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New Hobby

One of the reporters at the Hutto prayer service asked me, as serious as could be, “So, these large outdoor prayer meetings–I assume this is a weekly tradition for Episcopals?”

Oh my sweet, summer child.

“No,” I replied, quite emphatically. “We are an indoor people.  My people do not venture forth out of doors.  Do you know the Royal Wedding?  The queen, the hats, the tea?  We are the people who brought you THAT.  Today is VERY UNUSUAL.  Please consider how bad things have to be in order to force Episcopalians to go OUTSIDE.

WHERE THE SUN IS.”

However, God is quite the joker, because no sooner did I arrive back in Ithaca, then Mass on the Grass rolled around.  This is an annual tradition of St. John’s, which used to be termed “Rally Day” but because no one quite knew what a rally day was, we decided to change the name this year.  We go out to a local park, rent a big pavilion, and have one big service and picnic to celebrate summer, and to have fun.

My response to that reporter was slightly tongue-in-cheek, but mostly honest.  Because the heart of our tradition is liturgy, when we move where it happens, it feels radically destabilizing.  Sometimes, that’s healthy, and sometimes, that’s just chaotic without purpose.  But in all cases, it’s deeply felt.  So we don’t tend to just “go outside.” Outside is chaotic.  Outside there is wind and water, and whatnot.  You can’t always control things outside.

However, more and more it would seem that outside is just where Christ is calling us.  Regardless of the geese that honk while we pray, and the wind that threatens our nicely-lit candles–Christ seems to be calling us outside into this creation, so go there, we shall.

Here’s what I said.  (It’s in bullet points because I was trying to be ‘looser’ and more ‘free.’  This sort of worked?

Bread vs bread 

CAT FOOD EXPERIMENT in 4th grade 

Moral: don’t be a cat. Hold out for the good stuff. 

  • Recall now that we’ve switched from Mark to John’s gospel
  • Mark was “Just the facts” 
  • John wants to also tell you the Why. The theological background. 
  • John is Gospel 2.0 
  • Which is why he spends 3 chapters ranting about bread 
  • Bread here isn’t just bread. 
  • (as you might suspect from Jesus chiding them for wanting a snack.)
  • As usual, John is operating on several levels 
  • For one thing, John would like us to notice that Jesus is being super-Moses like here. Which is why he has told us that it is Passover. 
  • Remember how Moses, among his many accomplishments, fed a huge crowd of people? 
  • He prayed, and God gave the Israelites manna in the wilderness. 
  • Here, Jesus prays, and God feeds a crowd again.
  • But! Jesus’ bread is not like the manna, which turned bad after a day. Jesus’ bread is 1. for everyone and 2. everlasting. 
  • So Jesus is both in the footsteps of Moses, and building upon Moses. 
  • Don’t settle just for manna, John’s Jesus tells us. There’s more out there, and God wants to give it to you. 
  • Don’t just settle for surviving, Jesus tells us. Reach for an abundant life. 
  • The crowd seems to want the basics—bread! Magic! Miracles at their beck and call! And it makes sense—free bread sounds pretty great. 
  • But Jesus wants to give them something more complicated, more risky and more real. 
  • Following the way of Christ is not just survival.
  • In fact, loving God and your neighbor as yourself does not necessarily make for survival. 
  • Following Christ opens us up to a life beyond surviving— it opens us up to a life of vulnerability, and richness, and joy, and sorrow, and hope.  
  • There are times, certainly, when it seems safer to settle for bread.  We know bread! And we also don’t want to get our hearts broken. 
  • But the life that Christ offers us beckons with so much beyond our imagining—it makes the occasional heartbreak worth it. 
  • We’re here today in this park to celebrate. But not the survival of St. John’s. We are here to celebrate our thriving. Our abundant life we are finding together. 
  • Time and again, this parish has chosen to reach for an abundant life, rather than the safe one. We have chosen to follow Jesus when he led us onto the water rather than to stay on the shore. And recently, I followed Jesus and got to join you on this path. 
  • so here we are, rejoicing in the abundant life this parish has found together. And in the adventures that Christ has in store for us just over the horizon. 

 

Listen to Smart People

Several things collided this week to create a sermon.  One was the ever-wise Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney writing about David and Bathsheba. (If you don’t read her work, you should.  Stop reading this and go read Dr. Gafney.  Just go.)

Ok, I am assuming if you’re reading this then you’ve already read what Dr. Gafney wrote.

The other was that I realized I have never preached on David and Bathsheba.  Never.  And that, I realized, cannot stand.  Not in this age of #metoo and #churchtoo and all the other hashtags we are faced with.  Despite my discomfort (there are KIDS in the congregation!  Can I put a trigger warning in the bulletin? etc) I knew I needed to talk about this story.

Sure enough, so many people came up to me afterwards to thank me for preaching on it.  Not that I made the story palatable (it’s still not; it’s still a horrid story) but I think we forget as preachers how confusing it can be to hear some of these readings in the pews, and then have the most bizarre things skipped right over like they never happened.  So we can talk about bread for the 45th time.

