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I preached on Sunday, and we’ll get to that in another post.

But first, I want to talk about Rachel Held Evans.

I never met her, and never really talked with her. I read her books, and her blog. I followed her on Twitter, and she replied to me a few times (which triggered hours of shrieking.) In any logical sense, I didn’t know her.

But when I read her accounts of growing up in the church, questioning her faith, wanting to find a better way–I found myself convinced that she had been reading my mind, somehow. When she talked about her experiences as a young woman with opinions in the church, and how few people knew what to make of her, I put so many underlines and highlights in my copy that it bled through the pages. “Yes!” I thought, “I’m not the only one! She’s like me!”

Tragically, inexplicably, she’s gone now. She died over the weekend, leaving a bereft husband, two tiny children, and a legacy we’re only beginning to understand. She was only 37.

My little corner of the world is in deep mourning. So many clergywomen and progressive Christian friends are heartbroken right now. Not just because Rachel was great at elevating the voices of LGBTQ+ folks and POC that the church has been historically bad at hearing (she was), and not just because she was honestly as humble and generous as her writing made her seem–but I think because she was one voice that showed all of us that we weren’t alone.

This job gets lonely. Not in a “I am stranded on an island!” way, but in a “Wow, I am the only one dealing with all this” sort of way. Problems of leading a church crop up, many of them are confidential, and it’s not always easy to find people who understand how emotional you may get over how much electricity capacity your building currently has, coupled with the frustrating theology being cited by some random congressman on the TV.

When you add onto that the constant, nagging mosquito-bite-itch of being a young woman, of being told in a million ways explicit and implicit that your voice doesn’t matter, that your job is to look pretty and stand over there, please, that Jesus only took men seriously, that women who want to preach are what destroy church unity, you know, that maybe ordained women are ok, but goodness, you aren’t going to keep your hair long, are you?—that loneliness becomes acute. Not only are you lonely, you’re also quite probably a weirdo.

Part of what I valued so deeply about Rachel was how she unabashedly cheered us on. No matter what else was going on, or who else was talking, I could always think to myself, “Ok, but Rachel will say something brilliant and incisive, and she’ll represent us all so well.” She was out there being so awesome, doing such good work, and because she was, I, and so many of us, could feel less alone. Like less of a weirdo.

We get to do that for each other now. We get to show up for each other (especially for LGBTQ folks, and POC, and women). We get to pat each other on the back, remind one another to use the voices God gave us, and cheer each other on.

Because as Rachel taught us: we aren’t alone. We aren’t weirdos. God formed us because someone out there needs these stories. In Rachel’s memory, we need to share them.

Easter Staring Contest!

Easter is like Christmas, in that there is a great temptation to cram in the entirety of Christianity 101 just because you have all these people in front of you who aren’t usually there.

The additional problem of Easter, however, is that it is the emotional conclusion to a story that the liturgy has been building to for the past few days, and 90% of the congregation hasn’t been there for it. So their emotional base is going to be different–even apart from the usual mishmash of the variety of baggage people carry into church.

Me, I decided to double down on what God’s redemption means, and how we see it in the world. I wanted to give people who might be walking in our doors for the first time to have a real taste of who St. John’s was, and the sort of Jesus we talked about around here–not a spiffed-up one for Easter morning.

Also, I really wanted to work in the line about the disciples’ starting the continuing tradition of disbelieving women.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 21, 2019

Easter Day, Year C

John 21

I drive by this one corner on Cayuga Street every day on my commute to work, where there’s this forsythia bush—a big one.  And every day, for the past few months, I’ve sort of glared at it, as I’ve passed.  I stare at the twisted branched intently, kind of slow down a bit each time, squinting to see if I can make out any hint or teeny sign of something that might be called a blossom.  Hoping by my force of will, that I can produce spring, just by snarling up traffic and glaring intently at some bare twigs.  

Spoiler: this doesn’t work. I do not, through my random acts of stubbornness, have the power to make the weather warmer, or speed up the cycles of nature.  However, this knowledge doesn’t stop me.  I still stare at the forsythia bush each time I see it, wanting to catalogue all the tiny changes that announce spring’s arrival, out of the barrenness of winter.  But really, I am aware it arrives without my help at all.  I didn’t produce it; I just witness it.

I don’t know what Mary Magdalene expected when she ventured forth, early on the first day of the week. I don’t know what she was hoping to find.  Perhaps she was consciously trying to keep her expectations limited—caring for the bodies of the dead was (and is) very important in that time and cultural context, and Jesus, after all, had been executed at the whim of the Roman occupiers.  It was both vitally important that someone friendly care for him after death, and very likely that his humiliation had continued through his burial.  So Mary Magdalene raced to bury him properly.  Anoint him properly. See what a horrible job the disciples had done of their ONE JOB, maybe.  No one had had time to do this between the terror of the crucifixion on Friday, worry about being arrested themselves, then the Sabbath, and now.  

So she went, to attend to her friend and teacher’s burial, to witness whatever new indignity life had in store now.  

