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See These Bones

Last Sunday was pretty much my first Real Day at work.  My first two Sundays with St. John’s were spent in the whirl of Palm Sunday and Easter, so Easter 2 was my first Normal, Regular opportunity to see how everything functioned when we weren’t concerned with either Welcoming Our New Rector or Celebrating Our Lord’s Victory over Death.

Spoiler alert:  everything was terrific.  I finally got a handle on how not to consecrate all the wine in the Finger Lakes region.  I got a laugh out of the early service crowd with my sermon.  And the little girl I had convinced to help me do the dismissal on Easter had written down her line in preparation for this week’s attempt, which was flat-out awesome.

Normal Church contains its own joys.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 8, 2018

Easter 2, Year B

John 20:19-31

Do you remember last week?  Remember Easter Sunday?

Think past all the people—the pretty flowers, the chocolate, the jubilant hymns, and the great meal.  Remember the story of Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus in the garden, and thinking he was a random gardener?

Did that strike you as strange?

Because here’s the thing.  Presumably, Mary has been with Jesus for YEARS now.  She knew full well what he looked like. She knew what his voice sounded like.  He was a dearly-loved friend.

But suddenly, she mistakes him for a gardener?

The mystery of why, post-resurrection, Jesus’ friends don’t recognize him is one of those mysteries that theologians and biblical scholars like to write books about, and discuss at parties.  “Maybe he could only be seen through the eyes of faith!” “Maybe the resurrection reflects both profound continuity and discontinuity with the previous reality, such that the common laws of time, space, and matter were affected!” 

It is not always a helpful conversation for those of us who are neither biblical scholars, nor theologians.  Which may be why those folks don’t have a great party reputation.

However, looking at the gospel today, you can see some of the same confusion that Mary experienced.

When the disciples are holed up together, in that upper room, convinced they’re about to raided and arrested—remember, it’s only really been a few days since Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, and the practice of Rome was to go after everyone associated with a traitor: family, friends, everyone—to make a public example.  Jesus just appears to them.  In a locked room.  Walks right through a locked door, and tells them to not be afraid.

THAT’s easier said than done—because not only are they convinced they’re about to be arrested, but their good friend Jesus just ghosted through a wall.  EVERYTHING seems frightening! 

Then, Jesus breathes on them (also, let’s face it—strange) and tells them to receive the holy spirit.  Should they retain the sin of any, it is retained.  If they loose the sin of any, it is loosed.  

Thomas, it should be noted, isn’t here at this point.  We don’t know why; maybe it was momentary—he stepped out to get lunch.  Maybe he gave up and went home.  Maybe he was having a real crisis of faith.

We know from earlier in the gospel that Thomas was pretty committed—when Jesus was talking about going back to Jerusalem to see Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and there was a risk of arrest already, Thomas solemnly proposed going along so as to die with him.  Thomas was not a flakey disciple—we don’t have evidence that he fled like Peter at the crucifixion.  

But for whatever reason, he is absent on this occasion.

So when he turns back up, he is skeptical about the story the others tell him.  It doesn’t sound right to him.  I was reading a commentary this week that posited that the language around Thomas’s exit and return sounds like a person who had left permanently and then is sought after—a nuance of verb tense that doesn’t quite come through in English.  So this commentator imagined that Thomas had suffered a crisis of faith—a betrayal of sorts, and had left the community for a time to sort it out.

For a person like Thomas who had so much invested in Jesus, and what he represented, that he was willing to die for him, it would follow that to witness a passive Jesus be crucified at the hands of Rome would be a real blow to his faith.  And he might need time to discern what this meant for him.

Yet the other disciples, having seen the risen Lord, go and track him down.  They tell him the story.  They try to get him back in their community.  

But Thomas isn’t having it.  Because, again—the story sounds ludicrous.  Jesus walks through walls?  Jesus breathing on them?  Jesus being alive after he was most certainly dead?  No.

Also, consider that if Thomas is having a crisis of faith, then it’s not so easy to just return.  He feels betrayed, and guilty for having left, and is probably unsure of his reception.

