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John the Baptist, Pastoral Care Genius

On my list of Things I Could Probably Give a TED Talk On, Even Though No One Would Want To Hear It, is the topic of how a shallow understanding of sin and repentance has damaged our society’s ability to fairly deal with wrongdoing. On the one hand, some people get vilified forever, on the other, some people sneak back into public life after a minor show of remorse, and a short time-out. Neither path does a great job of holding people to account for wrongdoing, and neither achieve restoration and reparation.

So, when the universal church either shies away from talking about wrongdoing and repentance, or makes the subject entirely about who should feel bad, and how bad they should feel, until Jesus makes the bad feelings disappear, we feed into the problem.

Thus, I had fun this week preaching on John the Baptist, who is all “REPENT, Y’ALL.” and was surprisingly (to our mind) very popular.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 8, 2019

Advent 2, Year A

Matthew 2

Do you know those fix-a-business reality shows?  It’s a subgenera of reality TV (I know) where a brusque, tactless expert goes into a business that is struggling and tries to turn it around in a week.  Gordon Ramsey has one for failing restaurants.  There’s one for hair salons, I think.  There are a few British ones as well of different kinds.  I find them fascinating to watch.

One minority famous episode involved Gordon Ramsey going to Arizona to work with a couple’s restaurant in Scottsdale, but 2 days in, the couple became enraged and shut down production.  Despite ample video evidence to the contrary, they insisted their restaurant was perfect, and everything was fine.  They needed no help.  Meanwhile, around them, the staff was in tears, the food wasn’t cooked, and one owner threatened to physically assault a customer who dared complain about the wait time.  But—the owners insisted—everything was fine.  It really was.  

Part of why I like these shows is that there’s usually a wall of denial that the people in charge have that must be overcome before change can happen—though the Arizona case is an extreme one.  For most people, when the denial cracks, it’s not pleasant, but that’s how space is made for something new and better.  

John the Baptist, whom we meet in today’s gospel, is an interesting character.  We know from other sources that he came from fine, upstanding people. In Luke’s gospel, we get the story of his birth.  The angel Gabriel visits his parents, as Zachariah is ministering in the temple, and hijinks ensue.  But the text takes pains to tell us that BOTH John’s parents are of the priestly tribe.  So this would have signaled to early listeners that John’s people were “the good sort.”  They went to church, paid their taxes, didn’t rock the boat, sort of people.

And somehow, their son ends up yelling stuff about repentance in the desert.  

Now—bear in mind that repentance was sort of a hot topic at the time.  There was an assortment of groups at the time of Jesus who thought that society was going wrong, and needed to be fixed, and they alone could do that.  One group—the Qumran community, went out into the desert, like John did, warned everyone that the end was coming, and you had to repent, and spent a lot of time copying the scriptures for posterity.   Due to their labor, gave us some of the best manuscripts of biblical texts we have.  There is some reason to think that John might have hung around with those guys a bit, because some of their language overlaps.  

But the point here is that people in general, society as a whole, had a sense that things weren’t going well, and needed to be fixed.  Rome was in control, with a corrupt client-king in power.  The temple leadership didn’t seem able to advocate for the people.  And John, in particular, can speak to that.  After all, he grew up with a closeup view of the institutions in question.  He knows whereof he speaks.    

So out to the wilderness goes he, looking and sounding a lot like Elijah right here, with a camel’s hair shirt, and a locust breakfast.  He quotes from Isaiah and becomes one of the prophets preaching repentance in the desert.  Trying to break through people’s denial so something new can grow.

We don’t talk a whole lot about sin and repentance in church, and I get why.  There have been times and places where those concepts have been so weaponized and abused that for many people, they have lost their usefulness.  In the wake of that abuse, then, there can sometimes be a tendency to swing too far the other way, to insist that everyone and every thing is fine, and God is ok if we continue on just the way we are.  

But part of what drew crowds of people out to see John in the desert was that they needed someone to tell them that in fact, they were right—everything wasn’t ok.  This nagging sense that they had that something was wrong as they struggled with occupation and injustice and poverty, and sufferings of daily life.  And not only that, but that God was really unhappy with the way things were going too.  

What John tells them is comforting.  Because John tells them that all hope isn’t lost, that they can admit that something’s wrong, and when they do that, God will help them figure out how to make it better.  That there is a way to make this world into what God intends for it to be, because it isn’t that right now.  They just have to admit it first.  

And he goes after the Pharisees and Saduccees because they had the most to lose.  They had some power; they were invested in the way things were.  So if they were going to admit things needed to change, that God needed to come in and shake up the world—they needed to know what they would be giving up.  And yet, even for them, John promises the opportunity to repent, to do better.  

