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Don’t Blame the Sheep

The usual approach to the one lost sheep/the one lost coin is that the lost sheep is the metaphorical sinner who repents, and the shepherd who chases it is Jesus. Likewise the coin is the sinner, the woman, Jesus. (That last one isn’t preached much, though.)

However, I guess I’ve been reading too much AJ Levine, because when I read the stories this time, that just didn’t click for me. Sheep don’t just wander off; the shepherd’s ONE JOB is to make sure the sheep don’t do that. Similarly, it’s not like coins have all that much agency.

Given the rise of “Cancel-Culture” and the #metoo movement, a lot of conversation today hinges on wrongdoing, and how we as a culture address sin, repentance and forgiveness. Do we allow someone back into public life if they express appropriate remorse? What does that look like? What else should be required? Should they just go away forever if their sin was bad enough? Is the passage of time, alone, enough to allow them back into positions of power, or public life? (Think of the repeated “That was twenty years ago!” excuse that gets trotted out for people like Weinstein, Kavanaugh, etc.)

This was my stab at what probably could be a whole discourse on why Christian theology on forgiveness needs to be much, much deeper and more serious, especially now.

But, it’s a sermon, and those pews are only so comfortable.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

September 15, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 19, Year C

Luke 15:1-10

  • These gospel stories are very familiar.  And their interpretations are likewise familiar.
  • 99 sheep, one gets lost, shepherd goes to find the one lost sheep.  Poor lost, little sheep, wandering away.  Widow has one coin, it gets lost, so she goes all out to find it, then rejoices greatly when she finds it,
  • The notion of the one lost sheep is really familiar.  
  • Of course this is a parable, so whatever is familiar is probably wrong, because that’s the point of parables.
  • Amy-Jill Levine points out that no smart shepherd is going to leave 99 sheep to fend for themselves.  
  • But also?  Let’s work within Luke’s framing for a second.
    • Why do we assume that the sheep-person needs to repent?  
    • What was the shepherd doing that he lost a sheep?
    • And how was the widow so careless that she misplaced her ONE coin.  (Lady, you had ONE job.)
    • perhaps these stories are not about the sad little lost sheep in need of repentance, but the Shepherd, and the widow.  
    • Perhaps these stories are about what repentance and amendment of life look like in practice.
  • because forgiveness, repentence—these are sticky subjects.  We can struggle with them.
  • There’s a common sort of idea that forgiveness, when granted, is like a magic spell.  It erases the wrongdoing of the past entirely, so when you forgive someone, it means you’ve hit the reset button.  Everything goes back as it was.
  • That’s not forgiveness, that’s time travel.  
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean adopting an attitude of willful denial—it means finding a way to reconstruct something new to move into greater wholeness.  
  • And there are two pieces of that: First, you have to RE-Construct what was broken.  Then, you have to Move to Greater Wholeness.
  • if you have done something you realize is wrong, something you realize has hurt someone or many someones, then you need to make amends for that.  
  • You need to fix that which has been broken in some why.  
  • The shepherd here heads out and turns over every rock and stone to find that one missing sheep that he let wander off some how.
  • The widow burns all her oil in order to find her one coin that she lost.  
  • Finding forgiveness means you have to make amends—and there are times when it may not be possible to make amends to the person you have injured.  But you can make amends going forward.  For those of us who live as beneficiaries of white privilege, whose families achieved wealth and stability through the forced labor of those we enslaved, we have a moral obligation to make amends for that sin going forward.  I cannot go back in time and free my ancestors’ slaves.  I can consider that legacy, vote wisely, and make reparations now.  
  • But you need to make amends somehow.  Do something that acknowledges and takes steps to repair the brokenness.
  • And—move to greater wholeness.  
  • This varies from situation to situation.  Sometimes that means the relationship can be restored, after a fashion.  Sometimes it means the relationship is transformed and is more distant, because that will enable more to health.  Sometimes, finding forgiveness means that the relationship that was, has to die, so that everyone can find new life.  
  • But the goal of forgiveness, is to enable everyone to move to the wholeness Christ intends for us: for the person who did wrong not to be forever trapped by it, and for the wronged person not to be consumed by it either.  
  • Moving into wholeness, making amends, enables that to happen.  But when we exchange forgiveness for a shallow idea of resetting, or remaining trapped where we are, where we “just have to let it go” then we don’t find wholeness or a life more abundant.  
  • The truth is, sin is inevitable.  We all do it.  We all mess up ALL THE TIME.  
  • Even when we try not to, we sin.  We create brokenness in this world.  
  • But Christ assures us that our brokenness is not the end of the world (literally) by empowering us to make amends and to move forward.  
  • We can’t endlessly beat ourselves up when we fall short—we sin, because we’re human.  But we can seek forgiveness, we can chase after the new life Christ promises us.  
  • Because when we do that, we can escape the cycle of guilt, shame, and denial that shallow reset-forgiveness promises.  
  • Christ wants for us the deep joy of being human—the deep joy of a baby learning to walk, and not afraid to fall down, because getting up and trying again is an expected part of the process.  
  • That’s us—that’s how we do it.  And when we do, Jesus is right there, waiting to catch our hands, and help us take our next steps forward.

