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Gospel Motto

See, what had happened was that I was sick all week.

I was fine at the beginning of the week.  Perky and chipper even.  And then, I made the worst of wintertime mistakes–I got on a plane.  And by the time I got off, my sinuses had built a pillow fort inside my head, and had decided to wreak havoc on my poor immune system.

So I was sick the rest of the week.

This put a crimp in my sermon writing, because cold medicine is not conducive to logical or thoughtful sermons.  It gives rise to wacky and disconnected sermons that sound like you have recently woken up from a nap.  (I don’t respond great to cold meds.)

All this is to say that I arrived at Saturday evening with a mostly-formed idea for a sermon, a clearer head, and not a whole lot written down.

Then, sitting in my chair, listening to the opening prayers, I decided to shred the whole thing.  It wasn’t good enough, I decided, and I had Another Thought which might work better.  And if not, the 5pm crowd is friendly enough that they would probably forgive me.

Thus it came to pass that I delivered, not the sermon I wrote, but a different sermon all together.  And lo, that sermon was better than the one I had written.  So I took the hint, and wrote down the second one instead.

Sometimes, the Holy Spirit just sneaks up on you.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 10, 2017

Advent 2, Year B

Mark 1

We got all of Part 1 of Handel’s Messiah in that Isaiah reading.  The annual test to see whether the layreader is good enough to avoid falling into the rhythm of the music when they read.

I went to the Messiah on Friday, and was struck by how often we’re told to proclaim good news.  Nearly constantly!  

Lift up your voice and shout oh daughters of Jerusalem.  Rejoice greatly!  Cry out!  

At every turn, we’re bid by the prophets to shout out some good news–and here again–Comfort, comfort ye my people.  Tell my people news of comfort.

 

That’s cool, but what is this good news we have to tell people?

 

Especially because more often than not, what we see around us is bad.  All kinds of bad.  A friend and I were comparing when it was, exactly, when we purged all news from our FB feeds during the past year.  Did you make it to October?  Good for you–I made it through three weeks ago, and had to stop again.  Bad news, everywhere you look.

 

And even the Church seems guilty of spreading bad news.  This past week, we saw our government make the decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel–throwing the international community and nearly everyone, except a small segment of evangelical Christians into panic.  To nearly the whole world, this looks a lot like a great way to violate international law and start World War 3.  To this small but vocal group of Christians, it looks like a way to ensure a Jewish state in Israel, and the second coming of Jesus, which to them will necessarily involve the destruction and death of all the Jews in Israel.

But either way this works out–it is bad news.

 

And so what is, again, this good news we have to proclaim?  It had to be something, because whatever John was telling people was so compelling, people were showing up in droves out in the Judean desert.  Which is not a friendly American southwest desert with your cacti and your roadrunners.  The Judean desert is a desolate landscape of rock and sand.  That’s it.  No one wants to go there–but John was giving the people something good.  Something they needed to hear.

 

We get a glimpse of how Mark puts it n the first line:  The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Bam.  There you go.  Mark has a thesis statement. A little later, he will describe Jesus emerging fully adult, and the first thing he says is “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

 

Between those two lines, is the sum of Mark’s good news.  Here is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  So the kingdom of God is at hand.  

 

The whole of the gospel will keep coming back to this point.  The whole of the story revolves around this idea.  That in this regular guy from nowheres-ville, Galilee, God had started to put right the things that have gone wrong in the world.  God has started to mend, once and for all, the brokenness of creation, all the things that pain us, that cause us to hurt each other, that cause suffering.  God is starting to bring this world back into alignment with how God wanted things in the first place, and Jesus shows us what it looks like when that happens.  Jesus shows us what it looks like when we participate in that process.  How we can help make things whole.  

And so, EVERYTHING that Mark describes Jesus as doing will reflect this idea– his teaching, his healing, his parables, his living and his dying.  

And Christ lives this out–as he brings recognition and dignity to outcasts and tax collectors, as he heals the sick, as he tells stories about who God is and how God works in the world.  

Christ’s whole life and ministry revolves around illustrating what it looks like when God fixes the world, and what it looks like when we pitch in.  

 

Repent, he tells us, for the kingdom of God has come near.  Then he lives it.

 

This is the gospel that Mark writes.  This is the way he presents the good news, the way he shouts it, the way he comforts the people.  Don’t worry, he tells them.  God is coming to fix this mess.  

 

So then what is the good news that we tell?  What do we lift up our voices and shout?

The first question is the simpler, I think–how would we explain the gospel, as we experience it in our own lives?  What is the good news of God in Christ that propels us forward?  What is our story to sing out, to comfort Jerusalem in her time of anguish?  