Crises of faith are not so easy to bounce back from.  Traumas are not so easily healed.  Even after we experience new life, the suffering we endure leaves its mark.  So when Thomas returns   to the fold, and he encounters the risen Christ for himself, is it any wonder that what he asks for is to see the wounds of Christ?  Not proof of life, per se, but proof of suffering. Proof that somehow, Christ too knows what Thomas and the others went through, scared and alone locked in that upper room.

What brings Thomas back into community is Jesus’ scars, more than Jesus’ new life.  Yes, Jesus is alive again, and he is risen, and that is glorious, but Jesus still bears the wounds of a person who was crucified—of a person who went through the experiences that he went through.  The resurrection, as it turns out, does not erase or undo the past week—it transforms it into something new.  Something more powerful.  Something that can reach out and speak to Thomas.

It is tempting to think of our faith in the resurrection as a ‘get out of death’ free card.  As a sort of magic trick that will save us from having to endure anything scary or difficult for long.  Jesus, after all, didn’t stay dead, so why should we get too upset about it?  Why should we fear or grieve death, if we know its not the end?  

But Thomas has a point in his dramatic faith crisis this week. Easter does not wash away the memory of what has happened.  Resurrection does not erase the crucifixion, or the misery of Holy Week.  Those things still happen; we still endure death, and loss and grief.  But God in his wisdom and mercy refuses to let the story end there.  God participates in our suffering, to be with us, and to transform it into something redeemed.  

For Thomas, it was the sight of Christ’s wounds—the knowledge that Christ had suffered in some sense as he had—that affirmed for him his place in this community again.  The wounds of Christ had been transformed into instruments of healing for Thomas and the disciples.   Instead of being mere reminders of a painful experience, now they were a bridge to bring Thomas back to his friends.

For all of us, the resurrection of Christ is not just a one time event.  For us it offers a chance not to erase our pain but to redeem it, to transform it into something new.  To change it from open wounds into scars that can work creative good in the world.  

As we journey farther into Easter, let us always remember that the glory of Easter is with us, reaching out to transform the wounded heart of the world into something new, something holy.  

Amen.

Easter Morning: Faith in the Garden

I got to have Easter dinner with a seminary classmate that I haven’t seen since graduation (hooray!  Hi, Ann!) Not only did Ann recommend an AMAZING documentary about people who raise and show chickens (Chicken People on Amazon Prime–go watch it. I’ll wait.) our host also borrowed for our viewing, an 18th century engraving of Mary Magdalene conversing with Jesus-as-gardener in this passage from John.  Unusually, Jesus is actually dressed as a gardener, with hat and shovel, and Mary has a look of shocked grief on her face.  I don’t know who did the engraving, but it was really fantastic.

May your Easter be also full of such joy!

 

Here’s what I said.

Easter Morning:

Welcome, again, happy morning!  Welcome to Easter—the feast of the Resurrection, the celebration of the empty tomb and all the promise it holds for us.

It’s a joyful day—all our hymns say so, all our dresses say so.  All those commercials with the Easter bunny hopping around say so.  This is a happy holiday—families, chocolate, dyed eggs—the works.

Weird, then, how there’s so much crying in the gospel.  Think about it.  The gospel story is not precisely full of joy.  Mary Magdalene rises at daybreak to go to the tomb, to anoint the body of Jesus.  She’s certainly not happy; she’s grieving, and anointing his body is the traditional ritual of grief performed as a last act for loved ones.  So she goes to the tomb, but she finds the stone rolled away, and the body missing.

And she’s even more upset.  She is convinced this is a catastrophe.  Not only has her teacher and Lord been put to death at the hands of the Roman Empire, not only was he crucified as a traitor, but now, the final humiliation—she cannot even mourn at his gravesite.  So she runs to find the disciples.

And, true to their nature, Peter and John (let’s go with John) show up, and investigate.  They are not so grief-stricken as to not compete with each other on the way to the tomb, but they discern that indeed!  It’s empty.