And just as she is overcome with tears, at the prospect of losing even Jesus’ body, she encounters Jesus himself, alive and well, calling her name. 

The resurrection sneaks up on her, this inbreaking of God’s reign into the depth of Mary’s despair.  Of course she didn’t expect it—who would?  Finding someone who was dead having come back to life is not in the course of human experience.  And yet—there it was.  God bringing new, triumphant life out of horror and sadness. Jesus, calmly looking at her, same as always, and yet entirely, unspeakably different.   God’s powerful love bursting out of that tomb, and proving to be stronger than all the injustice and humiliation that even the Roman Empire can throw at it.

So, she races back to tell the other disciples—I have seen the Lord! He is risen! And the disciples, standing in a troublesome tradition that continues to our very day, cheerfully disbelieve the woman’s testimony. 

And I joke, but again—it’s not all that surprising.  Because, like the Spanish Inquisition, the resurrection is something no one expects.  It is not in our vocabulary in this life.  Our vocabulary, the disciples’ vocabulary, was and is shaped by the empires we inhabit—so the disciples expected, like Mary Magdalene, that Rome had stolen the body to further humiliate it.  (He was a political criminal, after all.)  The disciples expected that they would be arrested any minute as fellow conspirators, they thought that their best bet was to stay indoors, locked away and hidden because that was safer, and they thought that this woman must have lost her mind—because that’s what the empire had taught them.  That some voices are more important than others, that some lives are just more valuable than others, and so justice, right and wrong, all the rest, will be played out on these terms.  There’s no point in hoping for anything more. 

Perhaps that’s why, then, Mary Magdalene goes alone to the tomb, early that morning.  Perhaps that’s why she only can convince Peter and John to go after she tells them her news.  Perhaps the other disciples were still too reluctant to hope, too hesitant to want to risk witnessing either something amazing, or something heartbreakingly disappointing.  

But—when Peter and John are brave enough to go, they, too, witness the Resurrection.  They,too, find, in place of the disappointment and grief they have learned to expect, God’s new life bursting forth.  Once they summon the courage to venture forth, and look.  

Resurrection is decidedly God’s action.  God makes it happen, and only God can bring something good out of the wreck we make sometimes of this world.  God alone can redeem our messes, and yet on Easter, that’s just what we proclaim that God has done.  

Our job, then, is to be brave enough to go out and determinedly look for resurrection, even when it seems unlikely.  Even as the world around us seems constantly trapped in a state of Good Friday, even as we seem perpetually stuck in a cycle of hatred, injustice, oppression, and division, today, we see Jesus emerge from that tomb, and recall again that no matter what is happening in our world now, that God has already assured us that none of the forces that plague us will have the final world.  God alone will have the final world.  In Christ’s resurrection on this day, God has sealed the deal—the forces of evil, the forces of death: the forces of racism, sexism, homophobia, bigotry, poverty, hatred—these will not haunt us forever.  God will defeat them in the end.  As followers of Christ, we need to cling to that empty tomb, and be brave enough to witness it.  Be brave enough to venture out to the tombs of our world—the places with the most hurt.  Be brave enough to go out in the early morning with our spices, hoping to do a little good, bring a little comfort.  Be courageous enough to watch and wait, and do what we can, until one day, through our patience, and witness, we, with Mary, will see the glory of God blazing forth triumphant, and all creation will give back the song—Alleluia, Christ is risen!  

Amen.

Dirty Feet

Last year, Holy Week was my first week at St. John’s. (Weirdly, I recommend this method of starting as a rector. Provided you have enough coffee.) But it meant I basically was hanging on by my teeth the whole time, and stumbling around, praying someone would point me in the right direction.

This year, people kept asking if I Had Opinions. What would I change? What would I upend? It took me a while, but finally, I decided—footwashing!

For whatever reason, the parish previously had no practice of foot washing. None. Zip. Nada. This, I decided, would be the Big Change. This, we would tackle!

So, I asked anyone I could think of who might have Strong Liturgical Opinions–what think you of foot washing? Some said, yes, absolutely! Others said, yes, please describe it in Latin! (Anglo-Catholic streak in our region.) Others said, never done it before, sounds awkward and uncomfortable, but worth a shot!

So here is my “We’re going to wash feet!” sermon.

I should tell you that I expected maybe 5 people to do it–roughly the people whom I had talked into doing it beforehand. About 30 people came forward. Over half the congregation.

I’m so freaking proud of my parish.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 18, 2019

Maundy Thursday, Year C

John

I think everyone knows I have a strong fondness for shoes, yes?  I do. They are my favorite.  I have an absurd number of shoes in my closet, I follow the Shoe Museum in Canada—a thing that exists!—on Twitter, and until this past year, was fairly proud of not owning a pair of sneakers.  (The fact that I now own Merrills and actually wear them is thanks to my husband.)

Feet, on the other hand.  Feet are awful.  So much so, that part of the reason I like shoes so much is because shoes manage to turn something I am self-conscious about (my feet) into something I can enjoy looking at.    

