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Blanche et Noire, parte deux

(cross-posted to Facebook)

So here’s what I’ve been thinking about this week.
When I was in Haiti, visiting Ravine a l’Anse with a team from St. Paul’s, we were in the marketplace of Les Cayes. (Whenever you’re in a foreign country, go to a grocery store or the marketplace–it’s the best.)

As we were strolling along, a woman approached me, and announced to me, in a loud voice, “Tu es blanche!” (trans. You are white.) Drawing on my six years of French, I responded, “Oui” for indeed, this was so. She repeated herself, pronouncing the words like the ruling of a monarch setting forth a new law: “TU ES BLANCHE!” Again, I agreed, “Ouais.” I am never more casper-like than in Haiti.
She drew herself up to her fullest height, fluttered her hand in a sweeping motion down in front of her, as if encompassing her entire being, her essence, the soul of her humanity in all its glory, and pronounced her final verdict to me, in a voice smooth with dignity: “Moi, je suis noire!” And turned and sauntered away, as if she had established, once and for all, her infinite claim to truth in the world. 


I think about her this week, this ordinary Haitian woman who literally proclaimed her pride in existence to me in the public square. I think of the faces of the children who pestered me, in ever more creative ways, to give them a ball. I think of the man who tied a rope around his waist, and lowered himself into a hole in the ground to dig a well for the village–by hand. So they would have water. And I think of the faces of the vestry of the church we work with, who patiently sat with us for hours, as they explained how they wanted to improve the lives of their people.

Haiti (and South Sudan, and Kenya, and Togo, and the other places the president slandered) aren’t notable because occasionally a great person emerged from there. They are notable because ordinary people live there, with the miraculous yet commonplace human capacity to live and thrive and be human. That nameless Haitian woman in the marketplace wears her pride with ease for she is the living image of God, and she knows it.

May we all know it too.

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Old and New, Light and Dark.

Poking around on the interwebs today, I came across a blog I kept during seminary.  It was quite the reading experience.  Apparently editing was not my strong suit 10 years ago.  I also had many thoughts about church politics and events in the Middle East, so solidly on brand there.  It included the text of the sermon I gave in the chapel senior year.

I was surprised at how well the sermon held up.  There were definitely things I would change–stylistic tweaks I would make.  Things I would add for clarity’s sake, and adjustments if I weren’t preaching in an academic community who all knew who Cyrus the Persian was***.  But for the most part, the faith I talked about in that sermon is the faith I talk about today.  I want to go back in time and high-five my younger self, and tell her “That’s it!  Don’t be so nervous! You got this!”

On that note, here is my sermon from this Sunday.  It’s less of a sermon, more of a very thorough outline, but the ideas are there.  I wanted to talk about light and dark, and the limits of dichotomies in our dealings with God.  So I talked about neurological things!  As one does.

December 31, 2017

Christmas 1

John 1:1-18

Fun story:  For a few years in college, I saw things.  Not interesting things, like visions of God or angels, or apparitions of the future.  I saw flashing lights, floating dots, and ghost images around lights.  All those symptoms that doctors tell you are Very Bad, and you should immediately go to a doctor should you experience.

Tests were all negative–they couldn’t find anything wrong with me, even after all the doctors had stared at me, and med students had looked worried at me.   But the flashing lights, and weird floaty things persisted.  And thus did begin my fascination with light–since suddenly, everyone else could see something clearly that I could not.  This phenomenon I had taken for granted was now very apparent in my life.  

(Fast forward a couple years, and doctors would conclude that nothing WAS wrong with me–that what I was seeing was the result of a fried cranial nerve during a bad migraine, and could mostly be fixed with surgery and good glasses.  So please don’t worry about me–I am FINE.  But my fascination persisted.  Light, it seemed, wasn’t just light for everyone.)

 

Light/dark is a familiar dualism.  Light= good!  Dark=bad!  Light makes us happy, and dark makes us sad. Light is the thing we want, darkness is the thing that scares us.  This dichotomy is so familiar to us that we assume that this is apparent to everyone and we use that turn of phrase all the time.  It’s everywhere.  It’s in the gospels–and not just in the Johaninne prologue. 