So they leave.  They go home.  They give up.

And so it is Mary Magdalene, alone, who hears the message of the angel.  Mary alone who meets the risen Christ.  And Mary, alone, who is the first to recognize the joy of the Resurrection.  Because everyone else left.

And not because they were so distraught—clearly, Mary is beside herself—and not because they are going to Do Something Important.  I think they leave because they think they know how this story ends.  I think Peter and John leave because they have decided that they know what happens next.

Because it would be so easy to look at this story and think to yourself “Of course!” “Of course our teacher and beloved friend was killed by the powers that be.  Of course!  That’s how the world works—nothing that good can last for long.  Of course the good and the peaceful are trampled down into the dirt.  Of course the powerful and the violent triumph.  Isn’t that what always happens? And now this, the final degradation—we can’t even bury him properly.  Of course.  We should have known.  The world will never change.”  It would be so easy to have seen all this, and think you know how the story goes.  To fully expect the powers of death and destruction to win, because for all intents and purposes, they had.  And Peter and John had been around long enough to feel the weight of their reign.  They knew better than to hope for more.

But somehow, Mary held on to something.  Mary remained, clinging onto hope—though it probably felt more in the moment like a broken heart.  But Mary, in that moment, had enough hope and faith in the God of justice to believe that this couldn’t possibly how the story ended, and so she stayed, crying in grief and frustration, and pestering every random stranger who might help her.

And that hope-against-hope is how Mary catches sight of the miraculous resurrection.  Of life where it has no reason to be, of God changing the story on us.

It takes faith, after all, to remain in our gardens.  It takes faith in the ability of God to somehow, some way, bring new life from certain death.  It takes a whole lot of faith to keep us going, to keep on fighting what is wrong in the world when it seems like we don’t make any progress.  And there are times when it surely would be easier on our hearts to give into cyncism and just go home.  Consign ourselves to the same old story of a world lost to the darkness.

But my friends, to choose the easy path would be to miss the joy of the resurrection.  Resurrection is never easy—the resurrection sneaks up on us when we don’t expect it—it comes up behind us when the story seems over, and when all seems lost.  Resurrection comes to us when all we have left is that thin shred of hope that God will somehow bring life out of death.

But if we learn one thing from the glory of Easter morning, it is that this is precisely what God does.  God transforms the way the world has always been, the way we expect and know the world to be.  God transforms our injustices, our hatreds, our suffering and, in the brilliance of the Easter dawn, shows us what a world would be like with these things removed.

The resurrection is when God imposes God’s logic upon our logic, that has long since ceased working, and reminds us that this world is not yet perfected—but God is getting there.

And in the meantime, hope is what we cling to.  Until that blessed day when Christ has finally redeemed all creation, and all the whole universe has been transformed by resurrection light, we struggle on with God, holding to hope.  That even when things look their bleakest, even when the story seems over, even when the mighty seem to have won, and the powerful seem to be trampling the weak, and evil again seems to be in charge—despite EVERYTHING—God will still have the last word.

Because there is nothing—no power in this creation—greater than God’s love for us, and every creature under heaven.  So our hope, our Easter hope, rests in that love.  That love that moves mountains, shakes the earth, and conquered death.

Amen.

 

Easter Vigil: Time Traveling and Tessering

People become priests for different reasons.  Some people crave the power (that is a big let down, let me tell you), some people want to take care of other people.  Me, I wanted to rebuke Jerry Falwell, and also to sing the Exsultet so I could travel through time.

It’s always nice to achieve your childhood dreams.

 

Here’s what I said at the Easter Vigil.

Easter Vigil—Exsultet

When I was a kid, my greatest wish was to be able to tesser.  I had read, and adored the book by Madeleine L’engle, A Wrinkle in Time, and my greatest wish was to be Meg Murray, a stubborn and feisty preteen girl who travels through time and space to save her father from the creeping forces of evil.  She also has the power to ‘wrinkle time’—Madeleine’s way to describe the 5th dimension, or how a person would create a wormhole to instantaneously move through time and space.  (this is an actual quantum physics thing— which is even better.)