 

But the more subtle question is what story do our lives tell?  What good news do our lives bear out, if they were examined?  What story about God and faith do our lives tell, our choices?  Do our lives speak of a loving God, a God who loved this world so much he wanted to be one of us?  Or do our lives describe a God more dour, more stingy than that?

 

Part of the task of preparation, this Advent, is to figure out what our good news is.  What is the news we have been specifically gifted to tell–through our lives and through our words?  It is through all of our news together, woven together like a tapestry, that the world can receive the news of what God is doing.  So all our voices are needed in this great task.

So this week, as you finish the baking, as you’re stuck in traffic, take a moment and reflect–what good news do you know?  What song does your life sing? Because the world needs this comfort now badly.  So find your song, get up to those heights and sing it.

 

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Sheep and Goats

There are a few good standbys for progressive Christians when it comes to Scripture:  Micah’s answer to what the Lord requires of us, Paul’s assertion in 1 Corinthians about the nature of love, and Matthew’s description of the Last Judgment with the sheep and the goats.

I love this story, but like most time-worn Biblical stories that we know inside and out, it is hard to preach on because it is so familiar.  Many of us, in Episco-world, can recite the end of Matthew 25 in our sleep.  We know who “the least of these” really refers to, and we know our job, and we know to develop a healthy suspicion of goats.  What more can be said?

So this year, I took a tack that several other of my colleagues are taking–the idea that Jesus’ final speech in Matthew is all of a piece, and so the sheep and the goats image is an answer to the stories that have come before.  In a sense, the image of the sheep and the goats is a response to the truth of the current garbage fire the world finds itself in.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

November 26, 2017

Last Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

Matthew 25: 25:31

 

We’ve reached the end of the liturgical year.  We’ve been hearing about the endtimes, and being watchful, and next Sunday, we will turn the page and start Year B, where Mark takes up similar themes.  

So the gospel today picks up where we’ve been the past few weeks–Jesus is discussing what will happen in time to come.  In Matthew’s gospel, this story, the slaves hiding money story from last week, and the ten bridesmaids story all come in a row, and all occur in the middle of Holy Week as Jesus is teaching in Jerusalem.  As he is days away from crucifixion, he’s telling the disciples what to expect coming down the road, so to speak.

And here’s the story this all wraps up with.  Like I said last week, the story of the sheep and the goats is the capper.  It sums everything up in these stories that have come before it.  

Arguably, the bridesmaids started it off, and it’s all of a piece.  Here are these bridesmaids who weren’t prepared, and so they were left behind.  Here is this horrible landowner who abused his servants, and that was also Very Bad.  But when the Son of Man comes, then things will be different!  Then things will change!  The three stories, told together, are a sort of mini-Revelations.  A microcosm of an apocalypse.

And remember, an Apocalypse, in the biblical sense, is not the world ending.  It is a prolonged allegory that explains both how bad things currently are in the world, and reassures the oppressed that even though all hope seems lost, God will step in and flip things around.  That’s what we have here.  In the story from last week, we have a picture of just how bad Things Currently Are.  The people in power–here, the landowner–are absent, are greedy, and clearly don’t care about the welfare of those under them.  They take what little the poor has and give it to the already-rich.  Please apply that to whatever current situation you would like.

So, it’s clear Things Are Bad.  People are suffering.  God is not pleased with this state of affairs–another major theme of apocalyptic literature.  But we are also told that 1. Things won’t always be like this and 2. We need to Stay Alert.

In our story for today, Jesus reassures his flock that yes, things are bad and unfair now, but they won’t always be this way.  Change is coming, and coming soon.  Part of the power of apocalyptic literature is the validation that comes with someone affirming your sense of suffering.  Indeed!  You are suffering, the world is unfair, and God sees it.  So to be told in this parable that not only does God see your suffering, but God participates in it is amazing.

That’s the further step that Jesus takes here.  Normally, God just validates the suffering of the faithful.  Here, it is revealed that God IS suffering with the afflicted.  When the rulers of the world act unjustly, when they cause anguish and pain, when they oppress and divide, that doesn’t just hurt humans–that hurts God too.  That causes the heart of God to break.

Occasionally, in the church, when we talk about outreach or doing good works, we fall into the trap of speaking like the poor or the oppressed are somewhere outside our doors, and so our job is to first find some poor people and then to sort of charity at them.  To serve AT them.  Regardless of their feelings on the matter.  This comes from a very well-intentioned excitement from reading this sheep and goats passage and wanting to be a sheep.  So, quick, let’s find a suffering person and help them.  Maybe the lure of this comes from believing that we, ourselves, could never be as vulnerable as Those People, right?

But really, the power of this story is that we are told to help the sick and suffering, the poor and the oppressed, NOT so we will be rewarded.  And not so we will feel good.  We are told to do so because that is where God is.  God is always with those who are vulnerable, who are afflicted, and who are left behind.  