But think about it—feet are intrinsically awkward.  They get beat up from carrying us around all the time.  They smell, usually.  They get dirty fast.  They develop calluses, and odd growths.  If you have any sort of chronic illness, chances are your feet will bear some symptoms of it.  They’re like your hands, only much less useful.  No one wants to see someone else’s feet.

In the ancient world, of course, these issues were heightened.  In a time before regular street cleaning was the norm, people were walking all over creation in open sandals, so their feet picked up all manner of thing.  It was customary, upon entering someone’s house for dinner, for a servant to wash the feet of the guest, as a gesture of hospitality—and of basic cleanliness (you don’t know what those feet have walked in.). 

But not just any servant; the lowest guy on the totem pole.  It was a humiliating task—the sort of task you assigned to a servant that your guests could feel absolutely comfortable ignoring.  A complete nobody.  

So at the Last Supper, in the Fourth Gospel, the disciples are having a very understandable reaction to Jesus.  They’re all having a nice friendly dinner, and all of a sudden, he gets up from the head of the table, and STARTS WASHING THEIR FEET.  Something that is awkward enough, but when your beloved and respected teacher does it? Ew.  No. Jesus is Jesus.  Jesus should not have to endure everyone’s feet!  They want to protect him from their weird feet!

As always, it is Peter who serves as the disciples’ collective Id.  Peter who first refuses to let Jesus wash his feet, and then, when Jesus explains that that won’t work, goes entirely the other way—Then wash EVERYTHING!  Peter may not exactly understand what is happening here.

But after he washes their feet, Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me teacher and you are right, for so I am.  If I have done this for you, you also should go and do likewise.”  The command to wash feet is one of the most direct we get in the gospel—and we get very little in the way of straight talking from Jesus in the gospels.  But he tells us to go and do likewise.  Go, wash feet!  Go, and do it!

When Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, he enters in to their deepest vulnerabilities, and shame, and sits with them there.  He lovingly attends to their brokenness and their awkwardness, the places where they are ashamed and wounded, and he comforts them.  He serves them in their least pretentious humanity.  

They, in turn, have to learn how to be open enough to receive that care.  How to be vulnerable enough to allow Christ to minister to them, even in the places where they would rather not acknowledge at all.  And then, they have to learn how to go out and serve others, as dirty and as awkward as they were, who also need their feet washed.  

Jesus told them to go and do likewise, so we, here, tonight are going to do just that.  In a moment, once I get done talking (!), I’m going to walk down there and stand at the foot of the stairs with water and a basin.  And I invite you, if you’d like to, to come forward, so I can wash your feet.  And I know that may sound awkward and embarrassing and it is!  That’s kinda the deal.  Christ calls us into awkward and embarrassing places and meets us there,

But not only that:  once I wash your feet, you will then turn, and wash the feet of the person behind you in line.  Then they will get up, turn, and wash the feet of the person behind them. And so on, and so on.  Because the gift that Jesus gives us is that we learn both to receive and to give in love. And we are going to try that out, right here, right now.

Liturgy is, after all, meant to be an acting out of God’s reign—a sort of practice of how we are meant to be in the world.  We try out our identity as God’s icons here, as we worship, and then we head out into the world and do it for real.  So tonight, we are going to try out what Jesus has asked us to do, to bear with each other in the mess of our humanity, in our very awkwardness and vulnerability, as Jesus does for each of us, and then, we’re going to head out into the darkness of the night outside, and wash the feet of the world for real.

Amen.

Palm Sunday

I heard someone (I think it was Dr. Amy- Jill Levine) say years ago, that we like to think that the Holy Week liturgies speak for themselves, but they don’t. They speak loudly, but unless you consciously unpack what they say, and what people hear, you run the serious risk of adding another reinforcing layer of the culturally-Christian-miasma that we all swim in as Americans right now, instead of pointing out how our liturgies and stories subvert it.

Palm Sunday is, for me, the touchiest. On a personal note, the day has immense meaning for me. On a cultural, historical note, the day where Christian communities gather to tell and act out the Passion story has scary echoes in a world where white supremacist terrorism is emboldened yet again. If we don’t take pains to lift up how subversive these stories are, other voices will step in, and interpret them for us.

So here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 14, 2019

Palm Sunday, Year C

Luke

And here we have it—the foundational story.  In the gospel of Mark, the description of the last week of Jesus’ life takes up easily half of the gospel.  In Luke, it’s less, but the impact is no less.  In the course of our liturgical year, everything has been leading towards this—all of Lent, the slow march after Christmas, we have turned our faces towards Jerusalem along with Jesus.  

At the beginning of this service, we channel the triumphant entry as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem.  We wave palms, and shout Hosanna to the highest heaven!  Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  We reenact what the crowd did as Jesus rode into the holy city on a donkey, praising him, and praising God, who sends salvation.  

But the giddiness wears off quickly, and by the time we get to the Gospel reading of the passion narrative, we hear where the week ends up.  The palms are put away; the shouts are silenced, and Jesus is arrested, betrayed, and killed by the powers that be.

