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Safety on the Plain

This was a bit of a week. Ben and I went to NYC (delayed wedding present of Hamilton tickets 🙂 ) and then it was straight home for me to go to Hamilton, The Town-Not-Show (much less hip hop, much more white) and join in the diocesan visioning retreat.

So, by the time I got to Sunday morning, my brain was all mushy. So there was that.

I wrote the sermon half in sentences, half in notes in my notebook, and managed (I think) to sound coherent and thoughtful, and not just say “There was a plain? And also security isn’t safety? And walls are bad.” which was my basic hope.

I went back and typed it all up, because several folks asked for a copy. What is here isn’t exactly what I said, but it should be a fair representation of what I preached.

Also, the fruit/vegetable story is entirely accurate and is A Thing That Happened in 2004. I have witnesses.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

February 17, 2019

Epiphany 6

Luke 5

One time, quite soon after 9/11, I went to a government function with a lot of security.  As I was passing through the checkpoint, I noticed the posted sign: No weapons, No Metal, No bags, no signs….no fruit.  

This confused me, so I struck up a conversation with the Marine who was inspecting me.  “No fruit?” 

“No, ma’am.”

“How about vegetables?”

“No fruit, ma’am.”

“Ok, I get that, but I could conceivably do some damage with a carrot, like if I threw it.  Or an eggplant.”

He looked at me for a second, stone-faced.  “Ma’am, do you have a carrot?”

“Oh no, I would never! This is hypothetical situation. Like, how would you count a tomato…”

He cut me off. “No fruit, ma’am. No weapons.”

“No, sir!  No, of course not.”

He did not have a demonstrable sense of humor about the situation.

I got to thinking this week about emergencies.  About crises.  And how we handle them.  All the readings today reflect on where we put our trust, when danger looms, and the world warns us that safety is at a premium.  What do we do?  Where do we turn?  What do we trust to keep us safe?

In today’s gospel, Jesus essentially outlines two basic approaches to this conundrum.  He lays out the Beatitudes—those pronouncements we are all pretty familiar with, hopefully.  Blessed are the poor, blessed are the peacemakers, things like that.  

Now, importantly, these Beatitudes are not Matthew’s Beatitudes.  Gordon Lathrop, a renowned liturgist, said once that meaning derives from one thing set next to another, and so we need to consider the context of these particular Beatitudes.  Notably, Jesus is standing in a whole different place than in Matthew.  Literally.

In Matthew’s gospel, this is the sermon on the mount.  So, the first thing he does is go up on a mountain, and gather the crowd below him, at his feet, and talk to them from high above, making sweeping pronouncements.  Blessed are the meek!  For they shall inherit the earth!

But catch what happens in Luke!  Right at the start, Jesus goes the other way! He goes DOWN the mountain, to the plain, and starts addressing the disciples and the crowd from BELOW.  And whereas in Matthew, he addresses the entire crowd, here he singles out the disciples specifically.  “Blessed are YOU POOR. For you shall be rich.  Blessed are YOU HUNGRY.” etc. These aren’t sweeping pronouncements we might write off to being about a future state; these are instructions for specific people, in a specific place and time.  Hey you!  Blessed are you!  You, right there!  This is much more pointed.

And then Jesus goes a step further.  Not only does he lay out what is Blessed—he also lists out what brings woe.  Woe to you rich, for you will be poor.  Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will be weeping.  Woe when everyone speaks well of you, for such their ancestors did to the false prophets.  These things may seem great now, but they will not end well for you.

Ironically, the list of woes that Jesus illumines is precisely where we so often put our trust.  Riches, and status, and power, and strength, are precisely the things that promise us security over and over again in this world.  In moments of crisis, it is precisely these things Jesus warns about that the world tells us will deliver us safety.

In reality, Jesus tells us, these things do not protect us.  They do not save us.  Security which the world promises is not safety.  

Counter-intuitively, Jesus tells us that the very things that promise us security over and over will, in fact, doom us.  

It is only through vulnerability, only through solidarity with the other creatures of God, only through mercy, peace, justice—only through opening ourselves up to the reign of God will bring us true safety.  Everything else just takes us farther away.  

But ooooh, how we’d like it to be so much easier.  How much we’d like it if safety could be conjured up through a simple ban on all fruit!  Or in building a bigger tank!  Or in a larger stockpile of weapons, or in one more massive fortress.  

The problem with these solutions, however, and the reason they bring us so much woe is the disconnection.  They isolate us.  Were we to spend our lives building walls and fortresses and stockpiling more and more food in search of security, we would never have to contend with the humanity in each other.  We would never have to realize how indebted we are to each other, how much we depend on each other.  We would never have to recognize how much God loves each and every one of us, and how much each and every one of us reflects God’s image.

When we put our faith in the idols of security, in the things that bring woe, we never have to grapple with ourselves or with God.  We remain utterly alone.

