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Who’s who in the Ancient World

I am well aware that Advent stirs up (ha!) in me the same passion that is sparked by the sports ball, or cute animals. in other people.  When Family Feud asks what the top ten things that provoke emotional tears are, “struggling mightily for justice and right relationship despite great odds!” is not usually up there; a heartwarming puppy greeting his absent kid owner is.  

So it is that with each Advent sermon, I run the risk of getting VERY EXCITED about parts of the story that befuddle and confuse everyone else, and such is the case with the introductory parts of Luke.  Luke, like Matthew, would like you as reader to always understand the history that the story is embedded in, and so the writer is always citing either genealogy, or a list of governmental officials.  I myself find this deeply moving–the thought of these pretty broken, messed-up folks, many of whom left tangible footprints on the landscape, still being witnesses to God’s coming into the world!  But I do realize that my immediate emotional response is prompted by a good seven-plus years of studying this stuff.  So it can be hard to translate.  (Your average person in a pew will not get teary at “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius….” ). 

This sermon was an attempt to change that.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 9, 2018

Advent 2

Luke 1

I was trying to decide this week which opening of the gospels I prefer—like a Buzzfeed list.  Matthew’s is boring—the genealogy is theologically rich, but that’s just a ton of names.  John’s sounds like a digression into poetry, so we can’t really compare it to the others.  Mark outright cheats, and does what your English teacher told you never to do by baldly stating his thesis right off the bat: THE BEGINNING OF THE GOOD NEWS OF JESUS CHRIST.  

But this is what happens when you have to be written first.

Luke’s however—Luke’s is right up there. It sets up everything Luke is going to be. 

He writes:  Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first,[a] to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

In other words, I have read all the other gospels, and they are awful, so I AM GOING TO DO THIS RIGHT.  WITH DETAILS.

And so, we know right from the get-go that Luke’s gospel will give us details—details such that a Greek guy like this Theophilus would understand.

 Luke actually starts each scene with a list of government figures—it’s how he locates something in space and time.  In the time of King Herod, Zachariah was told about the birth of John the Baptist.  (He was a priest according to the order of Abijah, and his wife was descended of Aaron, which is handy, because in that story, she comes off looking way better.)  

Luke then explains how the temple priesthood handled their duties at the holy of holies—because a Greek guy wouldn’t be familiar with those customs.  

At each turn, this writer wants the audience to know where and when they are.  And today, Luke wants us to be very aware that as his story is taking off, the following people are in charge.  

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip was ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Caiaphas and Annas, the word of God came to John, son of Zachariah in the wilderness.

As a set up, I realize this sounds incredibly boring—mostly we don’t know who these people are.  and some of these names are unpronounceable.  As a transition from the last scene (where Mary is singing the Magnificat) however, it is basically a title card, which tells the reader, SOME YEARS LATER—-in over-detailed Lukan fashion.  

Previously, Herod 1 had ruled all of Judea and Samaria, and now he had died, and his son and Philip were ruling two parts of it, with Pilate, the Roman Governor controlling the region of Judea.  So there had been a bit of a power shift, with Rome taking a firmer hand in governing their teeny Palestinian outpost.

And this is something Luke will do over, and over again.  Here is who is in power.  Here is exactly what was happening in our world when this miraculous thing occurred.

The point here is not whether this checks out—it mostly does, but you have to squint.  The point here is why Luke would take pains to set up such an out of this world tale in the midst of the details of this world in the first place.  Because that’s what he does—this gospel is not set up as a “once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away”  it is not situated everywhere, and therefore nowhere.  It is definitively located in a time-certain when, in a place-certain where.  

All of which suggests that the gospel writer finds those details important to the meaning of the story he’s telling.  That somehow, knowing the landscape of context and power is vital to understand the meaning of the story that will unfold.  

But, notice that just after we get this list of high-powered officials, the word of God comes to John, son of Zachariah, in the wilderness.  Not any of those people we were just told about.

Our story kicks off with God’s message being given again not to anyone in power, not to anyone with authority, or anyone who history would remember, but a young man seeking reform in the desert.  That’s where God shows up.  So right from the start, this gospel is going to upend the powers of this earth.  When God wants to send a message, God works decidedly outside the system.  The wild man in the desert receives the word of repentance, and echoes the words of Isaiah—warning everyone that God’s salvation is on the way to redeem creation, and make the kingdom accessible to all.  

So one of the themes we are set up for is where God appears—God appears on the edges, in the wild places, on the margins.  God, in the gospel, does not appear on that list of historical figures.  

And yet—the specificity of that list is consequential too.  Sure, God’s message comes to a wandering desert prophet, but that wandering desert prophet is responding to Pilate, to Herod, and to Philip.  For Luke’s early hearers, hearing that list of governors would have felt like reading the CNN headline crawl for us:  a similar sort of constant bad news, and constant disappointment in the state of things.  Recall that these weren’t popular leaders: Herod was known to be paranoid, violent, and prone to narcissistic rages.  Pilate was fond of violent crackdowns on the local populace. The temple leaders were fine, maybe, but you couldn’t expect much from them.  There was a reason people felt hopeless.  There was a reason fleeing to the desert to follow a guy proclaiming a new baptism of forgiveness was popular.  