Because when we are sick, when we are suffering, God is with us.  God is not out there, apart. God does not just view our suffering with compassion–God is present with us in our pain.  And so, the pain of the afflicted is and must be present within the Church.  If we want to call ourselves Christians, and believers in God, then we cannot hold ourselves apart from where God is.  But also, we can be assured in the knowledge that when we suffer, and feel abandoned, God is right there with us.

And in those moments, God waits, with us, for the rest of the world to show up and care, because that is how, in God’s redeemed creation, things will work.  

 

Yet here we are, in the middle.  Stuck between the World of the Landowner and the World of the Sheep and the Goats.  The world as it currently is, and the world as Jesus promises us it will be one day.  

 

Our job, in the here and now, is to pay attention, to stay alert to those glimpses of that redeemed creation and the way we can help it inch along.  We are called to be bridesmaids–waiting for the wedding party to arrive so the feast can begin, and making all the final preparations.  To watch for God, where ever God might be in our midst.  Anxiously preparing the way for God, and looking for the divine presence everywhere we go, and ready to assist in bringing forth renewed creation.  

We enter Advent next week, but really, we live in an eternal active Advent.  We wait and watch.  Watch for all signs of the Divine among us.  Wait for all tiny growth of the kingdom in our midst, secure in the knowledge that one day soon, there will be a huge party breaking out, and when it comes, we’ll be ready.  

So get ready.  Trim those lamps, and start searching.  

Getting what you ask for

(With apologies to Proverbs.)

Three things are feared by preachers,

Four topics make them all afraid:

Stewardship, Doubting Thomas, and the Trinity.

 

On Wednesday, the Vestry requested that I preach on Stewardship.  For various reasons, this had not been done at St. Paul’s for a good long while, but being an odd duck, I really like preaching about stewardship.  I have been known to break into stewardship sermons in the middle of August.  So I said I would give it a shot.

Here’s what I said.  People liked it, which I think might be a Thanksgiving miracle.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

November 19, 2017

Ordinary Time, Proper 28

Parable of the Talents/Absentee Landowner

 

It may or may not surprise you, but when I took the theologically risky path of googling this parable, a lot of sermons came back extolling the virtues of capitalism.  (You find strange interpretations of the Bible when you google without knowledge–if you google the story of Esther, for example, you find a lot of Sunday School lessons on how important it is for girls to be obedient to adult authority.  Which is 9 kinds of toxic, in light of the news of the past few weeks.)

 

The parable of the talents, these random Internet sages argue, is principally about how God, in the figure of the absentee landowner, gives us gifts, or resources, and then expects us to make them as profitable as we can while we have them, before he returns.  If we fail to do that, then woe betide us.  

And the VERY BEST way to do that, many of them argue, is lending money at high rates of interest in a capitalist system which is clearly what those slaves were doing!

 

I got a new book by the Conservative Jewish writer and New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine on the parables last month, and so she and I are here to tell you that there is a lot wrong with that proposition.  For one, there really wasn’t any sort of market system that we would recognize going on at the time of Jesus.  There’s no way Christ was advocating an early Adam Smith philosophy here.  

 

But more importantly, let’s consider the personality of the landowner here.  He’s…sort of a mean dude.  He randomly gives money (a lot of money, actually) to his slaves, and then leaves.  We aren’t told why.  And when he returns, he demands it back, and not only that, he demands that the slaves should have made him a hefty profit through what appear to be really risky means.  And he gets EXTREMELY ANGRY AND VIOLENT with the slave who didn’t do that–even though these were never explicit instructions.

Is this a good parallel for God?  Really?  Does this sound like the God that Jesus has described up until now?  The God who asks us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to turn the other cheek, and not chuck them into the outer darkness, the God who constantly reminds us that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, and as Professor Levine pointed out–has a special concern that fields and vineyards not be over harvested, so that the poor may eat for free.  The idea that God would be represented in this parable of Jesus’ as an absent, greedy landowner who deprives his slaves of even the little they possess is confusing at best, when you stop to consider it.  Nothing Jesus has told us about God up until now fits with the landowner.

 

Indeed, Jesus tells us that God doesn’t leave us.  God isn’t absentee at all.  Jesus’s constant refrain throughout the gospel is “The Kingdom of God has come near”.  God never leaves us.  A more consonant way to read this parable might be as a diptych with what comes next–that famous story about the sheep and the goats.  So we have this rather awful story about the World as it is–where an absentee landowner expects his slaves to make tons of money for him alone, and when that isn’t done, he reacts violently.  But you turn the page, and hear “But when the Son of Man comes, with his angels around him, he will separate the sheep from the goats”.  

And in this “judgement” scene, the flock will learn that, contrary to what they had believed, contrary to the images of an Absentee Landlord in the sky, He hadn’t left them at all–he had been with them all the time!  

