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On telling the truth

The Samaritan Woman at the well is one of my favorite stories.  There’s the foreign woman, who talks to Jesus, and is welcomed, and runs and tells the good news–in one little story, you get a blue print of most of the great gospel stories.

In 2017, however, there’s this one lines that juts out.  “It’s not because of what you say that we believe, but because we have seen for ourselves!”

Ugh.  Come on, villagers.  Is that even necessary?  Must you take away from this lovely moment by taking away any sense of accomplishment or joy the Samaritan woman might have felt?  That line is at once so cutting and so human, and you can’t help but feel echoes of it in our current climate.

The seed of this sermon was a Facebook conversation with two seminarian friends, as we lamented the revelations coming out of the White House, as aide after aide described having to monitor the president’s every mood swing and temper, lest he become bored and tweet something inflammatory.  Meanwhile, an ongoing talking point during the recent campaign had been whether Hillary Clinton was emotionally stable enough for high office.

Part of being inspired is that the Scriptures reflect to us the consistent frailties of what it means to be human–along with apparently the prejudices we still haven’t shaken after 2,000 years.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

March 18, 2017

Lent 3

John 4: 5-42

 

From time to time, there are these social media experiments.  Have you heard of these?  The most recent was last week.  Two coworkers, a man and a woman, who run a small consulting firm, decided to run a test.  The woman had been telling her male colleague for months about the sort of angry emails she was accustomed to receiving, and he didn’t believe her.  So they agreed: they would switch names for a week.  He would sign her name on emails; she would sign his.  And they would see what happened.

The result is in a way predictable:  the man discovered that he became the target of a lot of abuse when he signed a female name.  He discovered, to his shock, that most clients suddenly became unreasonably difficult to work with.  They questioned his competency, his judgment, and the way he did everything, when he signed emails with his coworker’s name.  One asked him if he was single.  When he switched the names back, suddenly the clients were fawning all over him–complimenting his questions, his wisdom, and his job performance.  

Here’s what’s odd to me about this story–not that the emails changed based on who the clients thought was writing them.  What’s odd to me is that the male colleague didn’t believe his female colleague.  Why didn’t he just believe her?  Wouldn’t she know if she was encountering this sort of thing?  Wouldn’t she be the expert in it?  

Why didn’t he just believe her?  Why did he only believe when he saw it for himself?

 

There is, for whatever reason, a disinclination to believe those without power–even when they speak from their experience.  A base assumption that they must not know what they’re talking about, because only the powerful know how the world really works.  We see this crop up in a lot of places–studies show that women who report pain to a doctor are less likely to be taken seriously, and their pain is less likely to be treated.  Likewise, black people who report pain or discomfort in a medical situation encounter a similar problem.  Their pain is discounted or explained away by the medical professionals.  Even though they are the ones experiencing it first hand.

 We ascribe authority to those to whom we are used to having it.  Y’know–experts.  Doctors, professors, learned people.  And quite frankly, people who overwhelmingly tend to be older white men–as for such a long time, doctors, professors, and all learned people just were.  Those are the people we are used to seeing in positions of authority, and so when someone else tries to speak, even when they speak from their own knowledge–we look askance at them.   That’s not the authority we’re used to.

So let’s turn to the woman at the well.

Now, she’s not anyone’s idea of authority.  She’s not anyone’s idea of an expert.  She’s an outcast in her community, for one reason or another.  She’s a Samaritan, so the nice Jewish boys who hung around Jesus really thought she was off.  And also, of course,–she has the girl cooties, which were a bigger deal back then than they are now, if you can believe it.  But there’s something strange that happens when she talks to Jesus.

She meets Jesus at the well, and they strike up this conversation; he asks her for water, and she asks him for the living water he talks about.  Then, they move onto what seem to be more salacious topics–how many husbands she has.  But notice, when Jesus tells her that ‘the one she has now is not her husband’, she replies by declaring him a prophet, and asking him where the proper place to worship is.  That’s not normally how you respond if a stranger is accusing you of having some loose morals.

The Israelite prophets–Isaiah, Hosea, Ezekiel, etc– all used marriage as the metaphor for Israel’s relationship to God.  God was the faithful husband–Israel was the wife who kept wandering around to different partners.  So given the Samaritan woman’s response–they are not actually talking about her own love life–they’re talking about the theology of the Samaritans as a whole.  

Basically, Jesus is hanging out at a well, chatting theology with a foreign woman.  This is a big deal.  

