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Screwtape Letters, continued

When I was in high school, I had to read the Screwtape Letters for an English assignment. I unabashedly loved them, and I didn’t like the other CS Lewis I had read.** There was humor, there was some solid theology, and there was some solid worldbuilding.

It was towards the end of the year, and the teacher gave us an option of either writing a straightforward essay on the book, or writing our own version of the Letters. I wrote my own version. In my rendition, a demon named Headley Gristmill creates the 2000 election disaster in order to test the faith of a Palm Beach County retiree named Bobo who lived in Whispering Palms Leisure Park. Bobo is unaffected, primarily because he thinks the word ‘chad’ is hilarious, and figures the influx of lawyers to his locale will give his lemonade and pickle stand more business.***

You know–normal stuff.

In recent days, I saw the fake Screwtape letters meme travelling around Facebook and felt the time had come to perhaps revive my satire. So, here is Screwtape Letters, continued!

** I KNOW. I KNOW. Revoke my Anglican card right now. In my defense, the Chronicles of Narnia are a really transparent allegory that gives short shrift to the female characters which irked me, even as a child.

***FYI: The character of Bobo and his friends at Whispering Palms went on to have several other adventures which I also wrote about. Look, some people get bored and do drugs, or drink. Me, I invent characters that amuse me and write bonkers letters from them.

Helldate July 25, 2016

Young Scrimshaw,

It has not, perhaps, escaped your notice that I have not written you since the Great Defeat some years ago–when I, Headley Gristmill, first attempted to entrap one devastatingly simple denzien of Florida, only to meet with utter defeat. My downfall was great; my penance severe. I have only now, you will see, have returned from that pit of despair known as the waiting area of the Milwaukee Airport, wherein I have spent the last sixteen years in various and sundry minute temptations and irritations: flight delays, gate changes, inventive TSA regulations, and my personal invention–overhead storage that fills up in an instant.

While such nagging irritants does more to draw the humans away from the Enemy than nearly anything else, I felt that such monotony was beneath me–a descendant of some of the most fiendish minds of our times. Would Lady Gristmill be proud to see me administer fees for checked baggage? Would Undersecretary Hertzmunster VonBrine be pleased to hear me coax another infant to scream through a redeye flight? Nay. Blood (and maggots, but I digress) will triumph!

And so, I have emerged from my Wisconsin cocoon to undertake a new feat–one which, if I am successful, will prove more destructive to the Enemy than anything attempted in recent memory. (Except the invention of Jar Jar Binks. I remain jealous of that genius bit of devilry.)

I give you: your drunk uncle at Thanksgiving.

Think of it, Scrimshaw! The reality show blowhard postures about greed, hatred, and malice, while the cheers of good American citizens ring out across the countryside! Ah, it fills the cavernous void within my chest with delight just thinking of it.

The genius of this plan, however, is not the candidate. No–any mere imp may propose a highly irritating politician. Do not think so lowly of me! It is rare indeed that we find a person willing to echo our tenants so loudly or with such fervor, but no! Drumpf himself is not the crux of my plan. He is incidental.

Rather, the genius of the plan is what comes next–what creeps across the country in thousands of incidental ways. The mistrust that unfolds between friends, as their differing political views are now cause for alarm. The fear is unleashed against the Muslim, Latino, Black, and pretty much every other minority community. (Our Donald covers them all, doesn’t he?) The apathy that causes formerly engaged citizens to give up because they cannot take the ugliness and disappointment anymore. These, these, dear diary–are the true prizes. They are what will turn the people of this land away from the Enemy.

Do bear in mind, Scrimshaw, that the Enemy’s chief commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. How better to turn people from this law, from the disgusting, weak-hearted law of Love, than to spread hatred, fear, and finally–apathy?

Once this plan meets with success, Scrimshaw, do remind me to regale you with tales of my tempting of Shari Lewis. Such a drubbing I gave to that damnable sock puppet.

Your dedicated cousin-twice removed,

Headley Gristmill

Real Estate

When I was a young kid, my brother and I would recite scraps of movie dialogue to each other, over and over. We didn’t know what anything meant, but we liked the sound of the words all in a row. One of our favorite shows we memorized was Charlie Brown’s Christmas.

At age 4, I didn’t get any of the jokes, and I didn’t understand the touching ending. But I knew that I liked when Lucy lists off that long string of psychological fears, and finally Charlie Brown yells THAT’S IT!!!! to pantaphobia (the fear of everything.) My tastes were simple.

