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Plowing for Justice

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

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

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

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 17, 2018

Proper 6, Year B

Mark 4:26-34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

King of Pogs

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

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

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

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 10, 2018

Proper 5, Ordinary Time, Year B

1 Samuel 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the cool kids quote Hafiz

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

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

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

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 3, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 4

Mark 2:23—3:6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Continuing Education

On Saturday, I went to my first diocesan event in Central New York.

Here’s the thing with diocesan events:  I consider them a win if they are unremarkable and contain one or two pieces of information I can use.  Occasionally, diocesan events descend to the point where they test my continuing belief in my vocation, which is worrying, but mostly, they sort of float along unnoticed.  I go, I talk to people I don’t usually get to see, and life moves on.

Happily, Dr. Catherine Meeks was invited to be the keynote speaker at this particular event.  And Dr. Catherine Meeks is a freaking genius-person who can bring the gospel with the best of them.  Listening to her speak was a true highlight.  (If you haven’t read her book Living into God’s Dream, then you should do that.  Go read her book.). One of the things she said was that hatred, prejudice, bigotry, etc resulted from our own inability to do our own work.  When people were unable to process their own insecurities and their own damage, they projected the elements in themselves they were uncomfortable with onto the Other–whoever that might be–and that projected image became what we saw when we engage with the other person.  It’s fear, but not fear of difference in the other, as much as it is fear of difference in oneself.

For me, this melted my brain a bit.  I’ve heard all sorts of explanations for racism and sexism over the years: economic anxiety, lack of exposure to difference, ignorance, etc.  None of them quite fit for me–because there is always the person who grew up around difference, knows perfectly well the consequences of what they say and do–and just does not care.  I’m related to people like that, and just calling it cognitive dissonance doesn’t explain it fully.

I adore learning something that explains some of the world to me.  So I have, since Saturday, walked around marveling in my head how wonderful and brilliant this idea is.  How much it explains.  How useful it might be to explain yet more of the big world.

Dr. Meeks also made mention of God’s role in all of this; how God asks us to fully engage in the process of making justice and peace a reality, even as we would much rather wander around with our faces toward the sky, asking for someone else to do it for us.  That part, I used in my sermon on Sunday.  Here it is.

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

May 13, 2018

Ascension/Easter 7/ Frances Perkins shout-out?

Luke 24: 44-53

 

My fiancé and I have noted that when someone’s name appears floating through our social media, our first thought is “Oh no, I hope he’s not dead.”  Then, our second thought is usually “Oh no: what horrible thing has he been accused of?” 

It’s only been a year since the article was published that exposed Harvey Weinstein’s repeated crimes against women, and in that time, the #metoo movement has done much to shed light into some of the darkest spaces of our society.  By elevating women’s voices, and by using social pressure against those who harass and abuse the vulnerable, the movement has started to shift how we address these issues as a society.  (Started to.)

And one of the side-effects of that shift is that there has been more than one fallen idol in all this.  Louis CK seemed so affable and funny, until the stories about him came out, and suddenly it all looked different.  Bill Cosby was hilarious, and harmless, until he really, really wasn’t.  Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Garrison Keillor, in Missouri, the governor, Eric Greitens, and this week, the Attorney General of New York.

As I was reading about the latest case (which was really awful, and you should prepare yourselves) what struck me was the women who urged the victims not to come forward.  “He is what we need against Trump,” they argued.  “He’s such a key player.  He’s done so much good.  We can’t do this without him.”

What horrible calculus is that.  Don’t get me wrong; I understand the logic.  I understand why the victim of assault would not want to come forward, especially against a public figure.  But the thinking that one person, one person alone!, can save us.  The idea that any hope for change rests on One Magic Person being perfect is bound to end badly.  It’s a very dangerous thing, trying to make an idol out of anyone, much less a human.  But we try it all the time.  We do it in ways large and small.  Oh, how we would love for someone, ANYONE, to save us so we don’t have to.