There’s a common enough way to hear this Palm Sunday story—that is to hear it as a story of the crowd.  It’s the crowd’s fault, we think, this inconstant crowd that first celebrates Jesus as he rides into town, and then turns on him at the trial before Pilate.  How faithless!, we are told.  How fickle they were!  We must not be like the crowd of Jerusalem!  

The fickleness of the human heart is an important failing to reflect on, to be sure.  However, as it is played out in the Passion narrative, it can be a dangerous one to dwell on overmuch. Historically, the story of the Passion has specifically been used to stir up antiJewish hatred.  People would watch passion plays in the middle ages, then so frequently go out and commit acts of violence against their Jewish neighbors that they began to be banned as early as the mid 14th century.  Even today, in our own time, In Kansas City, a few years ago, a man attacked the Jewish Community Center on Palm Sunday afternoon.  This story, and the way we as Christians tell it, has baggage.  This story has been used to damage and hurt, rather than to lift up and heal.  So we must be conscious and careful.

In point of fact, John Dominic Crossan argues that our assumptions about the crowd may be faulty.  He points out that the Passover was a well-known festival with political overtones, and Pilate was a notorious tyrant.  We know that the Romans always upped security around the high holy days in Jerusalem anyway.  And Passover was particularly sensitive—if you’re Pilate, you do not want mass gatherings of zealous faithful, recalling how God delivered them that time from foreign oppression.  They might get rebellious ideas.  

So the likelihood that Pilate would have allowed a mass gathering to greet Jesus as he entered the city at the start of Passover is quite small.  The word translated “crowd” here just signifies “more than two.”  In art, in our minds, we think of this scene as being a popular demonstration—but more likely, if they wanted to avoid immediate arrest, it was a small gathering of friends.

Likewise, when Jesus goes before Pilate, and the crowd shouts for his crucifixion—again, it’s the same Greek word.  We’re looking at any gathering larger than two people here.  And again, Pilate, notorious grump, is not going to allow any gathering of any size anywhere near his fortress.  Pilate—it’s worth noting—was such a despot that Rome actually had enough of him and recalled him in 36CE.  THAT’s how mean and terrible he was.  Even the Empire thought he needed to cool his jets a bit.

All of which is to say—it’s not the same crowd.  It’s not like the general inhabitants of Jerusalem adored Jesus one moment, and despised him the next.  Instead, what we are left with is a much more complicated situation.

We are left with collaborating religious leaders who want to save their own power.  Oppressive rulers who just care about order—but not what makes for peace, wholeness, or tranquility.  And a system that churns up the children of God as it runs along.  

The injustice that culminates in the crucifixion of Jesus is easier to swallow if it can be neatly pinned on one person, or one discreet group of people.  It was Pilate’s fault! It was Caiaphas’ fault! It was the crowd, it was Judas, it was the Romans, it was the soldiers, it was the one guy who always looked kinda suspicious.

Truth is, though, the sin that nailed Christ to the cross can’t be pinned to one person or group.  The sin that put Christ on the cross was the result of entire systems that everyone contributed to.  Entire ways of being that kept the world spinning, yet relied on daily injustice to keep going.  Systems that, in the words of Abraham Heschel, no one is responsible for, but where everyone is guilty.  To preserve the status quo, to preserve the world as it was, to preserve the lives that everyone knew and enjoyed—Jesus was hung on a cross.  Because of the sin of the entire world.  

Christ came into the world preaching the reign of God—a reign that fundamentally destablized everything.  Such a reign as he preached would have altered everything, every person’s life.  To make the last, first would have changed so much—the world can not allow it.  

The sin that condemns Jesus on that day so long ago still haunts us.  We live in a broken world that humanity has shattered over generations, and now the brokenness extends past what we ourselves can fix.  The brokenness is in the air we breathe, the assumptions we make, the water we swim in.  We live in Palm Sunday day in and day out.

Yet this is not where God leaves us.  God does not leave us condemned to the wreckage we make of God’s creation.  Even after our sin tries its best, Easter shows us that nothing can permanently stop God and God’s redemption.  Out of the darkness of this present hour, God’s love will come blazing forth ever more radiant.  We may be standing in Holy Week, but if we just wait in faith, God will bring us into Easter’s triumph.

Amen.


Bible Misquote Show

I have a very clear memory of the sermons I heard as a child. Though–sadly, not what amazing theology they included.

What I remember is the illustrations. I have a crystal-clear memory of being about 9 years old and hearing a sermon about….something, and the associate priest talking about how when baby turtles were hatched, they had to make it all the way across the beach, to the sea, and MOST OF THEM DIED. This factoid so horrified me that I couldn’t listen to the rest of the sermon (I’m sure it had a great point, and was very enlightening.) All I could think of was the poor baby turtles being eaten by evil seagulls or something. Like Apocalypse Now on the Beach.