Amen. 

And then that. Plus mugs

So, about two weeks ago, my husband was walking home from work and got hit a tad bit by a car.

I realize this sounds very traumatic and awful, and really, it was not great at all–however, now that we are on the other side of a stitched-up ear, and an ankle surgery, things are calming down. All told, we were extremely lucky.***

However, that whole Spouse-Gets-Hit-By-Car thing did put a crimp in my sermons for a minute. I wrote the last two in bullet-point form because I thought to myself “There’s no way that I can make actual, thought out sentences at present.”

Then, uh….many complete sentences resulted.

Please enjoy.

***Protip: Do not get hit by a car. Also, do not hit a person with your car. Basics, mes amis.

***Also, I should add: everyone has been amazing and incredibly supportive. The congregation, the bishop, the diocesan staff–everyone. If you have to deal with something like this, then I’d advise you to clone all my people, and borrow them before you do.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

Sept 8, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 18

Luke 14, Philemon

  • A few months ago, I discovered a subgenre of Etsy shops that I hadn’t known existed.  Etsy, of course, is a huge website where you can find basically everything handmade for sale.  
  • So I was poking around through the assorted “Inspirational Sayings” section—the section where you can find the same 5 Bible verses in brush-script printed on mugs, journals, wall hangings, t-shirts, wine glasses, etc.  Stuff like “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord” from Jeremiah, or “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” in Philippians, or some part of Proverbs 31, about the perfect woman, or just “Believe!” or “Faith!” or “Hope!” That sort of stuff.
  • I’m not knocking this—there have been times in my life when I’ve been struggling, and I found that keeping a verse that I found meaningful around was just what I needed.  That being said, Christianity is a LOT more than writing “believe!” on a coffee mug.  And sometimes this stuff strays into the performative arena.  
  • When, lo and behold, I came across a Qu’ranic verse in the exact same brush script lettering!  
  • I have rarely been more excited.  YES.  Apparently, this desire to condense an entire vast religious tradition down into the Pumpkin-Spice Latte-version of signifiers is universal!
  • So, if you want, you too can buy a mug that says “Fiqr, coffee, then the day”—a reference to early morning prayer.  Or a wall hanging that reminds you that Allah is surely with the patient, or to say Thanks be to God in all things.  (seriously, it’s so great.)
  • My point here is that the tendency to shrink down our religious traditions to nice, safe packages that don’t demand too much of us is pretty across the board.  
  • And in that context— This gospel is a bit off message?  It probably won’t be on a mug any time soon.  “Hate your father and mother” surrounded by flowers.  
  • Because a lot of popular Christianity, the high-selling, Hallmark, brush script kind, tends to rely on the assumption that Christianity is family-friendly!  Not, family-hating, I guess.
  • Remember, Jesus here has just left his fancy dinner with the Pharisees, that we saw last week.
  • So, part of what he is saying is to reset expectations for the folks in the crowd who have only been with him since he has enjoyed such rich friends.  “no—this way of life isn’t the best way to win friends and influence people.” 
  • But it’s also a very blunt statement of priorities.  The term translated as “hate” here doesn’t quite have the feelings-heavy connotation we hear in English.  Jesus isn’t quite asking his followers to become furious with their families.
  • The other place this verb is used is when he points out that you can’t serve two masters—you either love one and hate the other, or vice versa.  So you can’t serve God and money.  
  • The connotation here is one of priorities, of where your first loyalty lies.  You cannot have your family ties as your priority over God and be a disciple of Jesus.
  • How’s THAT for family values?  
  • To be a disciple of Jesus means to have that come first.  To order the entirety of your life according to the reign of God.  
    • and the reason Jesus is reminding people to count the cost is because frankly, that’s a lot!  
    • it’s uncomfortable, and weird, and people yell at you sometimes.
    • Occasionally, you end up, like the disciples, wandering about in the wilderness following a homeless rabbi for three years instead of inheriting the family fishing business
    • Sometimes you get a very heavy guilt-trip in letter form from Paul telling you to free your slave Onesimus, whom you just located again after he ran off.
    • Sometimes you open a laundry in your church basement.  
    • Weird stuff happens, is my point.
  • and the breadth of that cannot be explained or captured in a mug slogan.
  • In fact, those mug slogans are deceptive.  Because when Jeremiah says “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to hurt you” God is saying that as the Israelites are being led into exile in Babylon.  It’s a note of comfort, but it’s also saying “Don’t worry—your descendants will be fine.  You should get comfortable however.”
  • Philippians, when Paul talks about getting strength in Christ, he’s writing from prison.  Christ is giving him strength to bear up under imprisonment for preaching the gospel.  
  • And Proverbs?  That’s literally designed to be a trite piece of wisdom.  It’s from a tradition where young men would learn to be wise by copying pithy sayings.  It was intentionally a pithy saying.
  • Jesus informing us that we need to hate our families, and consider well how much this will cost may worry us, but it’s just that Jesus doesn’t want us to settle for a pat, slogan sort of faith.
  • Christ invites us into a faith that will transform every part of our lives, including the relationships we have with our nearest and dearest.  Christ offers us not worn-out sayings that fall short, but an ongoing, transformative way of life that deepens and changes as we grow, that keeps up with us as we face the trials of life.
  • So, don’t hate your family and don’t put your faith in a mug.  Instead, concentrate on the God who can fill your whole world with new abundant life.  That is what will save us.

