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Apart Together–Ascension 2020

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

May 24, 2020

Easter 7, Year A

Acts 1

In the years when I was in college ministry, the Ascension readings usually coincided with the end of the academic term.  It worked quite nicely; I could talk about Jesus departing alongside graduation, as a metaphor for the seasons of life.  Jesus ascends like the graduates departed—and the mingled feelings of loss and pride worked pretty well together, I thought.  

You can sort of see Jesus’ mother probably waved proudly at her son as he rose into the sky, and marveled at how big he’d gotten, all ascending into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father. 

So this strange week or so between Ascension and Pentecost had a place then—this stretch of time when Jesus has gone, the Holy Spirit is promised, but…isn’t here yet.  And meanwhile, there’s just a lot of waiting.  And missing.  

This year, of course, everything feels different.  We both haven’t had graduations and we had.  We both haven’t marked the end of the academic school year and we have.  We are both still together as a worshipping community, and we are apart.  

And that dichotomy, ironically, is precisely what the Ascension is describing.  As Jesus leaves his friends, there on that mountain (which is really more like a hill) in Jerusalem, he promises them that he will be with them always, right as he leaves.  And then he goes.

The disciples are understandably perturbed.  And in Luke’s retelling, we get helpful/irritated angels appearing to tell them to knock off their confusion and get on with their jobs.  But they can be forgiven, I think, for being so bumfuzzeled.  After all, Jesus just got through promising to always be there with them, before he literally does the opposite.  

It takes them a while to suss out what’s going on.  The church comes to know that Jesus is now present in the church in a new way—unbounded by space or time, by virtue of his ascension.  Jesus is as present with me, in my house now as I speak to you, as he is with you as you listen to me.  Jesus is with us whenever we call upon him; whenever we greet each other distantly, whenever we show love to our neighbor, or reach out in care to someone who needs it.  

It’s not the same, of course.  And I think that’s what took the disciples a little while to deal with.  We’ve been learning that too.  Jesus present through the Spirit wasn’t the same as the Jesus they knew before the crucifixion, sitting around the campfire, cracking jokes, and making bread.  Jesus inspiring them and guiding them wasn’t the same as the guy who reassured them on the road, and taught them what to do.  And that change brought some grief with it, because they missed that guy they knew and loved.  And that grief is real.  Even though the Spirit they gained was an amazing gift to them. 

We are learning that too.  Gathered together in this way for church just isn’t the same as church before corona.  We can’t recreate being physically together. It’s different; it sounds different, sometimes the technology works, sometimes it doesn’t, we miss each other badly, I miss hearing your voices.

But with all of that, Christ is still present with us.  And even present in a new way.  The work of the church has never stopped, even as we have been apart.  Indeed, our being apart and at home right now to prevent unintentionally spreading the virus is an act of sacrificial love to our community.  It is part of the essential work of the church.  Giving our building to Loaves and Fishes, so our community can be safely fed—that is part of the work of the church, and that goes on. The classes, the bible studies, the meetings—all of that goes on.  And believe it or not—we have had people from all over the world join us for worship during these weeks, because they come across our videos online.  

By ensuring the safety of our most vulnerable, by forgoing what we want and what we miss in the moment to protect someone else, we are living out what Christ calls us to—we are being the Body of Christ in the world.  We are being most the church now, as we are each apart from each other.  Just as Christ was most with his friends as he left them.  

Theodicy and 1 Peter

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

May 17, 2020

Easter 6, Year A

1 Peter

Well, I think we need to address what on earth Peter is going on about, don’t you?  

There’s a line in the Princess Bride where Wesley says “Life is pain, princess.  Anyone who says any different is selling something.”  Peter seems to be very much of this school of thought here.  And if you aren’t paying careful attention, it’s possible to hear what Peter’s saying here as “suffering is good!  Do it more!”  

So let’s talk about suffering for a bit.  Since, you know, we are in a vast global pandemic, the likes of which none of us have lived through before, which is causing quite a lot of suffering.  