But God loves us little dust-creatures so much that God calls us to something greater.  Impossibly, God loves us fallible, desperately mortal humans so much that God graciously hands out eternal abundant life in our very mortal-ness.  God gives us total safety, total life and freedom right when we are at our most vulnerable—as if we are standing undefended on a plain.  The more connected we are to God and to one another, the safer we are and the more life we find.  Even as the world chants in our ears that danger is all around—we find our life and help in God and these connections.  No idol gives us that.

The solution, then, to any human emergency is found only in each other.  Is found only in God.  The way out of our mortal peril, in any turn of circumstance, is in being Christlike with each other, and with the world God has given to us.  And in this way, we bless the world.

Amen.

Tea Cozies Save the World

I promised myself in seminary that I would never preach about my family members (my future kids, really) without their full consent, and would definitely, never, ever, ever, EVER preach about my dog. Or cat. But certainly not my dog.

This is not meant as shade towards those who do preach about their pets; I just have experienced some highly painful sermons that centered around pets, and went full moral therapeutic deism about it. I have post-pet-sermon-syndrome. So, no dog sermons for me.

Knitting sermons, on the other hand, I have no apparent problem with. To my shock, I have talked about knitting, or knitting related things at least three times (that I can recall) in my preaching career. Which is more than any other subject.

Also, the link to the woman I’m referencing and her amazing books is here.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

February 10,2019

Epiphany 5, Year C

Luke 5

Failure of Imagination.  What could we even possibly do?  

There’s a woman in New Zealand, a textile artist, really, who knits insane things into tea cozies.  (You know what tea cozies are, right?  They’re fabric covers that go over your tea pot in order to keep your tea warm.)  Now, tea cozies, if you’ve seen one, are generally boring.  They’re half-moon shaped, they go over the teapot, sometimes they have things written on them.  But this lady contemplated tea cozies, and decided to just go nuts.  She made tea cozies to resemble a bowl of fruit.  A 3-D bowl of fruit.  A tea cozy to look like a rooster.  One to look like a vase of flowers, and one to look like the several hats that Princess Beatrice wore to Will and Kate’s wedding.  And—here’s the kicker—all of these are knitted.  She knit these amazing sculptural things.  There are entire books of her knitting patterns, so you, too, can make a delightful, bananas, tea cozy out of yarn, so that your teapot resembles a tower of colorful fez hats.  If you wanted.

What really delights me (aside from the idea of making my teapot into a work of art) is why she says she does this.  Early on in her book, she comments that she realizes that this is an absurd thing to do, in the face of so much wrong in the world.  But, she says, it takes imagination to engage fruitfully with the world, and these works of art are primarily about imagination.  

Now, I do not have the sort of imagination that lends itself to looking at a Van Gogh painting and wondering how I could turn it into a nice knitted hat.  However, I do agree that engaging with the world, especially as people of faith, requires a certain type of imagination—which we need to cultivate, because it goes missing on us at times.

Imagination, after all, is the ability to envision what is not, but what might be—and that is not so far off from the work of faith, which asks us to practice engaging with things unseen, but that are.  As followers of Christ, and as people who work to usher in the reign of God, one of our primary tasks as disciples is to cultivate a sort of double vision—to see things as they are in the world, but also see things as God would have them be.  And that takes the imagination of faith.  It takes learning to see things that are not there, and yet getting ready for them anyway. 

In this gospel story, this morning, Jesus has given his first sermon, gotten run out of his hometown, and now he’s enjoying the morning sunshine on the banks of the Sea of Galilee.  He runs into some fishermen, who have spent the whole night fishing—because that’s when fishermen went out on the sea.  So now, their workday is over, they’re coming home, and they’ve caught nothing.  Nada.  Zip.

And Jesus says, Hey, why don’t you try the other side?  Peter is not a huge fan of this idea, and points out that they ARE professional fishermen, they did try that already, but fine, whatever.  And sure enough, their nets nearly break with all the fish that immediately fill them.

They had to ask James and John for help, because their boat almost sank.  They were not prepared for all these fish.  Totally unprepared.

“Don’t worry,” says Jesus—“From now on you will be fishing for people.”

Peter and Andrew were entirely unprepared for all those fish.  Now—they were fishermen, they had nets, they had a boat, they were prepared for some fish—Not all the fish.  They weren’t ready.  They hadn’t imagined that.  And so when it happened, they were flummoxed, and nearly capsized.  

They were, I imagine (hah) used to the world as they knew it, a world where they were moderately successful fisherman, caught some fish and then went back out the next day, and did it again.  That was their life, and it was fine. 

And so hadn’t imagined that a new way of being might break in, until one morning Jesus arrives and does just that.  Suddenly, more fish than they EVER BELIEVED dove into their nets.  Such prosperity, such generosity.  And now they are no longer fishermen, now they were something altogether different— fishers of people—a role that requires an even bigger step outside their ordinary worlds.