And it’s here that God comes.  It’s in this specifically hopeless situation that God comes, and says “prepare the way.”  Not once upon a time—not in a vague way, not in a spiritual sense, but into this definite place, populated with these specific broken people, and their problems.  When everything seemed hopeless.  When there was no justice, and God’s people were definitely not free.  That’s right where God came.  In that place and time.  In the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius.

This, then, is the power of the Incarnation—the daring and earth-shattering idea that God can enter the human experience in the hopeless experience of the Palestinian Jews in the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius, That when God chose to enter the human world, God did it as one of the powerless, and one of the marginalized.  And if God did that, then God must be present in a fundamental way, in each human experience of hopelessness, of powerlessness. God must be there with those who are cast out, with those who are hated, with those who suffer.  Even in the third year of the reign of President Trump.  

Luke lays out for us, his audience, right at the start the choice we will have to make over and over throughout the gospel.  Where will we look for the experience of God? Where will we go, as followers of Jesus?  Will we seek out the powerful, and the powers of this world, to lead us to Jesus?  Or will we head with John to the desert, to be joined by the lost and the left out?  Will we rely only on our own strength, our own riches, or will we trust that God is with us especially in our weakness, in our vulnerability?  

Will we stay safe, or will we venture out to find God in the wilderness, trusting that God is already preparing a new revelation of divine love for us to discover?  

Amen

How I learned to stop worrying and love the apocalypse

There are a few points I feel honor-bound to hit on a few times each year, from the pulpit.  These include: the Pharisees are actually cool, the BVM is kind of a badass, the Passion narratives carry lots of antisemitic baggage, and chiefly, for our Advent purposes, apocalyptic literature is profoundly liberating.

For those of us (read: most of us) who were conscious during the 1980s–the present, anything that smells remotely Rapture-adjacent can trigger scary memories of being yelled at in public, handed a Chick tract, and being told that unless you said a specific prayer, you would die in a rain of fire.  At the hands of a loving God, OF COURSE.  It’s hard to overstate the damage done by preachers as they threw around these texts like mini grenades.  

So, I take particular and deep delight each Advent, in ascending the pulpit and announcing how and why apocalyptic texts are good news.  To quote a wise bishop–The judgment of God is always good news for the oppressed and the suffering.  When we can’t see that, we need to reconsider where we stand.

Here’s what I said:

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 2, 2018

Advent 1

Luke 

Otto’s idea of the numinous + apocalypse = courage required for God’s inbreaking kingdom. 

Welcome to Advent!  The start of a new liturgical year, and the beginning of preparation for the birth of Christ!  While the world outside our doors has been joyously hanging greens and singing Christmas carols, we in church get more of that fun dualism stuff we started with two weeks ago.  WARS AND RUMORS OF WARS.  FAMINES.  DISASTERS.  DISTRESS AMONG THE NATIONS.  SIGNS IN THE SUN, MOON AND STARS. 

As much as it discomfits us, Advent is as much about looking towards the end of time as it is about looking towards the Incarnation.  It’s like wearing 3D glasses, where each eye is seeing a slightly different image, but you only get the whole effect by seeing them together.  God broke into time with Jesus, and we know that God will again break into time at the end.  And both inbreakings are coming.  

Advent reminds us that this world, as it stands, is not all there is, is not all there is intended to be, and that God is moving creation towards something better…

Granted, the language used to talk about the Second Coming is….graphic?  Sort of over the top?  (DISTRESS AMONG THE NATIONS.). And especially if you have been alive through the second half of the twentieth century, it is hard, if not impossible, to hear verses like these, and not have visions of a bloody Rapture, and war with the anti-Christ dancing in your head.  Other strains of Christianity have made much of these passages, and used them to frighten people into compliance.  

But (and you knew there was a but) that’s never what they were intended to do.  First off, like I said last time, these sections were written largely by people who were living through a war.  So they are essentially recapping their daily lives, in all its horror. Everyone WAS panicking—Palestine was rebelling against Rome, and it was rather awful.

But also, ‘apocalypse’ was a well-known and well-respected genre of writing.  Sort of like a romantic comedy movie is today.  In apocalypses, certain things happen, because that’s just what you get when you read one.  (Like, in a romantic comedy, you need to have a meet-cute, a sassy best friend, and several relatively-easily solved misunderstandings before the happy ending.)  In apocalypses, it is understood that 1. Everything is awful, but in an allegorical way. 2.  Events in heaven parallel events on earth.  3.  God wins.  God always wins.

The third one is most important—in apocalypses, the victor is never the most powerful.  You dont’ write one if you have the biggest army, and the most guns.  You write one if you are currently huddled in a cave, after your family has been arrested, and you are rationing out your last meal.  The premise of the genre is that there is utterly no hope left, but SOMEHOW, God will intervene to save God’s people.  You don’t know how, you don’t know when, and you won’t—but God will save God’s people, and restore justice to the universe, because that’s just what God does.  

It won’t be fun, it won’t be pleasant, but God is coming to set things right.  

Rudolf Otto was a smart German dude from the early twentieth century.  The reason we remember him today is because he articulated a concept of the numinous in religious expression.  Up until that point, religious practice had largely been seen by the academy in the West as functional, or a psychological manifestation.  Otto, along with folks like William James, thought that it also had to be understood as an encounter with something “wholly other”—and that this common element could be described.  