Think about this burning human need for a savior, in the back of your mind, when you reread the Ascension story.  Because, on several levels, the Ascension story is WEIRD.  It’s a bit…unnecessary? Even?  Jesus has lived, he’s died, he rose again, and now?  He just lifts on off the ground, and for what?    I’m sure the disciples were really put out with this turn of events—they had just gotten the guy back 40 days prior, and here he is leaving again.  This was perhaps not the most helpful to the disciples.  They have all these expectations, all these things they want Jesus to do now that he’s new, Resurrected Jesus:  “Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Because surely now that he’s back, he’s going to get on with making the world perfect, with doing all the things he promised while he was alive.  

But nope! No sooner had they begun to get their minds around the resurrection than Jesus leaves again, and NOW what state of being is he in? They expected Jesus to fix everything now that he was resurrected, but instead, he leaves.  Again.  And they are left staring at the sky.

But two angels appear, and ask them what they’re doing “Men of Galilee, why are you staring at the sky?”  

Now that Jesus has departed, the disciples are a bit baffled, and more than usual.  Who will save them now?  Who will do all those things that Jesus said they should do?  How will anything get better?  Who will save the world now?

The disciples want Jesus, of course, to be the person to do all the heavy lifting—to be the one person who does all the work.  And of course, Jesus, during his ministry on earth, does an incredible amount of healing and teaching and preaching. 

But in the end, when Jesus departs for the heavenly realms, the disciples must pick up the torch of that ministry.  They must go out and do themselves what Jesus had previously done.  Peter must grow into the Rock Jesus declared him to be.  James and John must grow beyond their quarreling and bickering, and work together.  Thomas must venture beyond his cynicism and journey forward in faith.  Mary Magdalene must embrace a new life.    All of which wouldn’t have really been possible if Jesus had stayed with them.  But now that he’s gone, these gathered people grow from a lost band of confused individuals to the seed of the church.

It’s only after the Ascension, after all, that we see Peter beginning to get a clue, and start preaching dynamic sermons in Acts.  It’s only after the Ascension that we see James and John band together and build up the church in Jerusalem.  It’s only after the Ascension that, according to legend, Thomas goes to India to preach the gospel and Mary Magdalene goes all the way to Rome to tell the emperor of the Risen Christ.  All of a sudden, it’s as if the Ascension spurs the disciples to grow into the people they were intended to be all along.  

In theological terms, we say that Christ doesn’t depart in the Ascension—or rather, he does, but only so that he can be more fully present with all of Creation.  While he was incarnate on earth, he was bound in time and space, but after the ascension, he was no longer so limited, and so could be present to all people in the same instant.  The spirit of Christ could accompany Peter as he taught, Thomas as he traveled, Mary as she preached—everyone all at once.  And us, as we gather here.

Instead of relying on an external Christ to magically save them, the Ascension pushed the disciples to rely on the spirit of Christ aiding them internally for guidance and strength. It pushed them to do the work that Christ had been preparing them for during his ministry, and to realize all they were capable of.  To claim their roles as co-laborers with God in this world.

Because really, we can’t rely on idols.  Idols, as the Psalms are always telling us, will disappoint us every time.  No matter what.  Idols won’t save us—no matter how well-intentioned.  If we want the world to be a more just place, we have to change.  If we want oppression to cease, we need to work on that.  If we want to see more love, more mercy, more forgiveness in our world, we need to start cultivating these within our own lives.

The Holy Spirit, present in our midst, empowers us to seek and do the will of God, even when its difficult, even when we aren’t sure how to begin.  It is the Holy Spirit that shifts us from gazing longly at the sky, wishing for another idol to rest our hopes on, to moving forward, ready to embrace the life and work that Christ calls us to.

  

Happy happy, joy joy

I did NOT decide to preach a sermon on the joy of Christ because I recently got engaged. (While I am really happy, I’d argue that the immediate inundation of “YOU MUST PLAN YOUR WEDDING THE FOLLOWING WAY” ads on all social media platforms really cuts down on the experience a bit.) I decided to do it because I am again indebted to D. Mark Davis’ lectionary/linguistic blog Left Behind and Loving It. In the post, he asks what the joy of Christ might look like, which got me thinking.  I’ve talked before about how I usually steer clear of commentaries, because they tend to overshadow how I hear the text with their own opinions and framing.  This blog just posits questions alongside the Koine text, which I find infinitely more helpful as a place to start a sermon.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

May 6, 2018

Easter 6

John 15:9-17

One of the side-effects of beginning your ordained career at a younger age than the average priest, is that you spend quite a lot of time in meetings with people trying to figure out how to speak the language of “Kids These Days.”  This is fascinating for a number of reasons, among them, the assumption that an entire generation has ever been of the same mind about anything, and also—that a person who felt called to enter the priesthood as a teenager would make a particularly good spokesperson for said generation.   I went to seminary at age 21!  I am not the most typical of young people!  