Following Jesus requires quite a big leap of imagination.  It requires us to see things not as they are, but as God would have them be, as Jesus has been telling us they could be. And that requires of us a vision based on hope, alongside our clearsighted view of what actually is.  It is imagination that allows us to live as Christ calls us to live, because to seek the kingdom, to follow Jesus, is to begin to live in the world as Jesus describes it even as we still live in the current world.  We have to live now as if the reign of God has already begun.  

So we imagine ourselves there.  Small kids do this all the time—it’s that game of make believe, only this time we do it with higher stakes.  We imagine a world into being where all people do matter, as children of God, and so we act like everyone we meet is of infinite value.  We imagine a world where the most important priority is the welfare of all people, and so we ourselves try to prioritize human flourishing, even in a society that seems to value profit over all else.  We imagine a world where the earth is seen as a gift for us to care for, and so we take pains to preserve and celebrate God’s creation, instead of just exploiting it for our own ends.

It takes imagination to follow Jesus in our broken world, because when all we have ever known is this world as it is, anything else takes a leap into faith, as Kierkegaard would say.  Like Peter and Andrew, we just have small boats, because who could imagine such a world as Jesus brings about?  So as people of faith, we have to use our imaginative powers.  We have to dream a little, and we have to live with a foot both in that imaginary, not-yet world of the reign of God, and in this world. We need to imagine up some big boats for this task. 

What would our city look like, for instance, if the reign of God has come, fully?  What would your life look like, if everything Jesus talked about in his sermon in Nazareth were now true—the poor brought good news, the blind given sight, the prisoner freed, the captive released, the Year of Jubilee proclaimed, all that? 

Think of what you have on your schedule tomorrow, when you go to school, or go to work, or run errands.  What would be different tomorrow?  Just Imagine what that world would be like.  What would be the same?  What would be different? If everyone was valued and loved, and had what they needed, and the earth was safe and cherished and full with the glory of God. 

Now, is there one thing, just one thing, you can do already to make that world a little closer?  

Can you do one thing tomorrow that would make the world you imagine a little closer?  Donate money to a non-profit, help someone that needs help, decide to do something good, or just do something anonymous and kind.  What can you do tomorrow to bring the world Jesus describes, the world we imagine with God, a little closer?

We talk sometimes in church about being co-creators with God, and our presiding Bishop talks a lot about God’s dream for the world, but what I sometimes think that means is imagining with God.  When God created the world, he spoke the world into being, and imagined something out of the chaos and waste that there had been.  Our faithful imagining of a new world along with God is how we join with Christ in making that new world a reality.  And when we step out in faith and slowly act on our imaginings, step into that bigger boat, then surely Christ meets us along the shore.  

Amen.

Hometown Kid

I realize I have been remiss in updating Ye Olde Blogge here. Truthfully, St. John’s is blessed to have two licensed lay preachers, and they ably preach from time to time, so there are times I don’t actually have a sermon to post.

Other times, the week has been so busy that I don’t have an actual manuscript, so much as a bullet list of thoughts that hopefully sound coherent from the pulpit. (My sermon on the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism was this last one.)

In the Good News category, the wonderful folks of my parish are working out a way to record my sermons, and then podcast them. So whether or not I think my notes make sense outside my head, you’ll be able to hear my sermon. We’re in the testing phase now, but it should launch soon.

Meanwhile, here’s what I said that time Jesus goes to his hometown and gets nearly thrown off a cliff.

Rev Megan L Castellan

February 3, 2019

Epiphany 4, Year C 

Luke 4

Did you have particular movies that you loved as a kid? Or music? Or TV shows? I loved Miss Piggy, for a variety of reasons, and I was delighted this past week to watch a Muppet movie and discover that it really held up pretty well.   My childhood recollection of the joy to be found there matched what I found as an adult.  Not everything holds up that well, as I’m sure you know.  Most 1980s kid pop culture loses its shine once you reach a certain age.  It joins things like snow days, summer vacations, and junk food in the category of Things that Were Awesome as A Kid, But as An Adult You Realize Will be Complicated and A Hassle. 

But that’s the way of things. We grow up, our worldview changes, and what seemed amazing and exciting to us as younger people no longer seems that way.  And this dynamic is not caused by some specific naĂŻvetĂ© of childhood either.  All of us discover as we move through life that certain things we liked at one point, no longer quite fit.  As we grow and change, our outlook changes too.  The conception of the world we had at age 10 is not the one we had at age 20 and is not the one we have at age 30. Nor should it be.  We grow and change, and our faith needs to grow and change with us.  As we mature and deepen, our faith needs to as well.

Therein lies the rub.  This week’s gospel is the action-packed sequel to last week’s gospel, where Jesus is preaching his very first sermon!  In his hometown of Nazareth.  And if you recall, last week, everything was going great.  Jesus stood up, found Isaiah in the scroll, and read that great stuff about proclaiming the good news to the poor, sight to the blind, release to the captives, and announcing the year of the Lord’s favor.  Solid material.