 

Recently, this turn of phrase has become controversial, because it has been used throughout history to tell people of darker skin that they are less than.  Even so far as Joseph Smith telling Mormons that Indians and black people had darker skin because it was an outward sign of their sin.  Now that’s horrific, and so equating light with goodness has become a problem not just for those of us with visual impairments, but also for the reason that it can hearken back to this really troubling history.  

 

But  if we listen, what the prologue tells us is that, in fact, the dualism we assume is not apparent.  And it isn’t self-evident.  When the light comes, John writes, the world doesn’t even notice.  Even as the light illuminates the darkness, and even as the light has been present for all time, and lightens all creation.  Such a powerful presence, and somehow we just don’t notice it.  He came to his own, and his own did not receive him.

 

In retrospect, we sit here, comfortable in the 21st century, and it is hard to see how Jesus’ contemporaries didn’t realize who he was.  He was doing miracles!  He was preaching such amazing things!  How could people not stop what they were doing and noice?

Yet what’s fascinating throughout the gospels is how mundane the reasons people give for avoiding following Christ are.  It’s rarely that they don’t believe, per se-more often it’s something more pedestrian.  The rich young man really likes Jesus, but Jesus tells him to sell all he has, and well, his house is so comfortable!  Business leaders in Jerusalem acknowledge the truth of what the apostles are preaching in Acts, they believe in the risen Christ, but they’re worried about their income.  Pilate and Herod know who and what Jesus is–Herod asks for a miracle–but they have other, pressing political concerns.  

 

Rather than a simple dichotomy, what pulls us away from the light of God seems not to be darkness–it seems to be apathy.  We seem to be numb  to the light, and to what it’s doing.  It is all around us, and somehow, we just ignore it, or we don’t see it, because we’re so focused on other things.  It’s not that we dwell in darkness–a big, bad, foe out to snatch us up–we just become immune.  

 

It’s here that John’s prologue is at its most wise.  John, in his poetry, reminds us that the light is deeper and more profound than a simple enemy to the darkness.  But the Word, which is the Light, was in all things, and gave birth to all things, so when we stop and look around–it is in the light in which we live and move and have our being.  There is nothing we can think, say, or do that is apart from the Light.  And there is no darkness that can overcome or destroy the light. The light of God is what enlivens all life.  

 

But our constant task is to realize it.  To see the light as it shines around us, because while God never is apart from us, often we are so used to God’s presence that we begin to take it for granted.  Our task is to notice.  To recognize.  To be aware of the light shining around us.   To recognize the divine presence suffusing our existence, and not to be distracted by other concerns or worries.  Not money, not politics, not family–not even the darkness.  Because as John reminds us today, there is nothing in all creation that can snuff out God’s presence in this world.  Thanks to the Incarnation, we are inextricably intertwined in the life of God from now on.  The Light is here, and cannot be removed.  Our job is to recognize it and mirror it back.

Amen

 

 

 

***Cyrus the Persian was the Persian emperor who conquered the Babylonian Empire, and allowed the exiled Israelites to return and rebuild Jerusalem.  Despite not being Jewish, Isaiah LUUUUUVES Cyrus because of this–which is why I refer to Cyrus as the McDreamy of the OT.  (Because he is.) (Prove me wrong.) (You can’t.)

Mary Rides Again

I very much like preaching about Mary.

There is a dearth of good Anglican mariology, in my opinion.  Generally, we fall into one of two camps:  either we go full hyper-dulia and Romish about the Mother of God, with rosaries and novenas aplenty, or we go full Baptist, and ignore her.  I don’t think either are helpful.  Mary has a unique role in the Gospels and in the life of the church.   So it’s important for a theoretical, textual reason.

But it’s also important because of actual, human people.  This year, I was tempted to talk about something other than Mary, and her kick-ass self.  But then I came across a published sermon, given by a mainline Protestant minister, in which he claimed Mary was unimportant because she merely was a pawn in God’s larger plan of grace.  In fact, he argued, she had no choice at all–and emphasized that several times.

Nope–I decided right then and there I had to talk about Mary again.  It was either that or be kept awake for the next year with nightmares of that horrifying sermon playing in my head.

As I was giving the sermon, I watched the congregation.  They were on the smaller side–it was the morning of Christmas Eve, after all.  But when I got to the part about Mary being her own person, a teenaged girl in the pews shot her head up, and started grinning.  Afterwards, she told me delightedly that she loved my sermon.