John offers us the hope that beyond what we live with now, God wants to help us grow into what we were created to be.  All he asks is that we release our denial, and trust God enough to admit we’re wrong.  That’s no small task, especially in a world that both demands perfection and doesn’t understand weakness.  But God isn’t like that, John reminds us.  All God wants from us is acknowledgement of our humanity—our common frailty and need of God’s help in doing better.  God knows we mess up.  God is well aware.  Our shortcomings are not news—and yet God loves us anyway.  Loves us enough to want us to do better, grow just a bit.  

John prepares the way for the coming of Jesus by calling us to acknowledge first that this world isn’t where God wants it to be yet.  We aren’t where God wants us to be yet.  And, that is ok, because God isn’t done with us yet.  John’s call to repentance is a call to be honest about our own shortcomings, so that God can more fully work in us, and in the world.  It’s not an indictment of us, or a threat.  It opens the door; it doesn’t closes it.

Admitting that something needs to change is the first step. And it can be scary, but the good news is that right behind John comes Jesus—proof in flesh of how much God loves us, and is invested in this world.  When we admit that things aren’t right, that we want to see the world change, that we want to change ourselves—Jesus is right there to help us figure out how.  To help us repent, and try again, and become who God made us to be. 

Perhaps there is something that you struggle with.  Some part of your life that is not as it should be, but you haven’t been able to admit it yet.  Perhaps there is some aspect of the world that you feel drawn to, that you want bring change to.  Whatever it is, perhaps in this Advent time of waiting, John is calling to you to take this moment to admit your need for change, to admit your need for God’s help, and allow that change to begin.  So that when when Christ comes, as he most surely will, the way has been prepared, and new life can spring forth.

Sweet, warm embrace of the Apocalypse

Talking about the apocalypse fills me with joy like few other topics. This Sunday, however, we had a massive snow and ice storm. So the apocalypse was slightly more literal than I would have wished.

Nevertheless, we persisted. Brave souls came out for both services, pitched in, and the Lord was praised.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 1, 2019

Advent 1, Year A

Matthew

Ah, the apocalypse.  The end of the world that welcomes us into Advent each year.  As you know, I have a certain fondness for apocalyptic theology.  There’s a saying that all theology stems from cosmology—that you can figure out everything about a belief system from what it says about the beginning of the world.  But the same can be said about the end of the world—what we say about where things are ultimately headed also sums up the basics of who we are and what we value.

About 20-25 years ago, a certain theological idea became really popular, mostly through a series of Left Behind books, and movies.  The technical term for the idea is premillennial dispensationalism—otherwise known as the Rapture.   These books and movies (as well as associated merchandise) made popular an idea that had been around since about the 1850s—that the world was increasingly getting worse, because that was God’s plan for it.  Everything would end in a colossal war, as the forces of evil finally took over creation, but the true believers would literally rise up in the air and be saved just before that happened.  The few worthy ones would be able to skip the final suffering and destruction that would overtake the rest of humanity and the world.  

Part of the justification of this idea comes from these verses in Matthew—two people will be working in the fields, one will be taken, and one will be left.  (The other part comes from one of Paul’s letters, where he reassures the Thessalonians that at the last day, those who have already died will rise up and meet our Lord in the air.  That’s it.  Those two things.) 

For many people, this idea of the Rapture is in fact so widespread, that it can be hard to hear this reading from Matthew without immediately thinking about it.  Even for those of us who never consciously believe in a literal end of the world, or a literal event where half of humanity rises up into the air, we live in a world where the actual news reported pretty steadily leading up to 2012 that the world might end because of the Mayan calendar.  And there was that one preacher who definitely thought Jesus was returning on October 21 a few years ago.  (He was wrong, btw.)  Doomsday cults, explicit and implicit, are all around, warning us that they know when the end is coming, and so we had better do what they tell us. 

Our world likes to contemplate its own end, in lots of different ways.  We’re a bit obsessed.  And for some solid reasons, perhaps.  We humans are now conscious of our ability to wipe out life as we know it on our fragile earth in a way we haven’t been before.  With each day that passes, we learn more and more about just how tenuous the web of life is on our planet, and how little can throw it off forever.  And the more we learn about this, the easier it is for doomsday cults to rise and demand our allegiance.  

But there are a few things about the gospel today that present a contrast to these prophets of doom—even the most Christian-sounding ones.

For one, Jesus argues that no one knows when the end is coming. No one.  We can’t figure it out.  This is past the limits of our human understanding.  Part of what drives the obsession of doomsday prophets is a desire to control—because if the evangelical preacher on the radio knows when Jesus is returning and what that looks like, then you’d better listen to him, if you want to survive.  Jesus reminds us that in fact, God alone holds the future.  And while we can and should use our brains and all our best reason to figure out how our world works, in the end, we cannot be held captive to those who claim to have it all figured out, and have all the answers. We do the best we can, we try to make smart decisions, but in the end, we need to allow for the movement of God as well.