A few things to recall here about Peter’s context:

Firstly, he’s not writing to safe and comfortable folks.  He’s writing to people being hunted, jailed, and killed by their government.  So for them, suffering wasn’t a maybe—it was a given.  The question then was how would they respond to it—and how would they explain their circumstances to others?  Given that the powers of the earth were allied against them, the question for Peter’s community is not “How to avoid persecution”, it was “Since we’re being persecuted, how then should we act?”  

Peter points out that it was better to stick with being ethical and moral when the government is coming after you.  While it’s tempting to give up, declare that nothing matters, and just throw morality to the wind, Peter argues that this is now what Christians are called to do.  Rather, if you hold on to your ethical standards under great duress, you have the chance to shame your persecutors.  (This is, by the way, the same argument that undergirds passive resistance.  It’s the exact same approach Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr took.  Morality in the face of persistent powerful immorality can throw a bright light on the immorality that is hurting you.)  

Anyway.  

That is to say that for the folks Peter was writing to, it wasn’t a question of if they would suffer—it was a question of when.  So Peter isn’t telling them to seek out suffering; he’s advising them on how to live when suffering is a constant.

God doesn’t want us to seek out suffering.  (I’m going to say that again, because this is one of those things that occasionally we “know” but we don’t KNOW on a deep level).  God doesn’t want us to seek out suffering.  Jesus came that we might have life and life abundant.

 And at the same time—we live in a broken world, we are broken people, surrounded by broken people, and the result that inevitably is suffering.   Sometimes more, sometimes less. 

Jesus, in the gospel for today, is comforting his disciples, and telling them that even as he’s about to leave them, he won’t leave them without comfort.  He will send them the Holy Spirit, and he will reassure them, and he will still be with them in this powerful tangible way.  Because, again, Jesus seeing this inevitable suffering, wants to comfort and reassure his friends.  

In a very real way, Christianity never tries answers the question of Why Suffering Exists—or, really, never puts a lot of effort into it.  That’s not the question we set out to answer.  The question Christianity sets out to answer is “Since there is suffering, what then should we do?”

And the answer is:  love. 

While we don’t seek out suffering, I do know that God can transform our unwanted suffering into something that brings forth life.  I know that when we allow God to do that, our suffering becomes, not something wanted, or wished for perhaps, but something constructive.  Something that can lead to newness of life.

God takes the broken pieces of our lives, of our world, and wants to rebuild them, wants to redeem them.  God asks us, even as we find ourselves mired in what feels like unending pain and misery, to help God make these broken shards into something new, something that can be life-giving.  That ongoing work of redemption, of resurrection is what God does.  

God transforms our suffering world by loving it.  God transforms our suffering by accompanying us through it in love.  And when we, in our times of loss, and despair, try intentionally to love ourselves, and love others the way Christ taught us, then God can work to transform our brokenness too.  We work to love others through their broken places and their pain, when we learn to love others so well that we seek to prevent their suffering at all.  When we do all that, then God takes what we endure in this messy world, and works through us to draw us all closer to the kingdom founded and built on Love.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

May 17, 2020

Easter 6, Year A

1 Peter

Well, I think we need to address what on earth Peter is going on about, don’t you?  

There’s a line in the Princess Bride where Wesley says “Life is pain, princess.  Anyone who says any different is selling something.”  Peter seems to be very much of this school of thought here.  And if you aren’t paying careful attention, it’s possible to hear what Peter’s saying here as “suffering is good!  Do it more!”  

So let’s talk about suffering for a bit.  Since, you know, we are in a vast global pandemic, the likes of which none of us have lived through before, which is causing quite a lot of suffering.  

A few things to recall here about Peter’s context:

Firstly, he’s not writing to safe and comfortable folks.  He’s writing to people being hunted, jailed, and killed by their government.  So for them, suffering wasn’t a maybe—it was a given.  The question then was how would they respond to it—and how would they explain their circumstances to others?  Given that the powers of the earth were allied against them, the question for Peter’s community is not “How to avoid persecution”, it was “Since we’re being persecuted, how then should we act?”  

Peter points out that it was better to stick with being ethical and moral when the government is coming after you.  While it’s tempting to give up, declare that nothing matters, and just throw morality to the wind, Peter argues that this is now what Christians are called to do.  Rather, if you hold on to your ethical standards under great duress, you have the chance to shame your persecutors.  (This is, by the way, the same argument that undergirds passive resistance.  It’s the exact same approach Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr took.  Morality in the face of persistent powerful immorality can throw a bright light on the immorality that is hurting you.)  