Otto called this common element the numinous—a thread that appears in all human religious expressions, and noted that this encounter with the transcendent, with the Divine—however humans term it, appears to have three common elements:  1. it is awe-inspiring.  Generally, the experience creates unease, or fear.  Think of Isaiah the prophet being called early in his book.  He has a vision of God seated on the throne as smoke fills the temple, seraphim and cherubim flying every which way, and he panics.  Think of literally everyone in the Bible to whom an angel appears.  The first words are always “Fear not.”  

Otto also says the numinous always makes a person feel small, in the scope of things.  Like Job, when God shows up in the whirlwind.  Where you there when I created the Leviathan?  Or how you feel when you can see all the stars at once in the sky, and you suddenly remember how tiny you are.

Any time we encounter God, it takes courage.  This is not a task for the complacent.  When we allow God to break into our ordered worlds, that requires us to be brave, because it’s not very comfortable.  Chances are, a lot will change.  A lot will be exposed, and made clear, in the light of God’s in-breaking.  When Jesus came to earth, it did not go the way anyone expected, really.  Instead of the devoutly religious folks, the pious and the wealthy being the ones who were the first to get it, it was the marginalized, the poor, and the outcasts.  The whole order of things got flipped around, and everyone had to readjust, but that’s what happens when you start to watch for the Spirit—when God breaks in.  God requires us to be vulnerable, flexible, and ready to change when he appears—however and whenever that might be.  Advent is all about making those preparations—about finding our courage, so we are ready for God, ready for Christ when he comes.  These images of a world thrown into chaos—part of the reason they speak so well to us is because every time God calls us, it feels again like the world just got tilted upside down.  Whether the world is actually literally ending or not.  

There is one last way that Otto described the numinous experience.  Lest you wonder that Advent sounds entirely like a weird sort of boot camp for the soul, Otto felt that the final common thread was something like kindness.  (The German is complicated.)  In essence, he thought that despite the fear inherent in such encounters, there was also something about the Divine that kept drawing humanity, and reassuring us—mercy, compassion, love, kindness—something.  So no matter how overwhelmed humans might get, we kept heading back for more, always searching for God.

Yes, encountering God can be scary.  But not encountering God?  Having things remain the way they are?  That’s scarier.  Our world cries out in a thousand ways for God’s redeeming, chaotic presence, and never more so than today, when hope can be difficult to locate.  But when we courageously invite God’s coming into the world, when we bravely embrace the child lying in the Manger, it is in that strange, upended moment that we can begin to see God bringing hope out of our world too.  

The Rt. Rev. Meryl Streep, and other thoughts

Caitlin Moran said once that the problem with sexism now was that it resembled Meryl Streep.  In much the same way that Meryl Streep so effectively melts into her roles, such that hours after you’ve watched a movie starring her, you bolt upright from a dead sleep and exclaim “OH MY GOD.  THAT’S WHO THAT WAS.” in sudden recognition; so too sexism has become skilled at melting into the backdrop.  We don’t really have to overcome outright barriers like prohibitions against female ordination (in most places.). What we have instead are barriers so subtle, that you have a vague feeling of something being…wrong.  And then, hours later, you awake as if from a nightmare and yell, “OH MY GOD.  IT WAS SEXISM THE WHOLE TIME.”  

Frankly, dealing with the outright barriers was often easier.  Or at least, more clear-cut.  

At the moment, much virtual ink is being spilled over several recent dioceses offering all-female slates for episcopal elections.  The Living Church has run several articles: the first of which was ably deconstructed on a factual basis by Crusty Old Dean.  (Go read what he wrote, if you haven’t yet.)

I don’t know that I have much by way of additional facts to add to this discussion.  That ground seems to be well-covered.  Indeed, as COD says, all female slates are not new at all.  If any of the diocesan slates had been for a suffragan post, no one would have noticed that the slate was all-female.  Lest we forget our (recent) history, the reason we have suffragan bishops at all in this church is so that white diocesan bishops did not have to cross lines of segregation.  One of the saints from my ordaining diocese, James Solomon Russell, was approached numerous times to accept a job as suffragan bishop, to oversee the black churches in Arkansas and North Carolina, but refused.  He thought he could do more good for his fellow former slaves, running a college and planting churches.  (He planted thirty seven, by the way, all over south-central Virginia.  Dude was a rockstar.)

In more modern times, we’ve changed that somewhat.  Now, if you take a good look at suffragan slates, the church still tends to replicate that pattern, but with all “minority” groups.  The diocesan bishop will be a straight white man, and the various suffragans will be a woman!  A person of color!  Just so you can mix it up.  (This also has been happening with multi-staff clergy churches.  Even when the rector is a woman, there is frequently someone, somewhere, at some point, in the process who discourages the rector from hiring “another” woman, because how will the men feel?)

My point is not that diversity is bad, but that diversity, replicated without paying attention to power dynamics, is hollow, fruitless, and ultimately unworthy of the Kingdom.