Amen. 

Bedbugs and fancy parties

This sermon was inspired by two things, or rather two people: Bret Stephens and Rev. Dr. Mitzi Smith. (Aside from both being beloved children of God, there’s not a lot of overlap on their respective Venn diagrams.).

This week, Bret Stephens threw an unholy temper tantrum because a random GW professor compared the bedbug infestation in the NY Times to him, metaphorically. Stephens emailed the guy personally, demanding an apology, and emailed the guy’s boss, demanding he be fired. The power analysis here will make your head spin: nationally syndicated NYT opinion columnist, vs guy with 100 Twitter followers, who didn’t even tag Stephens in the tweet.***

So I was pondering that, as I read Prof. Smith’s commentary on this week’s gospel, where she does a power analysis that I hadn’t considered. Jesus, when he goes to the Pharisee’s house for dinner, is invited because he is considered a VIP–the first-century equivalent of a NYT op-ed columnist. He’s impressive! He has Thoughts! His opinions should be listened to! And he basically pulls a reverse-Bret Stephens.

Here’s what I said.

***And not for nothing, but if I took the time to track down and threaten everyone who ever yelled at me online, I wouldn’t have time to sleep. Or eat. Much less do my actual job. Mr. Stephens, have you considered a more fruitful hobby? I understand the Nintendo Switch is a lovely gaming console! Invest, good sir!!

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

September 1, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 17

Luke

The internet is a great place to find people acting badly.  It’s like an archive of horrible human behavior.  In times past, I suppose that petty behavior went largely unremarked upon—now there are entire websites devoted to People Acting Badly in Restaurants, or People Being Mean to Retail Workers, or Entitled Interactions that Happen on CraigsList.

I used to work retail, when I was in high school, and college.  I survived working at a discount department store, even working returns on the day after Christmas.  I survived working at a dry cleaners.  People, when they so desire, can be horrendous.  I had a woman cordially threaten me that if I personally failed to launder her t-shirts and blue jeans to her specifications, then she would hunt me and my first-born down with dogs.  Sadly, this was pre-internet, so I could not share this experience widely.  

This sense of entitlement—that we are Special People, thus entitled to Particular Things, often results in some really extraordinary behavior.  The sort of behavior that ends up on viral videos.  And Jesus, as usual, has some things to say about it.

In this gospel story, Jesus is going for dinner at the house of a Pharisee.  Remember, the Pharisees are a whole political-religious party.  And Jesus had a lot in common with them.  So while Jesus was just in an argument with them last week, at other times, he’s hanging out with them, and they are helping each other.  It’s a complicated relationship.  

So here, he’s at their house for dinner, and he’s decided to use the opportunity to do some teaching.  (…this is probably why he isn’t invited to many dinner parties.  it’s like going to a dinner party with a psychiatrist and having them offer analysis of all the guests.)  

Jesus points out that figuring out the order for seating is very awkward.  At formal dinner parties back then, like in many other cultures, people sat in particular places based on how important they were.  (We still have remnants of this. Think about the convention of the father sitting at the head of the table and the mother at the foot.)  

If you’re smart, says Jesus, you’ll sit as low as you can manage, so the host will correct you, and move you up higher.  That won’t be embarrassing at all—whereas if you decide your seat should be up higher, and the host has to move you lower, it will be excruciating.  

Likewise, when you throw a party, only invite people who absolutely cannot invite you in return. Invite the poor, the disabled, the excluded—in other words, Invite only people who cannot do you any networking favors, who can give you no social capital.  That is what makes a solid dinner party, says Jesus.  

Remember where Jesus is standing as he’s saying this.  There’s a slight edge in this, given where he is.  He himself is at a dinner party, thrown by An Important Person.  So Jesus essentially is informing his host—hey, you’re doing parties wrong!  You thought you could invite me and get something out of it, but really, you should have invited poor people!  

It might be counterintuitive, but Jesus here is in a position of power.  As Prof Mitzi Smith observes, Jesus to this point, has been recognized as having some authority.  He heals, he teaches, he has been consulted on various matters.  He is popular with the crowds—he has been invited to this important person’s house because of his reputation as a rabbi and holy man (also, there’s what we know about him being the Son of God.) But the Pharisee and the others at this party have given him a measure of power.