I say this because I am fairly certain I went into baby-turtle-territory in this particular sermon with my idea** that we should start a Bible Misquote Awards Show. We should give awards for the most flagrant misquote! The most self-serving out-of-context proof-texting! The most cringeworthy ignoring of irony!***

However, we SHOULD. Because seriously, people misquote “the poor will be with you always” with the bravado of a frat guy just discovering the Big Lebowski.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 7, 2019

Lent 5, Year C

John 12

If they gave out awards for Bible Verses most Taken out of Context, first of all, I would definitely watch that show.  You could have categories like “Most Inappropriate Bible Verse to Quote on a Vision Board”.  “Most Awkward Verse to Base a Self-Help Book on”, “Verse that Definitely does not justify the discrimination you think it does” and “Odd Proverb that Just Isn’t Quoted Enough”. 

Someone should do this, is my point.

But one of the heavy hitters, I would argue, at least in the past thirty or so years in this country, would have to be a verse from this gospel.  “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”

Every so often, a politician or other famous person will quote this line.  In 2017, a Kansas congressman said that he was in favor of massive cuts to Medicaid, because Jesus said we would always have poor people, and this reflected his belief that some people—he called them Medicaid people—just didn’t want to be healthy, or to be helped, so why bother?  

While I will stipulate that Jesus, in this context, is not discussing the role of the federal government in poverty prevention, I also wish to state that Jesus is NOT saying that there is no point in helping the poor.  Hence, why this verse is a contender for the Most MisInterpreted.  

First off, we know this because the writer of John kind of says so himself.  The objection to Mary’s actions come from Judas Iscariot, who the narrator immediately tells us is not trustworthy, and in this case, is lying.  He doesn’t care about the poor—he just wants to steal more money.  

But also, we know because Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy—something everyone in the room would have known.  And the Deuteronomy verse he is quoting says, “SINCE there will always be poor among you, therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are in need.”  

And if that wasn’t enough—there’s the entire context of why this is happening in the first place, so let’s backtrack a minute.

So, in the Fourth Gospel, the last major action that happens before the entrance into Jerusalem is the raising of Lazarus.  In John’s gospel—Lazarus has just died, and Jesus has just raised him back to life.  Now, Jesus is staying over at Mary and Martha’s house the night before he triumphantly enters Jerusalem, because Bethany is just outside the city walls.  (Today, Bethany is called in Arabic, al-Lazariyah, in honor of this family.) Anyway. 

That’s what’s just happened.  Lazarus, who now is reclining at dinner with everyone else, was just DEAD, and Jesus raised him.  So the emotions at play here make a lot more sense, right?  Mary is overcome with gratitude because she has her brother back.  She takes expensive nard and anoints Jesus’ feet with it.  Nard was routinely used to anoint the bodies of loved ones who had died.  Because the burial practice of the time was to use above-ground tombs, smells were a real concern.  To put it delicately.  It is likely this is what she had left over from her brother’s burial, and in an overflow of emotion, she offers it to Jesus, who recognizes a deeper meaning at work. 

Judas, meanwhile, is irked.  He is outside of the emotional moment here. 

And there are many reasons why—the writer’s statement that he was a thief may or may not be true.  There definitely were reasons that the writer needed to depict Judas as a clearly evil guy, given what he ends up doing.  But it’s also worth noting that in a straightforward way, he’s not…wrong, exactly?  I suppose Mary could have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor.  

But Judas, like the other disciples, is really good at missing the point, and that’s what he does here.  Sure, she COULD have done that.  But that’s not really what’s called for in this particular moment.  While God always commands us to be open-handed and generous to the poor, Jesus also points out that Mary’s act is one of generosity towards him, in particular…and that’s ok, too.  (If for no other reason than Jesus too is poor.  Remember, he is currently homeless, and relying on the kindness of two unmarried women and their recently-dead brother.) 

It’s striking that at a moment right before he faces betrayal, violence, and death, Jesus accepts gratitude and love from his friends.  He relaxes at a dinner cooked by Martha, he chats with Lazarus, and he receives Mary’s gratitude.  Perhaps part of what Judas is struggling with here is that Judas doesn’t know how to conceptualize Jesus—Son of God!—accepting help and comfort from others.  

After all, shouldn’t the Savior of the world be set on helping others?  Isn’t that the moral of the world?  Help others, and meanwhile, you should be able to stand on your own two feet, and pull yourself up via your sandal-straps.  What business does Jesus have accepting anything from his friends?

And yet—that’s precisely what Jesus does.  Even the Incarnate God pauses, for a moment, before the final act of his life, to enjoy time with his friends, and the people who love him best, to relax and renew.  Because no one can stand on their own, not even the Christ.  

We see glimpses of the value of that time through Holy Week, as Jesus mimics Mary’s action of washing his feet with his disciples, and as he mimics Martha’s actions at the Last Supper by feeding them.  What has been given to him, he now knows how to give to others, and teaches them to give on to the world.   