Aside from a fondness for assigning labels to mental disorders, Lucy also taught me that real estate is always preferable to other gifts. And most of all, that telling the truth is preferable to polite lies, but generally less appreciated.

She and Jeremiah would have gotten along pretty well, I’d bet.

So here’s what I said this week.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan
September 25, 2016
Ordinary Time, Proper 18
Jeremiah, Luke

One of the predominant theories of preaching when I was in seminary was that each sermon should contain good news. Each sermon should be uplifting in some way, should leave the hearer feeling better about God, Jesus, and life than they felt previously. Since, surely, we were to proclaim the gospel, which was, by definition, good news, then each time we preached, we also needed to impart literal good news.
It will probably not surprise you that I ran afoul of this theory pretty early on. Because there are times when good news does not feel particularly good. There are times when good news just feels somewhat far away.
And frankly, I don’t believe in conflating faith with denial.

So I don’t know about you, but this is one of those weeks, (one of those months, one of those election cycles) when good news seems particularly difficult to find. By Wednesday, two more unarmed Black men had been killed by police: one in Charlotte, one in Tulsa. One reading a book, one trying to restart his car. Again. The agonizing drip of death that we’ve seen since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson hasn’t let up, and here we are again. It doesn’t seem to get better. It doesn’t seem to change.
On the one hand, the quiet, peaceful protest of Colin Kaepernick and others, who sit or kneel during the national anthem is decried as being un-American and met with death threats, while on the other hand, the angrier, noisier protests in the streets of Charlotte and Cleveland are denounced as too angry, too loud. And neither seem to move the scales.
Meanwhile, in our political process, the worst impulses of the America of fifty years ago seem to be raging forth again, with no one to check them.
Basically, the world is not laden with good news right now.

So what are we called to do, when the world is awash with brokenness, and hope isn’t easy to grab hold of? What is the faithful response?

See, this is where we need to start talking about real estate. Because–in the first reading today, we have one of my favorite stories from Jeremiah, where in he buys some real estate. Now, this is an odd move for Jeremiah. Usually, we see him yelling at something or someone. Jeremiah made a name for himself in the early days of his career denouncing the Temple cult. At that time in Judah, popular religious lore thought that since the Lord’s Temple was in Jerusalem, the people could do whatever they wanted, and God would still be happy with them, so long as they showed up to worship regularly.
Jeremiah disagreed–and holds forth with something called the Temple Sermon, where he stood outside the Temple itself and told the people streaming in that the Temple wasn’t enough to save them–they actually had to love their neighbors and uphold justice, and do what God asked of them. This did not make him popular.
He appears again, when his prophecy is coming true. He goes to the King of Judah and warns that the rampant injustice and unfaithfulness in the kingdom is going to cause its collapse, and the invasion from Babylon. This bit of bad news he delivers has the king toss him in a big empty cistern for a few weeks.
So, basically, Jeremiah’s career has been built on yelling angrily at important people about important things. And quite frankly, it doesn’t go well for him. The people don’t listen. The king doesn’t listen–he gets hauled off to Babylon. The people don’t repent–they die under siege conditions or go into exile themselves. The religious authorities don’t listen–they denounce Jeremiah as a fool and a lunatic. His country ends up in ruins, his people scattered. Really, he fails all over the place.
And yet, before the end of his life, Jeremiah does this weird real estate transaction we hear about today. He’s in jail, but he goes to his servant and asks him to purchase a plot of land in Judah, and then to bury the deed to keep it safe. Then he heads out into the Babylonian Exile, to die in captivity.