And he chooses to spend it here on behalf of upending their social hierarchy.  He uses it on behalf of those not at the party.  It’s a subtle turn that’s instructive.  

Because what would have happened had Jesus shown up to the fancy party, be flattered he was asked by the important people, and begin to feel that such flattery was his due?  Of course—who doesn’t like fancy dinners!  Do that for long enough and you begin to maybe feel entitled….But by turning the tables on his hosts—politely!  gracefully!—Jesus avoids that path, and advocates for those without what he has been given.

Entitlement assumes a hierarchy of people.  I should get this because I am better than you, so you should give it to me.  What Jesus calls us to is to recognize that we aren’t entitled to anything.  Both because the hierarchies that enforce entitlement don’t exist in God’s sight, and because what we have: the momentary power we might have, the wealth, the prestige, the privileges, all of it, have been given to us only so that we can use them to bless others.  

Because we are all children of God, each and every one of us, we are all deserving of basic respect, dignity, and the ability to flourish.  But we don’t deserve that at the expense of another child of God, because they deserve it too—just as much as we do.  Entitlement insists that my needs supercede yours.  Jesus reminds us that whatever I have, is to be used for our benefit, together, as equal images of the divine.

 That change in our frame of reference can make a big difference in how we approach the world around us.  Now, all we have, all that we do, is an opportunity to build up the world, and the people around us. Running to get coffee?  How can you take this opportunity to make the barista’s day a bit better?  Stopping for groceries?  What can you do to ensure the people you encounter and the workers you deal with are better off for having encountered you?  

All we have in this life, and indeed, our life itself, has been given to us. Poured into our hands like a free gift.  Christ asks us to use everything we have to build up each other, and this world, and to trust that others will build us up as well.  Because we aren’t entitled to this life—God graciously gives us life, and so much more.  And it is our great adventure to join with God in using all we have been given to continue the great work of God’s redemption of the world.

Amen.

Peace which is no peace

There’s a hymn we sing occasionally–They Cast Their Nets In Galilee. As a child, it struck me as incredibly dark and depressing. The text goes:

They cast their nets in Galilee
Just off the hills of brown
Such happy, simple fisherfolk
Before the Lord came down…

It goes on to detail how every nice fisherman ends up graphically martyred at the hands of the Romans, for a whole verse, while you sing to this lovely, lilting tune. How morbid! TeenMegan thought, Why in the world would we put this in the hymnal?!

Then I spent a summer living and working with Palestinian Christians, came home, was an emotional wreck, and heard the hymn again. “Oh my Lord, that is the most accurate description of the Christian life EVER”.

The final stanza says:
The peace of God,
it is no peace,
but strife closed in the sod.
Yet let us pray for but one thing–
the marvelous peace of God.

Here’s what I said on “strife closed in the sod” Sunday.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

August 18, 2019

Ordinary Time, Year C, Proper 15

Luke 12: 49-56

Occasionally, I like to imagine the chaos that would unfold if Jesus returned today.  Particularly, I like to imagine the headache that would be involved in being Jesus’s PR advisor.  Counseling him on how to shrink down his teachings for Twitter, how to hang out with the most select group of people, how to be popular and suave and make good appearances on the late-night-talk shows.  And all the while, Jesus is relentlessly telling inscrutable parables, hanging out with illiterate smelly rowdy fishermen and mouthy women, and frustrating the heck out of everyone.  (though—this would probably be a really great SNL sketch premise.) 

This section of the gospel sounds very-unJesusy.  It’s not the kindly Good Shepherd we’re used to—its the Jesus in the Temple and throwing over tables, and chastising the other Pharisees.  This is the Jesus that it’s hard to book on the morning talk shows, because this Jesus clearly cannot stick to our beloved “both sides” narrative.

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it was kindled!” “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth!  No, I tell you— I have not come to bring peace, but division!”

This Jesus will not get invited back to Anderson Cooper.  

On the one hand, Jesus is explaining to the disciples here something that has happened.  It is a descriptive statement, more than a proscriptive.  For the disciples, yes—Jesus didn’t exactly make their lives more peaceful.  He turned them upside down.  He caused Peter and Andrew to abandon the family fishing business, and James and John to frustrate their mother when Jesus told her that greatness was not what she envisioned.  Most of the disciples did not live long and happy lives—they were martyred at some point.  Division was the natural result of what Jesus did.  So, in one sense, he is describing what the disciples had already experienced, and what the early church that Luke was writing to had also experienced.

But also, Jesus is pointing to a deeper truth—one that we sometimes have trouble hearing in our “both sides” world.  Sometimes, conflict is needed.  Sometimes, conflict can bring us closer to God.  That may seem counterintuitive, especially right now, when conflict is all around us, and it feels like people are yelling day and night. But I think Jesus is reminding us that pursuing God’s reign will stir up conflict, and that we shouldn’t fear that.  