And when they show up again, the disciples realize this, because they apparently freak out, but internally!  All inside!  Meanwhile, the woman runs back to her village, and tells her neighbors all about Jesus.  They don’t believe her–instead they go to investigate.  And when they discover Jesus is as she says, they tell her that it’s not that they believe because of what she said, but because they have seen for themselves.  

Elsewhere in this same gospel, Jesus tells Thomas that the truly blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.  How different would this story be if the villagers had just believed the Samaritan woman’s testimony of her own experience?  Here is a woman savvy enough to discuss comparative religion with Jesus.  She knows what she’s talking about–yet she goes unlistened to.  Only Jesus cares enough to listen to her story, her authority.

Often, in the gospel, the good news rests solely on the authority of the most unlikely person.  The Samaritan Woman telling her village about Jesus is almost a test-run of the women at the tomb, running back to tell the disciples about the risen Christ.  In each case, those seemingly without authority are called on to speak to what they know and what they have seen.  And others decide whether to listen.

Jesus models for us a way of listening to the experiences around us, when he struck up that conversation at the well.  He listened to her story, to her thoughts and her experience, and by doing that, gave her the confidence to tell others what she had found in Jesus.  It was through her voice, that the village came to know something new of God.

We miss so much when we discount the authority around us.  Scripture teaches us that God most often uses those who go unheard to do his loudest speaking.  So it is on us to learn to listen.  Listen to those who speak from what they know.  What they have seen.  The pain and the joy.  The struggle and the triumph.  Because Jesus sends Samaritan women into our midst all the time, telling us some great news.

The question is whether we are prepared to hear her.

 

 

The Wisdom of Moonstruck

I’ve been a fan of the playwright John Patrick Shanley for years now.  He wrote the screenplay for Moonstruck; he also wrote the play Doubt.  His Twitter presence is both strange and profound, in turns.

I like the way he writes, because he manages to find the mystical in ordinary people and circumstances, and then make it approachable and funny.  (I still quote the final breakfast scene from Moonstruck, where the old man bursts into tears because he’s confused.)

Anyway, here’s how I managed to quote Olympia Dukakis in a sermon about Ash Wednesday (and get in a joke about Oscar Accountants.)

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

March 1, 2017

Ash Wednesday, Year A

Matthew

 

In the movie Moonstruck, the character Olympia Dukakis plays, named Rose, is really concerned about her husband, Cosmo.  She thinks he’s cheating on her (he is.).  It’s not so much the fact of this that concerns her, as the why of it that bothers her.  So she asks everyone she comes across why he would make such a dumb choice–why do men chase women.  (And the script takes pains to illustrate what a dumb choice it is.)

She doesn’t’ actually listen to the theories of various characters, however. Her own theory she voices early on– “I think,” she intones” that it is because he is afraid of death.”  As if on cue, her erstwhile husband returns home, and Rose, emboldened by her breakthrough, greets him with “Cosmo, I just want you to know; no matter what you do, you’re gonna die, just like everybody else.”  Cosmo, entirely confused, thanks her.

Seems like a very Ash Wednesday type scene to me, because really, death is something we have a hard time with.  In the 21st century, we put a lot of time and energy into staving off death, denying its existence, talking around it, sanitizing it…and yet, it remains.  Fixed and immutable.

To be clear, I don’t encourage death.  Please don’t hear me saying that.  It’s sad when people die.  It’s tragic when we lose loved ones before their time.  Medical progress is good.  Preventing disease, combating physical ailments, all good.  

And yet, for all the magic medical advances, for all the progress we’ve made, behold, death remains.  For each and every one of us.  Death is a constant, whether or not we acknowledge it.

Now, for some, that constant leads us to make really bad decisions.  Either because we want to avoid death at all costs, or we figure that since death is inevitable, then what does it matter?  YOLO, as the youthz say.  Mortality looms like a really giant elephant in the corner of our lives, and if we don’t acknowlege it, then we spend a lot of time dealing with its demands.

But see, we have Ash Wednesday.  One day a year, wherein we come to church, and we smear ashes on our forehead, and we recall that, like Cosmo, no matter what we do, we’re gonna die.  We are dust, and to dust shall we return.

This can sound fairly gruesome, but I think it’s meant to be freeing.  On this day, the Church reminds us that there is nothing we can do to escape mortality….and so we no longer need to work so hard on that project.  