What we are seeing, in these new slates, and why, I think they are now troubling some folks, is that women are actually in positions of power.  Not token power, and not isolated power–actual, normalized power.  And whoo boy, is that a big shift.  It’s one thing when you have one or two women in the House of Bishops–even when you elect one of them to be the Presiding Bishop.  If you only have one or two, then they’re easily outnumbered!  They are easy to dismiss–their opinions not those of a part of the church, but just “the woman bishop.” Nothing has to change, not really.  They’re still a novelty– and so much so that a major publication in the church can still call the primate of the church ugly names, and not suffer for it.

Start adding to that number, though…and the church might actually have to change.  The system might actually have to shift.  And that is a deeply startling thought.

Remember Pentecost?  There is so much beauty in that image, of a bustling cosmopolitan Jerusalem, with pilgrims from every corner of the earth, all talking past each other in their variety of languages, as the Spirit slowly brings them together.  But what strikes me about that story is that the descent of the Holy Spirit doesn’t change the foreigners–the pilgrims, the visitors don’t change language.  The disciples do.  The disciples are changed by the working of the Spirit so that they can spread the Gospel in an understandable way.  They give up their power of being understood even to themselves.  They even give up the power of being dignified!  (“You must be drunk.”  “Absolutely not!  It’s only 9am!”)

The Spirit always, always asks the church to forsake power in order to include those whom God calls.  The onus isn’t on those coming in; it’s on us.  And, let us recall that God has been calling women and people of color, and literally everyone to spread the gospel since this whole church adventure started.  Until our leadership looks like the ranks of humanity, we haven’t followed adequately where God is calling us as an institution.  And until THAT happens, we need to open our gates, hand over our power, and get ready for some change.

Baptism

We had a baptism yesterday; my first at St. John’s.  

Now, I have been talking excitedly about this particular baptism for roughly 6 weeks.  Partially because I adore baptisms in general (babies!  water!  Baptismal covenant!) and also because of who it was.  

Kang has been a parishioner here for several years.  He lives in one of the group homes in town, and makes his way here each Sunday.  He is a dedicated participant in the liturgy and the hymns, and goes to Sunday school.  One of my first impressions of St. John’s was hearing Kang’s voice ring out a beat behind the congregation’s during the prayers, and the congregation calmly waiting for him before starting each new line.  Each time I hear his voice, I think, “Ah!  This is surely the gate to the kingdom.” 

At the end of the summer, Kang’s family visited, and his sister told me that he had never been baptized, but wanted to be.  Would I be willing? “YES THAT WOULD BE GREAT CAN I PLEASE” I may have shouted at her.  (I told you–I was excited.) So we planned for All Saints Day.

On Sunday, Kang’s family arrived again, and brought him early to the church.  His Sunday school teachers came to sponsor him, and we walked him through what would happen in the liturgy–where he would stand, what he would say, where we would be in the prayer book.  “And then, I will pour water on your head, and put some oil on your forehead, and say some words,” I said.  “Yes, ok, thank you!” he responded.  This is Kang’s general response to everything.  Baptism is an overwhelming experience for anyone; there are a lot of sensory things happening, to say nothing of the spiritual stuff.  I didn’t want him to be taken by surprise.

During the liturgy, after the sermon, I asked for the candidate and the sponsors to come forward, and up they came.  Kang did perfectly during the questions and answers; he renounced Satan and the forces which rebel against God and turned to Jesus and accepted him as his Savior with aplomb.  

And then, we paused a half-second for the lay reader to step forward to read the Prayers for the Candidate, like in rehearsal.  But unexpectedly, Kang himself stepped forward, held up his bulletin, and in a loud voice, read “Deliver him, O Lord, from the ways of sin and death!” 

The congregation of St. John’s, never ones to be flapped, responded immediately, “Lord, hear our prayer!” Kang continued, “Open his eyes to your grace and truth!” “Lord, hear our prayer!”  And so on.  Kang, for the first time, reading aloud in church, unprompted, the prayers for himself.  

His family was taken aback.  I was taken aback.  His teachers were taken aback.  Kang alone seemed eternally unperturbed.  His sister asked me later if I had told him to do that–“No,” I said, “That was the Holy Spirit for sure.” 

At the baptism, as I poured water over his head, Kang emphatically responded to each line.  

“Kang, I baptize you in the name of the Father”

“YES THANK YOU”

“..and of the Son…”

“YES THANK YOU”

“..and of the Holy Spirit.”

“YES THANK YOU”

By the end, not a few of us were wiping away tears.

I’ve said before that in baptisms, I expect to see babies cry.  Not for any masochistic reasons, but because baptism is an overwhelming thing. It is a numinous experience that seems to require some loud response from us–as Annie Dilliard once wrote, if we really knew what we were about in church, we would strap ourselves onto the pews with safety belts, and show up in crash helmets.  How can it be, then, that we want little children to sleep through this most life-changing of experiences?

Perhaps the best response to the action of God in our lives is just what Kang showed us yesterday–to yell a bit, and to pray for this world God loves.  

May you have many occasions for yelling and praying.

All the Saints, All the Points

You may have noticed, I have strong opinions about preaching.  (In much the same way that Cookie Monster had a slight affinity for sweets.). 

However, this particular Sunday, I found myself throwing about 85% of my decided opinions out the window, in favor of a “I have several topics to cover today: sit back and here we go” sort of sermon.  