That’s why I do this.

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 24, 2017 (Morning)

Advent IV, Year B

Luke 2

 

The week before Christmas is a fascinating time for clergy, and other workers within the church.  Traditionally, it is the time when the copier breaks, when the plumbing declines to further plumb, and when all manner of small inconvenience suddenly appears, such that you cannot deal with the mounting pile of insanity that needs to be dealt with.  It breaks the weak, let me tell you.  And it’s why I’ve been bringing chocolate into work all week.

 

Of course, that’s what it’s like for most of us in these last pre-holiday days:  lots of rushing, lots of worrying about whether the family will make their flights, or whether Atlanta will have another blackout.  Whether that last side dish will get done, whether everything will be read or not.  For many of us, clergy or not, Christmas is an exercise in anxiety.

 

Contrast this, then, with the images on our Christmas cards of the Holy Family:  figures serene and formal, spotless and pale–looking like they never had a day of worry in their lives.  

Most of the images of Mary and Joseph that we see around this time of year do not reflect what we know their reality must have been:  harried, frantic, dirty, and terrified.  I did a Google search this week, when I was trying to avoid writing this sermon, and by a large margin, most of the images you find of Mary, especially, show her emotionless, and with her gaze off in the middle distance.  She’s distant and otherworldly–too pure and holy for whatever fears and concerns we struggle with.

 

But we know, of course, that this isn’t present in the narrative.  To read Luke’s account of the Annunciation is to encounter a young girl who has a lot of emotions.  

 

When Gabriel shows up to Mary (according to tradition in Nazareth, he shows up while she’s getting water from a local well), she very clearly has some concerns.  If you read the text closely, you can track the changes as the conversation happens.  Gabriel gives her the good news, and Mary is quite explicitly not on board.  She is worried, she is frightened, she has some questions, gosh darn it.  So she asks them.  “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  Mary is trying to figure this out.

 

Gabriel gives further information, and it is only when he does, that Mary responds to the initial announcement.  “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.”  Mary’s affirmative response is predicated on this give-and-take with the angel, and we know this in part because Luke describes Mary’s interior life–the only person really besides Jesus who is described as having interiority at all in the gospels.  

 

It never fails to amaze me, how many sermons and articles I come across which try to overlook or dismiss Mary’s arguing with the angel, and try to make the case that she either had no hesitations (flimsy) or she had no choice (horrifying.)  Each year, when I read about the Annunciation, these depictions of Mary as an emotionless pawn again flood my vision–the verbal equivalent of those pictures of the otherworldly, distant white girl on the Christmas cards.  

 

For one thing, the girl who doesn’t care doesn’t appear in Scripture, so there’s that.  For another, any assertion that Mary is anything other than a fully embodied agent of her own authority helps prop up some really disturbing ideas about women as a whole, and their ability to make their own decisions.  Because Mary is so often held up as What All Faithful Women Should Be, when she is reduced to a quiet pawn in the hands of God, that similarly tells women that the ideal to emulate is quiet, subservient, and without a will of her own

 

But finally, and perhaps most vitally, when we do actually stick to Scripture, and the depictions of women shown there, instead of our invented nonsense, we see that Christianity is resting on the foundation of the (still-controversial idea) that it is vital to believe women.  Both the malaligned women at the empty tomb, and the frightened, excited girl who spoke to an angel.  Without the believed testimony of women, we would have no church.  We would have no faith.

 

And just as vitally, when we bear witness to the fullness of this tradition, then we also see that it is as fully formed human beings that God encounters us.  God encounters Mary in her complete humanity–in all of her confusion, in all her doubt and fear, in all her questioning.  God does not shy away from any part of her or declare her questions out of bounds–God declares her as Blessed among women before a single word leaves her mouth. Indeed, she is blessed just as she is.  She does not have to do or change a thing.  

 

So then, Mary serves as a reminder that God takes us, each as we are.  Each one of us, regardless of our doubts and our hesitations has been declared beloved and blessed by the Most High.  Each one of us is needed in this recreation of the world.  And for each one of us, regardless of how well the cookies turned out, regardless of whether the dog eats the turkey, regardless of whether the children fight, regardless of whether we can muster up enough cheerfulness or not–Christ will be born on Christmas.  

