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Perfect Storm

So one of my (many) faults is that I am prone to not taking vacations.  I am bad at vacationing.

I am better at finding an excuse to go somewhere, or visit someone, and I can take time off to Go Do a Thing if I can convince myself it needs doing, but just taking time off to recharge?  I am terrible.

And so it was that in my several years of working full-time, I have never taken a vacation longer than a week.  And those I have taken, I have spent Going and/or Doing.

This year, due to a confluence of events, my summer was much busier than normal.  So much so, that my rector informed me that as I had not succeeded in taking time off during the summer, I would be doing it before the fall started in earnest.  So, I decided to try an experiment–I took 2 weeks off.  2 weeks, in which I did nothing except sleep in, stare at the pets, knit a tea cosy, read a stack of books, and recall that life exists outside of stress, anxiety, and work.

I returned to work on Sept 10, at the deanery meeting, and I came bearing some glorious news, which I now share unto you:  Vacation is effective!

Yes, friends, I hadn’t fully understood its effects before, but let me tell you–2 weeks of not tracking emails, going to meetings, obsessing over details, etc–leads to a lot less crabbiness when you return.  When I walked into church on Sunday, I was so happy to be there, and see all these people that I liked, and do this job that I loved.  There was my choir!  There were my parishioners in their pews!  There was the random homeless guy sleeping on the porch!  Ah, so glorious to be home!

Of course, I returned to preach on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, a minefield of minefields.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

Sept 11, 2016

Ordinary Time, Proper 19

Luke 15

Prepare yourselves for a meta sermon.  OK?

Five years ago, I recall being very overwrought over how to recognize today.  As a college chaplain, I was responsible for planning the weekly service, and I was keenly aware that the tenth anniversary of 9/11 was approaching.  So I agonized–what to do?  I didn’t want to be too over the top, but didn’t want to ignore it either.  Didn’t want to slide into mushy patriotism, but didn’t want to ignore people’s feelings either. 

As I recall, I put something in the prayers, and wrote a sermon. 

And afterwards, at dinner, one of my students commented that he thought it was really fine, my sermon, and what I said–but that he thought all this attention felt rather odd.  “After all,” he pointed out, “I was in first grade that day.  I don’t really remember it.”

I was stunned.  But I thought about it.  My students had been in early elementary school that day, and more–they had been in Arizona–not even out of bed when the planes crashed.  They had quite literally slept through one of the events that, at least for me, divides my life into Before and After. 

After all, I have clear memories on flying on planes before the TSA.  I remember meeting people at the gates in airports.  I have friends who remember skipping class in high school to go wander the halls in Congress to see what politician they could meet (I have weird friends, but the point applies.)  I can remember a time when we weren’t in a state of continuous war. 

My students could not.  The feeling that propelled me, what I was mourning in that service was, for them, an abstraction.  They hadn’t been changed by 9/11–they had never known the difference.

For them–for even more people now–life has always been in the shadow of that event–so much so that it goes unnoticed. The pervasive fear and defensive crouch that felt new when it started, now becomes routine.  We have now always been at war.  We have now always lived with the constant, low-level threat of attack.  We have now always looked with continued, voiced suspicion towards those who profess a different faith. 

And all this is so familiar now, 15 years on, to the point where I wonder if it is possible for us to consider whether this state of being is where Jesus actually wants us to live.

Consider, after all, the parables Jesus tells today. 

The kingdom of heaven, he says, is like a shepherd who realizes a sheep has gone missing.  Or a woman who realizes she’s lost one of her few coins.  And so both abandon everything they have to search out the lost thing. 

Like all parables, I should note, there’s an element of weirdness to this story.  Any sane shepherd is not going to leave 99 sheep to fend for themselves in the wild while he traipses off to search for one sheep that was dumb enough to wander off.  A sane shepherd will feel momentarily bad, figure that sheep is coming out of his pay, and move on. 

But God, Jesus reminds us, doesn’t work like we are used to.  God operates differently, and so God desires for us to operate differently as well.

Both of the characters in these parables experience loss, to some degree.  Both experience trauma.  Granted, it’s the loss of wealth, or a blow to their welfare–not necessarily a literal death.  But loss, nonetheless.

And yet, their response to it, as Jesus outlines a Kingdom-type response, is not to close down.  It’s not to become self-protective.  The widow doesn’t build a better box to hoard her remaining gold.  She doesn’t install a security system for fear someone will come and rob her of what remains.  The shepherd doesn’t invest in a snarling guard dog, or build a better, higher wall to surround and guard his 99 sheep that are left.

Instead, they both risk further.  They become vulnerable, in response to loss. 

Frankly, that’s not the average response to loss, to tragedy.  Usually, what we do is hunker down, close off, and build a fort.  We attack anyone in range so we don’t run the risk of suffering further loss.  Risking vulnerability is the last thing we want to do.

Yet that is precisely how God can work to redeem loss.  That is how God can transform the pain we suffer, when we grieve these injuries.  When we allow God to be with us in our vulnerability, and our suffering, God connects our suffering to that of every other fragile human on this planet.  God reminds us that while we suffer, so does everyone else in some way.  Suffering is always unique, but also always universal.

And slowly, our suffering becomes not just our personal sorrow–but a gateway to empathy.  A bridge to deeper love for God’s creation, and an understanding of the love of God in a new way.

Slowly, we can see each other as fellow creatures in need of love and care like we are.  We come to see that we’re all in this together–children of the same God, who need the same things. 

That’s what happens when we head out in search of the one lost sheep, when we risk enough to find the single missing coin.  The hope of a healed world made whole lies where only that risk will carry us–a place where we rely not on our own defenses, or our own strength, but on the Love of God, and our faith. 

The only way we will get to that world we dream of, the world where all sheep are safe, all coins are saved, and no towers fall–is when we become brave enough to become that vulnerable– when we respond to violence with greater peace.  When we respond to attacks with greater love, and when we see suffering as a call remember our common humanity. 

That’s the world we want.  That’s the world God wants for us.  That’s the world we are called to build.


About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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