I have noticed that for whatever reason, All Saints’ is a big deal in most Episcopal churches, in sort of an unexpected way.  Even for people who have never experienced it, there is something about just breaking the rhythm of all-green, all-the-time, and singing about a chorus of saints guiding all of us to the kingdom of Heaven that really feels nice, right around the start of November.  We’re approaching Advent and Christmas!  We’ve almost made it through another year!  WE CAN DO THIS!***  

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

November 4, 2018

All Saints, transferred Year B 

Wisdom, John

When I worked at the college in Flagstaff, I was asked to consult on a Theater Department production of a Stephen Adly Gurguis’ play called The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.  The conceit of the play is that St. Monica has pity on Judas, who is frozen with remorse in hell, and demands a new afterlife trial to get him out.  The play is the substance of the trial, with various saints and figures from Jesus’ last week testifying either for or against.  To my non-surprise, the local community met our production with no small amount of consternation.  The language Gurguis puts in the mouths of the saints is …very adult.  He sees them as modern, lower-class, uneducated people, with the colorful language to match. Monica was presented as a Latina woman from the streets of the Bronx—Matthew was an uptight tax accountant, Simon the Zealot was an aggressive teenager, Peter was kinda slow, but cheerful. This range of character traits didn’t go over so well in some of the more traditional sectors of the town.

In one panel discussion with myself, the director, and the Catholic chaplain, the Catholic priest said he personally was offended because he believed characters like Peter, Matthew, Monica etc were saints, “and saints would never curse.  They lived good and righteous lives and would never sink to that level.” 

Me, of course, I loved the play (still love the play—although, again—not a play for kids.)  To me, sainthood is all about how the human intersects with the divine, and that’s what the play explored.  

Today, we are celebrating the feast of All Saints’—the day when the church remembers all the faithful who have gone before us to light the way.  The notion of saints is sort of well-known—it makes the news when the Pope declares someone a saint—when they’ve racked up enough miracles to be so recognized.  But the Anglican notion of sainthood—like the Anglican notion of pretty much everything—is a tad more inclusive.  All the baptized, who lived lives of faith in the world, are saints, according to our theology.  Some are just better known, and so we proclaim them publicly as worthy of being imitated.  People like the biblical saints, Matthew, Mark, Peter, Mary Magdalene.  And then, there are the more modern saints—St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Thomas Acquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Dorothy Day, St. Martin Luther King, St. Oscar Romero, who provide a glimpse of what it looks like to live a gospel life in different moments in history.

The famous saints provide a sort of case law for us to study.  A guide of what it looks like when normal people live out their Christianity in public, in the world. What happens when people like us have to put into practice all the stuff in the gospel?  How do humans—and not God Incarnate—do this stuff?

And then, of course, there are the hidden saints—those whose faith was perhaps known to God alone, or whose fame never spread, but who still showed us the light of Christ in their own time.  People who, though by no means perfect, showed the light of Christ through their actions and way of being in the world.   People like our Loaves and Fishes volunteers, like the teacher who believed in your potential, like Sarah Richtmeyer, who welcomed all to the parish office.

We remember the saints not because they were perfect all the time, and not so we can feel guilty about failing to follow their example.  We remember the saints for encouragement.  When we struggle, and when we feel overwhelmed by the darkness around us, it can help to know that people of faith have faced this before, and have gotten through it with God’s help.  We can recall the witness of Bonhoeffer and Romero when we need guides on how to speak with courage.  We can recall the witness of Maria Stoboskova when we need to recall how to protect our Jewish brothers and sisters.  We can recall the witness of the early Christian martyrs under Rome when we need to recall God’s faithfulness through all difficulties.  

And it also helps focus our vision in day to day life.  When we remember the communion of saints, of which we are a part, we recall that those around us are also a part of that great cloud of witnesses.  Old and young, rich and poor, gay and straight, white, brown and black, immigrant and native-born—everyone.  And we do not have the luxury of casting aside those whom Christ has called beloved.  All of these people we encounter may show us the face of Christ, who can say?  So in our interactions with everyone we meet, it is therefore our duty as baptized Christians, to always be searching for the image of God in every human bein, underneath, inside and through the usual veils of humanity.  

Today, we have the thrilling task of welcoming a new member into Christ’s body on earth—a new saint in this great cloud.  Baptisms are always wonderful, but this one is especially great.  We have been lucky enough to have had Kang Meng worshipping with us for several years now, and whenever he is here, he is dedicated in his participation.  He has attended Sunday School, and sent cards to people in the parish for their birthdays or when they need prayers.  In some ways, Kang has been living out his baptism before he has even received it.  And now, Kang, when people see you, when they are around you, they will see not only a quiet man who helps whenever he can, they will also see the light of Christ shining through you. 

Because today is the day when we stand around you, and officially tell the world that, besides being a generally great person, you are also a beloved Child of God, that God loves you so much, and that for the rest of your life, you belong with the whole communion of saints. 

Baptism means a lot of things—we wash away sins, we become new in Christ, we take on a new way of being, we join the community, and it’s also the moment when the community claims us.  When the communion of saints—the famous, and the forgotten—the living and the dead—those who we get along with and those we never would—look at us and say “from now on, you’re one of us.”  From now on, you can belong here.  From now on, we will figure out together how to be better at letting our Christlight shine.  But from now on?  You—in all your humanity, imperfection, uniqueness, oddities—you are our beloved child too.  