Talk about the confusing bits.  Lean into the troubling parts.  If it bothers you, I will bet money that it bothers someone in the pews.

Here’s what I said–and please note–the exegesis here is all Dr. Gafney.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

July 29, 2018

Proper 11, Ordinary Time, Year B

2 Samuel 11:1-15

I find it curious sometimes at the stories we tell children.  When I was growing up, we had this VHS tape of cartoon bible stories:  One was Noah’s ark, and one was David and Goliath.  The animation wasn’t fantastic—I am too old to have been the target of Veggie Tales.  But what I remember is that both stories had some really horrific scenes of death and destruction.  Noah’s ark had a whole lot of people drowning in a flood.  And David murders Goliath in a pretty bloody way, and it’s fairly graphic.  

Yet these are stories for children!  And if you look at the Bible stories marketed for kids—those are the central ones!  I think it’s for marketing purposes, perhaps, or perhaps the people doing the marketing haven’t actually read them—and all they see is—on the one hand, a lot of cute furry animals, and on the other, a heroic kid with sheep.  

But truth be told, the Bible has some really awful, not at all G-rated stories in it.  One of which we get today. And I decided to preach about it because I think that facing that which makes us uncomfortable is often better than ignoring it, or glossing over it, and that this is doubly true when it comes to our faith.  Because the Bible often has these horrible things in it because our world also has horrible things in it, and it is only in facing them squarely that we can figure out where God is in all this mess.

To that end—just what is going on with David and Bathsheba?

The last time we saw him, David was really just a kid, fleeing from Saul, the king who quickly fell from grace. Now, he’s the king of all Israel in his own right, with all the power in the world, waging war on other kingdoms, and feeling so secure he sends his army off to battle without him!  In every way, David has the power.  And Bathsheba does not.

It is that power differential that it is vital to keep your eyes on here.  Yes, there are folk songs about this story—yes, the text gets pretty metaphorical about what exactly is happening.  But in the end it is important to remember that one of these people is literally the most powerful person in the world, and the other is not.  So choice—even the illusion of choice—does not exist for Bathsheba.

Bathsheba, though—-she’s a bit of an enigma. And here’s what I mean.  Like the folk songs written trying to romanticize what is definitely not romantic (looking at you, Leonard Cohen), there has been a lot of art trying to make Bathsheba into a scarlet woman—a woman who basically got what was coming to her. She gets the Mary Magdalene treatment in Western art—“Here is a woman, we know she’s not the Virgin Mother, ergo she must be a direct path to hell.”) But whoever wrote this text took pains to do a couple of things on her behalf.  For one, she gets a name—which is incredibly rare for a woman in the Biblical narrative, let alone for her father to also be named.  The fact that her father is named is probably an assertion that she came from a “good” family.  Her family was known enough for her father’s name to be relevant to the story.  

For another, she is depicted as adhering faithfully to the Jewish laws of purification, which was a big deal.  Bathsheba was doing what she was supposed to—she was following the law.   Meanwhile the first thing we are told in this story is that in the time kings rode forth with their armies—this king was instead lounging around breaking one of the ten commandments.  

Then breaking a few more of them. 

Bathsheba is doing what she is supposed to.  In the world of the text, she is vindicated.  

David, on the other hand, is very, very wrong.

David takes by force a woman who cannot and does not consent, and forces her to bear his child.  And when Bathsheba’s husband refuses to cover his tracks, David has him killed. We have words for those acts in this world.  

We are used to hearing this story as David’s story—as an illustration of how even a great king can make horrible mistakes—but as Bathsheba’s story, it’s even worse.  

Make this story about David, and there’s an easy-enough-light to see at the end of the tunnel.  David is still king, and though he’s in trouble, God preserves his life, and still speaks with him.  

Bathsheba, though?  Where’s the redemption for her?  Where’s God’s presence for her? 

This is one of those stories where we need to be careful how we read it, we need to be careful not to make it too spiritualized—because as horrible as it is, it is also not unfamiliar.  We are living in a cultural moment where more and more of these stories are being told, where it is becoming evident that for a long, long time, many in positions of power have felt free to behave just as David did.  And the Bathshebas in those real-life stories were left to disappear into the shadows without names or voices.  From Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer, to Bill Cosby, we’ve watched the famous and beloved figures admit to some really horrible treatment of those less powerful than they.  

In ways large and small, the story of David and Bathsheba continues to play itself out in our world, before our eyes, and so it is vital that we, as people of faith, figure out what we are called to do in response.  What is our response to be, to the Bathshebas in our time?  To those misused and abandoned by those in power?  What is our response to be to the Davids of the world?  

The story goes on, after our lectionary cuts it short.  What we see this week is David’s sin—what we don’t see is Bathsheba’s victory.  You see, after all this horribleness happens to her, and she ends up with a dead husband and kidnapped and living in the palace, she has this baby.  And Nathan, the prophet, calls David out by name, and accuses him in front of EVERYONE for his actions towards Bathsheba.  Nathan and Bathsheba sort of team up, from then on, and despite Solomon’s lowly status, they contrive to have him rule Israel, instead of the first-born.  And when Solomon takes the throne, he establishes a special role for his mother, as the queen mother, and insists that the kingdom honor her as they would a queen.  