This seems pointless. He’s never going to use that land. Never going to live on it, never build a house, never grow a vegetable garden. He is going to grow old and die away from his homeland and never see it again. It’s a waste.
But Jeremiah is buying the land, not as a solid investment, but as a statement of hope. And hope always seems foolish in the moment. Jeremiah buys that land because one day, his people will again live in the land in peace. He won’t, and maybe his kids won’t, maybe their kids won’t either, but one day, someone will. And he believes in that day. One day, God will keep the promise.
See, that is what faith is. Faith is acting on the promise God makes to us, regardless of whether we see results. Faith is continuing to do what God calls us to, regardless of whether we see things changing. Faith is buying that land, regardless of whether we will be the ones to benefit.
The measure of our faith is not what we achieve. We aren’t responsible for results–God handles those. Our job is whether we do what God asks of us. It’s whether we follow where Christ leads us. Our job right now isn’t to worry about whether it works.
Right now, our job is to be faithful. That’s it. That’s all we can do. We can do what God asks of us. We can pray for those struggling against injustice. We can listen to those speaking out about their own experiences. We can learn more about how systemic and institutional racism works, and how we White people have benefited. We can do justice, and love mercy, and take up the cause of the orphan and widow in the gates of the city.
But whether it works? Whether people listen? Whether it’s enough? That’s not up to us. That’s up to God.
God takes care of the results. Not us. God takes care of bringing fruit out of our efforts; not us. We may not live to see our work pay off, we may never see police brutality erased, or gun violence done away with. We may never see a day when all races and ethnicities can trust each other again in our lifetimes.
But if we remain faithful to the call God has given us, if we remain faithful to acting as Jesus would have us act in the world, then someday this will happen. Someday, God will reach through our tiny efforts, and bring about the justice and peace we all long for, for the generations behind us.
Today, we don’t remember Jeremiah as a failure. We remember him as a great prophet who spoke the truth when it was difficult and scary. We remember him as someone who gave his life in service to God’s call, and who ultimately helped save the soul of the people of Israel.
Jeremiah wasn’t a failure–his success just outlived him. May we keep the faith in these times, and may people someday say the same of us.


Acts8 BLOGFORCE: Stewardship and Anxiety

This is in response to the Acts8 BLOGFORCE! challenge question around stewardship.  

I have a phobia around money. I don’t think this is unique to me–lots of people, I’m sure, have similar hang-ups. I am convinced that I will never have enough money, that I am using money incorrectly, and that I am a Bad Person for the ways in which I spend money. And so opening the little banking app on my phone fills me with the cold sweats.

I know where this comes from. I survived several periods in my life where I could not make ends meet–and trips to the grocery store or to the doctor were delayed until the next paycheck came through. I also grew up in a family where the reason given as to why we didn’t have the things the people around us did was ”people make different choices with their money.” So, I got the message that if I couldn’t make ends meet, it was because I had done something wrong. Money became, for me, a stand-in for my moral worth.

Curiously, despite money having all this moral weight in my brain, I never heard much in church about money. There was the annual stewardship sermon, which implored us to give money to keep the building heated and the lights on but not much else.

It was in seminary, with the brilliant (and now of blessed memory) Terry Parsons, who started to change my mind about money. Stewardship, as she explained it, was not an annual event designed to pay the bills–stewardship was how you lived your life.

As she told it, everything we have is a gift from God. Despite what culture says, we don’t earn what we have, and we don’t deserve it. Our material possessions are free gifts, which we are called to be faithful stewards of so that the mission of God can prosper.

That was a really big deal for me. For the first time, someone was contradicting the idea that good morality equated to economic prosperity, that I had picked up. In Terry’s view of the world, having money or not having money wasn’t a value judgement. Money (with some major differences in the distribution system!) was more like grace– since we all received it undeservedly, our job was to send it forth just as freely.

And so what did it matter whether I had money or not? Money belonged to God, not me. My job was to put money where God wanted it anyway. Does God want me to have healthcare? Then yes, I should pay that doctor. Does God want people to be able to have a living wage? Then no, I should not shop at WalMart, even though it was cheaper than many alternatives. Does God want the church to survive? Then yes, I should certainly give to my local parish and its mission.

Coming to see money and my material possessions as belonging to God, and not to me was a radical shift in my understanding and comfort level with money. It empowered me to be bolder with my resources, more able to see at work in everything around me–even the things which scare me most.

Blog Force Participant

Perfect Storm

So one of my (many) faults is that I am prone to not taking vacations.  I am bad at vacationing.

I am better at finding an excuse to go somewhere, or visit someone, and I can take time off to Go Do a Thing if I can convince myself it needs doing, but just taking time off to recharge?  I am terrible.

And so it was that in my several years of working full-time, I have never taken a vacation longer than a week.  And those I have taken, I have spent Going and/or Doing.

This year, due to a confluence of events, my summer was much busier than normal.  So much so, that my rector informed me that as I had not succeeded in taking time off during the summer, I would be doing it before the fall started in earnest.  So, I decided to try an experiment–I took 2 weeks off.  2 weeks, in which I did nothing except sleep in, stare at the pets, knit a tea cosy, read a stack of books, and recall that life exists outside of stress, anxiety, and work.

I returned to work on Sept 10, at the deanery meeting, and I came bearing some glorious news, which I now share unto you:  Vacation is effective!