God calls us into community, so that we can recall that we are not alone.  So that we do not have to stand alone against the challenges of the world.  The communities we are placed in are meant to serve as reflections of God’s ever-present love and care for us, as we bear one another’s burdens, comfort one another, cheer one another, and support one another.  We can provide, in material terms, the support we know that God offers us every day.

The poor will always be with us—both those who are materially poor and spiritually struggling— and so will the love of God.  But it is up to us to connect those two things.  It is up to us to support one another who travel with us in this journey, and to give to others what has been poured into our hands.  As we build communities where God’s love and blessings are shared abundantly, 

**My idea is brilliant. It’s a brilliant idea. If you would like to hear my actual pitch for this, please email me. I am taking meetings.

*** Currently, the world-record holder for Most Cringeworthy Ignoring of Irony by Person Quoting the Bible is Gov. Mike Huckabee, who suggested that God was in favor of capital punishment, because Jesus was crucified. Please clap for the governor, and his impressive achievement in cognitive dissonance.

Prodigal Elder Brother

So remember that time that I posted my first Lent sermon, then went quiet til after Easter? Ah, memories!

It has been quite the Lent around these parts. The husband and I bought a house in town, thus staring down all manner of Millennial stereotypes. The parish had a delightful Lenten series on the Eucharist. (Much of which is on our FB page.) And, as tis my rector-perogative, I got my lay preacher and my deacon to preach for Lent 2 and 3. (Mwahaha.)

All that established, here is my Lent 4 sermon on the Prodigal Son, which focuses neither on the Prodigal-ness nor the younger Son ness. Please discuss.

Rev, Megan L. Castellan

March 31, 2019

Lent 4. Year C

Luke 15. Prodigal, Angry Son

In the adult forum during Lent, Deacon Pat has been leading us in a book study of Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories of Jesus—a book on the parables.  Now, Dr. Levine is one of the foremost experts on New Testament studies writing today, and she also is an Orthodox Jew. So she combines both the insight from her religious tradition, with the knowledge from her academic expertise in her writing, and it makes for a very enlightening experience.

This is one of the parables she addresses in her book. She pairs it with the parable of the lost sheep, and the parable of the lost coin, also in Luke—pointing out how Luke has a particular concern for things that are lost, then found.  But also pointing out how these parables appear simple on the surface, but like all parables, once you dig deeper they confuse and turn the hearer around.

In the case of the lost sheep, the shepherd has one hundred sheep, loses one, and abandons the others to look for it in the wilderness.  That’s….not how a good shepherd does anything.  That’s how you end up with 100 lost sheep, not just one.  And 100 sheep is a huge flock—signifying a very rich owner.  One might be forgiven for not noticing that one had gone missing, and yet here is this shepherd chasing the one lost.  The lost coin story is similar.  The widow, who loses a silver coin, already had two, which would have made her very wealthy.  She immediately lights lamps and sweeps her whole house, then throws a party when she finds the one coin—which again, signifies great wealth, and the ability, the privilege  to casually misplace money in the first place.  

And in this category, Dr. Levine places the familiar prodigal son story, long memorialized in art, and song, and story.   The younger son approaches his father, and demands his share of the property.  Now that’s unusual, maybe, but the father doesn’t appear to object—giving us the first signal that this father makes some wacky parenting choices.  “Sure, kid! Take half my stuff and leave me!” A father who is able to support the rest of the family on half his lands and flocks is, like the earlier shepherd and widow, clearly a man of means.  There is abundance at work here. 

The younger son departs, heads off to a distant land, and spends all the money, doing we-aren’t-told-exactly-what, but we can guess.  Disreputable stuff.  Buying Beanie Babies, or trading cards, thinking they’ll appreciate, at the very least.  And when a famine hits, the younger son realizes his predicament, and is stuck.

It’s worth pointing out here that so far, this story of Jesus’ is about on track with other Hebrew bible narratives.  Think of Jacob and Esau—Esau being the good, older brother, and Jacob being the screw-up, who nevertheless, gets the blessing and the promise from his father through trickery.  Scripture is full of younger siblings who make bad choices, and whose parents still love them, and older siblings who do the right thing.  Scripture, as it happens, has a pretty good bead on human family dynamics.

So when the younger son decides to return, and the father welcomes him home, we are still well-within the scope of Scripture so far.  That’s really not the shock of the parable.  Granted, the father is still making some questionable decisions, (running? A big party?) but what loving father would not welcome a long-lost returning son like this?

No, the hinge of the story is the elder son, and his reaction.  Remember, Jesus is telling this story, according to Luke, to deal with the Pharisees and the scribes who don’t think he should be hanging out with tax collectors and sinners.  They are having a reaction to younger sons everywhere.  

And when this good, dutiful elder son realizes that his sibling has returned, he has a similar reaction.  He becomes angry, resentful, and you can hear his very recognizable emotion flying off the text.  All this time I’ve worked for you and you’ve never given me so much as a goat for a party with my friends, but once this son OF YOURS turns up (not brother any more, but son OF YOURS) you kill the fatted calf for HIM!  