And, when he divides them, one from another, it won’t be based on who made the most money–rather it will be on who used what they had to care for the most suffering people.  An entire reversal of what came before.  

In Jesus’ kingdom, what is important is not how much money you make.  How much profit you can accrue for Some Scary Man in the Sky who Will Punish You.  It’s how much you used what you had to care for others–how much you gave your talents to the care of others, and not to accruing more and more money.  THAT’s what counts.

 

At St. Paul’s, we dedicate a full 14% of our budget to our food ministries and to our school in Haiti.  That’s over $112,000 a year.  Compared to other churches, that’s an enormous percentage, and does not include the amount of money we give to the diocese.  

 

That money goes to the work you see around you all the time.  The food pantry, which gives away so much food, three times a week, no questions asked, to our neighbors in need.  The various food programs that we also keep running here: Meals on Wheels, Senior Commodities, TEFAP and Backsnacks, meet the needs of various communities who also rely on the food we give out, but for one reason or another, can’t make it to the pantry as often as they need to.

 

We also, through your generosity, run a school and church in Haiti, in a very remote part of the country, and have for over 30 years.  The children who come to our school receive a hot meal every day, and a quality education which prepares them to enter the workforce and change their country for the better.  

But not just that.  Because, let’s face it.  If you wanted to feed the hungry, or help children in Haiti, you could do that by giving your money to Harvesters, or the Red Cross.  But when you give your money to St. Paul’s, what you are also doing is keeping this place alive.  A place that not only provides food and shelter to those who need it, but a spiritual home and haven to generations who have come through those doors.  You keep the lights and heat on so that people can stop and rest here and find a moment of peace.  You keep your preachers supplied so we can give a word of wisdom each Sunday to someone, maybe who has never heard it.  When you give your money to St. Paul’s each year, quite frankly, you change lives.  You change lives in Westport, in Haiti, and right here in these pews.  

 

We at St. Paul’s know that God is not that absentee landlord, who abandons us to make our way as best we can, alone in the world.  We at this church know that God is always with us, and that God gives us Christ, and gives us each other to care for.  We know that our job here is to care for those least able to care for themselves, and to tell the world this story we know about the God who loves them, and who is here with them.  

But crucially, it is only with your support that we are able to do these things.  It is up to you, and how you spend your talents, that determine whether we can keep doing the work we have been doing together.  

We’re entering stewardship season (as you might have guessed.) And that’s a word that mostly scares the pants off of good Episcopalians.  But stewardship is just about how you decide where to put your resources–that question of the slaves.  Do you put them to the goal of earning more and more money, like those first servants, whether you just stick them in the ground, or whether you dedicate them to the material and spiritual care of others.  This is what we have to decide, because it is part of the spiritual life.  This is part of following Christ.  

At St. Paul’s, over the years, we have done our best to put our resources towards keeping the light of God’s love shining in this corner of the city.  That is what we will keep doing.  And with your help, that is what we will always do for generations to come.

 

Amen.

 

Further Biblical Living Ideas *Satire*

This week, Washington Post revealed that Judge Roy Moore, currently running for Senate in Alabama, allegedly had several sexual encounters with underage girls when he was in his thirties. Rather than denounce him, the Alabama state auditor chose to defend his actions by citing the biblical story of Mary and Joseph. 

In the interest of keeping my nausea at bay, and putting my 7 years of Biblical study, and nearly 10 years of professional ministry to good use, I have the following suggestions of Biblical practices that Judge Moore should investigate, instead of a Senate campaign.  Since this seems to be a new area of interest. 

1. Pretend your wife is your sister, in order to sell her to foreign government officials 

2.Drive a spike through the head of disagreeable generals after you seduce them 

3. Send bears after small children who insult your male-pattern baldness

4. Burn your house, your clothes, your books after you find a spot on them, for fear they have contracted leprosy. 

5. Throw passive-aggressive dinner parties for genocidal government officials 

6. Circumcise all men, including the adult ones, and carry around the evidence as a talisman to be produced on demand. 

7. Love your neighbor as yourself. For crying out loud. 

Full Disclosure

This weekend was the diocesan convention.  On Friday and Saturday, I trooped over to Blue Springs with the rest of the clergy and lay delegates, sat in a overchilled ballroom, and took counsel together for the future of our diocese.

In West Missouri, it can now be said publicly that one thing our diocesan future will include is mediation between the diocese and bishop.  For roughly 18 months, the Standing Committee and the bishop have been in a mediation process to address several longstanding issues in our common life.  This weekend, it was announced that this process has resulted in an agreement on how to move forward for the next six months.  Said agreement was announced to the diocese both at convention and in each parish through a pastoral letter read on Sunday morning.