And yet, here we are.  In one of those meetings, I can recall sitting with my college students when I was a chaplain, and being surprised to hear adults in the room congratulate them for attending service.  “I can’t believe you come to church! Next time, we’ll make sure to reward you with lunch afterwards.” One said.  Another made some mention of college students not coming to Holy Week services, because “that’s just too much for them” and probably too boring.” 

I found this all quite strange.  In point of fact, my particular college students had pushed for a full schedule of Holy Week services, and would have probably loved it had I given in to their demands and done a full chanted Rite 1 eucharist with incense every week.  When I was introduced to one freshman in his first week of school, he shook my hand solemnly and informed me that the Hymnal 1982 was a sadly underutilized document within the Episcopal Church today. 

My college students LIKED church.  They liked church a lot, which was why they came, in a culture that increasingly looked askance at the openly religious.  There was no peer-pressure to attend church for them; in fact, there was just the opposite.  But they came to church because here, they found meaning.  Here, they found joy.

The gospel today is taken from a long speech that Jesus gives in the gospel of John.  At the last supper, after he washes their feet, Jesus holds forth for chapters and chapters in something called the High Priestly prayer—essentially recapping what his ministry has been about for the past few years.  He’s taking these last moments with his disciples to remind them of what they need to know before he leaves them.  

And so he reminds them that he has given his commands and lived his life in order that we should abide in his love, and so our joy may be complete.  The language in this gospel is more complicated than really it ought to be—it’s like someone is showing off—but this section is chained together with a little word that means either “so that” or “in order that.” I have said these things to you in order that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.  This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you—and no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

These ideas are connected like dominos—Jesus is saying that if we follow this command to love one another as he does, then we will find his joy. 

This, then, is what the Christian life is about:  his joy, and his love.  Joy that can sustain us thru everything in the world, and love that can overcome death.  The joy of Christ—that’s a somewhat unfamiliar thought, but if you’ve ever seen Desmond Tutu speak, then I imagine it might be similar to the joy that shines out from his face.  Because surely, someone who has experienced such suffering and human cruelty in their lifetime, yet can still beam with delight over a silly joke knows something of the joy of Christ, that persists even in the face of bleakness.  

This joy isn’t denial, by the way, and it isn’t emotional manipulation.  I don’t think Jesus wants us to deny or manufacture emotions—the sort of joy I speak of cannot be conjured up through force of will, really, or a key change in emotional music.  It’s born of being rooted deeply and surely in the love of God for all creation, and knowing that God’s love will have the last word, no matter what.  And feeling the delight of that knowledge set you free.  

Oddly, this joy is not always what we associate with church—love and joy and good news.  Church is frequently talked of as a somber, stale thing, filled with frozen people who must assent to a lengthy list of do’s and don’ts, and who probably don’t understand science.

 

But that popular conception hardly seems like the sort of thing that Jesus is talking about here.  Or the sort of thing that would be lifegiving at all.  Faith, he tells the disciples, is meant to be joyful.  Our relationship with God is meant to be a source of freedom and joy.  It is supposed to connect us to that sense of joy.  By this the world will know that you are my disciples—that your joy may be complete.  That you abide in my love. 

How strange is it, then, that in so many places, what passes for Christianity does the exact opposite.  How odd that what is called the gospel by many is such a soulless, hard thing—that so often what we hear shouted from rooftops and quoted by politicians is not the joy and love of Christ, but something else.    After all, the gospel is called good news, and so good is what it should be.  

And not just good news for the person proclaiming it—not just good news for the rich, the privileged, the fully-able, those of white privilege, those society already favors.   but good news for everyone.  