Perhaps the reason this story is so ever-present with us is how immediately human these emotions are.  Who among us has never witnessed a reaction like this?  Or had one ourselves?  The older son has done everything he thought he had to, and now, he is coming to grips with the fact that his sibling has done none of it, and is receiving the same.  He’s jealous, he’s anxious, he’s angry, he’s so many things.  Where does he fit, now that the favorite has returned?

Yet the father reassures him, “Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate because your brother was lost, and is found.  Was dead, and has come back to life.”  You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  On one hand, it’s a very practical reassurance that the elder son’s inheritance is intact.  On another level, it’s a reassurance that no amount of work, no amount of returning sons will diminish the father’s love for his elder son either.  Both sons are beloved of their father.  Both sons are valued and cherished.  The father has more than enough for both of them—and yet, in their own ways, both sons remove themselves from the father’s care. And we are left at the end of the story, not knowing the elder son’s response.  Does he finally go into the party?  Or does he remain recalcitrant and stuck, standing outside?

What is it that keeps the elder son outside the celebration?  Does he not trust his father’s love for him?  Is his jealousy getting the better of him? What is the problem here?  Because the problem of the younger son was somewhat easily solved—he made diagnosable, bad choices, then he repented, and his father forgave him.  But here the elder son has seemingly never left, yet in the end, stands outside of the celebration.  Not because he isn’t invited, but because of himself.

I read this story once in a bible study with young adults in Arizona.  One young man was Navajo, and began crying as we read the text.  He said that it forcibly reminded him of one of his own family members, who had left home and cut ties with his own family.  In his culture, this amounted to a death, a loss of identity.  Your tribe and your family ties determined who you were—without them, you did not exist.  So, in a real way, within the similarly structured culture of the time, the younger son literally strips off his identity when he leaves home.  Hence, the text says “he came to himself” and realized he wanted to come home.  

The story can be read as a reconstruction of identity—for both sons, the father gives them their identity back, as beloved and cherished children, outside of what they have done or not done.  He throws a cloak around the younger and clothes him with love.  And he assures the elder of who he is “Son, you are always with me, and all I have is yours.”

And for both sons, the identity of the one does not detract from the identity of the other.  The younger son’s restoration does not diminish what the elder son has.  The elder son’s work does not prevent the younger from being welcomed home.  Though the elder has trouble recognizing it, the father has enough for both, and the identity of both sons rest on that abundant love.

For us, it can be easy to map ourselves onto the younger son.  The one who makes a bad decision, but then is gloriously welcomed home with the party and celebration.  It can be harder to recognize in ourselves the elder son’s frustration and anxiety at the welcome accorded to others.  Yet, I would argue that we all have both sons within us.  We all are that younger son, from time to time.  We all make dumb decisions, completely mess up, and wonder if we are even worthy to be called God’s beloved ever again.  

And at the same time, there are times when we look at others, and wonder why in the world we have been working so hard all this time.  There are times when we worry that if God welcomes so and so, does God really still care enough about me?  There are times we just really want to be the one with the beatific vision, the perfect certainty, the great spiritual life.  And we have trouble believing that God still is present with us, when all the bells and whistles are muted.

Yet, both sons are beloved. Both sons are cherished.  Both sons find their identity, ultimately, in the abundant love of their father, who delights in nothing more than celebrating their very presence with him, regardless of whether they feel they are worthy.  

Our job is to get to the party.  

Who do you think you are?

Given the number of times I’ve said it lately, on my tombstone, it will say, “Do. The. Power. Analysis.” ***
Generally, one of the thing we privileged-types are loath to do is to consider who holds power in any given situation, and how that dynamic affects the results. And yet, power: who holds it, who appears to have it, and who we attribute it to, affects all aspects of our lives.

Like in the Lent 1 gospel, where Jesus goes out in the wilderness and Satan comes to irritate him. You can read this as Jesus using his Power for Good, like Superman (and I preached that once–it’s in the archives.) But this year, I approached it as a power question of a different sort: who do we give power to tell us who we are, and what we are worth?

Here’s what I said. Also, do the power analysis, please and thank you.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

March 10, 2019

Lent 1, Year C

Luke 4

If you are…If God loves you….If you are that powerful, prove it!  Prove yourself!

When I was a kid, for a period of time in elementary school, I recall that it was very important to boast about how many Big Macs you could eat in one sitting.  That was the status measure in the cafeteria.  Not how rich you were, or how tall, or how many cool stickers you had—how many Big Macs you could eat.  

No idea why this was.  Proximity?  Their stability as a measure of currency?  I just knew that if I wanted to have ANY FRIENDS AT ALL, I needed to figure out a way to eat at least one whole Big Mac.  Which was, for me, a tall order.

My whole identity rested on this.  Whatever childhood status I could muster.

Of course, that’s a ridiculous way to measure yourself.  For starters, it’s a good way to end up in cardiac arrest.  Also, there is no way those kids were all telling the truth.