Yes, friends, I hadn’t fully understood its effects before, but let me tell you–2 weeks of not tracking emails, going to meetings, obsessing over details, etc–leads to a lot less crabbiness when you return.  When I walked into church on Sunday, I was so happy to be there, and see all these people that I liked, and do this job that I loved.  There was my choir!  There were my parishioners in their pews!  There was the random homeless guy sleeping on the porch!  Ah, so glorious to be home!

Of course, I returned to preach on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, a minefield of minefields.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

Sept 11, 2016

Ordinary Time, Proper 19

Luke 15

Prepare yourselves for a meta sermon.  OK?

Five years ago, I recall being very overwrought over how to recognize today.  As a college chaplain, I was responsible for planning the weekly service, and I was keenly aware that the tenth anniversary of 9/11 was approaching.  So I agonized–what to do?  I didn’t want to be too over the top, but didn’t want to ignore it either.  Didn’t want to slide into mushy patriotism, but didn’t want to ignore people’s feelings either. 

As I recall, I put something in the prayers, and wrote a sermon. 

And afterwards, at dinner, one of my students commented that he thought it was really fine, my sermon, and what I said–but that he thought all this attention felt rather odd.  “After all,” he pointed out, “I was in first grade that day.  I don’t really remember it.”

I was stunned.  But I thought about it.  My students had been in early elementary school that day, and more–they had been in Arizona–not even out of bed when the planes crashed.  They had quite literally slept through one of the events that, at least for me, divides my life into Before and After. 

After all, I have clear memories on flying on planes before the TSA.  I remember meeting people at the gates in airports.  I have friends who remember skipping class in high school to go wander the halls in Congress to see what politician they could meet (I have weird friends, but the point applies.)  I can remember a time when we weren’t in a state of continuous war. 

My students could not.  The feeling that propelled me, what I was mourning in that service was, for them, an abstraction.  They hadn’t been changed by 9/11–they had never known the difference.

For them–for even more people now–life has always been in the shadow of that event–so much so that it goes unnoticed. The pervasive fear and defensive crouch that felt new when it started, now becomes routine.  We have now always been at war.  We have now always lived with the constant, low-level threat of attack.  We have now always looked with continued, voiced suspicion towards those who profess a different faith. 

And all this is so familiar now, 15 years on, to the point where I wonder if it is possible for us to consider whether this state of being is where Jesus actually wants us to live.

Consider, after all, the parables Jesus tells today. 

The kingdom of heaven, he says, is like a shepherd who realizes a sheep has gone missing.  Or a woman who realizes she’s lost one of her few coins.  And so both abandon everything they have to search out the lost thing. 

Like all parables, I should note, there’s an element of weirdness to this story.  Any sane shepherd is not going to leave 99 sheep to fend for themselves in the wild while he traipses off to search for one sheep that was dumb enough to wander off.  A sane shepherd will feel momentarily bad, figure that sheep is coming out of his pay, and move on. 

But God, Jesus reminds us, doesn’t work like we are used to.  God operates differently, and so God desires for us to operate differently as well.

Both of the characters in these parables experience loss, to some degree.  Both experience trauma.  Granted, it’s the loss of wealth, or a blow to their welfare–not necessarily a literal death.  But loss, nonetheless.

And yet, their response to it, as Jesus outlines a Kingdom-type response, is not to close down.  It’s not to become self-protective.  The widow doesn’t build a better box to hoard her remaining gold.  She doesn’t install a security system for fear someone will come and rob her of what remains.  The shepherd doesn’t invest in a snarling guard dog, or build a better, higher wall to surround and guard his 99 sheep that are left.

Instead, they both risk further.  They become vulnerable, in response to loss. 

Frankly, that’s not the average response to loss, to tragedy.  Usually, what we do is hunker down, close off, and build a fort.  We attack anyone in range so we don’t run the risk of suffering further loss.  Risking vulnerability is the last thing we want to do.

Yet that is precisely how God can work to redeem loss.  That is how God can transform the pain we suffer, when we grieve these injuries.  When we allow God to be with us in our vulnerability, and our suffering, God connects our suffering to that of every other fragile human on this planet.  God reminds us that while we suffer, so does everyone else in some way.  Suffering is always unique, but also always universal.

And slowly, our suffering becomes not just our personal sorrow–but a gateway to empathy.  A bridge to deeper love for God’s creation, and an understanding of the love of God in a new way.