We are, each of us, a beloved child of God, claimed by Christ, and by this community.  No matter what happens in the world around us, no matter what we do! that identity does not change.  No quirk of history, no decision of humanity can shift that fundamental identity of who we are.  We are saints.  And we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.  We cannot help but be encouraged.

***(Protip:  Are you fed up with the news right now?  Cover your ears and sing “For All The Saints” at the top of your lungs.  Works like a charm!)

Law and Order: Biblical Victims Unit

I promised in my sermon last week that I would preach on Job this week, so I felt honor-bound to do it.  Job is one of my favorite books in the Hebrew Bible, ever since I took an entire class in undergrad on it.  (The professor of which now lives in Ithaca, which means I really, definitely, needed to get all my exegesis correct, lest she find out somehow I mistranslated some Hebrew and come find me.) 

I am thankful, daily, for my decision at 18 to study Religious Studies in undergrad.  My college was a secular one, so my classes didn’t have a theology bent, so much as they approached religious traditions through the lenses of sociology, history, psychology, language, and anything else you could reasonably apply.  It was glorious–it felt like candy for my brain.  But I do recall receiving the advice from several well-meaning advisors at the time to never mention anything I learned in college from the pulpit “because it will just upset and confuse people.”  

But for me, learning all this helped my faith make sense in ways it hadn’t before.  It brought the Bible to life the way no amount of purely-faith based studying had, because for the first time, I could catch a glimpse of those before me who had heard these stories and been transformed by them, and perhaps even those who had told these stories before they even had language to write them.  For me, to paraphrase the very smart Rev. Winnie Varghese, biblical criticism brought me to a deeper faith.

So this week, I went headfirst into the book of Job as a whole, and also compared ha-satan to Sam Waterston, which is perhaps my proudest homiletical moment to date.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

October 14, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 23

Job 23

As I promised last week—look, Job is still here!  (and will be here through next week, too!) So—here it is, the long awaited explanation of What Is Up with Job?  Because sadly, I cannot address the issue of why we only discuss Esther for one week every three years, and Ruth one week every three years, but Job for three weeks every year.  Such mysteries are too high for me.

Job is, on its face, a simple story.  It starts out much like a folk tale.  Once upon a time!  There was a guy named Job! Job, we are told, was perfect.  Did nothing wrong.  And the way the narrative tells us this, it seems best to take this as a given, the way we assume that of course Snow White was the fairest in the land.  He just was.  

But right away in the story, this trait gets Job into trouble and lo, as God is hanging out with Satan one day, they decide to pick on Job because he is being so perfect.   That was the reading we got last week. 

Now, right away this seems bananas—why on earth are God and Satan friends now? 

So it might help you to know, for context, that in Jewish cosmology, during the time of the Babylonian exile—so, right around the time that anyone Jewish would have been writing stories taking place in Uz, heaven was thought to be a courtroom.  And we actually see this in a lot of the prophetic literature.  God was the judge, the angels are the jury, and there is a figure who argues the opposing side, called The Adversary, or in Hebrew—the Satan.  Ha-Satan was not evil personified—just a figure whose job it was to hold humanity accountable before God, and report on stuff.  

Now, over time, maybe a few centuries, and a Hellenistic culture with a Greek god of the underworld who does really adversarial things, then ha-Satan turns into the embodiment of all that rebels against God.  But right now?  In this story?  We’re no where near that.  

So, God, the judge, and ha-Satan (again, basically the Sam Waterston of heaven, here) 

decide to give Job a test of faith: take away all his riches, his cattle and even his family, and see whether he will still praise God and do the right thing.  

He does, so Satan proposes taking it one step further—why not attack Job himself, and make him ill?  Now, Job is really suffering, but still, he holds to his faith in God, and the text says—Job did not sin with his lips.

Up until this part, scholars are generally of the opinion that this is a standard folk tale.  But what follows after—the back and forth with his friends, and Job’s considerable ranting—that appears to have been inserted somewhat later.  If only because you can make a pretty good case that some of the things Job will later end up saying today DO sound pretty faithless.

The main part of the book is a long conversation wherein Job’s 4 friends attempt to explain to him why all his suffering is His Fault.  God is just, they explain, and so you must have done something to deserve these repeated tragedies that are occurring.  They take turns, and wax eloquent, but their point is the same; God is good, God is just, therefore, you must deserve this suffering.

Meanwhile—we (and Job) know that this isn’t true.  According to the ground rules of our Folk Tale World—Job is perfect.  Job hasn’t screwed up.  So besides being really awful pastoral care (really. Don’t do this.) it’s flatly untrue. And so each time his friends try to shame and guilt him into confessing to some supposed sin, Job gets more and more angry with God, at times sarcastic, at times petulant, at times furious—for making him to suffer like this. He parodies a psalm, and taunts God.  He mocks his friends.  And all the while, he demands, pleads, begs with God to appear and explain himself.  The famous verses “I know that my redeemer liveth” are a declaration from Job that even if he dies, and rots away in the earth, still somehow he will confront God to demand an accounting of what has happened to him.  