The trauma still happened, of course.  She still suffered greatly. and what David did should never have been allowed to occur in the first place. And yet, though Nathan’s intervention, through God’s grace, in a way, Bathsheba was vindicated in a powerful way.  David’s hubris and pride caused his downfall, but God lifted up this wronged woman, and in the end, gave her a form of justice over the most powerful man in the world.  

Because in the end, God does not care about how powerful anyone is. God doesn’t care how rich anyone is, or how polite, or how outwardly moral.  God cares about how we treat one another.  And when we mistreat each other, then God is there to lift up the victims, to comfort the survivors, to assure them that even when justice and redemption seem impossible this side of heaven, that God hears the cry of the oppressed.  God hears the cry of the downtrodden.  God heard Bathsheba, God hears those who cry out today, and we as the church need to do likewise.  We must be like Nathan, ready to come to the aid of the victimized, however unpopular it might be.

The presence of stories like this on in the Bible does not mean that God condones what happens here—the presence of this story in the Bible means that God gives us a job when tragedies like this one occur in our time.  It means that God urges us to be ready to side with the Bathshebas of the world, and ready to stand with the Nathans.  God calls us to give voice to the voiceless, to give support to those who have been pushed aside; to be the Nathans of the world. And when we live into that role, no one need fear David’s power any more.

Amen.

Take a break

I feel like I preach this gospel every time I return from vacation, but guys: Vacation is a WONDERFUL thing.

This year, I broke my own precedent and took 6 days off of work after General Convention.  6 days where I could just sleep, knit, watch British murder mysteries, and sleep some more.  (And also finish unpacking my books.)  This novel approach meant that for the first time ever, I did not come down with a post-Convention sickness of some kind, neither did I subject my dear parish to my incoherent blathering after a 10 day stretch of no sleep and little food.

In short, I recommend vacation.  My heartfelt thanks to the supply preachers who showed up to give me a break, and also naps.

Here’s what I said (when I returned.)

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

July 22, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 11

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

I like to knit—I think I’ve told you this.  I started knitting when I was in college, and kept at it on and off ever since.  I have noticed that my knitting tends to increase exponentially especially in times in stress.  When I was studying for comprehensive exams at the end of seminary, I knit three sweaters in one month.  When I had to go to stressful diocesan meetings, I knit countless pairs of socks.  

This isn’t stress relief—it’s something common to most people in helping professions.  I knit because I need to do something that I can see is productive.  There are times I need to see something concrete emerge from the time and energy I apply—especially when so much of my working life is spent in ephemeral ideas, putting effort into things that matter immensely—but the effects of which cannot be seen or measured.  So, when things get stressful, I need to do something that results in something tangible.  Even if it’s a shawl I am accidentally knitting backwards.

Our world likes productivity.  We like producing things, we like doing things.  It influences so much of how we live, how we relate to each other.  One of the first things we ask, when we meet someone new is “what do you do?”  What field are you in?  Having a job, keeping a job, is an implicit requirement for being seen as an adult, or a contributing citizen in the country.  (Just think what that phrase implies—contributing citizen.)  In much of our culture’s public discourse, when we talk about people, we talk in economic terms: what people contribute, what they can produce.  And this is every side of our political spectrum, really.

Because this sort of language is so endemic (and really, once you start listening for it, it starts to spring up EVERYWHERE) it bears repeating that this is not the language we find in Scripture.  In fact, from the very start, God seems entirely disinterested in what human beings can produce.  

Actually, before God even gets to figure out the true potential of these new human critters, GOD TAKES A BREAK.  God goes on vacation.  God finishes creation, creates humanity, and then…takes Sabbath.  And from then on, God tells humans to do the same—work for six days, and then on the seventh—do nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  This is the basic pattern for what becomes the Jewish tradition of the Sabbath.  It get further fleshed out in laws, and descriptions, but there’s the pattern, set by Godsownself.

The idea is that one day a week, humanity has to stop entirely and do no work.  Not just no wage-earning work, but no work entirely.  No lighting stoves for cooking, no turning on cars for running errands that didnt’ get done while you were at work, no starting up the computer to catch up on email—no work whatsoever.  It was a day just to exist and to be—and to reclaim that initial relationship with God.

Because, if you notice in that Genesis 1 story, God does not immediately create humans and then sets them to work; God creates humans and then…lets them be.  The initial relationship between God and humanity is one of pure enjoyment of each other’s existence.  They hang out with each other in a familiar and intimate way, in the cool of the evening as God comes strolling through.  

It’s only when the first humans mess up, and hide from God, that the intimacy is broken, and one of the consequences of leaving the garden is the burden of constant work.  Losing that intimacy with God now means that humanity is scared, and wants to continually prove that it’s good enough, can do enough.  And so work becomes a burden, instead of a joy.