Anyway.  

That is to say that for the folks Peter was writing to, it wasn’t a question of if they would suffer—it was a question of when.  So Peter isn’t telling them to seek out suffering; he’s advising them on how to live when suffering is a constant.

God doesn’t want us to seek out suffering.  (I’m going to say that again, because this is one of those things that occasionally we “know” but we don’t KNOW on a deep level).  God doesn’t want us to seek out suffering.  Jesus came that we might have life and life abundant.

 And at the same time—we live in a broken world, we are broken people, surrounded by broken people, and the result that inevitably is suffering.   Sometimes more, sometimes less. 

Jesus, in the gospel for today, is comforting his disciples, and telling them that even as he’s about to leave them, he won’t leave them without comfort.  He will send them the Holy Spirit, and he will reassure them, and he will still be with them in this powerful tangible way.  Because, again, Jesus seeing this inevitable suffering, wants to comfort and reassure his friends.  

In a very real way, Christianity never tries answers the question of Why Suffering Exists—or, really, never puts a lot of effort into it.  That’s not the question we set out to answer.  The question Christianity sets out to answer is “Since there is suffering, what then should we do?”

And the answer is:  love. 

While we don’t seek out suffering, I do know that God can transform our unwanted suffering into something that brings forth life.  I know that when we allow God to do that, our suffering becomes, not something wanted, or wished for perhaps, but something constructive.  Something that can lead to newness of life.

God takes the broken pieces of our lives, of our world, and wants to rebuild them, wants to redeem them.  God asks us, even as we find ourselves mired in what feels like unending pain and misery, to help God make these broken shards into something new, something that can be life-giving.  That ongoing work of redemption, of resurrection is what God does.  

God transforms our suffering world by loving it.  God transforms our suffering by accompanying us through it in love.  And when we, in our times of loss, and despair, try intentionally to love ourselves, and love others the way Christ taught us, then God can work to transform our brokenness too.  We work to love others through their broken places and their pain, when we learn to love others so well that we seek to prevent their suffering at all.  When we do all that, then God takes what we endure in this messy world, and works through us to draw us all closer to the kingdom founded and built on Love.

The promise Christ gives isn’t that suffering will disappear; and it isn’t that following the rules will let you avoid the bad stuff, and it isn’t even that if you seek out enough pain, that God will give you an extra big reward.  It’s that when we inevitably go through awful times, God is with us.  God doesn’t leave us comfortless.  And when we stay faithful to the way of Love that Jesus showed us, God holds our trials and transforms them into something lifegiving.  

Acts in Quarantine

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

May 10, 2020

Easter 5, Year A

Acts

It’s the longstanding tradition of the church to read through the Book of Acts after Easter.  We hit the high points, though not necessarily in order:  the conversion of Saul, Peter’s preaching, Pentecost.  The disciples converting lots of people.  But generally speaking, we move so fast that it can seem like the Acts of the Apostles is just one triumph after another.  

Instead, If you read the book—all of it, it’s much more of a mixed bag, like most everything in the Bible.  The book isn’t even actually intended to be a standalone book—it’s meant to be Part 2 of the Gospel of Luke—picking up immediately where that gospel left off.  Jesus told the disciples before he ascends from the Mount of Olives to spread the good news into all the world, beginning from Jerusalem—and this is how they do it.

Only—they don’t do so well.  For each mass conversion experience, there are about two episodes of the disciples being thrown in jail, or run out of town.  Peter will give a great sermon, and then the local authorities will get frustrated and lock him up.  The disciples share all things in common…except for these two people, who lie to Peter about how much their land sold for, so they are struck down dead for their withholding.  Paul is a great preacher…except for this one time where he went on so long that a man listening to him falls asleep, then falls out of a window and dies.  Mixed bag.

And here again, in our reading for today, the church had been doing pretty well!  In Jerusalem, growing so big that the leaders decided that they could establish a little bit of bureaucracy!  Let’s appoint deacons, because we’re too big to do everything ourselves, and we need someone whose job it is to serve the widows and the poor.  Nice sign of flourishing there—a division of labor!