But also, and more profoundly, the big problem with doomsday cults is that they prophesy doom.  And that has never been what God intends for creation.

Remember, Jesus in Matthew is talking here to the gathered community who had witnessed the destruction of the Temple, and the sudden coming of war in the Jewish Revolt.  Again, he is speaking in descriptive and not proscriptive terms.  But he is telling them this in part to validate what happened.  “Yes, these horrible things happened to you, and you had to suffer them, but CHRIST IS STILL COMING BACK.  You just don’t know when. So don’t give up, and don’t give in.” 

Part of the allure of doomsday prophets is that if doom is certain, and definitely coming tomorrow, then why does anything we do matter?  Why try?  To quote the Secretary of the Interior under President Bush (the first one), I believe that Jesus is coming back, so I am not worried about deforestation.  If absolute destruction is also promised to people who don’t believe exactly the same as I do, then God is also probably fine with whatever happens to them.  They’re just here to illustrate my righteousness, by contrast.

Yet, that is not at all what Scripture tells us.  Scripture tells us, over and over, that God’s one desire is the saving of the world.  God wants to save us.  Not destroy us.  Everything we see God do in the Bible is in order to save and renew creation. Even in Revelation, that most frightening of books—the story doesn’t end with a huge war that destroys everything, God throwing up the divine hands and saying “Well, ok, that failed.” The story ends with the heavenly Jerusalem coming down to earth.  With the heavenly hosts announcing that the dwelling place of God is now with all of humanity.  And with creation being remade and heaven and earth being finally entirely reconciled as one.  

The ultimate failing of doomsday prophets is that they assume that our fragile life here on earth means that we are destined for destruction at the end of history.  All of our faith teaches us, however, that our fragile life on earth indicates that God has clearly brought us this far by grace.  And our history is pointing not towards a bleak destruction, but with God’s help, our history is pointing towards God’s ongoing saving action in our world.  God hasn’t brought us this far to abandon his work.  God didn’t come to us in the person of Jesus just to burn up half the world on a whim.  God didn’t hold all of this magnificently complex universe as it unfurls just to toss it away like so much garbage.  

God’s intention for the world is not destruction.  God’s intention for the world is redemption.  God intends for us to not be complacent, not be passive, but to actively love the world into a new state of being as God loves us.  Christ calls us to be awake, stay awake, stay alert—that’s a reminder that we are called to participate in God’s work in the world around us.  Because God does not intend us for destruction.  God does not intend this creation for the trash heap.  God’s intention for all the universe is light and life and flourishing, when everything works together to praise God, in peace, justice and love.  

Advent talks so much both about the coming of Jesus and the end of the world because they both line up in this way.  God came to save us before and God is coming to save us again.  And now, that we can see God’s redeeming action playing out around us, we can join in as we can, because the promise of Advent is that ultimate hope.  That even as the days become darker, and the news continues to be awful, we rest in the awesome power of God, that has always sustained and nurtured us. And God is continuing to work out the plan of salvation even now, until the day that we can learn war no more.  That is our Advent hope, and that is what preserves us through the winter darkness.

Amen.

You get an empire, and you get a…nope, no, you don't.

First up, have we talked about how there’s a podcast now? Because there is.

If you go to my delightful parish’s delightful webpage, we now have a podcast feed, where we record and publish the sermons each week. So if you want my voice talking to you in your ears, as well as in your eyes, that is a thing that can be arranged.

However, podcasts aren’t for everyone, and so I will still keep up the blog. (May not be on time, but then again, it was ever thus. 🙂 )

We’re getting into the fun bit of the church year. Advent! Eschaton! Empires falling and the meek being exalted and whatnot! Every year, as Advent approaches, I think “One year, this won’t feel so immediate and relevant,” and so far, that year has not come.

Here’s what I said for Christ the King.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

November 24, 2019

Christ the King, Year C

The feast we celebrate today is Christ the King Sunday.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about—don’t feel bad!  This is the newest feast on the liturgical calendar—it only became a thing in 1925, which, in church years, is about 6 months.  

The pope, at the time, was frustrated that the Vatican, following WWI, no longer had an allied empire, and thus didn’t command the  respect it had for lo these two thousand years.  He didn’t have an army to sic on anyone.  Nationalism was rising, secularism was rising, democracy also—at the time was seen as a big threat.  So the pope declared that at the end of fall, everyone should celebrate Christ the King Sunday, and remember who was REALLY IN CHARGE. Definitely the Church!  So….you know.  Be nice and listen to us and stuff.  

This political strategy didn’t work so well for the Vatican, so they had to come up with other ideas.  But meanwhile, other denominations got on board, and so Christ the King was added to the Lutheran calendar, the Orthodox calendar, and the Anglican calendar as well.  Both so we could stay on the same page as the Roman Catholics, and because after all, we like the idea of the kingship of Christ.  Even if we were kinda agnostic on whether or not the pope should have his own army.