So with ALL THAT as context: when Jesus turns to the disciples and tells them to take a break, it’s not necessarily because he’s exhausted, or he wants a vacation.  He’s calling them back to their own religious tradition’s practice of sabbath.  That there be periodic times where you don’t have to be productive, but you just get to stop and just be.  He’s reminding them that they need to stop doing and just be with God.  

So off they go—for a time of quietness and prayer, just to observe some momentary Sabbath.  It doesn’t quite work out the way they want it to, but the recognition of the Sabbath is important for a number of reasons.  

For one thing—humans need to rest.  We aren’t Energizer Bunnies; if we keep working all the time, we burn ourselves out.  And this is one of the times when our dear RCL cuts out a lot of the story.  In between the time when Jesus tells everyone to go take a break, and when the crowd discovers them, and make them go on a healing spree, two massive miracles happen: the feeding of the five thousand, and the walking on the water.  These are some pretty sizable miracles, certainly larger in scale than what he’s done up until now.  So for one thing, as a practical matter, Sabbath—reconnecting with God—enables us to recharge, so we can better concentrate on doing God’s work in the world.  

But for another, the primary reason we need Sabbath is to remember our true value.  Because we live in a world that’s so defined and fascinated with what we can produce, what we can earn, we badly need time to break free of that so that God can remind us that our value does not lie there.  Rather our value lies in our very existence as children of God—and that’s it.   Even if we never earn a dime in our lives, even if we never produce a single marketable anything,  the very fact of our existence speaks to our worth and value to God.  And the time we take away from our work is a witness to our inherent value and dignity as images of God, entirely apart from what we can produce. Sabbath is a moment to witness to who we fundamentally are, and a reminder that nothing we do or don’t do can change that ultimate relationship with God.

The miracles Jesus does (that the RCL skips here) are Sabbath-y type miracles, too.  He feeds a harassed and harried crowd, when his disciples want to send the people out to find food for themselves.  Make them do some work!  Make them earn their own food!  Jesus refuses, and just gives them lunch.  Because on their own, without working for it, or having to earn it, those people are worthy of having their needs met.  Those people are worthy of Jesus’ compassion and love.  They don’t need to do anything; just as they are, as they exist, Jesus cares for them.  Such is the Sabbath.

Honoring the Sabbath isn’t something that comes naturally to us.  We don’t have a tradition that emphasizes it and structures it weekly like Judaism.  And we live in a world that pushes us more and more towards constant connectedness and constant productivity.  But that makes it all the more important for us to consciously take time, periodically for sabbath.  Maybe not every week, but try every month.  Every two months.  Every quarter.  Just try taking one day and devote yourself to not doing anything.  Do nothing productive at all.  Don’t take care of anyone or anything.  Just spend time the God who loves you, and reconnect to your essential value as a beloved Child of God.  

Because in the end, we don’t have to do anything to earn God’s love.  We don’t have to produce great achievements for Christ to care for us, or provide for us.  God cares for us just because we are.  We are loved just because we were created in God’s love.  And in the knowledge of that love, we can rest secure in our worth, and worry less about our production.  

What Happened

I am well and truly back from General Convention now.

I have taken enough naps, petted my cats enough, knit enough, and reflected enough to be back from the headspace of 10 frantic days in Austin.

I always approach General Convention with the same sense of creeping dread.  “Oh dear God, this will be awful.  It will be an unending slog of horrible and fighting and why do I do this to myself?”  This year was the same.  This year, for the first time, I had directly contributed to many of the 517 (!) resolutions, so I felt personally invested in a new way.***

I have said several times that ordination’s closest comparison is marriage.  You have to be willing, if you want to be a priest, to fall in love with an institution, while knowing full well that this institution is fallible and broken, and prone to bad decision-making.  You have to be vulnerable to a system, while knowing that the system does not always come through.  The flip side of that, however, is that you’re bound to this erstwhile institution in love, so every time it falls short, you are able to confront it and shake the gates, and tell it to step up.

This convention, if you boiled it down, was a lot of faithful women doing a lot of gate-shaking.  Over and over again, we texted each other encouragement, we met in hallways, and over hurried lunches, and consoled each other when the path looked rockier than it did before.  We sat in committees, stood at the microphone, calmly told our stories, and outlined the change we wanted to see; we, who have been in love with this Church that at times hasn’t known how to love us back, have now started demanding better from this branch of the Body of Christ.

In the end, I think we managed to do a fair amount.  The systemic problems remain, as they do in the rest of society.  There’s still a lot of work to do.  But gone forever, I hope, is the notion that the Church can take women’s participation and presence for granted, without ensuring that we are also cherished and loved as equal members in this body.

If you want a practical list, here’s what the Special Taskforce got done:

  • asked for any prayer book revision to include expansive language for God
  • established a Truth and Reconciliation taskforce to deal with issues around gender, racial inequality
  • made discrimination in hiring forbidden under canon
  • defined and forbade retaliation under canon
  • provide confidentiality for whistleblowers in Title IV
  • create a database for Title IV matters, and resolutions
  • asked the Standing Commission for Structure, Governance, Constitution, and Canons to create a plan for a churchwide disciplinary process, including a churchwide intake officer position
  • lifted the statute of limitations on all sexual misconduct claims, beginning Jan 1, 2019 and ending Dec 31, 2021

 

***Let’s be clear:  I always feel invested in SOME way.  I am nothing if not opinionated.  But this time felt different.

Plowing for Justice

Beginning a new job carries with it many firsts:  first paycheck, first vestry meeting to lead, first major decision, etc.   Most of these get covered in seminary, or at least a nice pamphlet from Forward Movement or the Alban Institute.  (Tips: only change things you really have to at first.  This should never include the early service.  Befriend your office staff and Altar Guild.).