Then, he tells everyone “and this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Everyone is so excited!  Look at little Jesus, all grown up! He’s doing so well! Not a single stumble! 

Then, it might be hard to tell what happens next.  Jesus says some things that sound innocuous enough, and then the crowd tries to throw him off a cliff.  which seems very strange since everything had been going so well!  

But when Jesus hears how happy they are with him, and how they are saying “Can this be Joseph’s son?” He reminds them that they probably won’t always be happy with him.  Doubtless you’ll say to me, prophet, heal yourself! And you will say Do also here in your hometown the things we have heard you did in Capernaum.”

Ok, so far so good.  But, then he continues.  But the truth is, he tells them, God always sends prophets out and away, not back.  When God sent Elijah he sent him to Sidon, not to anyone in Israel.  And when God sent Elisha, he sent him to help a Syrian, not an Israelite.  

This is what flips the crowd.  For one thing, they don’t like the implication that they won’t get miracles and that it’s greedy to ask.  For another, for the devoutly Jewish folk of Nazareth who had just been believing that God had sent Jesus to proclaim the day of jubilee to them, they are not pleased at all when Jesus reminds them that the greatest prophets in history did the greatest miracles for non-Jews. They want the miracles, darn it.  Non-believers don’t deserve them!  So they get angry.

Aside from their homicidal moment, it’s not hard to see the hometown crowd’s point.  They feel possessive of Jesus; he’s theirs! They watched him grow up, and they rightly feel proud of who he’s become.  But as Jesus points out, the problem is that the crowd would have him stay there forever.  They want him in a sense to stay that young man forever, within their control, within their reach.  

Jesus’ call, meanwhile, is to the whole world.  To the whole of humanity.  He cannot stay in his hometown just doing miracles for his neighbors-his call is much bigger and wider than that. 

But to embrace that call requires change, and leaving home.  His walk with God means going forward and not back.

Over our lives, God constantly calls us into deeper relationship.  If we follow faithfully, our faith grows and deepens.  And frequently, that can frighten us.  It’s not always comfortable to begin to question the easy answers we were handed as small children.  That the Bible stories are all literally true, that praying correctly wins you rewards, like asking nicely from a genie.  That good people receive good things, and bad people are punished.  That everything happens for a reason, and the way things are is the way they were meant to be.  The answers we get as kids aren’t always satisfying, but they are comforting for a while. 

As we grow, the Spirit slowly leads us into more and more complexity.  Our walk in faith takes us deeper and deeper.  It’s like learning a new language— first you learn the basics of communication. Then you learn the nuances of verb tenses, and then you learn the connotations of words that don’t exist in English, and communication becomes at once something more complex and infinitely richer and more rewarding.  

And we might miss that clarity we had as children, the easy sense of surety, but our faith doesn’t allow us to go back.  We don’t get to go back to our childhood Nazareths .  Instead, we move forward, knowing that the God who brought us this far will lead us further still, into a richer experience of God’s truth.  We need never fear our struggles or questioning in our walk with Christ. to quote the French philosopher Simone Weil, “It seemed to me certain, and I still think so today, that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”

Let us all be bold enough to walk and even struggle, with Christ, and not be confined to Nazareth. 

Epiphany Evangelism

Call me a liturgical geek, but I was VERY EXCITED that Epiphany landed smack dab on a Sunday this year.

I love Epiphany, and so often we have to blow right past it for Jesus’ Baptism, or something not-nearly-as-fun. But this year, we got everything! Magi! Camels! Fleeing in the Night! Narcissistic tyrants oddly and specifically threatened by foreign children!***

My point is, the story of Epiphany is incredibly important, and I’m thrilled to talk about it this year. And also to deconstruct the entirety of We Three Kings, because I love that song, but the deifying of medieval traditions is not my favorite.

::prepares for Anglo-Catholic Twitter to storm the gates::

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

January 6, 2019

Epiphany, Year C

Matthew 2

The Epiphany story is as notable for what is not there, as for what is there.  Nearly everything we expect to hear in the story of the Wise Ones going to find Jesus is not actually in the story.

Think of the carol—We Three Kings.  For starters, were there three?  Don’t know!  We don’t have a number.  The number three seems to have been settled on because you need one Wise Man to carry each gift, and you have three gifts, and who would be so cheap to show up to a new baby’s house without a gift in tow?

And men?  That’s not clear either.  The word in the text is magi—which means wise person, or sage of some kind.  Depending on the culture, it could even mean a magician.  Basically, we’re talking about someone who spent their life studying wisdom—whether that was scripture, tradition, or rudimentary science.  

And that’s just the layer of tradition we have for a starter.  Have you heard names for the Wise Men?  Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior—those start appearing around the Middle Ages.   along with the idea that one Wise Man was black, one was Asian, one was European. 