Of course, nowadays, kings are not thick on the ground.  Not a lot of kings hereabouts.  So when we declare Jesus king of kings, it sounds nice, and proper, and appropriate, but it can be hard to hear the emphasis in it because there’s not a lot to compare him too.  How many of us encounter a lot of kings in our lifetime? Are we saying Jesus is like Henry VIII? A distant, historical figure who did a lot, but now has been compressed by history? Or like Queen Elizabeth II? Who seems fine, but is mostly someone to decorate a country’s government and make speeches on Christmas and fail to smile?  Aside from indicating that we feel Jesus is Very Important, and Special, what does that title mean?

Our liturgy has a lot of kingship language in it—in mostly non-explicit ways.  Our opening acclamation, when I say Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, unless it is a Sunday, we follow up with either Lord have mercy, or the Kyrie, or the Trisaigon (Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One).  Either one sounds to us now like we’re asking God for forgiveness, generally.  HOWEVER—in the Roman Empire, before Caesar—whose official Roman title was Son of God— entered a town, runner would be sent ahead of him, announcing his coming, yelling Blessed be Caesar, and the people standing by the road, awaiting the royal parade, would reply—Kyrie eleison.  Because that was how you properly greeted the semi-divine emperor if you were a good Roman.

So when the Christians repurposed this formula for their own liturgy, it was a BIG DEAL.  It was a stark way of saying “Caesar is not in charge of me—only God is.  And I am loyal to his Son, who is Jesus.”

It was nothing less than treason.  Christians weren’t martyred by Rome because they were too nice and made everyone else feel bad; they were martyred because their loyalties were suspect.  They pledged loyalty every time they gathered to Jesus, and not Caesar.  And it’s hard to overstate just how subversive that is.

Because, if God is in charge of me, then Caesar isn’t.  If God holds ultimate power, than Caesar doesn’t.  If I recognize only God’s right to command me, then I don’t recognize Caesar’s, or anyone else’s, unless it accords with what I feel Christ is calling me to do.  And empires do not like that.

And while we may not have many earthly kings around anymore, we certainly do have empires hereabouts.  We have empires that tell us that truth only matters when it’s convenient.  Empires that insist that following orders is more virtuous than rocking the boat.  Empires that insist that those who have historically have been silenced and marginalized just count less.  And over and over, empires that insist that the way things are is the way things are meant to be, and that asking for more is wrong.

But our loyalty is not to empires of any kind.  Our loyalty is to God’s kingdom alone, with Christ as our King.  We follow not the powers of this earth, who rise and fall as they will, even with the best of intentions—we follow Christ, who was murdered as an outcast by the empires of this world.  Who compels us to both engage with and challenge the empires of our time in order to bring Christ’s light to earth.  

The kingship of Christ unsettles the powers of this world because it places power permanently out of their reach.  It locates power not in coercion, not in might, not in suppression, and not in bending reality.  Christ’s reign locates power in solidarity with human suffering.  In truth.  In humility.  In love.  The purest moment of Christ’s reign is as he is hung on a cross—a moment meant by Rome to be the most shaming, and yet is the clearest example we have of Jesus’ love for us, and willingness to suffer with and for his creation.

Love like that, a king like that—that calls forth our deepest loyalty.  The empires of the world are but idols—they promise but they cannot deliver.  Only Jesus, in his paradoxical, subversive kingship, can bring us to the world we were created for by God.  And so we will continue to follow him alone, no matter what empires may arise.

Amen.

Bad at Math, Good at Rapping

Over Thanksgiving, Ben and I went to visit his family. I had introduced my nephew and nieces to the wonder that is Hamilton over the summer, so we were listening and singing along as we cooked the meal. When I broke into “Guns and Ships”** my niece stopped and stared at me, open-mouthed. “I told you, ” I said, “I have a very particular skill set. I am bad at math, but I am good at fast talking.”

The idea that if a person is super-good at one thing, then they’ll be super-good at all things….is not a thing. Just because Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook, does not mean his opinions on, say, fashion, are to be trusted. Likewise, just because the scientific method yields excellent results when answering one set of questions does not mean it will work when answering all questions. Hence, this sermon.

(Which is in notes form, because it was the week after diocesan convention, and I was in recovery mode.)

–If you heard the gospel and thought, “That sounds like a math problem,” you’re not wrong!

–It sounds like one of those word problems from elementary school where one train leaves Chicago at 6pm traveling east, and one train leaves NYC at 6:30pm traveling west, and if Jimmy eats 2 apples on train A, will he finish before he arrives home?