That part was tense, and painful.  No one, and I mean no one, likes conflict–though I retain my firm belief that this pain will yet result in new growth and life for us all.  But at the same time, convention included the long-awaited reception of one of my parishioners whose call to ordination found a home in The Episcopal Church.  We authorized the start of a taskforce to start a new diocesan curacy program.  And I got to see friends I only see at convention.

The institutional church can be a frustrating morass of “people people-ing” as my parish admin terms it.  People just doing their level best to be their worst and pettiest selves.  And yet, at the same time, there’s always enough of the Holy Spirit mixed in there that it always seems worth sticking with it.

So here’s what I said on Sunday.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

November 4, 2017

Ordinary Time, Proper 26

Matthew 23:1-12

 

Well, yikes.  This was clearly not one of Jesus’s happy days.  This was clearly one of his grumpier days.  

And I realize this might seem like an odd reading for All Saints’ Sunday, when we have baptisms and Jonathan is celebrating mass with us for the first time, and we have all these joyous things happening–but bear with me.  

We’ve been reading through this part of Matthew where Jesus has been fighting with the various parts of religious leadership in his time–Sadducees, temple authorities, Pharisees.  Different folks in different places of power.  And finally, we arrive to today’s reading where he rounds things off by basically insulting them for a good 12 verses.  And not in a subtle way, either.

He says that they’re puffed up and proud, that they posture and preen and act like pious people but only so others will think well of them, but actually, it’s all an act.  They aren’t really good people–it’s all for show.  They aren’t concerned with love of God or love of humanity; they are concerned with keeping up appearances and maintaining power over others.  

That is very harsh.  To put this in context, of course, Jesus has been arguing with these guys for a while now, and he’s gotten fed up.  He’s frustrated because they aren’t really having a discussion about faith with him, as they are trying to one-up him in front of the crowd.  

Again, it bears repeating that Jesus, though he sounds infuriated, actually had a lot in common with the Pharisees.  They both thought that religious observance was for everyone–not just the rich, not just the educated, and not just the people lucky enough to live close enough to the Temple to go worship.  They thought everyone should have the opportunity to be in relationship with God, and to walk in the way God teaches us to walk–not just some of the people.

However, religious leaders then, as now, ran into the temptation that all leaders do.  Leaders hold so much power as they teach, as they mold what someone believes, as they persuade–which is great if they use that to good effect in the world, but Frequently, leadership can become a power trip–and that can become an end unto itself.  So what you start to focus on is not leading people to a better life, constructing the reign of God on earth, but feeling superior to others.  Less good.  Not good.

It is easy here, as it is through all of Matthew really, to demonize the Pharisees, but Jesus turns it around pretty fast to the disciples–who, let’s remember, were leaders too.  They were headed out, preaching and teaching and healing, right?  They were spreading the gospel too.  They were leading.  And so he tells them to remember not to call anyone father.  And not to call anyone teacher–and by extension, to not let anyone call them father, or teacher–because those titles can involve an element of domination, and the role of a Christian is to always be a servant.

There is, perhaps, an element of leadership in the walk with Christ.  There is an element of leadership in the baptized life, in the sense that we become salt and light for the earth, and so are set apart from the crowd–given a special calling.  We are the ones, after all, who have made these promises, to follow the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.  Others have not made those promises.  We promised to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to work for justice, freedom and peace.  Others did not.

That does not mean we are better than other people.  It does not–any more than people who all can recite Monty Python quotes about the Spanish Inquisition are better than other people.  It just means we’re different.  Different, not better.  Not, praise God, worse, though, either.  (Maybe it’s a human thing, to equate difference with a value judgement.)

Our baptism doesn’t make us better than the rest of the world, but it does give us a job to do in the world–a job to serve the rest of the world, but in so doing, we have to resist the temptation to confuse our difference with betterness.  Because Lord knows, there are a lot of screwy Episcopalians.   And Lord knows, there are also a lot of people of other creeds who work for the same things we do, just in a different way.  Christ calls us out to be different, in order not to be better, or to be special, but in order to serve the rest of the world.  

We see it, of course, clearly in ordination, where some of us odd souls are singled out to be set aside for the task of cheering on and empowering the rest of the church.  Again, it would be laughable to claim that the ordained clergy are better than those who actually do the work of the church–the daily going out into the world, the daily praying and working and reconciling that you do.  We’re not better; we’re just different.  This week, we get to rejoice as another one is added to our company.

It is actually our differences that bring forth the reign of God.  Our differences, our different callings do not make us better or worse than each other–rather they equip us to serve the world.

When we baptize these three little babies in a few minutes, we rejoice that they will grow in this community of Christ’s love, that they will have the chance to learn your own blessed differences.  Babies, you will have the chance to discover your own callings, and how God is shaping you to serve the world you’re now just discovering.  Today, we celebrate as you join our number of cheerfully different servants, because we know that this is what you were made for–a life to serve the world, in all your wonderful blessed uniqueness, alongside all the other saints. 