This is around the same time that Western Europe, which had been mired in the collapse of Rome, and the isolation of the Dark Ages, was just establishing trade with other parts of the world—Africa, the Middle East, Asia.  Western European artists were just figuring out that non-white people existed, and so this was an easy way to announce that these Wise Men—they were Very Different People!  Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar take on unique personalities.  

Despite the layers of tradition that has been heaped on this story, inside its core, the story is pretty straightforward in Matthew’s Gospel.  Magi from the East notice something strange in the sky.  They travel a long, long way to figure out what is going on, and when they arrive in the foreign (to them) land of Judea, they try to investigate, which prompts much consternation.

That sounds basic, but what it signifies is really not.  There was a common perception that the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, really didn’t pay much attention to Gentiles, and they didn’t pay much attention to him.  There were several occasions in the Hebrew scriptures where God himself begs to differ on this point, but generally, popular religion of the time held that God ignored the Gentiles, because they were not Jewish, and also, since Gentiles were over there eating pork, and sacrificing to idols, they were not great for dinner parties either.  

The idea of some Gentile sages—bigwigs in their own religious tradition—knowing enough about Hebrew messianic prophecy, and trekking hundreds of miles to seek out the new king of Israel—is somewhat mindblowing.  And yet, this is the closest thing to a Christmas story Matthew tells.  This is the first thing that happens in the gospel once Jesus is born—foreign, non-Jewish people show up and want to know more.  God’s light goes out literally to the ends of the known world, and starts bringing together all these different people.  

They saw something, that drove those first Wise Ones to travel away from everything they had ever known, and seek after something new.  And they asked and asked, everyone along the way, where they could find this wondrous new birth they sought.

And no one really knew!

In a way, this is a pretty good example of the first evangelism.  

Now—I realize as soon as I use that word, for some of us, the hair on the back of your neck is standing up, and you have visions of bible-thumping preachers on streetcorners, and tracts promising hellfire dancing through your heads.  But that’s not evangelism, that’s bullying people, and that’s not what Christ calls us to do.  

Evangelism—what I mean by that word— is sharing the good news of what God is up to in the world.  And that’s it.  To be able to say, when people ask “Hey look at this amazing thing happening over here that God is doing!” That’s it.

When the Magi started out for Judea, first of all, no one told them to go.  They decided themselves.  Or rather, God moved them to go. It is God who brings people in our doors, and into our path.  All people—everyone we meet—is a gift from God.  Every person that comes through those doors is a gift from God.  An opportunity to glimpse the Spirit at work in someone’s life, in every person we meet. 

When the Magi got to Mary and Joseph’s house, and presented the new parents with some pretty impractical gifts—I imagine that Mary and Joseph were fairly perplexed.  Surely, they would have had no occasion to meet people from so far away before—much less people who didn’t speak the same language.  We aren’t told what their reaction was.  We are told that due to the Magi’s warning, and his own dream, Joseph decides to take his family and flee to Egypt, and thereby saves his son from Herod, so it seems likely that the family offer the Magi hospitality of some kind for a period of time.  

And it is that hospitality that is evangelism.  God sends people to us, God puts curiosity in people’s minds, and when we can greet their questions with hospitality, then that is sharing the good news.  And make no mistake—at no point in the story of the Magi is it clear that ANYONE understands entirely what’s going on.  NO one has all the answers.  When the Magi are trotting around Jerusalem asking “Where is the new king and why is there a new star in the sky?” Mary and Joseph didn’t know how to explain that—but they did give them a place to sleep, something to eat, and let them meet the baby.

This is basic evangelism.  When someone asks the deep questions of their hearts, the ones that God has placed there, and when we greet those questions with hospitality.  That can sound intimidating, but all that’s required of us is the love of neighbor Christ asks of us, and a readiness to be present.  You don’t need an advanced degree, or a knowledge of complicated theology, or all the nice pat answers.  You just have to be honest and present.  You have to let your light shine.  When someone asks “Why do you go to church?” and you reply, “Because it makes me feel connected to something. Want to come sometime?”  or someone asks “Why do you believe in that God stuff?” and you say “Because I just think there’s something bigger out there.  Want to come to church with me sometime?”  

When we do this, when we unapologetically follow the way of Christ in the world and let our light shine, people become curious, and amazing things happen.  Really, they do.  The Ethiopian Orthodox church traces its roots to Balthazar’s journey back to Africa, after seeing the Christ child.  The first Christians in Mongolia claim that they were established by Caspar on his journey back.  (Melchior appears to have slacked off.)  One Christmas Eve, as we were cleaning up after the late service, the South Sudanese priest slung his arm around the figure of Balthazar in the life-size creche and said “Oh my brother!  You and I have both come such a long way to be here!”

God’s spirit moves over the whole world, and God’s light shines over all of creation.  When people notice that light shining in our lives, they are bound to get curious, and when we learn to show hospitality to that?  Then the light spreads even farther. 

