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Living after the world ends

My rector called me Thursday evening with the news that his mother-in-law had died, and so he couldn’t be in church on Sunday.  Could I preach?

Sure.  Theoretically, I could.  I didn’t know what I would say, or how I would say it.  I had spent most of my time since Tuesday night fielding messages from distraught parishioners and hiding under the covers myself.  Maybe we would just stare at each other in silence?

Then I started writing.  And I remembered this story about my brother from when we were toddlers.  For the record, I checked, and he has no memory of this happening at all.  But, as a friend pointed out–for him it would have been just another day of privilege.  It was only for me that the moment was significant.

Throw a tantrum, my friends.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

November 13, 2016

Ordinary Time, Proper 28

Luke 21

To be clear, I didn’t choose these readings.  That was the lectionary.  

These are the assigned readings, for this Sunday in November.  Sometimes the lectionary just does what it will, and so here we are.  Contemplating the apocalypse in the middle of November.

For some of us, this lines up pretty neatly with what the world feels like right now. It feels like, for some of us, the whole world has ended, and the country we thought we knew has betrayed us and become a hateful, ugly place.  

For others of us, this couldn’t be further from the truth–the election was either just another day or it was a welcome chance to usher in needed change, a chance to push back after feeling overlooked for a long time.  Both happened; both are in this room.  

And so, the question for us becomes how, then, should we live?  The election is over, and God is still our God, and Jesus is still Jesus, so we have to figure out what to do now.

In this gospel story, Jesus and the disciples have travelled to Jerusalem, and they’re staring up at the largest building they’ve ever seen–the pride of the religious and political establishment of Israel.  As they marvel over how permanent and secure it looks, Jesus comments one day, it will all fall.  Cue panic.

Scholars think he says this the way he does for some boring historic reasons.  Because Luke was written a specific amount of time after the Temple actually did fall; in an armed revolt against Rome that ended with Rome sacking and destroying the city.  And Luke is having Jesus address the very real fears of the small Christian community that was living through the aftermath.  Their world had changed, so what did they do now?  

Because–look, after the temple falls, it matters less whether you think it was a good thing or a bad thing.  What matters is that it happened.  We know that the actual disciples were pretty divided on their opinions about the Temple–some thought the temple system was great, some thought it was corrupt.  But then it fell.  And they had to figure out how to be faithful in that new world.  A world where things were more unpredictable than they were before, where more was up in the air.  But a world that still needed faith, hope, and God’s presence.  That’s where we are.

It’s a new world, and everything is newly confusing.  But like I said last week, our call is still the same.  We still follow Jesus.  We still rely on him to guide what we do.  And that commitment must be stronger than ever, even when, and especially when, it seems difficult.

Those early Christians Luke was writing to were terrified.  They were being jailed.  They were literally outlaws.  And yet, to them Jesus says that this isn’t the end of the world.  Don’t listen to those who would tell you to give into fear.  It’s not time to panic; it’s time to be faithful.  Now is the time to live the gospel, because now is the time that it is needed.  Now, when hate and fear seem strongest.  Now, more than ever.

If you have been on social media in the last few days, then you might have seen that hate crimes have skyrocketed since the election.  Muslim women wearing hijab are being assaulted in the street.  Hispanic children in school are being taunted by their classmates.  Every Black student at the University of Pennsylvania was sent pictures of lynchings.  The Klan has announced plans to march in North Carolina in victory.

Again, this is not about who you voted for on Tuesday.  This not about whether the Temple was right or wrong.  Right now, though, we need to agree that events like this go against every single thing Christ has taught us about how we love one another. Every single thing God calls us to in this lifetime.  Every promise we made at baptism, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to respect the dignity of every human being.  

And we need to agree that we, as Christians, are called to protect each other.  To have one anothers’ backs.  

That commitment to follow Jesus right now has to include a commitment to stand with those of our community who are scared and grieving.  Who are vulnerable right now.  Whoever you voted for on Tuesday, the truth remains that this election has unleashed elements of racism, sexism, intolerance and bigotry that we have not seen in a long time.  Right now, the marginalized in this country are more at risk than ever, and if we want to follow Jesus, we have to stand with them.  We have to listen to them.  We have to side with them.  There is no alternative.  