Instead, we are asked a question–given that we are dust, and we are returning to dust–what shall we do with this time in between?  This time we are given, in this mortal life, if we aren’t hoarding it, if we aren’t using it to find loopholes in this game, then how shall we spend this time?  

Isaiah reminds us that we, like those accountants at the Oscars, really only have one job.  We are to love.  We are to love God, to love one another.  We are to spend this life in the work of love.  It is precisely because we have a limited time on this earth that we are called to work so hard for a world of justice, a world of peace, freedom and love for everyone.  Because all of humanity is as fragile, as limited as we are, God asks us to make this short life better. Make this fragile life all it can be.  For them and for us.  As we all face the same limitations.  So be repairers of streets to live in.  Be restorers of the breach.  Spend your time on earth working to make it a better place for the fragile creatures who will come after you.

Because ultimately, what we are assured of is that even though we are going to die, God is right here with us.  We may be mortal, but God does not abandon us, not even to death.  Jesus Christ died too, so that we would know the power of God even in the midst of death.  Even in the midst of the mortality that so shadows our lives. Our mortality doesn’t define us, doesn’t limit us.  God breathes life into our very dust, and helps us to build this world, in the time we have, into the dream of God.

So maybe we are just dust in the wind.  Maybe we are going to die.  But that is not all we are.  And while we are here, for as long as we are here, with God’s help, we have a job.  

 

Amen.

Redeeming the Pharisees

One of my pet peeves in preaching is Straw Man Pharisee Syndrome.  You are, no doubt, familiar with this–the preacher describes, in great detail, how the Pharisees were legalistic moralists, who didn’t really care about spirituality, liked to exclude people, hated women, and were the sort of rigid rule-followers who liked to yell at those who differed from them.  We, however, were not like the Pharisees, unless we messed up.  But generally speaking, they were everything Jesus hated.

End of sermon.

This is one of my pet peeves because it tends to be a homiletic crutch.  It lets the preacher off the hook of having to do any self-examination, because the categories of good and evil are a given:  Pharisees=bad, Jesus and disciples=good.

It also has the problem that most dualisms and strawmen have:  it’s wrong.  It leaves out Pharisees who liked Jesus, like Nicodemus, or Joseph of Arimathea.  It skips over the debates that we know even from the gospels (which have their own agenda) were happening within the Pharisaic community.  And it lets the disciples off the hook, who more often than not, have no idea what they’re supposed to be doing, and act accordingly dim.

(And, ceaselessly attacking the Pharisees is kinda antisemitic.  The Pharisees invented modern rabbinic Judaism.  If you stand up in a pulpit and describe them as intolerant, unloving, and devoid of spiritual worth, what, exactly, are you saying about modern Judaism?)

So, from time to time, I like to preach in defense of those guys.  They don’t really deserve their reputation from history, and I would hope, in 2,000 years, someone would take the time to explain how awesome I secretly was, as well.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

February 12, 2017

Epiphany 6

Matthew

 

So there’s a Darth Vader gargoyle on the National Cathedral.  I’m not kidding–back in the 1980s, they were finishing up the cathedral’s edifice, and decided to hold a contest for what the scariest image was.  A schoolkid submitted Darth Vader and won.  So, behold.  There is now the head of Darth Vader on the side of the National Cathedral.

This really amuses me, not only because it confirms the role of Star Wars as our national mythology.   But because it points to the important role that villains play in those stories.  Whom we pick as villains usually say as much about us as they do about any inherent evil on their part.  So, Darth Vader stomping around, but then being redeemed at the end of Return of the Jedi says a lot about Han, Luke and Leia  in general.

If there are villains in the gospels, then they’re probably the pharisees.  And they work really well as villains.  

They’re the sticklers, they’re the rule followers.  They believe in rules over love.  They’re bringing everyone down all the time–you can imagine them just being huge buzzkills all over ancient Palestine.  Possibly with light sabers in ominous colors. Pharisees would sell great as action figures, and you could really scare small kids with them.   Don’t be a Pharisee!

Couple of issues with that, though.  

For starters, in history, the Pharisees were GREAT.  They were a grassroots political movement aimed at spreading religious power to the average person.  See, at the time, if you were, say, a nice farming family up in the Galilee, you didn’t really have much to do with your Judaism, because it was hard and expensive.  The laws you knew about mainly told you to hike all the way down to the Temple in Jerusalem and that was cost-prohibitive.  So, most people who didn’t live in Jerusalem also figured that God really didn’t care what they did.  