Good news for the poor, the sick, the politically oppressed, the disabled, the struggling, people of color, LGBTQ, the marginalized—if what we say is not good news for these, then it is not the gospel.  If what we proclaim does not bring the life-giving love of God into the world, then it is not abiding in Christ.  if It does not speak of that joy that laughs in the face of evil because it forces its coming downfall—it is not the gospel.  

Because if we let it—our faith is joyful.  That was the secret those college kids had discovered years ago.  What could be dour or dull about what we do here?  THIS IS FUN.  THIS IS HAPPY.  Celebrating God come among us, and the eternal triumph of love incarnate—that is incredibly joyful.  

This is the joy we need to share with the world; this is the joy we need to celebrate, especially in a world so often dismal and sad.

Amen

You, Me, and CAMEL! makes three

I realize that I have again fallen behind in the sermon-posting.  However, this time I swear I have a good excuse!

I got engaged last weekend to my boyfriend-though-we-both-agree-that’s-a-rather-silly-name-for-an-adult, Ben.  Hooray!  We are both very excited about getting married, which will happen in October, God willing and the wedding industrial complex consenting.

However, it does turn out that getting engaged takes up some of your time and energy?  Who knew.  So I hereby apologize for my tardiness in posting last Sunday’s sermon, but here you go.  (It does not mention my romantic life,  but it does mention a camel.  Because camels are cool.)

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 28, 2018

Easter 5, Year B

Acts 8!

I took a group of young adults to the Holy Land over the summer on pilgrimage.  I’ve been there several times, but one of the things that hits me every time I go is how very wild the wilderness is.  On this trip, we went out to the desert outside of Jerusalem, early one morning before the sun came up.  We went only a few miles outside the city to the southwest, and soon were in the heart of the desert, with nothing around us except the barren hills.  

We celebrated the eucharist as the sun came up over the hills—with nothing as far as the eye could see—only hills upon hills, and the glimpse of a road in the distance heading back to Jerusalem.

But as I was praying over the bread and wine, suddenly, I noticed a Bedouin family appear over the crest of the hill, riding a camel.  I don’t have any clue where they came from; but they appeared from seeming nowhere in the middle of nowhere.  They quietly waiting, the older man and the young child, until we finished praying, then they offered us rides on the camel and beaded bracelets.  It was them and us, alone in the wilderness.  No buildings, no roads, really, no nothing.  Just a group of wayward Americans, and some friendly Bedouin.  And a camel.  Quite the odd gathering that morning.

I was sitting with that image as I read Acts 8, because it seems like a similarly disparate gathering is occurring in that desert.  To set the scene, things are not going well for the disciples.  Stephen has just been killed in Jerusalem, at the urging of Saul.  So the pressure on the brand-new church is fiercer than it ever has been, and as usually, they do not have a plan.  So Philip is traveling down to Gaza through the desert, partially to get out of dodge again. 

And on the way, in the desert, he encounters a fellow traveler who is also lost—a government official from Ethiopia.  And he’s lost in several important ways: The text says this guy is the treasurer for the Candace—the Ethiopian queen, so he’s clearly important.  Some of the other context would indicate that he is interested in the Jewish faith and has been up to the Temple to worship, but the Temple rules were really against him.  For starters, he’s not an Israelite—he’s Ethiopian, so that’s the first issue.  Second issue is that unless he is willing to fully convert, and be circumcised, he would not be allowed to enter the Temple, and this was generally not a popular idea among adult male converts.  Third, as a high-ranking court official of the queen, chances were good he was a eunuch—which also meant he couldn’t enter the Temple.  Basically, despite his expressed desire to encounter the God of Israel, he has several major strikes against him.  

So here he is, in the desert, in the middle of nowhere, reading Isaiah by himself, when he chances across Philip.  Philip hops in the carriage with him, and reads the scriptures along side him.  And it is this interaction that leads the official to ask to be baptized.  

It’s interesting to note that Philip doesn’t appear to notice the barriers that restricted the official’s access to worship in the Temple.  They don’t register to him.  Also, it’s not clear that Philip has all the answers that the official seeks, or that Philip figures out how to solve the oncoming persecution of the church in Jerusalem.  