What they don’t cover is the first time you get up in the pulpit and preach a “our government is doing something awful, and we should do something about it” sermon in a new place.  These sermons are never the easiest to preach in general, but they become far easier, and indeed—are impossible to give without– a solid pastoral relationship with your congregation.  When you can look out over your people, and consider how what you’re about to say will hit each person, preaching tends to go better all the way around. (This person has members of their family serving in law enforcement; this person lost a parent recently; this person has adopted kids, etc.)

But, sometimes things happen.  Sometimes the Attorney General stands up and says something insane, like invoking a Bible verse last used by slaveholders in the South to justify his new policy of family separation at the border.  And, you have to jump in and hope that you’ve learned your people well enough over the few short weeks you’ve been there to talk to them about this.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 17, 2018

Proper 6, Year B

Mark 4:26-34

Earlier this week, if you were on social media, you might have noticed a lot of hubbub about a raccoon.  All of a sudden, Twitter started to get very excited about a raccoon that found itself scaling a 35 floor office building in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota.  It’s the sort of thing that happens more often in the internet age; something odd starts to happen, someone shares it, and now the whole world is watching a raccoon sit on a window ledge 25 floors above the street, and suggesting ways to help the little guy.  It was pretty strange: social media has gotten noticably grimmer since the 2016 election, but here were avowed conservatives and hardened progressives, talking to each other, expressing concern about some random raccoon, who—as several people pointed out—was probably rabid, since raccoons don’t come out in the daytime, much less try to climb a building for 2 days straight.  But here we were—people from all over the world, watching this raccoon climb with bated breath, hoping against hope.  Til finally it was over, at 3am on Monday morning, when the raccoon had finally made it to the roof, and was promptly fed some wet cat food by the fire department, and carted away by the relieved wildlife department.  We all breathed a huge sigh of relief.  HE MADE IT!  (Though, it turned out to be a girl.  SHE MADE IT!  SHE WASNT RABID!) And if she could make it, then gosh darn it, we could survive this year, too.

This brief flash of global togetherness felt a lot like the kingdom of God.  Here we all were, brought together in this unexpected way, from all these diverse backgrounds and experiences and places, but together in solidarity for another living creature, in a way no one could have foreseen.  (Really, if you called the whole “raccoon climbs up an office building” then you need to go to Vegas.)  And that happens so rarely these days.  

When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he says that it comes suddenly, and unexpectedly—like a farmer who does the planting, sowing, weeding—then one day, when he’s not paying attention—bam!  It’s harvest time.  Or a mustard seed, that in some mysterious way grows from a tiny thing, into an enormous thing to shelter all the birds of the air.  He’s using a lot of metaphors, but there’s definitely some way in which we can prepare for the kingdom, and some way in which it is entirely beyond us.  That seems to be where he’s going with this.  We can do all the work in the world, but that will only get us partially there.  The rest is God’s doing, and that is up to God.  

What struck me as I was thinking on this sermon earlier this week is that there’s no announcement when the Kingdom arrives.  In both of these images Jesus presents to us, the final product grows organically from what has come before.  At no point is there a trumpet fanfare, and a voice from on high proclaiming, BEHOLD.  IT IS HERE NOW.  But in both examples, the growth is so incremental that you can really only see it in retrospect.  It arrives before you know it. So there is also a way in which the Kingdom sneaks up on us as well, perhaps.

In case you’re wondering, or trying hard not to wonder, the phrase Kingdom of God gets a TON of play in the gospels, but it’s a term of art—it means something very specific, which we don’t often actually define.  The kingdom of God was a phrase used in Judaism to mean when God decisively acted to rule events on earth.  It was a state of being—a thing that happened on and off, but also an occurrence that was understood to happen definitively once and for all at the end of time when the dead all arose, and God perfected the world, and all that.  So the kingdom of God both exists all the time—anytime God acts to rule events on earth, and exists in fullness at the end.  (This is not to say that in the meantime God is not entirely in charge, but the in the meantime, the human proclivity for sin keeps mucking things up.  Another sermon.) 

So, Jesus spends a lot of time, trying to explain this to disciples, so they know what it looks like when God is fully in charge of events on earth, because they have gotten used to other ways of being.  But if they know to recognize the kingdom, then they’ll know how to welcome it.  How to cooperate with it when it emerges.  

How will it look when God is fully in charge?  The last shall be first and the first, last.  How will it look when we’re all living under God’s reign?  The poor will be fed, the widow and orphan protected.  How will it look?  The meek will inherit the earth, the peacemakers will be blessed, the mournful will be joyful—the children will be cared for.  And love will be the order of the day.