***Look, that’s not me being inappropriately political. That’s just the gospel. YOU try to read the story of Herod reacting to the baby Jesus and tell me it doesn’t sound eerily like CNN right now.

Crusty Christian History

In the adult forum, we are reading Tom Ferguson (AKA Crusty Old Dean)’s overview of Episcopal Church History. I have really enjoyed this, and I believe the congregation has as well. In my experience, learning about Church History is both comforting (see? All these current fights are nothing new!) and upsetting (OMG! The Church has always been fighting and political!). But in all cases, learning our history helps us to make fuller sense of where we are now.

A reoccurring topic of discussion has been how to locate God in what feels like a series of bad decisions made throughout history. When religious wars began to be fought in the name of the Prince of Peace–where was God in that? When we discussed the Crusades, several people remarked that they had never heard of the sacking of Constantinople, or the Children’s Crusade, or how badly awry the whole endeavor had gone, and they were (rightly and justly) appalled that such things were perpetrated in the name of Jesus Christ. How can we make sense of such atrocities within our history?

I tried to address that partially on the First Sunday after Christmas. This is another sermon in note-form, but it is more coherent than Christmas morning’s notes were, so I’m posting it. Enjoy!

Christian History: the good, the bad, the confusing. 

How do we find God in this mess?

How do we decide? 

Jesus, according to John 1, is the window through which we see God— the yardstick by which we measure God. 

God, after all, is immense! Impossible to know, or define, or even to experience. 

But we have seen Jesus. Jesus we know. And what we claim is that Jesus is the best and truest interpretation of God’s nature we have. 

This is how we evaluate whether a claim is true or not, is godly or not. Does it sound like Jesus? 

Jesus, who lived a life among the poor and outcast, who gathered the lost, and wept with his grieving friends. Who raged against hypocrisy, and critiqued his own faith, and taught his disciples to hold themselves to

a higher standard.  That’s what we know of Jesus so that’s what we know of God.

Molly Tibbets’ mom who took in an undocumented Mexican kid, after his parents fled the blacklash her murder had caused. 

That is of God. That’s how Christ calls us. This small miracle in Iowa. Sparks like this shining in the darkness through all of history, even when louder voices claim to be speaking for God, leading to powerful astray–Christ’s light still shines in the darkness .

Voices like this all through out history. We just have to listen. For the light in the darkness which is not overcome.  For the Word made flesh among us. 

Christmas trifecta

My first Christmas as a solo rector has come and gone. I thought to myself, whilst collapsed on the sofa after the Christmas morning service was over, and I was safely ensconced in flannel PJs, wrapped in a wooly blanket, “Wow. Why I am so tired?” It’s because Christmas is a forking lot of work.

Not only for us clergy are there services, pageants, where-is-that-creche? and why-does-the-Baby-Jesus-appear-to-have-a-broken-arm? issues to deal with, there are also all the usual stresses that everyone else has around the holidays: shopping, cooking, cleaning, families people-ing, and the looming knowledge that if this is not the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, You are Doing It Wrong. Compared to all this, Holy Week and Easter’s daily march of intense liturgies feel like a cakewalk.***

I should add quickly that I love being a priest at Christmas. It means I get to talk about the Incarnation a whole lot, which is one of my very favorite things.

To this end, I give you the sermon from Christmas Eve. Christmas Morning’s sermon is currently in note form. I will (possibly) work on getting it into actual sentences, but that may take a while.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 24, 2018

Vigil of Christmas Year B

Luke 3

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is a tiny little book—only about 100 pages, max. It was written way back in the early 1970s, so it’s fairly dated, and was even when I first read it.  It tells the story of a family of troublemakers—your basic town outcasts—the Herdmans, who lived in some nondescript, Midwestern town.  Not for any sobering reason, but because the kids were chronically unsupervised, stole, swore, and were generally badly behaved. No one liked being around them, until one year, at Christmas, due to a perfect storm of small town catastrophes, the Herdmans end up involved in the local church pageant.  Hijinks ensue.

I ADORED this book when I was a kid—it was funny, the stakes were pretty low, and the mental image of the very proper church ladies being continually scandalized by the Herdman kids’ honest confusion over the basics of theology was a delight.  (The Herdmans first show up to church because they were promised crackers and grape juice. They stuck around because they discovered coffee hour.  As an 8 yr old, this was reasoning I could get behind.)

But what I most remember is what happens during the pageant itself.  As the Herdmans step into all the parts, the church congregation begins to see the story anew.  Mary and Joseph become scared kids, wondering how they will survive and care for a baby on their own, instead of two shining saintly figures.  The shepherds become the unkempt, unwashed guys you see around town, who nevertheless come to help out when you need it.  Jesus’ birth in a manger becomes—not a lovely image straight from a gauzy Hallmark movie—but a slice of life, set in the middle of human existence.