We worship a God who came among us as a religious minority, as a poor, itinerant preacher, as a refugee.  If we do not side with people like him, we are not following Jesus.

That’s part of who we are here at St. Paul’s.  We strive to welcome and love all God’s children and that is not changing.  That will get stronger.  We will welcome more.  We will love harder.  We will be the face of God in these streets, in this city.  Because God loves everyone, God cares for the least and the forgotten, and that does not change.  

This week, I’ve been pondering a random story from when I was a toddler.  My grandparents took my brother and I to their country club in Richmond once, when we were two or three years old to go swimming.  Afterwards, we split up to get changed and have lunch–my grandmother taking me, my grandfather taking my brother.  Bert took my brother to the Men’s Grill, and when I took off after him, my grandmother stopped me, to explain that girls didn’t get to go in there.  That was for the boys.  She tried to lead me away.

I don’t really remember the details of this story.  But what I do remember is standing in the hallway, my grandmother trying to lead me away, while my baby brother figured out his sister couldn’t go where he did.  And he threw an absolute fit.  Arms flailing, crying, screaming loud enough to be heard several states over.  He refused to be comforted.  He refused to be budged.  And finally, my grandfather, in disgust and frustration, relented, and never tried to take anyone to the dumb Men’s Grill again.  

For the next while, my brothers and sisters, we may be called to throw some tantrums.  We may be called to pitch some fits.  When you see your brother, a Black man, being taunted, start yelling.  When you see your sister wearing hijab being assaulted, start waving your arms.  When you see your fellow children of God being denied their god-given dignity and freedom, cry until something changes, because so long as they are being denied, we are incomplete too.  When you see injustice happening, cry until it stops, because the victim of injustice is always, to us, Christ himself.  

That is our call right now.  Not an easy one.  Not even a safe one.  But others have been called this way before.  And we know, beyond all knowing, that the God who has called us, will not leave us now.  

Amen.   

Don’t. Panic.

I am part of a Slack group of clergy and lay people who discuss everything from evangelism to politics to what we are going to preach on Sunday.

Last week, we were agonizing over how to preach on the Sunday before this election.  What do you say when everyone is so freaked out?  I, personally, spend most of my days now frantically checking polls and lying in a prone position hoping for time to speed up.

My brilliant friend Holli Powell commented that as a person in the pews, all she wanted to hear from the pulpit was that Jesus was still Lord, and everything else was secondary.   (She actually used slightly different words, but the sentiment was the same.)  Holli is right about most things, so I tried to write that sermon.

Here’s what I said:

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

November 6, 2016

Ordinary Time, Proper 27

Luke 20: 27-38

I figured out that I did the math wrong earlier–there are actually only 2 days to the election.  So how are we feeling?  You panicking yet?  Do you find yourself checking Fivethirtyeight.com several times a day?  Have you bookmarked several polling websites to update you when something changes?  

Or have you gone in the other direction–are you one of those people who has gone full news blackout, ignoring all sources of news coverage and political advertisements until after Tuesday (or whenever this thing gets called) and focusing on calming things instead.  Rediscovered a love for cat GIFS?  

What can I say–this is stressful.  I was reading something the other day that said that psychologists are advising people to turn off the news, because they have recognized a strong uptick in ‘election anxiety’ on all sides of the political spectrum.  Regardless of who you support, because we’re so polarized right now, there’s a feeling that if THIS DOESN’T GO THE RIGHT WAY, EVERYTHING WILL END FOREVER OMG.  Trump supporters are convinced that if Clinton wins, the country will be plunged into a morass of taco trucks on every corner, open borders, and free healthcare for all that will bankrupt us.  Clinton supporters are sure that if Trump wins, we will have political opponents thrown into jail, martial law declared, and probably a nuclear war within a month.  So everyone’s biting their fingernails.  