THIS BOGGLED MY MIND and I spent hours in my backyard, in vain, focussing all my mental energy, trying to pull off a tesseract.  I didn’t really want to go anywhere in particular, or any time in particular—I just wanted to no longer be limited by time or space—both of which, I was aware, worked to separate me from people and places I loved.  Wouldn’t it be lovely, I thought, if neither of those things limited me?

Of course, my hours in the backyard staring at that one pine tree came to nought.  I cannot, I confess to you, move through the 5th dimension.

But I do have the Easter Vigil.

For those of us non-time travellers, this Vigil is probably as close as we come to moving through time and space.  This is the night, after all, when we sit in the darkness and recount God’s saving deeds throughout history, and then witness again, how God still redeems and saves us today.  This is the night when the light breaks forth from the utter void once again, and we get to see it.

The Exsultet is the ancient prayer sung at the beginning of this service.  It’s the long chant I sang to the Paschal candle about how great it was, and how brightly it shone, and all that.  This is one of the oldest prayers we have, if not THE oldest.  It was written around the 5th century, with major parts coming from even earlier.  St. Augustine makes reference to it in his writings from the early 4th century.  It’s old.

And, quite frankly, it’s odd.  Aside from the oddness of singing to a candle (which….a bit ago we were conjuring a fire and praying over it so it’s relative) listen to the words we’re saying.  “This is the night, when wickedness is put to flight.”  “this is the night when Christ overcame sin and death, and washed away Adam’s sin.”  “This is the night when you led the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.” “How holy is this night! When to redeem a slave, you gave a son!”

According to the Exsultet, everything is somehow happening at once:  the deliverance of Israel at Passover, the resurrection of Christ, the defeat of death, and the ultimate triumph of God over the forces of evil and sin which continue to hinder us.  In the context of this unusual prayer, all of time, all of space, is condensed into one, glorious, shining night, as God blazes into the darkness, and saves us.

In this glorious night, God defeats the barriers of time and space, as Christ defeats the barrier of death, and we witness again our redemption.  It’s a reminder that God is not limited by anything—not history, not the ravages of time, not distance, and not even death.  God is god of all of it, and overcomes all of it to be present with us.

Amen, ALLELUIA!

 

Maundy Thursday–the grace of receiving

Maundy Thursday is my favorite service, and has been since I was a wee small child.  The acute juxtaposition of the glory and assurance of the Eucharist, alongside the desolation of the stripping of the altar, and the betrayal in the dark.

The modern, American, suburban church is bad at negative feelings.  We don’t do so great at lament, or expressing a feeling other than Norman Vincent Peale’s power of positive thinking.  If Jesus is the answer, then the thinking is that nothing could be the problem.

But the older I get, the more convinced I am that we need a robust discussion of sin and brokenness in the church, in order to process the reality of suffering that greets us each day as we open the door.  How can we deal adequately with war, famine, poverty, racism, violence, etc, in a compassionate way, unless we also admit to ourselves the brokenness and corporate sin that plagues the world?  How do we stand in solidarity with the victims of these things if we do not also admit the sheer pain and anguish they cause?

Letting the church be stripped and pillaged on Maundy Thursday isn’t much, but it’s a start.

Here’s what I said.

What is the last thing you want to do?  The last thing before you leave, the most important?  These are the most important, the things that shape us.  The way we end relationships.  “How would you spend your last day on earth?”  Think of those folks in Hawaii during that false alarm missile test.

This is the last thing Jesus does with his friends—this most uncomfortable, humiliating ritual.  So much so that It hasn’t gotten any more comfortable after these 2,000 years!

The lowest servants washed feet.  Feet went everywhere, got covered with dirt, and animal waste and Lord knew what else.  They were nasty and smelly and look, many of us are self-conscious about our feet now, what with pedicures and whatnot, imagine how bad it would be without podiatry and callus removers.  And also walking around Galilee all your life.