Because too often, especially as Church, we prioritize peace and calm over the Reign of God.  We confuse the silence of no one objecting with the peace that passes all understanding that Jesus promises.  But all too frequently, in this world, that sort of silence is made from people not being free to speak—and not from actual agreement.  It is not the peace of justice, and it is not a peace we can be comfortable with.  

But when we make it our goal—when we make our goal keeping everyone happy and comfortable and quiet, rather than pursuing justice, love, and mercy—those things that Jesus taught us, then we fall far short of the Kingdom, and we fall short of what God wants for us.

During the Civil War—every American Protestant denomination split in two in this country.  At least in two.  Over the issue of slavery.  The debate over whether it was permissible in God’s sight to own another human being was so divisive that every church—Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Moravian, you name it—had it out, fought long and hard, and ultimately, split apart.  Except for us.

The Episcopal Church, alone of all the non-Catholic American churches, didn’t split.  The Southern dioceses left, during succession, but they trickled back, and were readmitted as if nothing had happened.  Each time General Convention tried to discuss the morality of slavery, the issue was tabled as too divisive, too painful.  We had bishops who served as generals in the Confederate Army, after all.  

The legacy of that today, is that we alone never made a statement against slavery as a church. We maintained our unity and our peace as a church, but that was bought by ignoring the humanity of our enslaved brothers and sisters, and our complicity in this sinful system.  We bought peace through sin.  

I don’t know if we would have stayed unified had we debated slavery.  We have a much higher ecclesiology than other Protestant churches, so it’s difficult to say.  And also, unity is a good unto itself as well—I don’t mean to pretend it’s not.  

But I do know that when following Jesus, we cannot be afraid of conflict.  We cannot build God’s kingdom upon oppression, and when we pursue the path of justice and true peace, conflict will naturally come with it. While Jesus commands us to love one another, that command means we have to all love one another, we have to will the flourishing of everyone.  

That commitment will mean we have to pick sides—not red or blue, not Republican or Democrat, but the side of humanity versus the forces who would tear it down.  The side of life versus the forces of death.  The side of the weak versus the powerful.  The side of the oppressed versus the oppressor.  Neutrality, and sitting on the fence, does not bring about the kingdom.  All it does is achieve silence, and call it peace.

If we want the peace that Christ promises, the peace that passes all understanding, the peace which the world cannot give—that was the other thing he said—then we have to be brave, and willing to rock the boat a bit.  Choose sides.  Brave conflict for the sake of the gospel.  Because whenever we wade into the struggle, siding with the poor and the marginalized, the helpless and the victim, there we shall find the Jesus who caused so much conflict as to be put to death by an empire.  There we shall find the God who became human so we would never be alone in our struggles.  When we side with the powerless, there, we will find our peace, and there, we will find the Kingdom.  

Amen

We need new problems

Last week, I informed my husband on Saturday night that I loathed my sermon, so he should prepare himself. There was nothing especially awful about it–and I have extreme perfectionism when it comes to preaching, so I quietly think most of what I could preach could be much, much better, but on this occasion, I really was not feeling it.

It was a combination, I think, of being confronted again with more mass shootings, more religious hypocrisy in the public square, more stoking of bigotry and hatred by our leaders–more more more. And both the prophet Isaiah and I were feeling exhausted by the whole thing. I had just held forth on American idolatry last week; I didn’t want to wade back in there again.

Preaching, for most people, including myself, is sometimes an exercise in telling yourself what you need to hear in that moment. (It helps to realize you’re doing this, so you don’t end up preaching about how much God loves people who stop showing up to work, or something equally destructive. Sometimes, you don’t need to preach a sermon; what you need is therapy.)

Anyway, I decided to preach about finding hope in the midst of apparent garbage fires. (Then the Holy Spirit absconded with the last page of my manuscript, so I had to preach on the fly.)

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan Castellan

August 11, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 14

Luke 

Karl Barth once said that in order to be a good Christian, you have to always have the Bible in one hand, and the morning paper in the other.  The same advice is usually given to preachers, and some weeks, the lectionary makes that easier than others.

This week, Isaiah reads like the prophet has been watching CNN along with us, and providing commentary.  “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;  your hands are full of blood.”  I guess the prophet was not a fan of “thoughts and prayers” either.  He goes on to implore the people to “cease to do evil, learn to do good.  Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”  Do the actual thing.  Seek justice. 

We can hear Isaiah’s anguish through the centuries as he surveys the injustice that surrounded him because it is not all that unfamiliar to us.  A well-established religion whose speakers, comfortable in the halls of power, claimed that so long as the people prayed enough, so long as the king gave enough lip service, than God was going to bless the kingdom with safety.  God was fine with whatever, they assured everyone!  Just keep praying the way we want you to.  

But as it turns out, God cares very much for justice.  And God cares very much about the lives of all God’s children.  When lsaiah refers to the rulers of Sodom, and the people of Gomorrah, that’s what he’s talking about.