Slowly, we can see each other as fellow creatures in need of love and care like we are.  We come to see that we’re all in this together–children of the same God, who need the same things. 

That’s what happens when we head out in search of the one lost sheep, when we risk enough to find the single missing coin.  The hope of a healed world made whole lies where only that risk will carry us–a place where we rely not on our own defenses, or our own strength, but on the Love of God, and our faith. 

The only way we will get to that world we dream of, the world where all sheep are safe, all coins are saved, and no towers fall–is when we become brave enough to become that vulnerable– when we respond to violence with greater peace.  When we respond to attacks with greater love, and when we see suffering as a call remember our common humanity. 

That’s the world we want.  That’s the world God wants for us.  That’s the world we are called to build.


In which Megan inflicts a horrific Disney earworm upon her congregation

Illustrations are tricky things.  My rector, for example, rarely uses them, and his sermons turn out fine.  It’s a difference of preaching styles.

I, on the other hand, like them–mainly because it’s the way my mind works.  This thing reminds me of that thing, which reminds me of that concept.  However, this can have its pitfalls, because sometimes the image is so weird or idiosyncratic that it distracts from what my actual point was in the first place.  For example, I still remember a sermon from when I was a kid that our associate rector in Virginia preached.  No idea what the point was, but it had something to do with baby turtles, and the high infant mortality rate as they made their way to the ocean.  Lo, these 20+ years later, I don’t remember the point, but I remember those turtles!

This particular week, I ran into a similar problem–let’s make the whole congregation sing a popular Disney song!  Although–there was a visiting 4 year old girl in the parish.  When she heard mention of Elsa, her head popped up, and she was IN IT for the rest of the sermon.


Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 26, 2016

Ordinary Time, Proper 8

Luke 9:51-62


Before I even begin this sermon, I must beg your forgiveness, my family in Christ.  The only appropriate illustration I could think of, and believe me when I tell you that I thought long and hard, for many days, on this problem–the only illustration I could think of was from a certain children’s Disney movie named Frozen.  This movie is a generous adaptation of the Snow Queen fairy tale, and the Snow Queen herself, Elsa, suffers rejection and misunderstanding as a result of her special “I can freeze things” powers.  But finally, she leaves the castle and her village behind, and decides that she will direct her energy towards being awesome on her own terms.  And then, friends, she sings “Let it Go”.  A song about–letting it go.  About breaking with people and places who don’t feed your soul, and resolving to be who you are anyway.  Which is a great song, unless countless 4 year olds have been singing it to you for the better part of 2 years, because it is quite the earworm.  And see, now that I’ve mentioned it, the song will be stuck in your heads all day.  Again, I am deeply sorry.  

This story represents a bit of a transition. Up until now, Jesus has been biding his time, healing people, telling stories, and hanging out with the disciples.  But now, prompted by the transfiguration, Jesus has an aim, a purpose.  Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem, metaphorically and somewhat literally.  From here on out, Jesus is headed towards the cross…and all that means.

And that appears to come with some consequences.  When the Jesus Show rolls into a Samaritan town, they aren’t thrilled.  Remember, Samaritans were a Jewish sect who worship not in Jerusalem, but on Mount Gerazim, outside Nablus.  The place of worship was a hotly contested issue.  So the Samaritans were not inclined to be welcoming to a visiting celebrity rabbi who was headed up to Jerusalem to worship.

This irks James and John (who, let me remind you, were nicknamed the Sons of Thunder.) James and John take this opportunity to really live into their nickname, and ask Jesus if they can go all Elijah on the unfriendly Samaritans, and just burn the living crap out of the village.  Jesus yells at them.  And since we’re not told what specifically he says, my guess is that it’s fairly R rated.  Please to recall–calling down fire on your enemies is not something Jesus condones.

But the larger issue comes forward in these little vignettes, as one by one, they encounter people on the way who would like to follow–but have other things to do.  Teacher, I’d love to come along, but what are the accomodations like?  Teacher, I’d love to follow, but can I wrap up some loose ends at work first?  Teacher, I’d love to come, but what will my family think?

And one by one, Jesus informs them that this isn’t for the faint of heart, or for those who get distracted.  Let the dead bury their own dead, he says.  You can’t put your hand to the plow and look back.

Now, this sounds sort of harsh.  It’s easy to see Jesus as being a bit obsessed with his mission here, and having turned off his pastoral sense.  Come on, dude.  The guy’s father just died.  Give him a little slack.