Amen

 

 

 

Assigned Sermons

So last week, the rector and I were discussing the parable in Matthew he was going to preach on.  It was that tricky one about the king throwing a party that no one comes to, so he burns down a city in retribution, and kidnaps a whole second city into coming to his party.

It is tricky for some (hopefully) obvious reasons.

I suppose it was those discussions that led the rector to announce, in the course of HIS sermon, that I would be unpacking the ensuing pericope in Matthew, so everyone should show up next week to see how I did it.  At the time, I had not planned on doing that, but I am loathe to disappoint an entire church-ful of people, or to so publicly flout a reasonable request from my rector.  So I duly took on the famous “Render unto Caesar” passage.

I really dislike this passage–not for what it actually says, but for the ways in which it has been applied over the years.  The neat division between secular and sacred by people who claim the Incarnation has troubled me for years–ever since my professor in college went on a tangent one day and exegeted this passage.

We were supposed to be discussing the history and development of human rights in Islamic law that day, but one of the articles we had read cited the oft-made argument that Western Christianity alone was responsible for the development of freedom of religion, because of this ‘render unto Caesar’ passage.  Prof Sonn could not even with this historical and exegetical blunder, and took a time out to explain how that was NOT AT ALL what Jesus was doing, and NO ONE thought about distinct religious and political spheres until modernism, and also, the concept of dhimmi was ample evidence of an Islamic concern for the religious rights of minorities, and it’s not like medieval Europe did so great in that regard either, because what was that Hundred Years’ War about again?  She had some strong feelings on this, as she did on most things.

But it was the first time that I had heard an alternate interpretation to the traditional Two Kingdoms line, and it stuck with me.  (Also, the proclivity to fly into tangents about academic ridiculousness complete with handwaving and sarcasm.)

Here’s what I said, with a hat-tip to Prof Sonn.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

October 22, 2017

Ordinary Time, Proper 24

Matthew 22:15-22

 