Contrary to probably everything you’ve heard, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah in the actual scripture story, in Genesis is not a particular type of sex.  (That notion begins to crop up in the Middle Ages.)  But within the Bible itself, the prophets tell us that the problem of Sodom is that the city was horribly unjust.  And also, within the story itself. the people of Sodom fail to extend hospitality to strangers. That was their big problem.  They are inhospitable to newcomers.  Lot does—and Lot gets saved.  

But what we know about Sodom is that the inhabitants have grown rich through an unjust system, and through being pretty mean to each other.  Which is why Isaiah references them here as a warning.  Don’t be like Sodom!  Sodom was awful and mean.  Be better.

Now, all this may not feel all that edifying.  The information that the world has basically always been dramatically awful, such that prophets have been yelling about it for millennia, may not fill your heart with Christian hope.  

That’s where the gospel comes in.  

The gospel is a bit odd, in that Jesus is trying to give the disciples a pep talk, and he throws in a parable-that-doesnt-sound-like-a-parable.  And all of a sudden, he shifts from “everything is going to be fine, God will take care of you” to “stay alert, because PEOPLE WILL STEAL YOUR STUFF.”  

Jesus is good at being Jesus, bad at being a HS football coach with the pep talks.  Because he’s talking about something different than just “everything will be ok.”  There’s a parable in the middle here, which means there’s a twist of some kind.

“God is overjoyed to give you the kingdom,” Jesus says.  Great! This is exciting!  Good news.  “Be like slaves who are ready for their master to come home.”  “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.”  

And there it is—nope,  no one would do that.  That is not a thing.  

For slaves to stay awake to greet their master would not have been congratulated—that was the minimum of their job.  And the master would DEFINITELY not have made them all sit down to serve them.  

But that sort of reversal would happen in the Reign of God. That sort of thing happens all the time, where the last is first, and the first last, and the hungry fed, and the mighty thrown down.  Jesus talks about it a lot.  

Jesus is saying here to stay watching, because there are signs of the kingdom breaking through all around us.  Even as the world continues to struggle with injustice and oppression and wrongdoing, even as we suffer with our brokenness and sin, even as our prophets continue to cry out like Isaiah—there are signs of God’s incoming redemption around us, if we are alert and able to see.  Signs of God’s reign are at hand to encourage us, even when it seems like the new day will never come.  Surprising signs of that ultimate resurrection reversal await our gaze.  We just have to find them. 

All around us, in ways large and small, God is working God’s purpose out. The creation is being renewed. People are making amends and changing their lives. Enemies are being reconciled. People are loving one another and caring for one another across the divisions our world sets up. And early on a Sunday morning, all these people come together to find God, just because they want something greater in their lives.

There is hope, when we learn to look for it. When we learn to be alert, and prepared. The reign of God breaks in all around us–little pinpricks of light shining in the midst of the storm, lighting our way to the dawn of a new world coming, slowly but surely.

Amen.


In which we discuss idolatry

I had already pondered doing a deep dive into idolatry at some point, because I had mentioned it in passing last week. I don’t like leaving the idea in people’s minds that some issue or another is a problem just for the ancient Israelites–the whole point of the Hebrew Bible is that all their issues are really ours, too. (except perhaps for the constant worry about leprosy.) So, idolatry it would be!

Then, America did what America does best–let violent young white men kill a whole bunch of people all at once with military weapons in a civilian setting. Not once, but twice in a 13 hour period. Because America can do almost anything, but one thing we can never seem to manage is how to limit access to guns.

I walked into church on Sunday morning, feeling somewhere between “Burn it all down” and “I will turn this car around RIGHT NOW”. Had I been at all convinced the parish would have gone for it, I would have just yelled in inarticulate rage and frustration for 10 minutes, rather than actually preach. But, my people are demanding, and ask for things like subject-verb agreement, and actual words.

And looking out at them, right before I preach, I found my sense of hope, yet again. All these different faces, from all over the world, wrestling with so many different things, sitting together doing something rather subversive. Listening and longing for a better way, a better world. Pledging loyalty to a God who came to be the least of these, in order to subvert the power of death forever.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

August 4, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 13

Luke

[Joke about the kid in Sunday School—the answer is always Jesus.  Actually—it’s always idolatry. ]

Of course, the REASON prophets were always complaining about idolatry is that it’s commonplace.  The Israelites were constantly falling back into idolatry.  It was basically a national pastime.

Part of what was happening was context.  The Israelites were always a religious minority.  Monotheism (or, various variations on it) was never dominant, so the Israelites were always living among Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, all of whom who worshipped many gods.  So, for many many people, it periodically seems like a great way to get along with your Assyrian boss to make a nice sacrifice to the high place while you’re en route to the Temple, or to cover your bases while you’re waiting for the harvest, to pour out some nice oil at the sacred trees.  It just was a thing and everyone was doing it.