But what Jesus is saying here is also basically what he said to James and John:  Let it go.  Don’t put your energy into something that’s already dead.  Put your energy towards something that’s alive.  

That Samaritan village wasn’t going to welcome them.  That’s ok.  Who would?  Go find them.  That guy’s family has already passed on–nothing he can do to change that.  That’s fine.  What is his life going to be about now?

In other times, Jesus talks about God being a God of the living, not of the dead.  And this is another side of that.  God calls us to not worry so much about problems and people that are intractable.  Don’t hold so tightly to dead things.  Turn towards things that give life, that have possibilities.

In other words, don’t keep banging on closed doors.  Don’t keep doing things that wound your sense of self.  Don’t hang around people who don’t have your best interests at heart.  Don’t waste your time on people, places, and things that don’t add life and health to the world and yourself.  

Because, in this journey towards Jerusalem, we only have so much time.  Jesus is moving with urgency now towards the cross, and we move with urgency in our lives as well, whether we realize it or not.  And with our finite time on this earth, our job is to add life and health to this world–not to waste what little energy we have, in the grand scheme of things, on what will not prosper.

But most of all, this is about trust.  We have to trust that we can let the dead things go, because God can take care of them, so we don’t have to.  God can take care of that person, that project, that issue with which you’ve been struggling so long.  Because God’s job is resurrection.  That’s what God does–and we can’t.  

We can’t breathe new life into dead situations, dead relationships.  But God can.  Our job is to hand these things over to God, and then concentrate on celebrating and encouraging resurrection where we find it.  Where God has already begun to work.  The new, baby green shoots of new life.  That’s our job.

Not to make new life, but to cheer it on.  

So, yes, like Elsa, we have to let some things go.  We have to stand up on an icy mountain and declare independence from death.  And then, we need to have enough faith to trust that God will bring the spring of new life again–and we will be ready when he does.

Again? Again.

I took a class in seminary called ‘Evil, Suffering, and the Liturgy’.  It consisted of heady discussions of different theological ideas about why evil occurred in the world, and religious concepts of suffering, and very practical case studies about how to construct different liturgies around tragic events: suicides, miscarriages, civil emergencies, etc.

It turned out to be the most practical class I ever took.

The massacre at Virginia Tech happened while I was in that class.  I had friends attending Tech at the time, and I had just found out that they were all ok.  When I walked into the classroom, Professor Farwell said, “I know today is hard, and I am sorry to do this to you.  But our assignment today is to figure out your response were you the rector of the parish in Blacksburg.  Because this will be your job.”

What I didn’t figure on is that this would be my job as often as it has been.  It doesn’t get easier; I think it gets harder.

I was beginning a week at camp when the news of Orlando broke.  I said something about it in my homily with the camp staff, and talked it through with shaken and scared youth during the week.  I spent a lot of time on the phone trying to pull together a city-wide vigil at the cathedral.  I did those good church things you’re supposed to do.  But in the end, I am left wondering how many weeks until I have to do this all over again.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 19, 2016

Ordinary Time, Proper 7

1 Kings 19: 1-4 (5-7)8-15a


Cast your minds back–way back several weeks ago. I know lots has happened, but see if you can recall.  Remember last time I talked to you and Elijah was calling down fire from the sky in a contest against the prophets of Baal?  Oh good times.  How young and innocent we all were.


If you missed that Sunday, here’s the fun recap:  Elijah is mad because the people of Israel have again gotten confused (they have the attention span of Dory). And they have started worshipping other gods.  They are encouraged in this by the new queen, Jezebel, who is not an Israelite, and doesn’t worship YHWH, but does worship Baal.  

So, Elijah thinks up a neat contest.  He challenges the prophets of Baal to a fight–whoever’s god sends down enough fire to consume a sacrifice wins.  The priests of Baal try hard, but to no avail.  (They are not helped by Elijah, who taunts them sarcastically the whole time, in some masterful biblical snark.)  Then, Elijah steps up.  He shows off by dousing his offering in water, and THEN calling down fire.  

Contest won.  

And then, he goes even further, and kills all the rival priests, to really make his point.  Elijah is a bit scary.


So that’s where our story picks up–Elijah has just gone all Rambo on some Canaanite priests.  And Jezebel is understandably upset.  So Elijah panics and flees from Mt Carmel (which is up in the north of Galilee) all the way to the southern tip of the Negev desert.  

Unless you have a solid grasp of Israelite geography, it’s hard to understand what he’s doing, but essentially, he’s running away as far as he can absolutely get.  He heads to the ends of the earth, because his actions are catching up with him.  