But somehow, these two people struggling with their own immense questions manage to find each other in the wilderness and aid each other in a powerful way.  

This event marks a turning point in the life of the baby church—it is the first time that a Gentile converts to Christianity, and it is the first time that the growing Jesus Movement heads outside Jerusalem to discover what other plans God might have in store for it.  To be clear, the church did this the same way it undergoes all change: under protest.  Philip didn’t decide the best strategy for growth was to head out towards the desert and preach to people there; he panicked and tried to flee, but God still pointed him towards the right decision.

Despite their common lostness, both Philip and the Ethiopian official manage to be icons of the divine for each other in this encounter.  Philip guides the official to a new acceptance and faith home, and the official begins Philip on a new journey for the church.  But that common sense of not having all the answers, I think, is part of what brings them together in the first place.

Part of the experience of being in the desert, in the wilderness, is how vast and isolating it can be.  When you encounter another person out there, no matter who it is, you rely on them because there is literally no one else for miles and miles.  We, as travelers in the journey of faith, each have times when we feel more in the wilderness than others.  When we feel more adrift in an ocean of sand and lost.  But the struggle for us in these moments is to recall that the people we encounter are also traveling like us.  Everyone we encounter in this walk of faith is also lost, to some degree or another.  No one, despite their claims to the contrary, has all the answers.  Not me, not you, not Philip, and not the court official.   We share a common experience of trying to put the pieces together.

And this common experience should gift us with humility towards others and towards ourselves.  For even as neither Philip nor the official really knew much about what they were doing, that did not stop them from being a great comfort to each other.  Even as we struggle along, if we are open to the Spirit, and open to each other, we can shed light upon the path for one another.  The action of the Spirit does not depend on our understanding or comprehension, only our openness to it.  

But this reliance on the Spirit and on each other, ultimately, brings us closer to God, and closer to each other.

 

Amen. 

Sheep!

It was hard, I tell you, not to spend this whole sermon talking about how lovely sheep are.  As a knitter, this was a real danger for me, and I feel you should count yourselves lucky that I didn’t just devote 10 minutes of homiletical time to describing various sheep breeds and the characteristics of their wool.  (TARGHEE!!!  BFL!!!!). I realize that so-called “Good Shepherd Sunday” is right up there on the Unpopular Sermon list with Trinity Sunday and Low Sunday, but guys.  Sheep are actually awesome.  And so shepherds must also be.  And why wouldn’t we all be really psyched to be compared to an animal that is pretty intelligent, and can produce milk, meat, and wool?***  Move over, cows.

In view of my sheep-fixation, I decided to go basic with the sermon.  So here’s what I said.

(And no, I don’t explain the various types of wool.  Though, if you’d like me to offer an opinion, I can do that.)

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 22, 2018

Easter 4/ Good Shepherd

1 John/ I am the shepherd

I had a professor in college who taught a whole semester on the Gospel of John.  The thing he most appreciated about it, he said once, was that it was confusing.  I can attest that he was correct.  Jesus uses several metaphors to explain who and what he is in the Gospel of John.  Each of them could fill a book, if you unpacked it all the way, and none of them are what you would call clear.  The gospel of John as a whole doesn’t seem to be intended for people just entering the Christian life; it’s Christianity 2.0—the why of things are rather than the who and the what.  Not the facts, but the reasons behind it all, the grand theology uniting it.

Which is lovely, but also confusing.  So buckle up, because we’re going to be spending a few weeks here in the post-Easter lectionary.  

One of the last metaphors Jesus uses for himself as he’s talking is “I am the good shepherd.”  Now, this one is unlike the other metaphors he’s been using.  For one, it is a person metaphor:  he’s not becoming a plant, a gate, or a food item.  For another, his Jewish audience would have had an immediate context for what he was saying.

Not only were shepherds pretty familiar images in the hills of Palestine, as they still are today, they were also a common metaphor for leadership.  Israel’s prophets would talk about the king as the shepherd of the people, in either positive or negative terms.  Usually negative.  Usually VERY negative. 