Now—that’s all really great to say.  But as I stand here this morning, you and I both know that the world is a long way from this kingdom of God.  The world does not appear to be bringing forth any great harvest of righteousness—rather we appear to be salting our fields and burning whatever crops we had. 

This week, we didn’t only witness the exploits of a brave raccoon.  News also broke that between April 16 and May 31, nearly 2,000 children have been taken away from their parents, upon entry into the United States as a result of a new policy—this is all from the Associated Press, mind you.    These include children who fled here with their parents to seek asylum—which is perfectly legal—and those who were just caught at the border. 

Now–I am not so worried about which party came up with this policy.  I am not worried about whose fault this is.  I am not worried about who you voted for in the last election–this isn’t about that.  What I am worried about is that there are currently so many children in detention that a new tent city is being planned in Texas.  And what I am worried about is that on Thursday, the Attorney General defended the new policy, by saying that it was very Christian, indeed, biblical to do so.  He pointed to Romans 13:1 as justification.  

Setting aside for a moment that the Attorney General charged with safeguarding our justice system, and not our religious traditions, and so his biblical scholarship is perhaps not the strongest, a public figure did claim to be practicing a policy in the name of Christianity—and that’s us.  That’s you and me.  So no matter how you voted, no matter what you think of this present government, whether you like it or not, we, as Christians, better decide what we think about that.  Because now our name is in play.  

So how does Christianity feel about this?  Is what’s happening Christian?

There are people who take children away from their parents in the Bible—there are people who do nearly everything in the Bible, but there are definitely people who do this.  Namely, Pharaoh who ordered the death of the Hebrew boys, and Herod who ordered the death of the Jewish boys.  So this is quite biblical—but not in a positive way.

But more to the point: to be Christian is to seek the Kingdom of God on earth, to try to emulate the path of Christ in our lives and to prepare the way for God’s reign to break out among us.  

THERE. IS. NO. PART. of Christ’s life that suggests that he condoned hurting children.  None.  There is no part that suggests Christ sought draconian punishments for the law-breakers either.  

Instead, what we get is a Jesus who became a refugee himself fleeing one of those draconian leaders into a foreign land!  What we get is Jesus treated as a criminal, shamed, beaten, and killed by a law-following governor!  What we see in Jesus is someone who tells us, through his words and through his actions, and through his very being, that God is with the marginalized.  God is with the poor, the imprisoned, the scared child, the refugee, the person wanting a better life for their children—and if we want to find God, then that is where we need to be too.  

So if we want to find the Kingdom of God here on earth, if we want to prepare the way, and do our work and prepare for it to appear—if we want to plow the ground and till the soil and fertilize it and water it—then we need to be very clear about where God is.  We can’t expect God’s reign to be springing up in the courts of the powerful—if we spend our time preparing that ground, we’re bound for disappointment.  The kingdom will not burst forth in the halls of the rich and powerful.

No, our work here is to heed the cry of the suffering.  That is the ground we are called to.  And while we can’t eliminate injustice, and we can’t right all wrongs, and it isn’t our job to write government policy—but we can try.  We can do something.  We can pray, we can protest, we can call the powerful and pester them, we can send money and legal aid, we can vote—and we can keep our gaze fixed on where we know God will show up as we do our kingdom preparation.  

Because I don’t know how to solve all our immigration problems–I don’t know how to fix our laws, or write public policy, but what I do know?  I do know this: God is going to show up.  Sooner or later, when we least expect it, God is going to show up, and in that moment, the work we have done will make sense, and the God who cherishes the little children, and who makes the last, first, will bring the harvest of justice.  But until that day comes in its glory—it’s up to us to get plowing. 

Amen.

King of Pogs

I made a joke the other week that the only thing that has changed for my preaching during the Trump Administration has been that I can no longer write sermons prior to Fridays.  Nowadays, enough horror will occur later in the week that people need to hear it addressed.

This week, with the several high-profile suicides, was no different.  I wasn’t sure, however, how to talk about them in the sermon.  I found the advice for how to talk about this somewhat contradictory, and couldn’t quite see a clear way to discuss it.  And yet, in the process of writing the sermon, there it appeared anyway.

Sometimes life creeps in around the edges in spite of ourselves.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 10, 2018

Proper 5, Ordinary Time, Year B

1 Samuel 8

Do you remember Pogs?  They were a really big deal for about a split second in the mid 1990s.  I am not even sure what exactly they started out as, but when they were hitting their stride, they were little circles of cardboard, about the size of a large silver dollar, with different logos printed on them.  You played a game with them, the rules of which I don’t quite remember—I think the goal was to flip them over, then trade them?

But what I DO remember was that it was VERY Important in my childhood mind to own Pogs.  It was SO VITAL.  In the small economy of late elementary school, you were pressing your luck not to come equipped with a Trapper Keeper, or a 5 Star binder, but really, to not have Pogs was to court social disaster.  The thought of not having a plentiful supply of these cardboard discs to carry around (again—not clear on what you were supposed to do with them) was ALARMING.  Other kids had them, so I needed them—otherwise, how would I even talk to them????