The question of Job is really about who God is, and what faith looks like.  What does it mean to say that God is good when bad things keep happening in our world?  What does it mean to say that God is just, when tragedy strikes?  How do faithful people act in the midst of all this uncertainty?  

Job’s friends—and I would posit that a lot of religious people through the ages—clearly think that the only way to be faithful to a good and just God in a world that also has tragedy, is to try to defend God.  This all must be our fault!  We deserve this suffering—God must be punishing us deservedly.  Because surely a good God would create an ordered universe where the good are rewarded, and the bad are punished.  So, to have faith in a good God means to defend the notion of a perfectly ordered universe as well.  But that is not the question Job is asking.  Job doesn’t care ultimately about whether the universe is just; that question, for him, is settled.  His question is where God is in an uncertain universe. 

After all, it should surprise no one that the world isn’t always fair.  People who do the right thing don’t always prosper, and people who do the wrong thing sometimes get away with it scot free.  The undeserving suffer all the time—this is the nature of the broken world we inhabit.  

And yet, still the voice of faith insists that God, the creator of all that is, is just, wills our good, and loves creation dearly.  And so, if we aren’t going to lecture those in the midst of tragedy about their many sins that brought this upon them, how do we hold these two ideas together? 

We haven’t talked about how Job ends.  At the end of the book, in the midst of all this passive-aggressive pastoral care from his friends, and his own frustration, Job gets his wish.  God himself appears.  He doesn’t quite explain himself, but God still shows up and wants to know WHO EXACTLY IS TALKING ABOUT HIM.  God gives this immense speech about creating the universe, harnessing the powers of chaos, channeling the sea monsters in the deeps.

Job’s friends disappear—we don’t hear from them again—, and Job confesses himself utterly overwhelmed, and humbled, to be faced with the Creator of the Cosmos.  And pronounces himself satisfied.  

For Job, faithfulness was not maintaining an ordered universe; what Job wanted was a relationship—an enduring relationship with the God whom he had promised to follow.  Even in an uncertain, and clearly, unfair! universe, Job is comforted that the God who teaches him right and wrong also cares enough about him personally to attend personally to his suffering.  When his friends would not.  Job just wanted that good, loving, and just God to show up and validate his suffering, affirm that indeed, he, Job, was loved, and worthy, and important, and recognized.  By the one who ordered the stars of night, and confined the chaos of the oceans.  

When we say that God is good, and just, and loving—all of that is true, and it is reflected in this moment here—where God shows up.  (NOT UNLIKE THE INCARNATION, REALLY).  Because here is a God, in all sublime overwhelming power and majesty, who is loving enough and just enough to be attentive to and care about the individual experiences and concerns and tragedies of us.  Even in an utterly chaotic and uncertain world.  We have a God that shows up.  Even when we humans can’t figure out how to do it.  

God shows up to be with us, in our moments of sadness and joy.  God shows up in our moments of triumph and despair.  God even shows up when we’ve been yelling at God in frustration and anger for the past 33 chapters. God shows up in the person of Jesus to show us how to show up for each other.  When we see suffering in the world, then, perhaps our question should not be “why is this happening to them?” but “how can we show up?” Because our God shows up for us, and so we are a people of showing up.

Amen.

The Marx Brothers would not have done this to Margaret Dumont

Beloved, it has been a bit of a week.

Rather, it has been a bit of two years.  Which felt like it all arose this past week and walloped many of us this past week.  

I belong to a Facebook group of young clergywomen, which has been invaluable on so many occasions throughout my working life.  This week, we kept asking one another “Oh God, what am I going to say?”  “How am I going to stand in front of my congregation and say anything?” “I’m so furious/sad/defeated/enraged/numb/overwhelmed right now–how am I going to find the words?” 

And then there were the stories–not just in this group, but pouring off my computer screen, off the pages of friends near and far, out of my phone, and out of the mouths of friends and strangers everywhere I turned–“That was me, too.” “I remember the laughter.” “I can’t forget his face.” “No one believed me either.” “We told people not to go to the police because they will just make it worse and nothing will happen.” “They said it was my fault because….”.  On and on and on.  

Despite my best hopes (and really, despite my outward pragmatism, I can hope with the best of them), it would seem that there is still a great reluctance to hold powerful white men accountable for assault–or indeed, to question them on their right to do whatever they feel like. 

As Christians, we need to reckon with the indisputable fact that our abject failure to hold one portion of society accountable has resulted in the suffering of other portions. And that suffering has been on display this week in a way rarely seen.  

And in the midst of this, some of us got to preach.  On the gospel where Jesus gets mouthy about divorce of all things, because the Spirit likes to pile on.  

Here’s what I said.  

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

October 6, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 22

Mark 10:2-16

This is one of those weeks where the lectionary presents us with so much that needs unpacking that it feels like that state room the Marx Brothers rented in A Night at the Opera.  You open the door unsuspectingly and ALL THIS STUFF comes pouring down on you.  So don’t worry—don’t panic, and we’ll see what we can make of this.

Let’s start with the gospel—which might seem like an odd reading for us as Anglicans.  After all, as someone pointed out to me this week “Didn’t y’all start off because someone wanted a divorce?!”  Sort of, and not quite, and it’s complicated.  