It becomes easy, after these 2,000 years, and countless church polishings of this story, to forget that at its base, the story of Christmas is somewhat dirty and messy.  Mary and Joseph aren’t even married yet, when they’re ordered by a distant bureaucrat to go to a far-off town and file some forms.  The town’s overcrowded, and small, so there’s no where to stay, and they end up bedding down with the animals for the night, in a cave.  (In that region, houses and other buildings were built out of caves, for warmth and security, with the living quarters at the front, and the animals sleeping at the rear.)  Mary gives birth to her child surrounded by animals, strangers, and darkness.  The only excited visitors are some wandering shepherds.

We make it pretty over the years—we tell stories about sweet-smelling hay, and kindly beasts, and softly falling snow, perhaps to cover up the starkness of the essential story—a couple left homeless give birth to a baby.  There had to have been halos, angels, kindly midwives, we reassure ourselves.

And yet, perhaps the glory of Christmas is that there wasn’t.  The glory of Christmas is precisely in the mess and the dirt of that first night, when God Incarnate came squalling into a world so broken.  Perhaps the truth we witness to this evening is that God came to be among us exactly in the dirt, in the noise, in the confusion, of our lives.  

Had the stable been a lovely, pristine place, and Mary and Joseph had everything figured out—had the townsfolk of Bethlehem known what was coming their way, and opened their arms with joy, had Herod realized his responsibility, and conceded his throne to this tiny infant—what would the story have been then?  What work of redemption would even have been left?  

No, God comes to us not in our perfection, not in the shining, splendid places in our lives, or in the world, but in the broken, lacking places, because God wants to transform them.  God wants to bind up the broken hearted, to set the captives free, to bring the poor good news, to shine light into all our dimly-lit corners.  And that can only happen if God is present, right in the middle of our mess.  Right where it hurts the most. 

On this night, we remember how God came among us, promising us for all time that no matter what happens, no matter what we face, or what comes our way, there is nothing that can separate us from God and God’s love.  Not poverty, not stables, not emperors, not even death.   God’s love endures through all these things, and transforms all these things until the world begins to reflect the shining glory God intends.  

This baby grows up, becomes an adult who shows us how to live in the Love God has for each of us.  Shows us what the way of sacrificial love looks like, even as that way challenges the powers of the world—he continues in that Love to death, to show us that God’s love is stronger than anything we have known before, stronger even than hatred, violence, even death.  

Tonight is where it starts.  Tonight is where God’s love is made more real than ever before.

Tonight, in the back of a cave, with a poor helpless baby, born into a mess, come to bring us out of one.

Amen.

***Remind me I said that in May, please.

Knitting Prophets

The Christmas Sermon Sprint in 2018 is by no means as arduous as it was last year, when Christmas had the nerve to fall on a Monday. (Really, WHO ALLOWS THESE THINGS.) The near-universal panic among ChurchEmployed Folk last year, trying to figure out what to do with Advent IV, plus Christmas Eve services was a sight, I tell you.

This year, we just have to do 3 feasts in 3 days, which seems tame, really. But it did result in me having a brain blockage for most of the last week, trying to figure out what a good example of an ‘unlikely prophet’ was.

I was saved when I wandered into our local used bookstore (Autumn Leaves, looking at you) and discovered a rare-to-me copy of Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Knitting Around–a combo autobiography and knitting instruction book. But in the knitting world, Elizabeth Zimmerman is basically the godmother of all things. She is the great encourager, the great un-venter–the woman who, in the mid 20th century, transformed knitting from “look at the adorable woman wasting her time” to “look what I can do with my brain and some yarn; I am a genius and nothing can stop me; also I can poke you with these sharp sticks here.” She is also a fantastic writer to boot, and her voice is one I envy a great deal.

Admittedly, when I cited her in the sermon, I hadn’t yet finished the book, which was not my best idea ever. What if she turned out to rhapsodize at length about gender roles, or go on at length about something awful? Nope, turns out she closes the book with a lengthy musing about how ironic it was that the children of American immigrants can become so xenophobic in their turn, and how, perhaps the greatest folly in the world is that of believing that your own country contains the most superior people of the world, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

I am confirmed in my adoration of Elizabeth Zimmerman.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 23, 2018

Advent 4, Year C

Luke 3

The other day, I wandered into our local used bookstore and happened upon a book that I’ve long searched for by Elizabeth Zimmerman.  Now, if you don’t know who that is, don’t feel bad—she’s not at all famous, but she’s basically the Godmother of Modern knitting.  In the mid 20th century, through her several books, and her typewritten newsletters (!) She is singlehandedly responsible from transforming knitting into something a few women did, while following a pattern, to something women could do, while trusting their brains, and their skills.  Her motto was “YOU ARE THE BOSS OF THIS.” If you made a mistake, go with it!  It was probably a new invention!  Now it was a design feature!  She spent her career angry at the knitting magazines who would publish her designs, only to completely butcher them, so she took matters into her own hands, and change the culture of knitting entirely.  Whenever I feel overwhelmed or discouraged, I pick up one of her books, and hear again her words to “Knit on through all adversity”, and “you are the boss of your knitting, and you can do this.”  Her trust and confidence in the abilities of ordinary women was literally revolutionary, and when she died, she even got a NYT obituary.  One might even say she was a bit of a prophet, of the knitting resurgence that came after she died.  