And Jesus is asking his disciples to let him wash their feet.

Sometimes we miss how hard it is to let someone see your vulnerability.  We talk a lot in church about the importance of serving others—and that is incredibly important in our lives as Christians.

But there are times when service is actually the easier path.  Because serving others means we do not need to dwell in our own humanity and our own brokenness.  We get to concentrate on how broken others are.  And hey, that’s way more comfortable!  I can dwell on the imperfections of other people all day!!!

Yet here, in the final moments of his time on earth, Christ asks his friends to sit for a moment in their own vulnerability.  And of course, Peter immediately chokes.  Peter, patron saint of Speaking-First-Thinking-Later, says “I CANT DO THAT, OMG ABSOLUTELY NOT” And Jesus calmly tells him to pipe down.  So Peter switches gears; “OK LORD, THEN I MUST BE ABSOLUTE GARBAGE, SO PLEASE JUST WASH ALL OF ME OMG IM AWFUL.”  Poor Peter.  Icon of humanity, that guy.  Because we all tend to bounce from these two extremes, when called upon to confront our weaknesses. Either I AM FINE, NOTHING IS WRONG.  Or EVERYTHING IS AWFUL, I AM IRREDEEMABLE, PLEASE DO NOT LOOK AT ME.

But the truth is—neither is true.  We are none of us perfect.  We are all broken and weak.  We have all been trudging in the dirt and mud of our various struggles for far too long. We participate in systems of human construction that make us complicit in the oppression and degradation of other people.

And yet.  And yet, on this night, in this holy week, Christ still comes to us, and wants to be with us in our brokenness and to wash us clean.  Christ wants to cleanse us from all that weighs us down, and keeps us from the unbreakable love of God that created us.  Even with all our mistakes, all our cruelty, all the seemingly-inescapable mud of our sin, Christ still sits at our very feet and is with us.

 

In the days to come, Christ will be betrayed, judged, abandoned, and murdered at the hands of a broken and sinful human world.  And yet tonight, he assures us through his presence in the Eucharist, and in his presence with us now, that not anything we can conjure nor commit, and no amount of terrifying feet, will make him abandon us.

There was no donkey

Confession time: In the run-up to my first Sunday at St. John’s, I was feeling pretty good.  I had finished my sermon, I had begun to unpack my mountain of boxes, I had figured out where Wegman’s was–life looked great.

When I arrived at church on Sunday morning, I could not get my sermon to print (for complicated, uninteresting reasons having to do with the cloud).  Could not do it.

“Huh.” I thought. “This may be interesting.”

So I wrote a page of notes on what I thought I had written, and preached on that.

Of course, several people came up to me later in great excitement, that I had preached entirely without notes!  Such talent!

I am sorry to disappoint you, St. John’s, especially so early on in our relationship, but that was entirely unintentional.  🙂

Here’s what I said (or wanted to say, or meant to say, or something.)

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday, Year B

Passion According to Mark

Hi, St. John’s! It is so good to finally see you all in person.  It is so good to finally be here with you, and it is so very good to finally begin our journey together in ministry.

Now, I want to tell you up front—this sermon will not be about me—there will be plenty of time for that later, and goodness knows, I’m not all that interesting anyway.  So if you came to church today expecting a break from the bipolar nature of Palm Sunday because the new rector was appearing—sorry, I can’t get you out of that one.  As my liturgics professor said, the liturgy always wins.  Don’t fight it.

I may still be trying to find all the light switches, but it’s still the first day in Holy Week, and Jesus has entered Jerusalem in triumph, by cheering crowds.  He has asked the disciples to basically steal a donkey for him (which is pretty great, if you think about it.  Not too often the Lord tells someone to swipe livestock) and he enters the city.