And once he reaches the desert, he holes up in a cave, and pitches a fit.  I HAVE BEEN SO GOOD AND DONE SO WELL, BUT NO ONE LOVES ME.  LET ME ALONE SO THAT I MAY DIE.  he says.  Elijah is not pleased that his stunt with the Canaanite priests did not work out the way he wanted.  I don’t know what he thought was going to happen–a parade, a festival in his honor, a rededicated people to the service of the Lord, but evidently it did not include exile and an angry queen.  Elijah is annoyed. (Btw, there is no whinier group of people in all creation than either the prophets, or the people of Israel.  It’s amazing.)  So he sits in a cave, in the desert, and pouts.  And waits for God to either kill him or speak to him.  


And God does speak–but not in the right way.  Or not in the way Elijah wants.


Because first there’s a mighty rushing wind, that splits rocks, and breaks the face of the mountain.  But that’s not God.  Then there’s an enormous fire, that wrecks havoc and destruction across the landscape.  But God’s not there either.  And there’s an earthquake, that shakes the ground, and shatters boulders.  But that’s not God either.


Finally, there’s the sound of sheer silence.  


That’s where God shows up.


It’s tempting to read this as “God likes the quiet! Meditation is good!” And that’s perfectly fine. Representing God as a still, small voice is fine.  That inner voice, we do need to listen to that.


But location, as any real estate agent will tell you–is everything. And Elijah is searching for divine reassurance after he’s committed a pretty horrific act of violence. And quite frankly, on this day, on this week, if this is just a story about how God likes quiet walks, and has no comment over acts of murderous rage–we have a big problem.


Because what Elijah did was horrible.  The slaughter of the Canaanite priests is one of the more gruesome stories in scripture.  Elijah might be a prophet of God, but I don’t care who you are, killing a whole bunch of people is not okay. It’s just not, regardless of Elijah’s bravado.


And so watch closely. The violence of nature mirrors the violence that Elijah has been enacting.  The wind, the earthquake, the fire. They destroy creation like Elijah has been doing. And yet, despite what Elijah has been saying, God isn’t present in this violence. God isn’t glorified in destruction.


God shows up in the peace.  God shows up in no act of power, but a total absence of it.  That is where God shows up.


It’s a lesson Elijah struggles with all his life–this is the last we see of him, really.  The next thing he does is go off to name his successor. But lest we be too hard on Elijah, it’s also a lesson we all struggle with.  


The thought that God supports violence, that God is praised when we hate others is pernicious untruth that has persisted through the millennia.  It’s endemic to all of humanity.  God is powerful, therefore God must be glorified when we use our power over others–the story runs.  And we are tempted into believing that the more power we accumulate, through violence, through weapons, through weaponized hate, then the more like an all-powerful god we will become.


We don’t have Baal to tempt us in 2016.  What we have is hatred and violence.  


And this week, in the massacre in Orlando, we see again where these false gods lead.  Not to a just and secure world, but to heartache and pain.  Again and again and again.  Because while hatred and violence might promise relief from the fear that plagues us–they don’t.  And we just end up here again.


The hope that we have is that God is not found through violence.  Indeed, God came among us and became so powerless that Christ suffered a violent death himself.  Because the heart of God is peace.  The will of God is love.  And to prove that point better than anything else, Christ embraced the suffering endemic to our world.  


So what we learn again this week is that God is with us when we suffer.  When we are in pain, when we grieve, God suffers too.   When we suffer loss, God weeps as well–urging us to choose a better way.  And one day, one day, maybe we will.  



Love and Fire

So a few things:

I really did preach in between these two sermons.  But I used notes, and they don’t make a whole lot of sense outside of my head.  Sorry.

I have to thank Deirdre Good, my NT prof from seminary, for this reading of the centurion’s slave story.  I really like her exegesis of it, and so did my parish.  In fact, a couple that’s getting married in October asked to use this gospel at their wedding after this sermon.  Awwwwww.  :)

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

May 29, 2016

Ordinary Time, Proper 3

2 Kings, Luke


I spent the last few days in Las Vegas for a friend’s birthday.  (I realize that this sounds like the start of a joke–priest walks into a casino! But it’s true)  Every evening, we noticed that there was one guy who would place himself on a corner of the Strip with a ginormous cross, and yell at people through a megaphone.  