Enter the Pharisees.  Who insisted that religion was for everyone.  God actually did care about the farmer in the Galilee!  So much so that God really wanted him to pray, just where he was!  And read the scriptures, just where he was!  

The Pharisee movement was actually about democratizing religion and making it more inclusive.  Not exclusive.  And when the Temple falls in 70, it is the Pharisees who manage to pull Judaism up from the ashes and resurrect it into the form we know today, complete with synagogues and rabbis.  So part of the reason we need to be careful about slagging on the Pharisees too much is that they invented modern Judaism.

Here’s the other reason we need to be careful about the Pharisees:  Jesus was basically one of them.  Look at this gospel reading!  JUST LOOK AT IT.  Because for every section of the gospels wherein Jesus is all ‘love is all you need” and “there are no rules, I’m James Dean”, there are sections like this, where he gets very intense about the intricacies of the Law.  This is one of several places where Jesus basically recites, verbatim, arguments that we know Pharisees had themselves at that time.  If villains tell us about ourselves, then part of what the Villainous Pharisees tell us about the gospel writers is that they were part of the same group, and they were anxious about the same things.  Which is why they go after each other the way they do.  It follows the logic of “no one gets to hit my brother except for me.”  We save the hardest and most specific criticism for those within our own group.  

And the thing Jesus is fired up about here is the same thing the Pharisees were:  he wanted everyone–not just the special people– to keep the law. The whole law.  And not just part of it. But, Jesus points out that there is a difference between keeping the law in order to keep the law, and keeping the law in order to fulfill the spirit of it.  

Because the law, in and of itself isn’t bad.  We really shouldn’t murder.  We really shouldn’t commit adultery.  We really shouldn’t steal.  Those are, you know, good ideas for life, in that they help us better love one another.  

The problem arises when you try to legalistically split hairs, and ignore the spirit of those rules in order to get away with not loving one another.  When the aim of God’s law is to get us to love God and love one another, then there’s a problem when we use the same law to act unlovingly.  That’s hypocrisy.

So it’s really not ok to say “Well, sure, I bully people online for fun, but I never stole anything.” or “Well, sure, I make jokes about people who look differently than me, but I’m no murderer.”  or “Yes, I closed the borders to people who believe differently than me, but ancient Israel had a wall once,  so God’s fine with this.”  By the letter of the law, you might be ok.  But if you’re not being loving, then you aren’t following the law.  You aren’t doing your job.

To claim to follow God’s law means to be committed to loving God and loving neighbor as the goal  It means that all our actions, all our words must be aimed at loving God and loving our neighbor, and spreading that love in the world.  We don’t get to pick and choose to what degree we do this–that’s what Jesus is arguing.  We have to be whole-hearted.  We have to follow the whole law.  Not just part.  Not just the part that works best for us right then.

As is usually the case with villains, the thing we dislike the most about them is the thing we dislike the most in ourselves.  The Pharisees get such a bad rap in the gospels not because they were actually such legalistic nitpickers….but because we tend to be. We always have been.

 Jesus and the Pharisees were the one who actually would like us to knock that off.  Don’t carve up the law like that.  Keep the whole thing.  Love everyone.  Serve everyone.  Persist in that loving even when it’s difficult and unpopular.  Persist even when you’ve been warned.  Persist nevertheless.  Because it’s only through that wholehearted loving of everyone–the Pharisees, our neighbors, ourselves…even Darth Vader, that the world changes.

Amen.

 

Salt, Ham, and Resistance

There’s an article that’s been floating around on Slate.com written by an Episcopal priest, about how hard it’s been to preach since the election.

I can attest that this is true.

The problem is not that there’s nothing to preach about–the problem is that there’s so much to preach about, and it all cries out to be addressed, all at once.  The refugee ban, the Islamophobia, the selling of the government for profit, the blatant disregard for any move towards unity…on and on and on.  The ancient prophets would have a field day if they were alive (and, let’s not kid ourselves, would also be promptly chucked into a cistern or jail.)

Adding to that is that most of us have politically diverse congregations who are really struggling as all this news hits.  While I am incredibly lucky at St. Paul’s to have a congregation who is used to the rector and I addressing current events from the pulpit, the fact remains that people are reacting differently to what’s happening right now.  Some are mobilizing into activists for the first time in their lives.  Some are doubling down on activist efforts.  A few are in a deep denial about the severity of what’s happening.  And many are having to come to terms with the idea that the assumptions they’ve held for their entire lives about America, government, and the essential nature of this world are now not holding true.  Trying to reach all these groups at once in a sermon is hard, especially when you recall that preachers are human, read the news, and also feel tempted to spend much of their time hiding under their desk as of late.