But then, the city leadership turns on them, and, spurred on by Saul, the new deacons are stoned to death.  Stephen is killed, and—we don’t see it, but the disciples as a whole are thrown out of Jerusalem.  It really seems like the new baby church has failed.

Few things to remember here:

—the enmity of the authorities isn’t because they DON’T believe.  It’s always because they are worried that the disciples bring too much change.  

—this isn’t our church; it’s God’s church.  The church has died many, many times, and each time, God resurrects it, because that’s what God does. 

As we begin to look ahead to what our future may look like, we can feel like those disciples:  OMG, everyone’s dead and we lost Jerusalem, our home, our heart.  How can we worship without the Eucharist?  How can we worship without singing together?

But we as people of faith have done this before.  With God’s help we have figured it out.  We grieve the loss of what we knew and what we loved—because that loss and grief are real.

And we also know that God is bringing us to something different and amazing.  That even here in this wilderness, God is not going to abandon his church, and our work continues.  When the early church was scattered out of Jerusalem, that’s when Saul became Paul.  that’s when they discovered that the Gentiles had the Holy Spirit too.  When the church left Jerusalem, even as they did it with tears and grief and lots of pain, they found a greater mission they could never have imagined, and we are the result.

God’s future for us is right outside our vision.  It is taking shape all around us.  It won’t look like where we’ve been.  We are being called into a wide open space where God awaits.  

Emmaus 2020

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 26, 2020

Easter 3, Year A

Luke

Liminal space

First of all, Emmaus is a bit of a mystery.  Nearly all the places in the gospels are known to contemporaneous non-Christian sources, but there are like 7 different Emmaus’s.  This was either an accident (sort of what would happen if someone set a story in “Springfield” but didn’t specify which state), or it was a literary device, like setting Our Town in Grover’s Corners.  Sort of a First Century AnyTown, Palestine.  Or the setting of the Simpsons.

So when our story begins, two disciples, whose names we aren’t given, are going Somewhere.  And they are arguing with each other.  The Greek word here is stronger than mere ‘discussing’—they’re discussing with emotion.  Probably with elaborate hand guestures.  And dramatic hyperbole.  They’re discussing so much that they don’t notice when Jesus appears.

There’s a local Palestinian Christian tradition that the two disciples are Cleopas and Mary, his wife—who is named elsewhere in the gospel narratives, which would partially explain the dynamic here.  And also perhaps why Cleopas gets a name, and she doesn’t.

it is Cleopas, after all, who finally notices the stranger, and explains to him what’s been going on, as they walk along on this journey.

There is a tradition in the scripture of wilderness journeys.  The Israelites travel from oppression in Egypt to freedom in Canaan through the wilderness.  Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness fasting and being tempted by Satan.  John the Baptist lives out there.  The people of God record in scripture that God is to be encountered when you travel in the wilderness, out beyond the orderly ways of civilization, even though it is by definition not a comfortable place to be.

But for Cleopas and Mary (I’m going with local tradition) it’s different.  It seems that they’re fleeing Jerusalem for their own physical safety.  (remember, in the days following the crucifixion, the disciples were reasonably sure that Rome was next going to come and arrest all of them.)  They—or at least Cleopas— discounts the word of the women, and disbelieves the resurrection, because everything is still really scary and threatening.  

Not only are they in a physical wilderness of a sort; they are in a mental and spiritual one as well—and it’s one they did not choose; they are thrown there.

“But we had hoped” Cleopas tells the stranger “that he would be the one to redeem Israel.”  They have been thrown into the wilderness of disappointed hopes—where instead of preparing for Jesus to rule in triumph, they are fleeing for their lives.  

And yet, they encounter the same wilderness experience as the Israelites.  Jesus still accompanies them in this in-between place.  God still provides them with food and provision, like God provided manna in the desert for the Israelites.  And it is in this liminal space that they discover the outlines of the new world of the resurrection. 