  Jeremiah, for example, laments that his people have only had bad shepherds to care for them, shepherds who let all the sheep scatter and be lost.  Ezekiel, too, has a long metaphor of bad shepherds neglecting the sheep of Israel, and letting injustice and corruption reign in the country.  “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed a flock? ‘You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly, you have not strengthened, the diseased, you have not healed, the broken, you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought in, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and severity you have dominated them.”  

So, it’s bad.  And what will God do?  “Thus says the Lord God—I am against the shepherds.  And I will demand my sheep from them and make them cease from feeding sheep.  So the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore, but I will deliver my flock from their mouth, so they will not be food for them.”  God is not messing around.

The idea of a shepherd-king being invoked as the person who rules was really familiar, then. Here, though, Jesus is picking up shepherd part, but more on the ‘good.’ The prophets used it all the time, but usually to make the point that SOMEONE had messed up, and now here the people were, wandering around lost, like errant sheep.  But Jesus is doing something different.  He’s making the point that yes, he’s definitely been given some sort of power, but more than that, that the way in which he uses his power marks him as trustworthy and good. 

Those other shepherds us sheep had no choice but to follow, but this shepherd we do.  

 He’s not just the shepherd we have to follow, because we’re sheep.  He’s the shepherd who is good, so we want to follow. 

Jesus says “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  His sheep know his voice.”  He draws a clear distinction between a leader who is good, who cares deeply and intimately about the creatures they care for, and someone who is just in it for the money, who abuses the trust given to them.  Look, he says, I am the good one.  I am the one you can trust because I care so much. I even sacrifice myself for those I care for!  I am the good shepherd. 

I know we know that God loves us.  Or at least, I hope you know that.  But how often do we sit with that knowledge for a bit?  How often do we recall that Jesus really does love us?  In a wonderfully-specific and life-giving way, born of knowing us intimately, and still just relishing the fact that we exist.  I had a friend in college who was particularly skilled in finding what was lovable in others.  One day we were discussing Shakespeare, and she commented that she would love Hamlet for his puns alone, and I thought that this must be how God sees us—utterly delightful in our uniqueness and complexity.  God must love us for our puns alone.

So often, maybe, we skip to all the other truths about our faith—forgiveness, grace, salvation, our call to justice, and all that, that it’s possible that we can gloss over the foundation of the whole thing—that peculiar delightful love that Christ has for each one of us that keeps drawing us in.  Calling us to follow.  That we are loved in spite of, and even because of, our quirks and oddities, and our failures, and broken places, and that somehow, Christ loves us into something more whole, more holy each day.  

The work of our lives in faith, perhaps, is to learn to love the whole world with this sort of love.  The epistle has talked a lot about living in love, and this, really, is what it’s talking about.  Gradually, we are meant to mirror outwards the love Christ shows us, so the whole world can bask in its warmth.  But this is a challenge for two reasons:  First, because other people are often irritating, and it is hard to love them, and frankly, it would be easier not to.  Other People frequently live on the other side of the world, where we forget about them.  Or they have different loyalties to ours, which makes it hard to agree with them, and sometimes we confuse that with love.  And sometimes, other people hurt us badly.  And it can be difficult to continue to wish the best for someone after they have clearly not wished the best for you. 

But secondly, this can be a challenge to mirror this sort of love because it is sometimes hard to remember that we are loved.  We live in a world that confuses so many things with love: agreement, conformity, even abuse, at times.  And so to hold on to the idea proclaimed to us at baptism that we are God’s beloved, sealed as Christ’s own forever, can be hard, in the face of all that.  That Christ loves us with a non-coercive, enveloping and freeing sort of love.

But the more we hold onto this as our birthright as humans, this inner knowledge of God’s love for us, the more we can show this same lifegiving love to the world around us.  

Because it is this love that builds a better world, when we accept and cherish others.  It is this love that urges us on to be better people, when others can see in us better than we believe ourselves to be, and it is this love that draws the lost and the lingering sheep back home.

***I know–Jesus isn’t using this metaphor to compare his followers to sheep, as much as he is comparing himself to a leader, like the ancient kings of Israel.  The metaphor is about the shepherd, not the sheep.  But, still.  Sheep are cool, is my point.  They don’t get enough credit in this bovine-centric world.