–this style of figuring out problems was, and is, a popular style of disputation among scholars of the scriptures in Jesus’ time. And it’s still used if you are devoutly Jewish and want to study. (Or if you are in a college philosophy seminar.) The Talmud is basically volume after volume of smart guys proposing hypothetical scenarios and then arguing it out. It’s great.

–You propose the most extreme scenario you can imagine, and figure out how the law would apply. It tests the boundaries of any proposed idea. This is great for legal discourse, and if you’re arguing over the laws of the universe in Star Wars. But in terms of faith, it falls short.

–Apologetics (the art of arguing that faith is rational through logic) has a long and storied history, there is a point at which logic and reason stop, and you either have to make a choice to trust, or not.

–Kierkegaard calls this the “leap of faith” or if you’re a fan of the Good Place, the “leap into faith.”

–our relationship with God rests, fundamentally, on something we cannot fully explain, science, or logic out, but that we trust.

–And that is ok!

–Part of what Jesus is trying to tell the Saduccees here is that while we do our best to logic our way out of the problem of what, exactly, the afterlife looks like–the reality is so far greater, so unexpected, and so entirely other that we only get there with God.

–Because we see such a little bit of God’s action in this world, and experience such a little bit of God’s presence, because God works all around us–we often forget that our logicking and best reasoning can only take into account a fraction of God’s existence. So we’re hardly playing with a full deck, ever.

–Our sight, our perspective is necessarily limited. Faith frequently means being humble enough to admit that, and to dwell in that place of not knowing.

–For example, as all these learned men are puzzling over this logic problem proposed in the gospel today, isn’t it fascinating that not a one of them–not the Sadducees, not the bystanders, no one–thinks that the solution might be to ask the WIDOW who she wants to be married to?

–That would solve it right fast, but strangely, no one suggests it. (I like to imagine Martha, standing to the side, pulling Jesus aside afterwards, and pointing this out to him, with no small amount of bemusement)

–Faith is often recognizing what we cannot see, and in being willing to allow God to operate in those blind spots.

–Because if there is one thing we can fully trust, it is that God loves us and wills our good. So even when we cannot see a logical way out, or forward, we can trust that God is still doing God’s thing in the unseen places. God is still going to show up from some far off, distant corner, and gently smack us upside the head, in ways we never saw coming.

And when we put our trust in God, when we acknowledge that God is God, and we aren’t, that God loves us and that love is real and powerful, then we begin to see the unexpected showing up in our lives. We feel the Spirit dancing in new and different ways, once we learn to look for it. And we find that God’s love compels us farther than our logic or reason alone could ever go.

Amen.

** LAFAYETTE!! That’s it. That’s the footnote.

All the saints means all the saints

All Saints is the freaking best. I had come down with a sinus infection, but no illness nor fever on earth was going to prevent me from singing “For All The Saints” as if I could raise Vaughn Williams from the grave myself.** All Saints is when we throw down our level Episcopal best and go nuts in a frenzy of liturgical finery.

Preaching on feasts I like is as difficult as preaching on texts I like. Because it is frowned upon to bounce up and down excitedly in the pulpit and repeat “BUT THIS IS THE BEST. I MEAN, ITS JUST THE BEST!!” and wave your hands around, I generally find myself scrounging pretty hard for actual words to explain the beauty of something.

Here’s what I ended up saying.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

November 3, 2019

All Saints, Year C

Lukan Beatitudes

When I was very little, I remember when the Little Mermaid came out in theaters.  If you were not around a small child at that moment in time, Little Mermaid—the animated Disney film, was roughly comparable in cultural scale to Frozen was a few years ago.  It was HUGE.  It was life changing to small children of all ages.  All you had to do was look sideways at a child of a certain age, and they would burst into “Part of your World”.  

And I….I took it as somewhat of a personal insult.

I liked the movie.  The singing was fun.  But I took it as somewhat of a personal insult that the villainous character became a black-haired woman when she wanted to be particularly sneaky and destroy the heroine.  This was just one more in a long line of injustices that I felt Disney was responsible for: the parade of blonde heroines stretching back decades.  (Snow White, I felt didn’t count since that movie was too terrifying for me to sit through.) Even as a child, I was the movies I watched, the dolls I played with, I wanted those characters to look like me, and I noticed when they didn’t.  I wanted to see myself reflected around me, so I could have an idea of what my life could be.  (Clearly, singing mermaid princess was not in the cards.)

Representation—who we see reflected and celebrated—matters.  It matters to children who are trying to figure out what and who to be, and it matters to adults who sometimes need affirmation that their choices make sense.  The more variety of people we see celebrated around us, the more readily we can embrace the variety of different ways God works in our lives.