Here was my attempt this week.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

February 4, 2017

Epiphany 5

Matthew 5

 

My family has a tradition of eating Smithfield ham at Christmas time.  This is not an easily found product–this is a locally produced variety of pork that dates back from colonial times before refrigeration.  The ham was salt cured, seasoned with brown sugar and cloves, then hung in a barn to dry out.  Then, you stuck in in a burlap sack to keep.  To prepare it, I recall my mother soaking it in a sink full of water for 2-3 days to leach some of the salt out of it, and then, scrubbing the naturally occurring mold off.   (Yeah.  It wasn’t all glamorous back then.)

The end result, however, was delicious.  Salty ham that is great fried up with eggs, or served cold on a biscuit.  And now I’m hungry.

But the takeaway is this:  salt is really important.  To the people of Jesus’ time, salt did everything for you.  It was used as currency.  It kept your food edible, it flavored it, it worked as a medicine, it seemed practically magic, because it stopped things from going bad.  

And yet no one ever had a lot of it.  Salt was expensive.  You had to hoard it.  And trust me–you did not want to overdo it on salted pork.  A little bit of salt is good.  Too much salt is not good.

Salt, in other words, is a really good minority. It does best when it is outnumbered.  You only want a pinch of salt in your cooking to add flavor, otherwise you end up with a mouthful of awful. (Light, actually, does the same thing.  If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a laser beam to the face.  Lots of concentrated light is bad–a little, artfully applied is good.)

And so Jesus tells his disciples that they are the salt and the light of the world.  

That implies some pretty great and empowering stuff–namely that–hooray!  We get to change the world!  We get to save the world!  We can go out and PRESERVE STUFF LIKE SALT DOES.  I’mma be some salt!!!  All tangy and whatnot.

But there’s another side of this too.  Jesus’s comment also implies that we are going to be vastly outnumbered.  We will be salt, but not in a salt shaker– in an ocean of water.  Light in a pretty big night.  This is coming right on the heels of the beatitudes, in the sermon on the mount, and like Jesus said then–this being salt business doesn’t make you popular.  It doesn’t give you the majority.  You are doing something that most others aren’t.  

We talked about this last week–

But being salt in the world, living by the beatitudes, following Christ in the world constrains you to live in a different way.  And not in a way that makes us powerful, or important, especially not right now. When Christ asks us to be salt in the world, Christ is asking us to be powerless, to be outnumbered and to embrace that.  Majorities and minorities live in very different ways in the world– We have to live differently, because we are outnumbered, and our job is a big one–to flavor all this food in which we live.  

So what does that task look like for salty people?  How then do we live as faithful, outnumbered grains of salt?  Because that can be exhausting!  

I had lunch with a friend this week and we were comparing notes on the state of the world, and we figured out our mutual struggle right now was with feeling powerless.  I told her that .  I am a middle class straight white woman–I am used to being empowered!  I am used to DOING THINGS and Leaning In, or at least feeling really guilty if I am not doing things.  I have just not been socialized to feel so powerless.  And yet that is precisely where the gospel places us.  In a place of (relative) powerlessness.

I would say first that Jesus wasn’t joking when he says that salt that has lost its flavor is in deep trouble.  We need to be careful to retain our saltiness.  We need to be careful not to spread ourselves too thin.  We can’t do everything.  We can’t put out every fire.  (Salt can even extinguish grease fires!)  There will be times when you get tired, and you need to take a break and that is ok.  While we are flavoring this bland world, take time to reconnect.  Connect to the Christ that calls you, to the God that made you, to the beauty that inspires you.  No one of us has to do everything, conquer every mountain, achieve every goal.  

Connect to the other lone grains of salt doing the same work you are.   Here are all these other little grains doing this hard work too.  They are here to remind you that you are not alone in this struggle. It’s not just you out there–there’s me and you and you and you and her and  him and that other guy over there. They are here to help you, and you are here to help them.  (That’s why we have church, you know.  This is a salt cellar.)

Then head back out there.  Because though we are small, and though we are outnumbered, we can do so much–through the God who called us to this in the first place.  And through God’s power, we will yet transform this big, bland world.  

Amen

In which I advise my teenage self

Yesterday, I had an unexpected treat.