  • Here is my long awaited sermon on the puzzling Caesar vs God parable in Matthew, that Fr. Stan so generously previewed last week.  As was promised, I will preach on the Gospel.  I had thought about preaching on Isaiah, because Cyrus the Persian is the DREAMIEST OF ALL BIBLICAL CHARACTERS, but alas, no.  
  • As Fr. Stan said, this is indeed a tricky passage.  We know this in part from the Pharisees and Herodians saying to each other, “we’re going to be tricky”.  It’s a bit of a giveaway.  But also from the way this passage has been treated over time.  
  • Because part of the challenge of the Bible is that we read–not just the words on the page–but also the history of how those words have been interpreted and used.  How these passages have been understood by people before us through time.  For better and for worse.  
  • So this passage, for example, from the time of Martin Luther, helped give rise to something called the Two Kingdoms doctrine.  
  • The idea was that God ruled over history in two distinct ways:  God ruled over secular affairs through secular or civil authority, and over spiritual affairs through religious authority.  
    • It was a variation on Luther’s ideas about law and gospel–the law being the civil authority, and the gospel being religious.  Which was helpful, because it would be tough to run a kingdom if the king cheerfully forgave all murderers and let them run freely around as an act of grace.  
    • But Luther was clear that civil leaders got to govern in their own way, and should have NOTHING TO DO WITH RELIGION.  Religious leaders, on the other hand, shouldn’t meddle in the affairs of the state, because their ‘kingdom’ was separate.  
    • The reason being, Luther reasoned, was that Civil authority existed to curb the worst impulses of non-believers.  Religion, on the other hand, was effective for believers.
    • This gave rise to some really GOOD effects on the government side–John Locke cited Luther when he wrote the philosophy which led to our First Amendment.  Governments realised that their role was not to dictate religion.  Good idea.  Solid.
    • On the flip side, however, churches started to pick up the idea that their job was not to meddle in the affairs of governments, or even, in extreme cases, to have opinions about them.  Instead, their job was to keep rendering unto Caesar.  That’s….not as great.  
    • The Roman Catholic church sort of picked up this theory too, eventually, but called it the two swords theory, where one was temporal, and was much lower than the spiritual sword. But still!  Separate things!
  • So when we read this, that’s frequently the background music we hear playing.  Give to Caesar what is Caesar; give to God what is God’s.  Of course! We think!  They’re two separate realms!  
  • And yet, if that were true?  This would not be a trap.  
  • This is a hard question for Jesus precisely because THERE IS NO SEPARATION.
  • This is a trap because there is no clear answer–least of all a clear division.  
  • This conversation is happening as the Leaders are standing in the Temple–an edifice built by a Roman-Jewish Client king, in order to curry favor with the locals, first of all.  
  • That also meant that the Roman coin couldn’t even come inside the gates.  Caesar’s image was breaking the 1st commandment against graven images.  
  • The crowd is not a fan of Rome, so signing off on Roman taxes will make Jesus unpopular.  
  • HOWEVER, saying people should NOT pay taxes makes him a traitor to Rome.  It’s a trap.
  • But either way you go–you see how religion and the secular world are intertwined.  
  • To be Jewish is to take a certain position with regards to Rome.  To be Roman is to have another position with regards to Judaism.  The entire question posed by the leaders here rests on the idea that THERE IS NO SEPARATION between these ‘two kingdoms’–rather, there’s one kingdom.
  • And Jesus has to pick one.
  • He goes with “Give to Caesar’s what is Caesar’s–i.e. The coin” and “give to God’s what is God’s.”
  • Here’s the catch:
  • To an observant Jew, or even a non-observant one, ALL THE WORLD was the Lord’s.  There’s no part that isn’t God’s, where Caesar would reign.  That’s axiomatic.  Part of the reason people didn’t want to pay taxes to Caesar was that taxes were a symbolic acknowledgement of Caesar’s rule over them.  
  • What Jesus is doing is carefully threading a needle here.  He’s caught between empire and the demands of faith.  And while the empire has daily demands that ask for compliance, God has larger commands that call upon our lives.  How we negotiate that is a test of faith.
  • Ultimately, when the Empire demands coins, that’s not a big deal; coins are essentially worthless.  When the Empire demands supreme allegiance, loyalty, to the exclusion of what God asks of you–that’s a problem.
  • So the task for us is not to divide the world up into neat spheres of influence.  
  • The earth is the Lord’s and all that is therein, after all.
  • God actually gets a say in all that we do–we have to carry Christ’s call to us to be unconditionally loving, generous and merciful into ALL aspects of our lives.  
  • But we do have to decide what in our lives belongs to the Empire, so that we can give it back.
  • What rightly belongs to God?  What rightly belongs to the Empire?
  • There will always be the claims of Empire in our lives–whether we are on the victorious, Roman side or not.
  • The risk for us is to confuse our loyalties.
  • God still controls the world, not the Empire.  And while we still need to contend with the earthly reality of these powers which rise and fall, we cannot escape that our primary responsibility is to God.  Period.  
  • Whether we are subjects of Rome, of the United States, of Capitalism, or the most sacred of Empires, that of Major League Baseball–that doesn’t let us avoid the call of God.  God still asks us to live our faith.  Even as Uncle Sam asks us to pony it up.
  • We get to decide what that negotiation looks like.  I’m sure those disciples argued about it–chances are good they disagreed strenously.  
  • But the two kingdoms still pull us.  Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away.  Complying with their every whim doesn’t make them go away.
  • We have to carry our discipleship into the midst of Rome, in order to change them.  We have to transform the empire from within, by staying true to the primary call of Christ to us.
  • Only then will the world be transformed into the reign of God we wish to see.

 

Vineyards, Violence, and Verbatim

Confession time:  I don’t like commentaries.

I like them fine for bible studies, and leading discussions.  I find them edifying when doing close readings.  But commentaries for preaching do not help me in my ‘process’ (imagine me wearing a beret, flipping my hair, and saying this with an overly dramatic flourish as befits an artiste.)

So, there are very few resources I lean on week in and week out when I’m writing a sermon.  However, this week I really leaned on ‘Left Behind and Loving It‘– a blog that offers a word-for-word literal dissection of the Koine Greek gospel text, along with some basic historical perspective.  There has not been a week that I’ve read his blog that it has not helped me in some way, so my sincerest thanks–especially for the inspiration for this sermon, in the wake of Las Vegas.

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

October 6, 2017

Ordinary Time, Proper  http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2014/09/resurrection-return-of-rejected.html

Matthew 21:33-46

 

Today is all about vineyards.  Isaiah and Jesus both tell us entertaining stories about vineyards that go bad, which sounds like an entertaining reality show on Bravo, that probably features catfights or something similar.

Isaiah’s vineyard has a loving owner–who comes to the land, plants it, tends it, builds a wall, and cares for it, only to have the vines spoil for an unknown reason, and the grapes turn sour.  

Jesus, in turn, reinterprets the parable in his conversation with the Pharisees and religious leaders, but changes a couple of important things.  In Jesus’s telling, the landowner–which is a Greek word that is literally ‘house despot’, and we should pull that back into circulation–the landowner gives the tending of the vineyard to some…odd people.

This band of tenant farmers tend the land, and succeed in farming it, but when the landowner sends servants to collect the grapes, the tenants decide to run them off with violence.  Ok, thinks the landowner, I’ll send my son.  They’ll have to respect him.  That also doesn’t work.  The tenants take the son and kill him.  So Jesus asks the leaders what the landowner should do about the tenant farmers?