To the first hearers of the gospel, this would have sounded somewhat familiar.  Jesus coming on a donkey being greeted like this would have sounded like the messianic prophecies from Micah and the other Hebrew scripture prophets—where the true king arrives in quiet fashion, not in a military parade with troops and arms, but by himself, accompanied only by the flimsiest of weapons—some palm leaves.  Not imposing at all.  To them, it would have sounded like Jesus was coming into Jerusalem to be the true king, the true leader—one so beloved by the people he didn’t need the military might that Rome’s occupation depended on.

But then something happens.  It’s not clear precisely what—but somehow the authorities of Jerusalem become alarmed at this unassuming rabbi.  The temple leaders, already anxious about their own tenuous hold on power, see in Jesus someone who could sway the people’s loyalty, and Rome sees yet another upstart traitor to the emperor.  So, in they come with their own story, and their own crowd to challenge the story Jesus tells: “This is not a king,” they say.  “A king has power, and might, and rules in triumph.  We have no king but Caesar.”

It’s easy to assume that the crowd that greets Jesus upon his entry to Jerusalem is the same crowd that condemns him at his trial—that’s the way we’ve told the story for many years—sort of the way we tell the Christmas story with wise men showing up with shepherds.  But there’s nothing in the text that suggests that’s the case.  In fact, they were probably two entirely different groups of people.  The crowd that greeted Jesus when he entered was probably his followers—Jewish folks from all over Galilee and Judea coming in for the festival. But at the trial before Pilate, remember that Rome feared a Jewish uprising above all things (because they happened about every twenty minutes) so the likelihood that Pilate would have allowed a group of random Galileans into his fortress to watch a trail seems….small.  This crowd is probably a small, vetted group of Roman-friendly authorities.  No wonder they seem so fond of Caesar all of a sudden!

So there are two crowds in this story, each with their own view of who Jesus is, and with their own view of what should happen to him.  Two crowds, two versions of the story.  Jesus is either the true King of Israel or a threat to Rome.  He is either the messiah, or a dangerous blasphemer.  And it all depends on whose story you listen to—which crowd you join.

That’s the thing about stories.  As humans, we make meaning by telling stories, and particularly as people of faith, we find our relationship with God tracked through the stories of the scriptures.  And yet, the brilliant thing about stories is also what makes them tricky—they are never unequivocal.  They contain multitudes, they never give you just one answer—and so it is up to us to tell them wisely and for good purpose.

For example, the passion story.  For us, it is our most beloved story.  It is the record of Jesus Christ’s last days on earth, his suffering and death.  The culmination of his earthly life, and his glorification and death at the hands of an oppressive empire.  We see in this story the record of a God who loved us so much that he became one of us and endured some of the worst we could do to each other to prove that nothing could separate us from God’s presence and love.  And so this story is uniquely powerful and moving.

Yet, for many, many years, beginning in the Middle Ages, this story of the Passion was told as a way to stir up anger and hatred towards our Jewish brothers and sisters.  Preachers in medieval Europe would hold passion plays, rife with anti-semitic stereotypes, and then send the furious crowd out to commit violence against the local Jewish population.  This story, so precious to us, was also the flashpoint for some heinous crimes.  This story which speaks to us of life and love so amazing speaks to others of pain and suffering.

Yet, we know that this history of misuse does not mean that the story of Christ’s passion is-itself-bad.  Only that it has been abused.  That there were times when we, in our brokenness, have told the wrong story.

We joined the wrong crowd.

That choice is always before us, whenever we recount the stories of our faith, the stories of our relationship with the Divine.  Are we telling the stories in such a way as to give life or to repress it?  Are we telling our stories to reflect the truth we know about God?  To accurately reflect the God that loves us and loves the whole world so much as to come to be one of us?  Because that is the story that needs to be told.  That is the story that is so powerful.  Right now, so many other stories are flying around out there—stories of hatred and division and oppression.  Stories that use the Christ we love as an excuse for bias and discrimination and persecution.  So we have to tell our story, and we have to tell it well.  Because when we tell it, that is the story that gives life to the world.  That is the story sets it alight.

So let’s tell it together.

