary stuff. But whenever I manage to have the courage to do it, my sense is that the kingdom of God has come near.

Scott Gunn is an Episcopal priest and executive director of Forward Movement, a ministry that seeks to inspire disciples and empower evangelists. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his spouse, Sherilyn Pearce, who is also priest, and their social media canine, George T. Dog. Scott blogs at www.sevenwholedays.org.

When We Have Nowhere Else to Turn

“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”   -Luke 6:25

Is this hopeful at all ?

Were I to brag about an unpopular opinion, the only one I really have (aside from an undying love for black jellybeans, which are the best, and I will hear no objections) is that Revelation is a fantastic and moving book of the Bible.

It is, may I suggest, the black licorice of the Bible.  Strong point of view, in your face, in need of explanation, but then you love it with a deep and abiding love.

Like Revelation, the ‘woes’ of Luke’s beatitudes have a certain licorice quality.  They are not, shall we say, comforting upon first read.  It is not great to be told that you will one day mourn, or go hungry.  This sort of thing does not fill the reader with the inexpressible joy of living.

However, Jesus wasn’t talking to us right here.  Jesus was talking (and Luke was writing) to a group of persecuted, starving, hiding-in-caves-so-as-not-to-be-killed group of Christians who were not convinced they would live to see the sunrise.  They literally were hungry.  They literally were mourning for friends and family that they had lost.

So, for them, the idea that God was profoundly on their side was joyous news.  The idea that one day, God would intervene in the injustice oppressing them and turn the tables on the wealthy empire that seemed so invincible was no less than a miracle.

The woes of Luke reinforce the idea that God sides ultimately with the oppressed.  And to the extent that there is something broken in need of fixing inside each of us, God sides with us too, those parts of us when we most need it.  While this challenges the comfort and material privileges we like to depend on, for the times when we have no where else to turn, Jesus reassures us that God is still on our side.

Megan Castellan is our writer this week. She serves as Assistant Rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri, and diocesan youth coordinator for the Metro Kansas City area.  Her ongoing adventures and strong opinions are chronicled in her blog Red Shoes, Funny Shirt  and on Twitter @revlucymeg. In her spare time, she enjoys singing, playing with yarn, throwing jellybeans at politicians she disagrees with on TV, and cheering on KC-based sportsball teams.

 

Being Poor Isn’t Really So Bad…and other Hallmark Cards

“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”   -Luke 6:25

I have a sick and twisted fascinating with sympathy cards.  Or, more specifically, with the sick and twisted theology frequently on display within sympathy cards.  Cliches like “Tears bring rainbows!”, “Your departed loved one is now a star in the sky!”, or “Everything happens for a reason!” fascinate me for hours in the Hallmark store, and when I manage to find a sympathy card that I don’t want to rip to shreds, I buy many copies at a time.

It is with this hobby in mind that I notice that the Beatitudes are decidedly un-pastoral–at least in a modern, Hallmarkian sense.  When speaking to the poor, or the meek, and addressing their plight, Jesus doesn’t attempt to explain it away.  He doesn’t try to tell them that being poor really isn’t so bad; he tells them that one day, they won’t be poor anymore.  And conversely, when he addresses those currently full, he tells them that one day, they will be hungry.  The underlying idea is that being poor is bad.  Full stop.  Being hungry is also bad.  And it is bad because when you are poor, and when you are hungry, you suffer.  Jesus doesn’t try to explain it away, or spiritualize it into something else.  He doesn’t pull any opium-of-the-masses-magic on this.  In the scheme of the Beatitudes, there are negatives in this world, and there are positives.  Being hungry is definitely a negative.

It is a weird, privileged, preoccupation we have with spiritualizing these lines into something else.  Perhaps because we, as (mostly) middle-class, comfortable, and powerful Christians in this country don’t have a whole lot of direct experience with actually being poor, or hungry for very long.  The situations Jesus describes are a good deal removed from most of our daily lives, and so, in order to relate, we flip some things around, because, after all, we want to be included in the good stuff too!

However, the danger we run with that theological rearranging is that we end up excusing some really awful circumstances that are in our control to change.  When we spiritualize poverty, that obfuscates actual poverty.  When we construct ‘hunger’ as ‘wanting spiritual nourishment’, that prevents us from addressing those who are actually without food.  In our bid to be included, we may trample those who need care the most.