I don’t want to downplay this–elections are important, and this one is important.  You need to do what you can.  Go vote in two days if you haven’t already.  But there’s a difference between taking something seriously and letting it overwhelm you.  This election is a big deal.  But once you have done your part, remember that it is not the most important thing .  And remembering the scale of things when we’re panicking is vital.  Especially when the world likes to hand us reasons to panic.  (Looking at you, FBI director.)  

Nothing the world likes better than to hand us things to freak out about–whether its polls or emails, or this thing that guy said, or OMG, what if?  Because here’s how anxiety and fear work, after all.

Anxiety and fear are, ironically! much like the viral videos of adorable kittens we watch on the internet to combat anxiety and fear.  For many people, our feelings of fear aren’t real until we’ve shared them with someone else…and they’ve shared them, and on and on until they go viral.  Much like the viral cat videos.  The number of shares builds exponentially.

So fear builds on itself–in order for one anxious person to feel even slightly better, they need to get someone else to feel scared.  And so on and so on.  Which is part of why, when everyone is freaked out–it’s easy to feel like everything becomes scary.  FBI!  QUOTES!  HEADLINES!  EMAILS!!!!!

Here’s the thing, though.  Take a breath.  (Seriously.  Right now.  Take a breath.)  We are Christians.  We follow Jesus, we take our cues from him.  And that will be just as true tomrrow, and Tuesday and Wednesday as it is today, no matter what happens.  

Just because the people around us right now are breathing into paper bags, does not mean we need to.  

Let me point out that when the Sadduccees come up to Jesus with their smarty-pants brain teaser, this anxiety web trick was part of what they were trying to do.  This theoretical idea about the resurrection, and what it would mean, was hotly debated at the time.  People were really into it.  So they wanted to get Jesus to side with them on this REALLY TRICKY BRAIN TEASER.  They wanted Jesus to be as invested in the thing that was driving them nuts as they were.

Jesus is having none of it.  Why?  Because first off, the question is dumb.  It’s one of those hypothetical brain teasers that doesn’t happen in real life, and doesn’t happen to real people.  And there’s another problem with it too.  

The Sadduccees aren’t asking because they are concerned by what will happen to the woman–about her health or wellbeing, or worried about the welfare of all those brothers.  (They keep dying, for one.  Don’t tell me that’s not troubling.)  They are worried about proving a hypothetical. They are worried about being right, about satisfying their ego.  And that, though it may worry the Sadducees, doesn’t worry Jesus.

Jesus, as it turns out, is worried about other things.  Preaching the gospel.  Feeding the hungry.  Helping the sick. Freeing the oppressed.  Showing the love of God.  Those things that are real, are important, and that continue whether or not this hypothetical thing they’re scared of happens or not.

Because whether or not this Sadduccee’s brain teaser comes true or not, Jesus will still have a call.  And so will we.  No matter what happens on Tuesday, we still will have a job to do.  Jesus will still be Jesus.  God will still be God.  And we will still be called to do what we have always been called to, no matter what happens around us.  We will still need to preach the gospel, to feed the hungry, to care for the sick, to free the oppressed, to show the love of God.  No matter what.  That’s the most important thing.

So on Tuesday, go vote.  Do your part.  And then, think of those big, reassuring letters from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and “don’t panic.”  And when we get up on Wednesday, we are just going to go out and follow Jesus like we’ve been doing.  Because God will still be God.  And God does not abandon his people.

 

Amen.

Centurion’s wedding

My job has many delightful moments–leading the children in the dismissal each week, explaining documentary hypothesis to new Episcopalians, preaching.  And this past week, I got to participate in one of my more favorite fun moments–marrying two of my more active parishioners.

They told me early on that they wanted to invite the whole parish to their wedding, since St. Paul’s had been so important to their lives.  And they wanted to hold the reception here at the church–which turned out to be an inauguration of the newly renovated parish hall.  And so it was that most of the parish family turned out for a wedding of two of our own.

See, weddings (when you’re the officiant) can go one of two ways–they can be anxiety fests of stress and misery, where every decision is agonized over and every detail is scrutinized because everyone knows that you are spending the equivalent of a college education on this one day in your life–or weddings can be joyous celebrations of two people and their relationship and your need to dance to bad disco.