Kids in my day loved cardboard circles.  I understand kids these days love….No, actually I don’t know what silly fad kids these days love.  Kids these days are probably over silly fads, and just want a sensible policy to combat climate change, and the hope of a job when they graduate.

But the human impulse to get the newest, shinest, toy just because someone else has it—that’s pretty ancient.  Our first reading this morning is one of my favorites because it is so very human.  The Israelites are pestering Samuel, the prophet, who in between last week’s reading and this week’s reading is all grown up and in charge of things.  And the Israelites really, REALLY, have decided they want a king.

Now, up until now, the Israelites have not had a king at all.  And this was sort of a big deal.  The understanding was that God alone was in charge of Israel, and there was a series of judges and prophets, who listened to God, and then interpreted that for the people.  But there was no king, per se, because in the ancient world of the time, kings were seen to hold absolute, and somewhat god-like power, and that would get in the way of God.  This was one of the important ways that Israel is different from the other nations—God rules Israel, while other gods didn’t care enough about their people to rule them—they sent humans to do it, and humans were constantly screwing things up.

The judges of Israel—like Deborah, and Gideon, and Barak, actually did pretty well. It was an unorthodox system, which relied heavily on whoever the high priest was at the time (which is why Samuel’s mentor got in trouble last week—he had not been holding up his end of the deal adequately.) But Israel was motoring along mostly fine—no major invasions, and no massive wars.  

Then, it somehow occurs to the gathered people of Israel in today’s periscope that you know what their problem is?  They don’t have a king,  And everyone else does.  

From then on, it really sounds like the sort of argument a tween would have with their exasperated parent.  “WE NEED A KING.  ALL THE COOL KIDS HAVE ONE.”  Ok, but you don’t really want a king.  Kings are bad news.  “NO, WE DO WANT ONE.” But a king is just going to enslave everyone, and take all your money in taxes and start a silly war.  Is that really what you want? “YES.  WE WANT A KING NOW PLEASE.” 

It’s evident that their argument to Samuel is based not on politics, or on how awesome Saul is, but on their growing consciousness that the other nations have something that they lack.  And this really bothers them.  If their God provides for them, as he keeps saying then why don’t they have this major thing everyone else does?

What we see at work here—not for the first time, and certainly not for the last time—is a growing insecurity among the people of God.  Those people over there have something and we want the Same Thing—regardless of whether the Different Thing God has provided for us is better, or more appropriate.  Because suddenly, what’s important is whether we can keep up with those other people, and less our relationship with God.  

Insecurity, this inner fear, is a driver of so much of human behavior.  We work harder because our neighbors do, we compete for the better job because we see others have it.  We want more and more money because we’re convinced that’s what we need to do.  And we do it all because somehow, we’re convinced that we are incomplete if we don’t have this one more thing.  This one new toy, this one bigger piece of the pie, this one larger mountain scaled.

It’s not that ambition is bad—ambition, when it’s aimed at serving the human race better and truer is good.  But when we allow that inner voice of fear drive us, then that’s a problem,.  Because insecurity also says “You can’t possibly have enough—so you can’t possibly share.” “Those people can’t possibly really love you if they knew you, so you can’t possibly help them.”  “Those people are probably all crooks and liars anyway, so you can’t possibly be kind to them.”  And most pernicious of all—“You cannot ever be enough as you are, so why be kind to yourself?” 

It is that root insecurity that drives so much of what we do, and often in really sad and tragic ways, as we saw this week. The thing was—Samuel was right!  Saul was a HORRIBLE king, and it basically took all of two seconds for Israel to figure that out, and to come back and complain about how horrible this king idea had been.  

Insecurity doesn’t tell the truth.  It lies.  That voice of fear?  Lies to us.  

The truth is we were created by a God who loves us entirely as we are, and roots us on everyday.  The truth is that this God has given us everything we need—if we have eyes to see it, and to share it appropriately.  The truth is that this God calls us and equips us to build a world where the voice of fear has no place.  

The church patriarchs liked to say that the original sin was pride—the pride of Adam caused him to eat the apple in the garden.  I’m inclined to think it was this insecurity and fear that has dogged us from the start.  But God, in Christ, has come to reassure us that we have enough, we are enough, and that there is nothing in the world, not even death, to be afraid of.  And in a world like that—so open, so abundant, and so full of love—who cares what other countries are doing?

All the cool kids quote Hafiz

I went to clergy conference this week, where my former liturgics professor was the keynote speaker.  There were two of his former students present, and we took joy in sharing with him the numerous times he lapsed into his trademark phrases: citing the pitfalls of the Enlightenment, name-dropping Lathrop, Kirsteva, and Kavenaugh, and warning us that any change to a prayer book rubric should come after, AT MINIMUM, a week of sleepless nights, as you pondered whether you, fallible human creature that you were, really knew better than the collected two millennia of Christian wisdom distilled in liturgical practice.  I was reminded of the joys of seminary (and despite the turmoil that has befallen that institution in recent years, I did enjoy seminary.)