The OTHER reason idolatry was so common is because it’s a human impulse.  Idolatry isn’t just worshipping a statue instead of God—it’s placing any created thing in place of God.  Whether that be a government, a system of belief, a particular thing, or ourselves.  Human beings really enjoy idolatry.  We do it all the time.  It is basically our favorite hobby.

In the gospel story, Jesus is telling this story about a rich man, who dies, and has to leave all his worldly goods to someone else.  That, in and of itself, probably doesn’t seem odd to us.  But to Jesus’ first audience, there are a few things that would have sounded odd.  

For starters, no trustworthy person in the gospels talks to themselves.  That’s not a thing people did.  Interiority, having an interior monologue,  wasn’t really a concept that takes off until the Enlightenment.  If you wanted to talk, you did it with other people, because there were always other people.   When all you had to talk to was yourself, the understanding was that you were doing something wrong, because to be a good person, you maintained right relationships with other people, and God.  To be cut off from both, such that you didn’t consult them, was problematic.

So, when the rich man consults only himself about what to do with his excess, that’s a big signal that something is really wrong.  Why doesn’t he ask his neighbors, his family?  Why does he only ask himself what to do?

It shouldn’t perhaps be surprising then that his self then recommends he stockpile his goods rather than any other option.  We don’t hear about what else he could do—raise the wages of his workers, leave more to be gleaned by the poor, be more generous to the town’s impoverished.  Because he hasn’t thought about the community around him, he doesn’t think of them now.  He consults himself, and decides to keep his new wealth for himself.  But, of course, this situation can’t last forever, and indeed, God intervenes, and reminds him that whether or not he wishes it, he cannot stand alone as the center of the universe.

The rich man seems to be trying hard to idolize himself.  To live in such a way as to keep himself, and his needs at the absolute center of the universe.  He doesn’t speak as if he is thankful to anyone for his windfall, he doesn’t act as if he wants to repay anyone or if he might want to bless anyone with his resources.  To hear him tell it, no one else really exists.

The continual challenge of the life of faith is to keep God at the center of our lives, and not give into the temptation to put other things there.  Other things that offer us what we want, and promise that it will be quicker, easier, cheaper, this way.  Because it is so easy, and it is so tempting—and it also becomes difficult to find the line sometimes.  it’s all a matter of degrees.

See, it is perfectly fine for that rich man to say “You know, I am so thankful I have enough to get through winter this year.  And I have had my eye on a new front door—so let me get one of those.  But I am also aware that my workers contributed to this bounty for me, so let me reward them accordingly.”

What idolatry does not allow for is competing interests.  What makes something cross over into idolatry is when we can no longer allow that other things might also be good; other claims, even when they compete, might also be valuable and true—because THIS ONE THING must not be questioned or taken away from.  And that is dangerous.  It is that sort of blinded vision that gets us as humans into trouble.

So much of what is plaguing us right now can be traced back to creating idols of one type or another.  The human rights crisis on the southern border, can be called instead idolatry of a common notion of America. Rampant inequality can be called idolatry of money.  

But where we see it most clearly, I think, with yet another mass shooting, we have to face again our country’s idolatry of guns.  Here is this thing—made of metal, of human hands, from a factory, that symbolizes so much in our culture.  For many it promises safety, and freedom from fear, and freedom from tyranny, and independence.  For so long, so much meaning has been poured into this object, that even though we are watching a staggering death toll every year, even though children go to school and practice hiding from gunmen, even though I receive emails about once a month asking what I will do in case a shooter ever enters my sanctuary during service, which I know is a real threat—even as we watch the death toll rise—we do nothing that would compromise the power of this one object.   We are in its thrall, for all that it promises.  

But all idols lie.  All idols lie.  Guns cannot provide what they promise.  They cannot provide us perfect security.  They cannot provide us freedom from the fear of death.  They cannot provide us a life without worry.  Only God can do that.  And God asks us to put God first—and not to kill.  

Because when the living God is at the center of our lives—then everything changes, because we are forced to contend with the One who is continually out of reach of all of our images and idols.  God will always force us to confront our ideas about God, and reckon with how they fall short.  When we keep God at the center, it allows us to extend generosity and love to all the other competing claims in our lives, because God reminds us that with God, we prioritize not a thing. not an idea, and not an image, but a being that surpasses all our human minds can fathom.  Prioritizing God causes us to always expand our vision, and our sense of what is possible, good, true and holy—not to narrow it.  Prioritizing God causes us to embrace the rest of creation, as we flourish too. 

God asks us to open up our vision, to let go our grasp on the idols that we’ve been clutching closely.  The ideas and the images and the things that do not allow us to let in all God has in store for us.  Open up your grasp, and let God shake things up a bit.  

Amen.

“It’s always whoredom.”

The EFM class at my parish has a running joke about this passage. It’s one of those readings that makes parents silently wish that they had NOT taken their children to get a nice dose of religion this morning. And it’s one of those that makes me squirm when I read it, because the patriarchy is particularly strong with most readings of the text.