Amen.

Easter Week catch-up

Whew.

At some point, when talking to St. John’s, I said that I would begin my official ministry on Palm Sunday.  In the middle of moving cross-country at the end of Lent, I realized that this may not have been the best idea that I ever had.

But aside from the whirlwind nature of blowing into town, having a huge stack of bulletins land on your desk, and then getting to wade through the busiest liturgical week in the Christian year–there are a lot of good things about starting a new ministry in Holy Week.

(I’m not kidding.)

You get to see all your parishioners right away, and several times in one week, so you can learn people’s names faster.  You get several liturgies right in a row, so you get the nuances of a new place under your feet faster.  And also, you get all the big, scary traditions out of the way right up front, when you are presumably too new to know better, so if/when you mess up, well, you’re new!  You can figure it out next year.

And most of all, it is probably the greatest teacher that you are not in charge that there is.  For all of us clergy-types inclined to believe that it is only through our overwork that Christ is crucified and resurrected, moving across the country in the days before will blow that supposition right out of the water.  Truly, if you’re brand new–you cannot do it all, because you haven’t a clue what needs doing.  You have to rely on the Altar Guild, the musicians, the administrator, the sexton–all the tried and true people who work along side you–and on the power of the liturgy to do the heavy lifting.

Because God shows up, regardless of how frantic and chaotic we choose to be.

(Along those same lines, I am regrettably behind in posting sermons.  Today, I hope to get all the Holy Week ones up and running.)

Just World Heresy

So here was my conundrum, coming into this Sunday.  The “Get behind me, Satan” story is only half of a story–the other half is Peter figuring out that Jesus is the Messiah, and to my mind, you actually need both for it to make sense.  Also, I felt like most of the national conversation had been taken up by two things: the awesome high school students in Florida who are pushing for gun control in the wake of surviving another shooting, and the nearly-daily march of indictments coming from the Special Counsel.  Neither one jumped out and suggested itself to me as a good match for Peter’s flub here–though, in a way, they both seemed to fit.

So I decided to go slightly meta, and talk about the just-world fallacy.  Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

February 25, 2018

Lent 2, Year B

Mark 8:31-38

 

I was listening to NPR a few months ago, as is required of all Episcopal clergy.  In a story about the rapid growth of the #MeToo movement, the reporter mentioned something called the Just World Fallacy.  

The Just World Fallacy is an idea from psychology.  Basically, it’s the persistent belief shared by nearly all humans to some degree that the world is a just place, and people fundamentally get what they deserve.  Good people are rewarded  with good things, and bad people are punished.  We hear echoes of it all the time.  So, when someone says, “What goes around, comes around” they’re echoing this idea.  When Job’s friends tell him he must have done something to provoke God’s wrath and judgment, they’re tapping into this.  All of us do it, to some extent.

The problem is–it’s not true.  Good people suffer irrational tragedies all the time, and people who lie, cheat, and steal get away with stuff.  And when we hold onto the fallacy too tightly, we end up denigrating people who suffer, by insinuating that they might have done something to deserve it.  Sometimes, the just world fallacy comes out as victim-blaming.  Or victim-silencing.  If I cannot believe in a world where harassment and assault are so widespread, because the world is just, so what you say happened to you cannot possibly be true.  

The just-world fallacy is hard to kill, and it creeps in to every crack and crevice of our brains.  Because it’s comforting, to think that the world is understandable, and somewhat controllable.  If I believe there are rules the world runs by, then I can avoid suffering, and if not, then at least know why it happened. 

So think of that, as we read this gospel passage.  Peter is the patron saint of speaking his mind, as we’ve established.  And so he says what everyone is thinking–Lord, this awful death can never happen to you.  You can’t be powerless, you can’t be hurt, you can’t be weak.  That’s not the way the Messiah behaves.  The world is just, so the Messiah cannot die.

 

Jesus rebukes him.  Get behind me, Satan.  Your mind is on the things of earth, and not the things of heaven.  