All the normal stuff–we were all sinners, all going to hell, all in need of a personal relationship with Christ, etc etc.  He was a blast.  

What was interesting about him, was not only his dedication to his shouting, but how ineffective he was at it.  No one stopped to talk to him.  No one paid any attention–the Strip in Vegas, after all, is where you can see pretty much every sort of person God created, wandering around in every sort of weird clothing choice available.  And a guy yelling in front of a giant cross really isn’t the oddest thing to see–especially when he is yelling about how horrible and condemned you all are.  That’s not a good conversation starter.  His method seemed really flawed–and on the last night, he changed his tune.  He yelled about how to preach the gospel was the greatest task one could engage in.  “Oh” I thought.  “This made sense.  He’s not actually out here for us.  He’s doing this for himself.”   


But for some reason, this Yelling! Form of evangelism has remained very popular.  Elijah himself pioneered it, as we see today.  Now–this is an awesome story, because Elijah is the original James Dean of biblical prophets.  He wanders around, annoying the king.  He summons bears out of the woods to carry off kids who make fun of his baldness.  Elijah is great–albeit not a nice guy.  And here is no different.  Israel is again struggling with whether or not to be faithful to God.  The king has married a foreign woman (Jezebel–she’ll earn her reputation in a bit).  And as a result, there’s a lot of political pressure to follow her religion, and not the religion of Israel.  This really isn’t new.  

So Elijah decides to combat this nonsense in flamboyant style–he yells at the opposing priests, taunts their non-existent god, then calls down fire from the sky to consume them.  Then, you can probably imagine him strutting off, really proud of himself, and all he accomplished.  Because, as we all know–nothing converts people to your cause like intimidation and genocide.  


And spoiler alert–worship of other gods continues to be a problem for Israel.  While showy, Elijah’s trick here doesn’t actually solve the problem.  (And remember–just because someone does A Thing in the Bible, does not mean God likes that Thing, or wants us to replicate it.)

We don’t get the resolution of this story until a few weeks from now.  


But I want to point something out. Mount Carmel is where the Elijah story happens–in the north of Galilee.  Capernaum is where the Jesus story happens.  They’re pretty close together.  And growing up in Nazareth, as a good Jewish kid, Jesus would have known this story of Elijah.  Would have gone to the Mountain where it happened.  Would have maybe wrestled with what Elijah did in the name of God.


So it’s in that context that it’s helpful to look at the story from Luke.  Because on the surface, it’s not so complicated–it looks like another healing story.  A Roman centurion has a slave that’s sick, and he wants him to be healed, so Jesus heals him.  No biggie–happens a lot.


But there are some weirdnesses about this story.  First of all, the Roman centurion–a high-ranking army official from the army that was occupying the town–first goes to the Jewish elders for help, and asks them to intercede for him.  He’s definitely not one of them–he’s not Jewish, he’s even part of foreign government sent to oppress the Jewish Israelites, yet he gets along well with the local population.

And also–it’s not usual for an army official to intercede for a slave like this.  The language he uses (in Greek) is pretty emphatic–this part about ‘a slave whom he valued highly’–literally, “who was precious to him”.  The centurion himself refers to the slave as “my boy” which makes it even more unusual.  Slaves were nice to have–but the way this guy fights for his is similar to how parents intercede for their children, or spouses intercede for each other, in other healing stories.  This makes some scholars believe that the centurion has a romantic relationship with the boy–which wouldn’t have been unusual in Greco-Roman culture…but would not have been so proper in nice Jewish culture.


And so, Jesus is basically talking to the sort of person that Elijah would have definitely burned to a crisp.  From most outward appearances, the centurion needs to get yelled at, if Jesus is an old-school prophet.


Yet, that’s not what he does.  Jesus talks to him.  Listens to what he has to say.  And instead of chastising him, or reminding him of how horrible he is–Jesus shows him mercy.  Jesus shows him love, and heals the boy.


Because, it turns out the centurion didn’t need convincing of his unworthiness.  He knew it already.  Getting a lesson in how wicked you are wasn’t what he needed–what he needed was someone to show him the love of God in that moment.  That had the power to transform his life.  


There is enough in the world that communicates how awful we are.  The world doesn’t need more of that.  The world doesn’t need more people screaming about how wretched we are.  What the world needs–what has the power to transform it–is each of us embodying the love of God for one another.  Not waiting for preconditions to be met, not insisting on a level of compliance or righteousness–but simply loving one another.


That changes the world.  That changes lives.  That’s what we’re called to do.