But this time, I read it and thought “This sounds like a job for Dr. Wil Gafney–she must have written on this.” And lo, it was so. Her sermon on Gomer is a big influence on what I said, and if you haven’t read it, you should.

I’ll wait.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

July 28, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 12

Hosea and Luke

At my last parish, we had a fervent lay reader with an extremely thick Mississippi accent.  And on the day that this OT lesson was assigned, she had volunteered to sub for the assigned reader, and I thought it best to give her a heads-up, lest she be taken by surprise by the contents of what she was about to read.  No worries, she assured me—these were her favorites!  

And sure enough, she imbued the reading with enough enthusiasm and emphasis as to make one think that Foghorn Leghorn had found religion, and also to provoke many awkward questions in Sunday School. 

So, in the interests of forestalling whatever awkward questions you might face later, let’s discuss old Hosea.  

WHAT.  ON.  EARTH.

Let’s start with some context, because there’s a LOT going on here.  Hosea, so far as well can tell, is one of the 8th century BCE prophets, (there were a whole group of them.)  He, in particular, was preaching in the Northern Kingdom, after Elijah and Elisha had sauntered off to glory, and the united Kingdom had split.

Israel (up north, recall), was on the verge of being conquered by the Assyrian Empire.  It’s looking bad.  Hosea, personally, is concerned that the leaders of the kingdom are not faithfully adhering to God’s law and ways of justice, which will lead to the collapse of the kingdom.  As per usual, the Israelites had wandered off again from worshipping God alone, and had started setting up shrines to other gods, and getting away with the low-level idolatry that other people did—the same sorts of things that everyone back to the time of Abraham had been concerned about.  

So, this is where we pick up.

Now:  the metaphor of marital infidelity being used for religious infidelity was extremely common. It is found all through the prophets and the rest of the Hebrew Bible.  Because Judaism understood God to have created a legal covenant with Israel, the nearest analogy for people to grasp was generally a marriage covenant—also legal, also a contract, also (in those times) an unequal balance of power.

Hence, the descriptors of Israel being the unfaithful woman, and God being the cheated on spouse with the sole discretion to divorce her would have made sense.

Also, one of the ways prophets sometimes made their point was by engaging in symbolic acts.  Ezekiel, later on, will do the same thing.  He wanders about wearing dirty clothes, and eating bread cooked over a fire made of human dung. (Which, he argues down to cow dung, because ew.)   Hosea, though, goes to a new level in roping other people into this.  We are not told what, exactly Gomer and the kids thought of this extended modern art performance, (a point we will return to) but I can’t think they were thrilled.

Anyone will tell you, if you show up at school with a name like “Not My People” or “Unloved”, the kids are going to pick on you.  Also, your priest is going to have a tough conversation with you about working out your issues on your kids.  

Nevertheless, Hosea proceeds.  He marries Gomer, and has three children, all with increasingly dire sounding names.  And we are told, prophetically, that this is to symbolize the breakdown of God’s relationship with Israel.  

And that may be hard to square with the God that Jesus is on about in the gospel.  The God that runs to open the door at 3am when we pound on it, asking for something again.  The God that never hesitates to listen when we pray.  That God.

Where is THAT GOD in the world of Hosea?  Because Hosea’s God just seems to have some really harsh words to say about women, and some really odd ideas about how to get a point across.

Dr. WIl Gafney, Episcopal priest, biblical scholar, and general genius human, argues that part of the issue in reading this text is a problem of translation.  Gomer, she points out, is described as  (just) promiscuous, which is a different Hebrew word than prostitute—we know because Israel is described that way.  Gomer herself is never called that.  Gomer, she points out, is described merely as proliferate prior to her marriage—abundant with love, and she points out that even the daughter named Unloved is unique in that we are told Gomer nurses her.  Her, the daughter named Unloved.  

Here, Dr. Gafney argues, is where we find the reflection of God.  In the actions of Gomer, who loves fervently and without boundaries.  In the love of a mother who loves even the children that others call worthless.  In the dedication to each other of two partners, despite some questionable choices.  That widespread, unstinting love of God that is so prodigal that it becomes scandalous.  That love that dares to love the people of Israel, even when they consistently make horrible choices.  

It is that love that Jesus describes when he teaches his disciples to pray, when he reassures them and us that God loves us enough to hear whatever we want to say.  That God loves us enough to want us to love the other people that God loves.  That God loves us enough to want other people to love and care for us too.

It’s an odd thing, but I’ve found that we need frequent reminders that God loves us.  And not just in a vast, theological-clockmaker of the universe-way, but that God actually loves us and likes us.  When we live in a world that is filled with stingy neighbors, who don’t want to open their doors to each other, it can be hard to remember that there exists a God that pours that unbounded love into all of us, and yet, it is so.  Our job, is to reflect that sort of Gomer-ish love in the world so that it becomes easier to remember.  Easier to believe in.  To love one another so much and so well that it becomes easier to remember just how much and how well God loves us too.

Amen.