A prophet, after all, is one who tells the truth in a profound manner, and brings the light of day to something that the rest of the world has a hard time seeing.  Prophets don’t predict the future, so much as they cast light on what is happening in the here and now; they interpret the present for us and help us understand where God is in the present moment, and what we are called to do.  (This is why they have been historically unpopular—you don’t get irritated with someone who tells you that you will lose the lottery drawing next month.  You DO dislike the person who points out that spending all your food money on lottery tickets is not the wisest choice.  Prophets!)

The story of God is the story of unlikely prophets, in many ways.  The prophets we meet in the Hebrew Bible were a motley crew.  Isaiah doesn’t have a claim to fame before we meet him.  Amos points out that he is “neither a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but is a dresser of sycamore trees” which is such an obscure job we still don’t know what he was up to.  Jeremiah was a kid.  Micah was a lawyer of some kind.  John the Baptist went wandering out in the desert eating bugs and wearing inappropriate clothing.

And today, we meet Mary.  Now, I want to say first that there is a tradition of female prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. Miriam, Moses’ sister, is called a prophet in Exodus.  Deborah sent Barack into battle for Israel.  The Israelite midwives heard and obeyed God during the time of Pharoah—the difference for most of them is that while the male prophets had access to the king, so could speak directly to power, and then have their words recorded, the female prophets mostly did not have that access.  

Anyway, Mary arrives on the scene, another in a long line of these unlikely prophets.  She’s not a gardener, either, she’s not anyone—she’s a young woman in Roman-occupied Palestine, engaged to be married. And Gabriel shows up, and informs her that she is going to have a baby, and the baby will be very important, so really, how does she feel about that?

This is a pretty big ask.  Aside from the usual elements of the unknown (which Mary pounces on when she asks just HOW this is going to happen) there is a real element of danger in what Gabriel is telling her. Unmarried women didn’t get pregnant.  That was a great way to get killed in those days—the penalty for this under the law technically was being stoned.  At the very least, you would be shunned by your family, village, and friends—which could also be a death sentence.   It’s very possible part of the reason Mary immediately goes to visit Elizabeth out of town is to hide what’s happening to her from her neighbors, and to avoid attracting attention.

But once Gabriel gives her some more information, she says yes.  “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.” She says.  “Let it be to me according to your word.”  “Here I am” is translated from a specific Hebrew word that is the response given by all the prophets to their call from God.  That word can mean a whole host of things—everything from “Behold!” To “Here I am” to “Peek a boo” in modern Hebrew.  (Not kidding—In modern Hebrew, this is the word for Peek a boo.). But generally, the word signifies declaration of presence and acceptance.  Look!  I am here!  In an affirmative and positive way!

Mary is saying “Here I am, a creature of God—signing up to be a part of God’s mission in the world.”  What every prophet has done before her.

Then, as soon as she gets to Elizabeth’s house, she explains what precisely God’s mission looks like to her in the Magnificat. The poor are comforted, the mighty are cast down, the rich are sent away empty, the hungry are fed.  The lowly are remembered.  

Now, there are layers here.  Mary’s song seems to be a sibling of the poetry of Hannah, Samuel’s mother, from earlier in Hebrew scripture, as she rejoices that God has given her a son.  And it was also customary at that time, in that culture, to greet your hosts by reciting their names in a song or poem, as a gesture of respect, which would explain why Mary greets Elizabeth this verbose way.

But if we want to imagine that what Mary says here is anything other than revolutionary, we should also remember its more recent history.  During British colonial rule in India, the Magnificat was not allowed to be sung or read publicly.  In 1980s Guatemala, it was banned as well.  And in under the military junta of Argentina in the 1970s, after the Mothers of the Disappeared wrote its words on their protest signs, the government forbade its public use there as well.  

We’re used to seeing Mary portrayed as a quiet and obedient pale girl, thinking only of abstract heavenly matters.  She’s there on the cover of Christmas cards, wrapped in pink and pale blue, gazing passively into space.  Yet her words have stirred humanity time and again to seek God’s reign in the world, to look for the dawn of justice and mercy, and to courageously love God and neighbor, even in the face of the world’s empires.  Generations of people have found hope and courage in the words of a teenaged girl from Nazareth, who declared that God saw even her, and counted her as blessed. 

After all, if God saw Mary, then surely God sees us.  If Mary could survey her life as it was about to be turned inside out and upside down, and proclaim that God still cared for the least of these, then surely we who know how the story ends, can gaze at our own lives and our own turbulent world and proclaim the same.  For it is the most unlikely prophets who bring us the purest truth.  

Amen.