They get right into the spirit of the thing–HE SHOULD KILL THEM.  KILL THEM ALL.  The evil ones should die evilly.  In the greek.  They proclaim.  But that doesn’t seem to be the right answer.

We should perhaps stop here and point out that this, like all parables, is weird.  And unlike most parables, it’s violent and bloody,  No nice farmers or happy widows to be found in here.  So it’s not really what we’re used to.  But for the Pharisees and leaders, they would be somewhat familiar with this story–after all, they knew Isaiah’s story well.  They knew the idea of Israel’s sinfulness being punished, and eventually being restored to wholeness and fruitfulness.  

One of the persistent ideas throughout the prophets, including Isaiah, is that whenever Israel messed up, God would send an invading empire to take over for a bit, until Israel got back on track.  Once that happened, the empire, in turn, would overstep in some way, and God would rescue Israel and all would be well again.  It was the circle of life, Ancient Israel style.  

Think of Egypt:  initially, the way the Israelites come to Egypt is through Joseph, when his brothers mess up, and sell him into slavery.  Whoops.  That leads to a famine, and Joseph, now the Pharoah’s number 2, is able to keep his family safe in Egypt.  It’s great.  However, years pass, and eventually a Pharoah comes to power who becomes afraid of all the Israelites in Egypt, and enslaves them.  This sets into motion God’s salvation through Moses and the Exodus.  It’s the cycle:  Israel messes up: empire steps in: empire oversteps: God rescues.  

So it’s logical to think that when they heard the story, the religious leaders assumed that they were safe in assuming that God was about to step in again and toss out the evil tenants.  Clearly the evil tenants were Rome!  Rome had overstepped!  God was coming to save them! This story was great!  

But no.  

And the way you know this isn’t right is the tenants’ thinking when the son shows up.  “We can kill him and keep his inheritance for ourselves.”  That doesn’t make sense.  Inheritance doesn’t work like that.  The tenants are wrong; but by then, they’re in a cycle of violence that they can’t break out of, and it’s easier to kill the son than to do anything else.

That sort of thinking isn’t God’s way of doing things.  

That sort of thinking is an empire’s way of doing things.  Specifically, that’s Rome’s way of doing things.  

Empires, after all, come in and kill people.  They reward violence with more violence.  If you rise up against an empire, then you receive violence in return.  That’s the way they work.  

In general, that’s the way the systems, the powers and principalities of the world work.  It’s the rationale of an eye for an eye, writ large.  How do we deal with violence?  More violence.  What happens if someone attacks us?  We hit back.  How should we solve the problem of mass shootings? More guns on the streets.  In this vineyard, power is only displayed and known through might.  It is the world of the tenants.

But Jesus points out the problem with that–it never stops.  There’s no end.  While the leaders might be excited to see another overthrow of an empire, it will only usher in another one down the line.  Ultimately, the cycle of violence does not solve the problem.  It feels good in the moment; it always appears like the right side has triumphed.  But all it does is delay the next step.  

What stops the cycle is not further violence; is not the landowner coming in to kill all the tenants.  What stops the cycle is resurrection.  It is when we trust God enough to give up violence, and believe that God can save us from the ways of empire, that God can give us a new way.  When we give up our need to avenge ourselves, and put our faith in God’s ability to resurrect even the worst and most violent of circumstances and people.  

Jesus points out that the only thing that breaks open the cycle of violence that the world is trapped in is the resurrection of God–God’s ability to recreate the world and the creatures within it.  And that requires immense trust on our part.  

Because for us, nothing feels as secure as violence.  Nothing feels as steady as returning tit for tat.  It is literally the only way we know.  But Jesus reminds us that it is a false idol.  It never gets us the peace we long for.  The tenants, no matter who they killed, no matter how much blood they shed, would never inherit the land.  Nothing would get them that.  No violence ever gets us what it promises.  No violence ever gets us safety.  Not forever.  Violence can’t deliver that–it lies.

The only safety to be found is through faith in God.  Not in might, not in strength, and not in accruing more weapons.  Safety can only be found through trusting in God’s power to work resurrection in our violent places, and getting out of the way of that work.  

Peace which passes all understanding is the final thing we say every Sunday in this liturgy.  We commit ourselves to this peace of God which goes beyond our abilities to harness, beyond our knowledge and our capacity to achieve.  This peace that we cannot reach with weapons or might–this is what we ask God for in a final act each week, and what we vow to live in.  Peace that requires such faith that it passes understanding in such a violent world.  

It requires a lot to turn away from the violence of the tenants–this way of life that the world promises will yield safety. It requires a leap of faith that feels terrifying.  But Christ has gone this way before us.  God waits ahead to guide us.  And the peace that passes understanding is ours as we go.  

Amen.