 

 

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 24, 2017 (Morning)

Advent IV, Year B

Luke 2

 

The week before Christmas is a fascinating time for clergy, and other workers within the church.  Traditionally, it is the time when the copier breaks, when the plumbing declines to further plumb, and when all manner of small inconvenience suddenly appears, such that you cannot deal with the mounting pile of insanity that needs to be dealt with.  It breaks the weak, let me tell you.  And it’s why I’ve been bringing chocolate into work all week.

 

Of course, that’s what it’s like for most of us in these last pre-holiday days:  lots of rushing, lots of worrying about whether the family will make their flights, or whether Atlanta will have another blackout.  Whether that last side dish will get done, whether everything will be read or not.  For many of us, clergy or not, Christmas is an exercise in anxiety.

 

Contrast this, then, with the images on our Christmas cards of the Holy Family:  figures serene and formal, spotless and pale–looking like they never had a day of worry in their lives.  

Most of the images of Mary and Joseph that we see around this time of year do not reflect what we know their reality must have been:  harried, frantic, dirty, and terrified.  I did a Google search this week, when I was trying to avoid writing this sermon, and by a large margin, most of the images you find of Mary, especially, show her emotionless, and with her gaze off in the middle distance.  She’s distant and otherworldly–too pure and holy for whatever fears and concerns we struggle with.

 

But we know, of course, that this isn’t present in the narrative.  To read Luke’s account of the Annunciation is to encounter a young girl who has a lot of emotions.  

 

When Gabriel shows up to Mary (according to tradition in Nazareth, he shows up while she’s getting water from a local well), she very clearly has some concerns.  If you read the text closely, you can track the changes as the conversation happens.  Gabriel gives her the good news, and Mary is quite explicitly not on board.  She is worried, she is frightened, she has some questions, gosh darn it.  So she asks them.  “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  Mary is trying to figure this out.

 

Gabriel gives further information, and it is only when he does, that Mary responds to the initial announcement.  “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.”  Mary’s affirmative response is predicated on this give-and-take with the angel, and we know this in part because Luke describes Mary’s interior life–the only person really besides Jesus who is described as having interiority at all in the gospels.  

 

It never fails to amaze me, how many sermons and articles I come across which try to overlook or dismiss Mary’s arguing with the angel, and try to make the case that she either had no hesitations (flimsy) or she had no choice (horrifying.)  Each year, when I read about the Annunciation, these depictions of Mary as an emotionless pawn again flood my vision–the verbal equivalent of those pictures of the otherworldly, distant white girl on the Christmas cards.  

 

For one thing, the girl who doesn’t care doesn’t appear in Scripture, so there’s that.  For another, any assertion that Mary is anything other than a fully embodied agent of her own authority helps prop up some really disturbing ideas about women as a whole, and their ability to make their own decisions.  Because Mary is so often held up as What All Faithful Women Should Be, when she is reduced to a quiet pawn in the hands of God, that similarly tells women that the ideal to emulate is quiet, subservient, and without a will of her own

 

But finally, and perhaps most vitally, when we do actually stick to Scripture, and the depictions of women shown there, instead of our invented nonsense, we see that Christianity is resting on the foundation of the (still-controversial idea) that it is vital to believe women.  Both the malaligned women at the empty tomb, and the frightened, excited girl who spoke to an angel.  Without the believed testimony of women, we would have no church.  We would have no faith.

 

And just as vitally, when we bear witness to the fullness of this tradition, then we also see that it is as fully formed human beings that God encounters us.  God encounters Mary in her complete humanity–in all of her confusion, in all her doubt and fear, in all her questioning.  God does not shy away from any part of her or declare her questions out of bounds–God declares her as Blessed among women before a single word leaves her mouth. Indeed, she is blessed just as she is.  She does not have to do or change a thing.  

 

So then, Mary serves as a reminder that God takes us, each as we are.  Each one of us, regardless of our doubts and our hesitations has been declared beloved and blessed by the Most High.  Each one of us is needed in this recreation of the world.  And for each one of us, regardless of how well the cookies turned out, regardless of whether the dog eats the turkey, regardless of whether the children fight, regardless of whether we can muster up enough cheerfulness or not–Christ will be born on Christmas.  

 

 

 

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.

 

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.