This one was the latter.

Here is what I said for the sermon.  (More or less–I wrote it down, but then didn’t look at the paper at all. So while I think I hit all the points, I also think I used different words.  But this is the general idea/flow/mise en scene.)

Luke 7

So, there are some traditional readings for weddings.  Some Bible readings that are always done–a Greatest Hits of Wedding Readings, if you will.

Romans 8–that’s a big favorite.  This section of Ruth–Where you go, I will go–very popular.  1 Corinthians 13: love is patient, love is kind–that’s practically the “My Heart Will Go On” of wedding readings.  

Know what’s not a well-known wedding reading?  

Jesus and the centurion.  It is on none of the Wedding Pop Charts–and yet when I met with them, this is the reading Jonathan and Chris were really set on.  

And for good reason, because this story is amazing. It is a hidden, underappreciated gem, is what it is.  

Jesus is headed to Capernaum, hanging out with the disciples as per usual, when a local centurion comes up and asks him to help one of his slaves.  The slave is about to die, and the centurion is upset, so he intercedes on his behalf with Jesus.  “Look, Jesus,” he says, “you don’t even have to come into my house–just do the thing from a distance and it will be enough.”

This impresses Jesus immensely and he heals the centurion’s slave.

Now, see, when I tell it like that, it may not sound that amazing–sick guy gets healed–not unexpected, and still confusing for a wedding.  

But here’s what’s interesting about this story.   This centurion didn’t act how you would expect a centurion to act.  This guy’s a big deal–he’s in charge of all the Roman troops that occupy the town.  The Jewish leaders even intercede for him with Jesus, saying “This guy’s not so bad–he built our synagogue for us!  Please ignore the imperialist tendencies of his people.”

And there’s what he said about his slave.  Centurions didn’t go around begging for the lives of their slaves.  Slavery back then was….well, slavery.  If a slave died, it was sad, but the owner moved on–you didn’t start calling up faith healers.  But what’s odd about this is the language the centurion uses.  In Greek, he doesn’t say the slave is well-liked, or good at his job–what he says is that the slave is precious to him.  That’s very different.  The Greek word used here is more indicative of a romantic relationship than a working on.  The centurion is asking Jesus to heal someone he loves.  

And Jesus does.   

So the miracle of this story is not so much that the centurion’s slave is healed–the miracle of the story–the part that is really transformative–is that Jesus sees and accepts the centurion and his slave for who they are.  Not individuals who believe the wrong things, hold the wrong jobs, come from the wrong place, love the wrong people–but as children of God, beloved by God.

And look–this right here is why the church blesses marriage.  Not so we get all cozy with the government, and not out of some weird obsession with procreation.  

We bless marriages in the church because we really believe that in these sorts of dedicated, faithful, lifelong relationships, we can see a glimpse of the sort of love God has for us.  And we want to hold that up as special.  

We believe that in marriage, we can see the sort of love that accepts us unconditionally, that sees us as we are, that heals us and brings us home.  That’s what we want to bless in marriage–in any sort of relationship that offers that sort of love.

And so, Chris and Jonathan, we are gathered here today to bless your union because we know that in your relationship, you offer us a glimpse of that healing accepting love of Christ.  In the way you lift each other up, and complement each other.  In the way you forgive each other and support one another.  You show us how God in Christ loves us.  And you, through your relationship, heal the world a little bit more.  

 

Screwtape Letters, continued

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

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

You know–normal stuff.

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

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

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

Helldate July 25, 2016

Young Scrimshaw,

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

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

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

I give you: your drunk uncle at Thanksgiving.

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

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

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

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

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

Your dedicated cousin-twice removed,

Headley Gristmill

Real Estate

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

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

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

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

So here’s what I said this week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Acts8 BLOGFORCE: Stewardship and Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Perfect Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

Sept 11, 2016

Ordinary Time, Proper 19

Luke 15

Prepare yourselves for a meta sermon.  OK?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider, after all, the parables Jesus tells today. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.