And on All Saint’s Day, it is maybe most important to talk about this, because saints have been the way that the church holds up models of what a well-lived human life can be.  The saints are those people who show us what a human life lived in dedicated faith looks like, and they are as widely diverse as humanity itself.  Because sainthood was something conferred by the institutional church, but also a status that responded to popular demand, even during the earliest times, expressing devotion to a saint was one of the very few ways the average churchgoer in the Middle Ages had of expressing their own opinions—out of the control of either the secular or sacred authorities.  

So, in some way, the saints and their popularity through the ages give us a glimpse of the Spirit working in people’s lives in a fairly unfiltered way.

For example: In Italy, a girl named Margaret was born to a noble family.  She was born with a severely curved spine, blind, and with dwarfism.  Her parents, thinking that they had suffered a curse, disowned her and consigned her to a walled-off room in the castle.  When she was 13, they heard of a visiting Franciscan monk who could accomplish healings.  So they wrapped Margaret up and took her to Castello, in the hopes of a cure.  However, by the time they got there, the priest was gone—so they abandoned her there to wander the streets.  

Margaret, however, found her way.  She learned to beg from some local nuns.  She started a small school for the street children and she became well known in the town as a holy person.  And when she died, and the parish priest followed the custom of not burying a disabled person on consecrated ground—the town’s population became so indignant that they basically rioted at her funeral, until the priest relented.

Dedication to Margaret grew from that day, most ardently among people who were physically disabled themselves, who saw themselves in her.  Margaret, and her life, were held up and honored as a clear example of how God works through all of us—every one of us, even when church doctrine itself argued against her—the devotion to St. Margaret of Castello still pushed the institution to reconsider, and provided a mirror for many of God’s children to see themselves as gifted and special.

In the diversity of the saints, we see the diversity of God’s work in the world.  We see God’s call to people who were old, and who were young.  People who were rich and people who were poor.  People who were powerful and people who were not.  People who loved crowds and people who walled themselves up in tiny rooms.  People who were black and white and gay and straight and everyone everywhere.  In all times and places.  And so they present for us images of what God’s call can look like for us when it comes.  Because when we look at the saints, we can see that everyone—absolutely everyone!  gets tapped on the shoulder by God at some point.  

We see the journey of faithfulness to God in this world is not just one we get to make if we are willing to do amazing, incredible things—it can mean all sorts of different things.  We might be called to head for the stake for our faith like Polycarp.  Or give away all our money like Francis.  But we also might be called to be a rich and powerful queen so that the poor might have a protector, like Margaret of Scotland.  Or we might be called to teach the poorest of the poor in Georgia, like Anna Alexander.  Or become a politician and fight for the sick and the left behind, like Frances Perkins.  Or we might be called to be an academic, and awaken the world to injustice, like Pauli Murray. 

The point is—there’s no one way to live a faithful life.  There’s no one way to follow the call of God.  The saints are living proof that when God’s spirit shines through humanity, we diffract it like light through a prism.  We, each of it, respond to God’s call to us in our own way, and building on those who have led the way before us.

And so, today we remember and celebrate the whole array of the communion of saints.  Those who stand in God’s presence and cheer us on as we walk our own path in this life.  Those who give us models to look to, those who provide us companionship along the way, and the comfort of knowing that others have walked this path before us.  We are encouraged and surrounded by so great a cloud of varied, diverse, complicated, and wonderful witnesses as we do Christ’s work in the world.  And no matter how we live that out, we have a saint to walk with us.
Amen.

**We sing all the verses as the good Lord intended. And if you do not well up with emotion during the “But yet there glows a yet more glorious day…”, when the harmony moves back to unison– then I don’t even know what you’re doing. That right there is the Finale of Les Miz in hymn form. It’s glorious.

Stewardship Roundup

I like talking about stewardship. This is not because of my childhood experiences of money in church. (Protip: don’t put the 15 year old who keeps showing up to church on the Stewardship Committee. This will frustrate and confuse them.)

It’s more because when we talk about stewardship well, it becomes a way to live incarnationally, which is not something we get to do most days. But framing our lives as an exercise in caring for what God has entrusted to us is a powerful way to take the heady ideas we discuss in church out the door into our lives during the week.

So here’s my Stewardship Roundup sermon from Oct 20.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

October 20, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 24,  Year C

Luke, Stewardship, Baptism 

When I was confirmed, in 8th grade, my godmother drove down to our house in Pennsylvania.  And the morning of the service, she pulled me aside and handed me a new purificator—fresh from Almy, the church supply company.  “Now that you’re officially an adult in the church” she said, “you need to know that you give a part of yourself to every parish you attend.  That’s part of adulthood—you leave your mark on the church and hopefully make it better.  So I got you this to give to this parish in order to get you started in that discipline.” 