But suffice it to say that divorce, and who gets to stay married or not, has always been a topic of conversation.  It was not invented in 1960s America by second wave feminism.  At the time Jesus is having this conversation with the crowd, divorce was just as complicated as it was in any time in history.

In Jewish law at the time, technically, only men could ask for a divorce, and they had to have an overwhelming reason to present to the priests.  Some rabbis argued that this overwhelming reason could only be adultery—some said that it could be any number of things—but as it was, the power to dissolve a marriage rested only with the man.  Which was a big problem for women, since their security—economic and otherwise—rested on a solid marriage.  If the marriage turned abusive, they had no way to leave.  And if their husband wanted to marry someone else, and leave them in the street—they had no way to stop him.  

It was not great for women—it created a situation where they were pretty powerless, and their children as well (if the woman was divorced, her kids went with her.) 

There were alternative legal theories going around, however.  Roman law—which was in place in Palestine under the occupation—held that either spouse could ask for a divorce.  So while it wasn’t strictly kosher (sorry), we have evidence that lots of Jewish couples just went to Roman courts to solve their marital woes.  Roman law was more egalitarian, as a rule, but—and this is a big but—there was also a problem here. 

 Palestine was a big melting pot of cultures; another major influence was the Hellenistic culture, which had come in with Alexander the Great, a few centuries before.  (Which is why the gospels are written in Greek.)   And Hellenistic culture was Not a Fan of women.  In the Hellenistic mindset, women couldn’t own property, couldn’t go outside alone, couldn’t really do anything, and DEFINITELY can’t file for divorce.  

So—all of that is swirling around this conversation about divorce.  Good idea?  Bad idea?  Because everyone has a very different opinion.  

And Jesus says this sort of odd thing about how God made people in the Garden and how if a man remarries after divorce he commits adultery, and same for a woman.

…huh?  At first glance, it seems pretty severe, and it has been used that way.  Make no mistake, like the verse about “God created them male and female” this verse has been used to shame and accuse people who were trying to faithfully make decisions in the best interest of themselves and their families.  

But in the context of the time, in the ears of the people Jesus is talking to, this is actually a step towards equality.   

Remember, a big part of the context here is whether women can ask for a divorce—because that’s the sticking point for rabbis, for Hellenistic culture, and for the Roman law.  Do women have equal rights to men?  And Jesus suggests that yes—it is just as bad for a man to abandon the family as it is for a woman to do so.  Thus, men and women are equal before God.    And that’s actually a fairly big deal.  For the cultural moment, this was a pretty progressive stance, because Jesus is giving rights to women and men. 

And like that situation earlier, where the Pharisees were asking him questions, Jesus is concerned here about the actual people these rulings affect, and less about the hypothetical argument.  Because during the debate, he picks up a child, and reminds the gathered group (again!)  that to welcome the kingdom of God is to welcome a child like this one.  Means to welcome and care for the powerless and the vulnerable in any given situation—whether that means children, or women deprived of legal rights.  Building the kingdom of God means having a special concern for the silenced and the disadvantaged, and making sure that everyone is safe, provided for, and able to prosper.  Not just those traditionally given legal voice.  But in the kingdom of God, EVERYONE has their needs provided for.  So his assertion about marriage being an equal partnership?  That radically upends the religious thinking of the day.  

It feels odd saying all this today, at this moment in our cultural context.  I actually held off a bit in writing this sermon because I wanted to be sure of what our context would be, so I waited later than I normally do—I waited until Saturday.  And please understand when I say that my concern over our context is not a partisan concern—it’s a pastoral one.  This past week and a half has been something like an extended support group for nearly every woman I know.  So many people, online, in person, have spoken again about their own stories of assault, and their own traumas of being ignored or brushed aside, or made to feel as if their suffering doesn’t matter.  And watching the debates in the Senate brings everything back up again. 

We can argue about the Supreme Court, and a judicial temperament, and the FBI, but what remains clear is that an incredible amount of people are hurting right now because for a long, long time, our society has failed to take violence against women seriously.  And as Christians who believe, right from Genesis 1, that all of us are created in God’s image, male and female, we need to pay attention to that.  Jesus himself tells us to pay attention to that today, as he holds men and women equally accountable for the success of marriage.  If we want to build the kingdom, we have to take violence against women, assault against women, seriously.  We do not have a choice.

And we begin here.  We begin right here.  When Jesus is talking about welcoming the children, when he’s talking about men and women—he’s not storming the halls of Rome.  He’s not filibustering Pontus Pilate.  He’s not running for political office or raising money—he’s talking to his friends.  Because before Christianity was known in the halls of power, it was known in the fields of Galilee, and the streets of Jerusalem.  By tax collectors, vagrants, and fishermen.  This was never a system that was supposed to rule anything—but early Christianity became so powerful that the empire couldn’t do anything but follow along.

So even if those in the halls of power can’t figure it out, we can.  We can, right here.  We can make this place safe for children right here.  We can make this place safe for survivors right here.  We can believe and support one another right here.  We can, in this time and place, right where we are, stand up for each other, and those whom we meet, who have been silenced and brutalised the way Jesus taught us to.  The way the Spirit empowers us to.  We can protect and care for one another and show the world a different way— a way that is so powerful, that eventually, even the mightiest empire will have to come along.