Thanks to this very blog, I was invited to go and talk with the students at one of our local Catholic girls’ high schools about women in ministry.  I didn’t know anyone there–apparently one of the theology teachers uses Lent Madness in class and discovered my blog thusly.  (Ah, the wonders of the intertubez!)

I was so psyched.  No kidding–talking to young women about my job is one of my all-time favorite things, because it always feels like I am disclosing one of the secrets of the universe.  Yes, you, too, can do this job!  And wear these shoes at the same time!

I sat at a small table and girls came up to sit with me to eat lunch if they wanted.  Other tables were staffed by nuns, in a variety of habits, another Episcopal priest and a local Muslim activist.

I don’t think I said anything profound.  I talked a lot about how the Episcopal Church differed from the Catholic Church (same service, different emphasis in theology, and we really like elections.)  I talked about how I had decided to become a priest. (God called me, I pouted, then gave in.)  And I talked about why I loved my job (I get to talk about the most important stuff, and I get to bless wine and bread, and then hand people a piece of God.)

But I absolutely loved it, because I know how desperate I was in high school for any glimpse of an adult who was living a life that I wanted.  I was lucky–I had known female priests all my life–but at that critical moment, I didn’t have anyone around that made the life I thought I was called to seem within grasp.

The students were delightful and engaged, asking good questions.  We cheerfully ate Skittles and cookies all through lunch.  And then I headed on back to my normal life with a lovely swag bag. (It’s like I’m famous!!!)

Probably, no one had a conversion moment. But hopefully, the girls saw another option of what adult life could be for them.

In which my teenaged self is really wrong.

Here’s a funny story.

When I was a teenager, and first considering the priesthood, I didn’t take it seriously.

Know why?

I thought it would be too easy.

Let that settle in for a second.

In my slight defense, this was in the late 1990s.  It was a world of budget surpluses, Ally McBeal, and the end of the Cold War.  Basically, another planet to where we currently live.  And in my small, 16 year old brain, I thought representing the church in those times would be easy.

Fast forward to Saturday afternoon, when I alternated between writing this sermon, and calling my senators from an Anaheim hotel lobby, in the wake of the president’s executive order banning refugees from Syria, and immigration from 6 other Muslim countries.  We at St. Paul’s host a Sudanese refugee mission parish, so I texted my rector to see whether any of our people had been caught in the travel ban.

Yeah, none of this is easy.

Here’s what I said.  (You can also go to St. Paul’s FB page and catch the livestreamed version here.)

Rev. Megan L Castellan

January 29, 2017

Epiphany 4

Matthew 5

 

I am an unabashed religion nerd, and so please do not judge me too harshly when I tell you that I have several–and by that I mean many–copies of the gospels on my bookshelf.  Different translations, different annotations.  Including that weird, Jesus seminar one, where the scholars re-translated the greek text, and voted with different colored beads as to whether they thought Jesus really said it.  (It was a fad in the 1970s.)

And so, it is from those sources that I can tell you with some authority that the word here translated ‘blessed’ also usually means ‘Happy.’  Happy are the poor.  Happy are the merciful. Happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.  Happy, happy, happy.

Happy.  Like a room without a roof.

On some level, Jesus telling me that happiness is a result of being poor, or merciful, or a peacemaker, is a harder sell than Jesus telling me that those characteristics will make me blessed.  Blessed, I can buy. Blessed seems within the realm of possibility.  For me, at least, ‘blessed’ conjures up images of some far-off spiritual place where I will be rewarded, I will be blessed, for sticking to these choices now, but IN THE MEANTIME, it’s just going to be miserable.  And I should expect no less.

That idea of blessedness being spiritual is pretty common, did you know?  Especially among mainline Protestants in the Western World.  When Dietrich Bonhoeffer, our favorite, went to seminary in New York, he did some writing about how the beatitudes weren’t actually intended to be kept at all.  Because how could you?  How could you, a good patriotic German, be truly merciful, be a peacemaker, in the rising tide of nationalism and imperialism  and war fever sweeping the country?   Really, you couldn’t do it.  So most Lutherans at the time thought that these verses were there to remind people how very sinful they were.  Christ wanted us to live in one way, and we just couldn’t because of original sin, and our innate brokenness, and so we needed God’s grace.  Classic law and grace dichotomy.  