After all, the resurrection of Christ doesn’t sweep away the world as it is with its disappointments, its hardships, and the brokenness.  The resurrection instead for those who witness it in faith moves us into this liminal space where we can encounter God in a new way, and be fed and provided for as we undergo transformation.

in a number of ways, we are in another liminal space now in our world.  This pandemic has pushed all of us into the end of one way of being, and we haven’t yet quite arrived at the world that will be.  And while this liminal place—this wilderness—is an uncomfortable place to be, Jesus still meets us here.  God has always met God’s people in the wilderness to provide for us, and to draw us closer to Godself, and closer to the world God desires.  

The goal of this space is not for us to learn every new language, become masters of video conferencing, or become excellent homeschoolers.  We don’t have to emerge from this having figured everything out.  Cleopas and Mary figured nothing out, I’m fairly sure.  Because Christ’s presence is enough to get us through.  We  just need to be attentive to the ways that the Risen Christ is among us in this journey, even in the unfamiliar and the chaotic.

Christ always shows up, always accompanies us, and always gives us what we need.  We just need eyes to see.  

Doubting Thomas in 2020

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 19, 2020

Easter 2, Year A

John 21

This is one of the gospel readings we read on the same day every single year.  Surprisingly we don’t have many of those.  We read variations on the Christmas story, the resurrection stories, the Passion narratives.  But this story, along with John’s Passion narrative on Good Friday, are the gospels we read each year without fail.  

One of the side effects of this familiarity is that there are some years where I am at a loss on how to make Doubting Thomas come alive.  We’ve just come off Easter, and there’s only so much that one can say about the dynamics of doubt and faith.

In most years.

Then there’s this year.

THIS year, Thomas lands right where we live, doesn’t he?  The image of the disciples huddled together in the upper room, the doors locked for fear of what lurked outside.  Worried and fearful about what the future held.  Wondering what they could believe in, who they could trust.  And then the Risen Christ shows up in their midst.   Just walking through the walls.

Thomas misses this initial appearance, and we aren’t told why.  But it would seem that Thomas has picked up the overall aura of fear and distrust, because when the other disciples tell him that Jesus appeared, he is not on board.  “Look, unless I touch the marks of the nails on his hands, and put my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

It’s also striking this year how much touching there is in this story.  There is a lot of touching.  Also a lot of people getting breathed on.   I’ll come back to that in a minute.

Thomas wants not just to see Jesus, but to touch the physical proof of his suffering and death.  He wants to more than see and believe; he wants to touch, see, and believe.  

And sure enough, the next evening, the disciples are again all together, all sealed off from the outside world, and Jesus appears to them again.  Twice now, and he offers his wounds for Thomas to touch.

—point of connection still available, even as connection in general is shut down (to outside world)

—Jesus shows up for Thomas alone

—Jesus gives us what we need, what ever that is.  Connection?  Accompaniment?  Companionship?  Jesus shows up.  Even in quarantine.  

—It will probably look different than we expect, and there will probably be a weird Jesus-y twist.  

—But Jesus provides for the disciples all of that tangible contact even as they are shut off from contact with the outside.  He provides their point of connection.

—So too with us.  Jesus will provide for us what we need; we just have to ask.  Even for hyper-specific things that we feel incredibly dumb asking for.  Often, with our prayers the problem is less Jesus’ response and more that we have trouble figuring out exactly what we want and asking for it.  And so we go vague “Jesus, I just want what’s best for me.”  ok, but there’s a way in which that request doesn’t build trust.  The reason we ask for things is not to be whiny, but so that we remember that God provides all we have in life, and indeed, our life itself, and to strengthen our relationship with God.  To build that relationship with God.  So, ask for what you need.  Get specific.  “Jesus, I would really like to feel the joy of Easter, even in this lock-down.”  “Jesus, I need a solid 5 minutes of quiet in my house/i need someone to talk to today.” And see what happens.  Watch for Jesus to show up.  Watch for the risen Christ to stroll through some walls.

Christ wants very much to give us what we need, Christ wants for us to feel comfortable enough in our relationship with God to casually make requests for whatever we need, the way we would with a trusted friend we know would help us without a second thought.  And Christ will, most of all, show up no matter what sort of locked room we find ourselves in.  

Amen.