(PSA: if you’re looking for some amazing sympathy cards, might I recommend these from Emily McDowell?  Some of the language is adult, but the theology is on point.)

 

 

Megan Castellan is our writer this week. She serves as Assistant Rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri, and diocesan youth coordinator for the Metro Kansas City area.  Her ongoing adventures and strong opinions are chronicled in her blog Red Shoes, Funny Shirt  and on Twitter @revlucymeg. In her spare time, she enjoys singing, playing with yarn, throwing jellybeans at politicians she disagrees with on TV, and cheering on KC-based sportsball teams.

Accidental Poverty

“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”   -Luke 6:25

My favorite part of being a priest is listening to people’s stories.  All people, whether they know it or not, have remarkable stories, and you can learn a lot from listening.

One thing I’ve noticed in listening to the people who pass through our food pantry in particular, is how accidental poverty is.  One person drove long haul trucks, another lived with her family in a lovely suburban home.  One little old lady worked for years at a retail store.  But then–Something Happened, and everything changed.    An illness, a death in the family, an unexpected job loss–something happens, and suddenly, the promised American Dream of financial security for people who do the right thing and work hard goes up in smoke. And they arrive here, in my church’s food pantry.

No one expects to be poor, to rely on the kindness of others for survival.  Especially in this country, we are told from birth that poverty can be easily avoided if you just play by the rules.  Poverty, the culture tells us, is less a run of bad luck that could happen to anyone, and more something that you deserve, by making bad choices.  Good, responsible people don’t end up poor, the thinking goes.

Yet, here stands Jesus, telling us that those who are full now will be hungry.  And those who are hungry will one day be fed.  Jesus disconnects ‘deserving’ from the notion of poverty in the beatitudes, and reminds us that our call to be compassionate must extend to all, because we all may be hungry one day.

Megan Castellan is our writer this week. She serves as Assistant Rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri, and diocesan youth coordinator for the Metro Kansas City area.  Her ongoing adventures and strong opinions are chronicled in her blog Red Shoes, Funny Shirt  and on Twitter @revlucymeg. In her spare time, she enjoys singing, playing with yarn, throwing jellybeans at politicians she disagrees with on TV, and cheering on KC-based sportsball teams.

Excess

“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”   -Luke 6:25

On the third Saturday of each month, the young adults of St. Paul’s and I operate a feeding program.  It is meant to be a supplement to all the others; the name is Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program, and it is administered through the state by the USDA.  The state receives block grants to purchase excess food from American food producers, and then give them out once a month.  Because the emphasis is on excess, the food available varies widely, and with little rationale.  For a year running, we had more instant mashed potatoes than we could deal with.  I threatened that if another box of mashed potatoes entered my church, I would mix them all up and make a snowman in protest.  For another 7 months, we had 4 types of cranberry products each month: dried cranberries, frozen cranberries, cranberry juice, and cranberry sauce.  (We also had Cheerios and some frozen blueberries.  For variety.)

The frustrating nature of what we have on offer each month  seems mostly to bother the volunteers.  The patrons, I think, have been through this rodeo and have adjusted their expectations. Every month, I survey the parade of fruit juice, peanut butter, and carbs, and wonder how on earth anyone with a chronic illness is supposed to survive on this food.  Every month, the volunteers and I hand out the food to cheerful and excited patrons, who explain excitedly to us what they plan to cook with it. “This here cranberry concentrate?  That’s real good poured over ice cream.  Like a sundae but better!” “Y’all tried these eggs right here?  5 dozen real eggs, just frozen in a container!  You could make some real good french toast with this, I bet.”

While I still would beg my congressional representatives on bended knee to figure out a better way to feed people, I think a powerful part of what we do on Saturdays is that conversation. Swapping recipes changes the dynamic–we’re no longer Nice Privileged People Helping the Poor.  Now, we’re People, who are on the same team, fighting the same fight against hunger.

Megan Castellan is our writer this week. She serves as Assistant Rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri, and diocesan youth coordinator for the Metro Kansas City area.  Her ongoing adventures and strong opinions are chronicled in her blog Red Shoes, Funny Shirt  and on Twitter @revlucymeg. In her spare time, she enjoys singing, playing with yarn, throwing jellybeans at politicians she disagrees with on TV, and cheering on KC-based sportsball teams.