It got me thinking about whatever tropes I have as a preacher (and I’m sure I have plenty.). One that I am aware of is that I preach a sermon on why We Should Be Nicer to Pharisees at least once a year.  This happens both because of my concern for decent scholarship in homiletics, and a reluctance to allow a vibrant religious movement within Second-Temple Judaism be the straw man for everything, and the nagging thought that beating up on the historic Pharisees is about two steps removed from beating up on actual Jewish people, if you know the history.

Anyway, herein is my now annual Be Nice To Pharisees Sermon.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 3, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 4

Mark 2:23—3:6

The 5th century Persian poet Hafiz has a poem wherein a stranger comes to him, asking for confirmation of these marvelous visions that he’s been having.  Are they true?  Are they really from God?  Hafiz asks him how many goats he has—the man is offended, but Hafiz insists.  62, replies the man.  Fine, and how many children?  Do you love your wife?  Are your parents still alive?  Do you feed the birds in winter?  The man answered all these questions, growing ever more frustrated, until finally Hafiz says “You asked me if your visions were true, and I would say that they were if they make you become more human, more kind to every creature and plant that you know.”

That’s a more poetic version of the gospel—straight from 5th century Persia!  Theres not much new under the sun, after all.  Because in the gospel, we see the same tension—Jesus’ disciples are being scolded for breaking off heads of grain, growing in a field, on the Sabbath—presumably because they’re hungry and haven’t eaten, and look—there’s a snack.  And this irks the Pharisees, who want to know why Jesus, a famous religious teacher, is allowing his disciples to be so neglectful as to ignore the basic laws of Sabbath observance.  Doesn’t he know any better?

The Pharisees are so easy to beat up on.  For centuries, they have made the perfect punching bag for preachers, and their name has come to be synonymous with uptight religious hypocrites everywhere.  They really don’t come off well in the gospels—especially here, where they greet Jesus’ healing by deciding he really had to die.  

But (and you knew there was a but coming, right?) as with all things, the Pharisees are more complicated.  They were something like a reform-minded political party in the Jewish landscape of the day.  Their central idea was that Jewish religious observance had become too centered around the Temple, its economy, and the priestly class that it supported…and whom, in turn, mostly supported Roman occupation.  If you were poor, or lived far away, there was almost no feasible way for you to participate in Jewish life, and the Pharisees thought this was unfair to you—God’s ways should be open to everyone.  Wasn’t that what the prophets said?  So they began emphasizing the rules of Jewish life that everyone could follow, so that everyone, no matter how rich, how poor, how young, or how old, could be included in the worship of God.  Washing hands, saying the daily prayers, observing the Sabbath rest, cleansing yourself after you touched something unclean (which in the country happened about every twenty minutes).  All of this wasn’t really a way to be obsessive—it was a way to allow everyone—no matter who you were—to find God.   There are so many similarities between what Jesus was preaching and what some of the other Pharasitical rabbis taught that some scholars think Jesus was an erstwhile Pharisee as well—which would explain the heated animosity on the few points where they disagreed.  Because no one punches my brother except for me.

When the Temple fell, in 70 CE—the center of Jewish life fell with it.  But it was the Pharisees who picked up the pieces, met together and rebuild Judaism into the rabbinic tradition that we see today.  Today’s rabbis are descendents of this movement that insisted that God’s laws needed to be open to everyone, not just the most special.  (which is ANOTHER reason the church needs to not slam the Pharisees too much.) 

All of this to say: The Pharisees aren’t wrong necessarily—the rules and guidelines they follow are, for them, a way to find God, and a way to show devotion to the Power that ordered the universe.  WHERE IT BECOMES A PROBLEM is when the means interfere with the end.

Those rules are intended to point humanity towards a Loving God.  To the extent that they do that, fantastic!  But to the extent that they are followed just to make the rule-follower feel more special than other people, that is no longer helpful.  To return to Hafiz—visions are meant to bring us closer to God.  If they make the receiver more humble, more connected, more loving and more devoted to the Ground of all Being, fantastic!  But if they only serve to make the receiver feel better than everyone else, then something has gone awry.

There’s a constant push-pull dynamic in the walk with faith, to make sure that the trappings of faith do not become our end, but faith itself.  That we don’t get caught up in the turns and twists in the path, but keep our gaze focussed on God alone.  It’s a delicate dance, because so often the things that attract us to the faith journey can later distract us if we let them.  it’s all a matter of balance.  The liturgy is beautiful, gives order and meaning to our prayers, connects us to generations that have gone before us.  The symbols we use speak volumes time and time again.  The very sense of calling to be a people of service, set apart from the world in order to serve it—all these things frequently draw us farther into our walk with Christ, and are good things.  And yet, if we let them fill our vision entirely, then they outgrow their purpose.

Because the purpose of all of this religious observance is to grow us into the creatures God intended us to be, and enable us to live in a reconciled creation with God.  Faith is meant to direct our focus away from itself, away from ourselves, towards God and God’s creation.  It is always outward facing—faith always points away from self–toward God and what God would have us care about.