 

Because sure, that isn’t what would happen in a just world.  A just and fair world doesn’t kill the Son of God at the hands of the empire.  A righteous world doesn’t let the innocent suffer, the poor be oppressed and the weak starve.  But then again, a just world doesn’t need a Messiah.  And this isn’t a just world.   

 

But what’s fascinating about this interchange is the lengths Peter is willing to go to to hold onto his vision of the world as a whole place.  He’s working so hard to still believe in the world as essentially fair, that he ends up calling Jesus–Jesus! Whom he just proclaimed as God Incarnate–wrong, and incorrect.  Peter so wants his world to stay right, that he calls Jesus wrong.

 

We want, so badly, to be comfortable and at home in this world that we bend what we know God wants from us to fit what the world wants of us.  Less discomfort that way.  Less upset.  Less confrontation with the world’s brokenness.  We bend God to fit into the world as it is, because that feels easier in the moment than the alternative.

 

Peter is angry because he doesn’t want to confront the sorrow and pain of losing his friend.  We don’t want to believe that the world is so broken, so out of step with what God wants, because that is a hard thing to face  Who can live in a world so unjust?  So full of chaos?

 

And so, he tells Jesus that, no, the Messiah can’t die.  He wants Jesus to fit into the way the world works.  

 

So often, we want Jesus to conform to the routine of the world that we know.  The power structures we are familiar with.  The Messiah that wields power like an earthly king–because that’s easier to deal with than rather than the suffering savior who dies in an unjust system to call out the injustice.  

 

We want the Christian life to respond to those same rhythms, to confirm our just world beliefs–sometimes so much so that we occasionally just stamp a cross on the status quo and call it good.  In ancient times, we’d say: Is one guy in power?  God must have done it, because this is a just world!  And now the emperor is an instrument of God, and we had the divine right of kings.  Later on in history, we’d ask: Did we win that war?  God must have wanted to give us that land.  And now God is tasked with distributing land to victorious armies–and a whole lot of suffering to the losers.  

And nowadays, there are people asking: Are there more guns in America than any country outside of a warzone?  Then owning a gun must be a person’s God-given right.  And now we have saddled God with unspeakable tragedies.  

 

The problem is–none of these things actually have much to do with God–they have to do with us–and when we lean too far into the just world theory, it leads us into some frightening and deadly places.  

 

When you go back and read scripture, you discover that God doesn’t install kings.  (God was pretty against Saul, if you recall in the Old Testament.) God doesn’t distribute land (again, private ownership of land is not a concept God is a fan of in Leviticus and Deuteronomy–land is supposed to revert back to the original owner after 7 years.) And God really doesn’t distribute weapons of war.  Jesus had some hard words for Peter once he starts waving a sword around in Gethsemane.  

 

That is not a thing God does.  Once God creates the world, calls it good, and sets us loose in it, God really doesn’t spend much time congratulating us for what we’ve done, so much as God keeps trying to get us to do things better, and differently.  The constant theme through Scripture is that the world is not, in fact, as it should be.  Lots of things are going wrong, and God wants us to fix it with God’s help.  God wants us to try again.  

 

But before we can do that, we first have to recognize that the way things are is not the way things should be.  This is not a just world.  This is not the world as God intended.  God did not intend for parents to send their children off to school and never see them again.  God did not intend for children to beg politicians for their right to live without fear.  God did not want for teachers to have to worry about somehow teaching students and also keeping them alive.  God did not intend for us to live like this–because God did not intend for anyone to live like this.  

 

The task before us is to recognize that this is not the world God wants, and work with God to transform it.  When Jesus asks us to pick up our cross, he is asking us to acknowledge the current brokenness of the world and not turn away.  But the good news here is that Christ has already begun carrying this cross.  Christ has already begun to set the world aright. And all we have to do is join in.  Christ stands right beside us, asking for our help, asking for our hands, in the effort to fix a broken world and we just have to acknowledge the problem in the first place. 

So the question before us is:  will we help?

 

Amen