Also, that’s a really faulty frame for identity.  None of us can be measured in something so trivial as fast-food.  And yet, so much of what we consume tries to tell us that indeed, our worth, our identity is measured by things like this.  

Watch any ad anywhere, and you will get the message that unless you purchase this product/experience, you are not this particular type of person.  Buy this shampoo and you will be beautiful!  Buy this soda, and you will be cool!  Buy this pair of jeans, and you will be young again!  Buy this car, and you will be…a mysterious person who can wax philosophical about creativity and freedom while appearing rich and unburdened!  (Car commercials are confusing.) 

There is a lot in the world that challenges our sense of identity, especially as we live in a world that persists in ranking those identities based on these arbitrary things.  And that’s where the gospel this week fits in.  Because this story of the Temptation in the Wilderness is all about identity.

For context, it’s important to remember that immediately before Jesus goes into the wilderness, he was baptized in the Jordan River.  John the Baptist, under protest, baptizes him, and everyone sees the Spirit descend, and the voice from heaven proclaim him to be God’s Beloved Son.  

The next thing that happens is that Jesus heads out into the desert to fast and pray.  Geographically, this makes sense—the Jordan River runs to the east of Judea and Galilee, and is bordered in the south by the desert, before the elevation rises and you approach Jerusalem.  So, there’s desert all over—anywhere Jesus went after the Jordan was going to be desert.  In a way, he didn’t have a choice.  But also, this stretch of praying and fasting was a time-honored way to communicate with God, after such a powerful experience.  

And after we are told that 40 days (or Bible-speak for “A long time that I am not willing to count, because Math Is Difficult”) has passed, the devil appears, and starts to bother him.

Like I’ve said before, we hear mentions of Satan with 21st century ears, primed with images of the red guy with the pitchfork and the pointy ears.  But the culture of Jesus’ day didn’t have that dualistic of an understanding of good and evil.  Ha-Satan was essentially a generic adversary—rather than a supernatural Sum of Evil that rivals God in power.  (In their interaction here, Satan is a sly talker, but you don’t get the sense that he really poses a threat to Jesus.  He’s just obnoxious.) 

Anyway.  Three times, the devil tries to mess with Jesus, saying “IF you are the Son of God, turn this stone into bread!  Throw yourself off the Temple!  Worship me and take all the power for yourself!”

What’s striking is that, aside from the “Worship me!” request—what the devil is suggesting is on fairly solid ground, scripturally.  Of COURSE Jesus can turn stones into bread!  He’s going to multiply loaves and fishes later on!  Of course he could fly from the Temple tower—he magically got himself out of an angry crowd in this same chapter!  Even seizing all the power for himself—he definitely shouldn’t worship the devil.  That’s clear.  But…isn’t he the King of Kings and God incarnate?  Maybe there’s a workaround here?

(Also, please note the devil is quoting scripture to back up his points.  Which is why PROOFTEXTING IS BAD DONT DO IT.)

The sticking point here is the IF.  If you are the Son of God, prove yourself!  If you are who you say you are, prove yourself to ME!  The devil wants Jesus to question who he is, God’s love for him, so that the devil can see proof of his identity.  

And each time, Jesus says no.  No, he doesn’t need to do that.  No, he knows exactly who he is, and doesn’t need anyone else’s validation.  He was there when John poured the water.  He was there when the dove came down.  He heard the voice from the sky.  He knows exactly who he is.  He doesn’t need the devil to comment on that.  

Jesus’ strength here is rooted in his faith in his baptismal identity.  He knows he is the Beloved Son of God, and nothing the devil can throw at him can change that—no magic trick, no sly questioning, nothing.    The same is true for us—who we are, fundamentally, is children of God.  Beloved, cherished, unique children of God, made in the image of our Creator.  And nothing: absolutely nothing can take away from that core identity.  

Over our lives, we face various temptations that would tell us that we need to prove ourselves.  Prove ourselves worthy of respect, prove ourselves worthy of forgiveness, worthy of dignity, worthy of love.  We hear the various voices of temptation in our ears from our world, telling us that really, if we just worked a little harder, bent a little more, then the world would validate us enough, and we could derive our identity from that instead.  But this is the devil whispering sly lies into our ears again.

Our worth, our dignity, our loveableness rests entirely, and only in our identity as Children of God.  We don’t ever have to do anything else.  We don’t ever have to be anything else.  We don’t ever have to buy anything else or achieve anything else.  All the forces of the world that ask us again and again to prove ourselves worthy of love and dignity cannot take away the essential truth spoken by God at our baptism:  we are God’s beloved, and with us God is deeply pleased.  

Lent is a chance for us to rest soundly in that core identity, to let the world’s temptations to be something newer, better, shiner, go, and to relax into the knowledge that God has assured us that we, and the rest of humanity, are already cherished and precious.  


***In toto, it will read, “Here lies Megan Castellan, beloved human, viewer of original Hamilton cast on Broadway, wearer of red shoes, first of her name, righter of wrongs. Do. The. Power. Analysis.” My descendants will have to shell out for this tombstone.