Over the past 18 months, as I’ve been familiarizing myself with this parish’s story, I find myself constantly amazed by the great cloud of witnesses who came before us in this place.  Unlike many parishes in the first colonies, we have never been rich.  That wasn’t in the cards for us.  We started out small and poor, and mostly continued that way for one reason or another.  The parish took 3 steps forward, and then two steps back.  No sooner did the vestry would celebrate finally building a new addition, then struggle to retire the associated debt for years. We never had the deep, deep pockets of other churches, and at times, you can tell that caused stress. 

However, what you can also see from reading the history, is the ways in which this parish always did what it felt called to do.  Whereas the other parishes grew used to having one person foot most of the bills, then had to regroup when that funding source dried up—St. John’s always made its way through the dedication and generosity of a lot of stubborn, slightly rebellious, yet eminently faithful congregants who worked hard and made sure the parish could follow Jesus in this world.  Through their contributions, this parish has lasted and endured and flourished through the years.  People like Jennie McGraw Fiske, who gave generously to furnish the expanded church in the 1860s.  The Ogdens, who sat right there, beneath where the plaque now is, and all served faithfully, giving of their time and energy.  Connie Cook, who gave of her expertise as a lawyer, keeping care of our financial and legal affairs, and who sued the bishop and diocese of Central New York to make sure that the bishop recognized women priests on time.  So that generations of girls to come would know that they, too, were welcome at the altar of this place.

We have always had people here who gave of themselves to ensure we could build the Kingdom here, and we are blessed to steward their legacy for a while, while we are here.  

These past few weeks, I’ve been talking a lot about faith and generosity.  Faith, I said about a month ago—isn’t quite blind trust, or naive denial of what’s going on.  Faith means beginning to see what God is calling into shape, and putting our resources towards making that happen, even as the world is spinning chaotically around us. As people of faith, we’re called to invest in God’s dream of what the redeemed world will be, and use what we’ve been given to create it now.  And that requires, as we talked about last week, coming to recognize the gifts that God has given us.  Coming to name and utilize all the blessings God has given to us to use, even those aspects of ourselves we might not be used to seeing as blessings.  

All of which leads to this one question, which is: how will you use what you have been given to help St. John’s live into God’s dream for us?  How will you shape this place through your gifts, your talents, your work?  

The parable of the unjust judge that we heard today (and you possibly wondered if I had forgotten) is another tricky one that confounds our expectations.  Widows are generally thought to be meek, mild, and charming—this one is apparently out threatening officers of the court.  The Greek used for what the judge fears from her is apparently a boxing term—he’s worried she will blacken his eye.  Which…is an image.  And judges are supposed to be fair, righteous, impartial.  This is a vision of a world turned upside down and inside out.  And yet, Jesus tells us, when that happens, because it will—your job is to take what you have and keep at it.  Keep going.  With whatever you have, even if it’s just your sheer persistence and your presence.  Keep going.  And somehow, in God’s view of things, that will yield a difference.

But whatever we have, even if all we have is our presence and our persistence, if we use it for the glory of God, then the reign of God comes closer.  You’ve been given a estimate of giving card in your bulletin today.  And I invite you to prayerfully consider how you will give from what you have been given to enable God’s reign to take shape over this coming year here at St. John’s.  Maybe you’re being called to commit to giving financially, consistently for the first time.  Maybe you’re called to taking on a new ministry within the church.  Maybe you’re being called to a greater faithfulness in prayer, in presence here.  Maybe you’re being called to a greater financial commitment than in the past, or some combination of the above.  

However God is calling you, listen to that call.  Show up for that call.  

Because this community has been indelibly shaped by the faithfulness of those who have come before us.  Those who worked tirelessly, those who gave generously, and those who shaped us by their very presence.  You, just through your presence here this morning, have already shaped the story of this place.  God has brought you here, and so I believe God is calling you to something.  When we go, our legacy will be the ways in which we gave  of what we had to shape this place.  This new soul we welcome into the church this morning will know of us through our ability to be faithful to God’s call to us to be good stewards. One day, he will look around at these walls and know us, not by how smart we were, or how brave, or how wise, but how faithful we were with what God has entrusted to us. How well we cared for the legacy that we have in this place.

And one day, he too can care for it for those who come after him.

Amen

Gratitude

There was a recent thread on a FB colleague group about sharing sermons. The consensus among this particular group was that SERMONS SHOULD NEVER BE SHARED, which….surprised me.

I’ve known clergy who didn’t make public their manuscripts because they either didn’t have them (which is a feat I cannot pull off) or because they strongly believed that a sermon is a unique oral event that paired the Spirit’s inspiration with what the hearer takes in, and thus cannot, nor should not be replicated.

I’ve also heard about the concern over plagarism, and also had my own sermons stolen a time or two***. But not sharing the sermon text at all? That seems….like a definite choice.