Then, Bonhoeffer went to New York.  And while there, he encountered the idea that Jesus was serious about the beatitudes.  That Jesus did want us to do these things.  Here, and now.  First from a Swiss classmate, and then from the African American churches he attended in Harlem, who fought against lynching and segregation in the mid 1920s.  It was through their eyes that Bonhoeffer first understood that Jesus was serious about peace, serious about mercy.  Serious about being persecuted.  

And we know what happened to him from there.  Once ‘blessedness’ shifted from a lovely, distant spiritual reality to a present imperative, his whole life changed.  And the church gained a saint.

I bring this up, because this tension between ‘blessed’ and ‘happy’ is real.  It is a question that pulls at us, like it pulled at Bonhoeffer, every moment of our lives.  

Do we believe that to follow Christ it is a spiritual choice, or do we believe that following Christ requires daily, concrete choices about our actions and place in the world?  Do we believe that to follow Christ makes us blessed in some distant, spiritual way?  Or do we believe that following Christ in the here and now yields true happiness?

And, before I answer this hypothetical question of mine, I want to acknowledge something.  For many of us, this is a terrifying question.  For many of us, ok, for most of us, maybe, these are terrifying times.  But there are, in that large, petrified group, I believe, who perhaps haven’t had to wrestle so deeply with these questions before.  There are those of us, perhaps, who, til now, have rested secure in the belief that the powers that ran the world were–if not good, then at least benign, and would protect them, would listen to them.  

For those of us in this category, this belief is now breaking apart.  And for the first time, we all must confront the idea that we are, in a new way, outside of power.  Those who control the levers of power do not care.  They do not.  Concern for the common good is not what has driven the decisions of the government this past week.  Adherence to Christian ideals of loving your neighbor, caring for the foreigner, the stranger, the immigrant, the sick, and the suffering–these were abandoned by those in the halls of power this week.  

And in times like these, in the face of this fear, and this sort of abandonment of what we are explicitly called to be–being ‘blessed’ just won’t cut it.  It won’t.  I cannot find hope in Christ’s promise that one day, I might find a spiritual peace if I find peace on a spiritual level.  Blessed doesn’t cut it.

Because people are suffering, now  People will lose access to healthcare now.  People will be turned away from our borders, now.  Our Sudanese brothers and sisters, beloved, are in jeopardy, now.  Their family will remain stranded in the Sudan, now.  They cannot wait to be blessed, in their souls, in their hearts.  They are suffering now.

And so, I hold to Christ’s promise of happiness.  Happiness. That when we are merciful NOW.  When we make for peace NOW, when we are poor, when we grieve NOW, we will be happy.  Not just blessed.  Not just righteous, but happy.  That our decision to follow Christ in concrete ways, when we choose to take the Beatitudes seriously in the here and now, we will make for happiness for all creatures.  

Not that it will be easy.  Jesus didn’t throw in that last one about being persecuted for dramatic effect.  Right now, to follow the beatitudes, and demand that we all uphold them will get us persecuted.  Full stop.  It will.  We will go on some list, we may go to jail, we may become unpopular.  We may even walk into danger.  

But here is what I know.  I know that millions of faithful people have been here before us.  And it was in following Christ’s way that they found their joy.  It was in resisting a world that sorted people into desirable and undesirable that they found hope.  It was in fighting back against a system that sold human beings for profit that they became truly happy.  Not fleetingly comfortable, but truly, incandescently joyful.  When they joined their footsteps to Christ’s, they found happiness.  When they joined their hearts and their minds to Christ, they found joy.

Because here is the other thing I know–when we stand up for the Beatitudes in the here and now, when we embrace the idea of true happiness in these values, there Christ is.  Christ is in the face of the merciful.  In the feet of the poor.  In the hands of the grieving.  In the arms of the despised.  And it is when we embrace these, when we stand up and fight for these, that we embrace Christ and we find happiness, like so many have before us.

We won’t be comfortable, we won’t be sedate, or popular.  But like Bonhoeffer, like King, like Dorothy Day and Romero before us, will we be happy?

 We will.

 

Amen.

John the Baptist is coming for you!

Funny thing, but all those readings about the end of Days no longer seem quite so bad as they did a year ago.  Now, when Scriptures talk about the coming desolating sacrilege, I think, “Huh.  What did The Orange One tweet now?”

I learned in college about the role of apocalyptic literature for minority communities, and always liked that interpretation, but I confess that I had never understood it on an emotional level.  While I could intellectually grasp why someone hiding in the catacombs would feel better hearing about Michael the Archangel fighting with the Beast, for me, those texts were still mired in a lot of ‘Left Behind’ stuff.