There’s the accessibility thing, for one. A fair number of the folks listening to me over the years have been hard of hearing. And wireless microphones detest high pitched voices. So making a full text available is a good option for when people cannot hear you the first time.****. Or when they’re distracted by small kids. Or when they can’t make it that Sunday. Or for whatever reason.

Also? It’s a good idea for when people aren’t sure about what they will get at your church, and they want to do some scouting. It’s 2019, and lots of scary stuff gets passed off in the name of Christianity these days. Going blind into a church service is a terrifying thing to do. Give people the reassurance of having an idea of what they will hear from the pulpit.

Every time I walk up into the pulpit, I pause for a moment, and look out at the people sitting in the pews. I always say a silent prayer of thanks for the people God has brought to church this morning, and gratitude for having the honor of speaking to them about such holy and important things.

To preach is a privilege. We get to talk about the most important things in the world. That shouldn’t be kept quiet, but shared abundantly. At least I think so.

***Please don’t. Come on, y’all are smart people who can write your own sermons. I believe in you! And if you are using something I write here, then it’s not hard to cite me. And great shall be your reward in heaven, etc.
****Until such time as we destroy the patriarchal hold on the A/V Industry, which WE WILL.

Anyway, somewhat related, here’s what I said on Sunday.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

October 13, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 23

  • Gratitude can be a tricky thing.
  • When I worked at the day school—elite, private school for the privileged young children of Kansas City, there was a big cultural emphasis on gratitude. It was understood that we had to teach gratitude, so that the kids would grow up to be good, ethical people.  So we sang a lot of songs about being thankful, and being grateful.
  • But I don’t know that this was enough?  For myself, when I was a chlid, and I was of a rebellious nature—when a parent would instruct me to “be grateful”…often I would just dig in harder. How?  What did that look like?  Can an emotional state be conjured that way?
  • In today’s gospel, we often read it as being about gratitude:  there are ten lepers, and Jesus heals them.  Then, only one returns to offer thanks—a Samaritan.
  • Now—there is a lot we don’t know here.  First—Jesus told them to go show themselves to the priests, and …they do.  The Samaritan, on the flip side, doesn’t have easy access to his religious hierarchy.  In a sense, when he comes to JESUS to give thanks, what he’s doing is implicitly recognizing Jesus as his religious authority.  
  • Also, gratitude is a demonstrated activity, but it is also an emotional state. While Jesus faults people for actions all the time, he usually doesn’t fault people for strictly internal emotional states. 
  •   So perhaps the better question for us here is not why don’t the others feel appropriately grateful—but in what ways can we cultivate gratitude?
  • Gratitude—to be clear—is a wonderful thing.  It keeps us humble, it makes us cognizant of what we have, and how we might share.  It is a wonderful way to live.
  • And yet, it is not really an emotional state that can be magicked up through command.  Like love—you can’t turn to someone and tell them “Feel grateful!” and expect it to happen.  You have to cultivate it.
  • Gratitude starts, I think, when we can be very clear about the things we have been given.
  • To some extent—this is something all of us know how to do:  the old make a list of your blessings.  I thank God for my pets, for my house, for my TV.  Kids are taught to do this early.
  • It’s not difficult to see things we like as blessings from God.  But what about other things?  Our likes, our dislikes?  Our preferences, our identity?  Our experiences, our perspective, our uniqueness?
  • When Ben and I hosted our nieces and nephew over the summer, they were surprised to discover that at our house, Ben does the cleaning and the dishwashing, while I do the cooking.  This wasn’t something they had seen before. We didn’t set out to teach them a lesson about the limitation of gender roles—it just sort of came up, because Ben really likes and is good at! cleaning and organizing.  (He has decided opinions on dishwashers.)  I, on the other hand….do not.  This is not my skill set.  But I am fond of cooking.  And I am grateful every day that I found a partner that both enjoys eating what I cook, and cleaning up afterwards.  
  • Part of how I learned gratitude here was recognizing what I didn’t have.  It’s very easy to feel grateful for someone’s gift that I lack.  And when I can recognize that I can help others with my own gifts, then I can begin to grow gratitude for that as well.
  • Beginning to notice is the way to build gratitude. This concentrated, defined attention—the sort that Simone Weil calls the most basic sort of prayer.  Noticing what I have that is unique, and also what others have—even in those moments when it seems like the uniqueness is somewhat pointless.  
  • I mentioned unique perspectives earlier.  That, too, is a place to build gratitude.  There are times when someone needs to hear exactly what we have been through and what our experience is.  And there are times when we need to hear from others.  This focused attention that builds gratitude needs to go both ways.  
  • After all, God has provided us with all that we need to follow God’s call.  Everything we need is right here.  When we approach what we have in a spirit of attention, and curiosity, when we cultivate the sort of gratitude that sees God as the source of all our life, then we will inevitably be astounded at all that God has gifted us with.