This year, it’s starting to make sense.  So here’s a sermon about that.

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 4, 2016

Advent 2, Year A

Matthew 3:1-12

 

 

I had a dear friend in college named Claire.  Claire has spastic cerebral palsy, uses a motorized wheelchair to get around, and is easily the smartest person I know.  She would sit in class and memorize the lecture, rather than take notes, and had firm opinions about everything from the puns in Shakespeare to the politics of the ADA. *Americans with Disabilities Act

Second Advent was unironically her favorite Sunday of the year.  “It was” as she explained to me one year “the accessibilities act of the bible–the mountains were lowered and the valleys lifted, the rough places made plain–so that even people in wheelchairs could get to the house of God without trouble.”  

To Claire, John the Baptist wasn’t bringing a message of doom–he was bringing a message that sounded like inclusion. Because interpretation depends on location.  

To the Pharisees, John sounded like a really mean man.  (Getting called a brood of vipers will make you a bit irritated, as I understand.)  Also the Sadduccees.  But to the rest of the people flocking to him, he offered something lifegiving, even as his words sound pretty harsh to us.  

Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.  And anyone who does not bring forth fruit worthy of repentance is thrown into the fire. What he’s talking about here isn’t individual sin, it’s plural.  It’s sins, it’s corporate.  John is describing a repentance of EVERYTHING–not just individuals deciding not to cheat on their taxes any more.  

And yeah, that may not sound so great.

 

But here’s the thing.

When we’re feeling on top of the world, and powerful, and like everything is going great, then John’s message of the coming judgment sounds harsh and scary.  We like the way things are going; we don’t want to hear that we’re doing something wrong.

But when we are feeling like the world is working against us, like we are outnumbered by forces beyond our control, like we are being taken advantage of by mighty systems that don’t have our welfare at heart–then John’s announcement that judgment is coming is good news indeed.  

It just depends on where you fall when you hear this.

Think about who John’s audience is after all.

For the Pharisees and Sadduccees, they’re doing ok.  They’re organized, they’re basically political parties of Second Temple Judaism.  They have pull in the temple structure, and they have the ear of King Herod.  On the other hand, the people in the crowds don’t have any of that.  For the most part, they are excluded from a lot of the religious power and the political power structures of the day.  They live in an empire that doesn’t give them rights, and frankly–there’s a lot that’s going wrong for them.

Then John shows up and proclaims that they aren’t wrong–everything IS broken.  Everyone does need to repent.  And God is coming soon to fix this broken, messed up world.  The Pharisees don’t like it, but boy, do the crowds love it.  They were right all along!

Real quick, I want to point something out.  There is a profound difference between what John is saying and the sort of political populism that we’ve seen sweep the globe recently.  John’s repentance does not depend on turning people against one another or spreading fear and distrust.  It rests on raising the valleys and lowering the mountains–bringing everyone together.  The difference is in the perception of that–because if you have lived on a mountain all your life, that doesn’t sound as good as being raised out of the valley.  But that’s very different from being told you will be supplanted as king of the mountain and made to serve someone else.  

All this to say–the judgment of God doesn’t come in the form of earthly political systems.  What John is preaching has material implications, but it begins and ends with the action of God.  We repent and turn towards God, and God resets the world, and God brings us all in.  

So where are we in this scheme?  Are we the Pharisees or are we the crowd this morning?  Does John’s call for a complete turn around sound like the apocalypse or a welcome reprieve?  

When I lived in Jerusalem, a wise bishop told me that to the oppressed, God’s judgment always comes as good news.  It is only to the oppressor that judgment is feared. So I wonder if we are both right now.  If there are parts of us that, like the powerful of that time period, are not thrilled when John tells us that we need to repent, that the way things have been is not the way God wants them to be.  Because–let’s face it–we’re not doing that badly.  Most of us.  Most of the time.

But in other ways, we are like the crowds.  While there are parts of us that love the comfortable lives we enjoy, the security of this country, and the lives we know, in other parts of us, we do know that something is wrong.  We do know that this world is broken.  And in that part of our soul, we can welcome the coming advent of God, when the rough places shall be made plain, and the lion and lamb shall lay down together.  

Because in each of us, I would wager, there is a Pharisee and a dispossessed crowd member.  Someone happy in the world as it is, and someone anxious for the world to change.  The struggle for us, this Advent, is to decide which inner voice we will listen to.