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No gods that we know

We have now entered the one-month period wherein I will be installed officially as the rector of St. John’s (hooray!) and then get married (also hooray!).  I figured out today that this series of events is the equivalent to an out-of-season Christmas/Holy Week scenario–copiers will run out of ink, computers will die, the building will slowly collapse, and people will people, in recognition of profound oncoming liturgical events.  I warned the staff to be on their guard.  Be very nice to everyone.  Stockpile the office paper.  Winter is coming.

This means that I have noticed the occasional vestry member looking at me worriedly when I say (without thinking) “Well, we can start that project in October!  No problem!” or the parish administrator saying gleefully, “GOOD FOR YOU!” when I say I’m taking off a few minutes early.

Rest assured, that beginning next week, I will have two other preachers at my disposal at St. John’s, and they will be pitching in ably.  So in the event that a sermon doesn’t make it up here, there’s a good chance that someone else has just preached.

In the meantime, here’s what I said on the 16th.


Rev. Megan L. Castellan

September 16, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 19


The gods we are used to

There’s a scene in that Anglican classic of modern spirituality, The Life gf Brian, where the People’s Liberation Front of Judea is having a meeting.  And someone rightly questions the continuing Roman imperial rule over Palestine, asking, “Well, what did Rome ever do for us?”

The answer immediately comes back: “Well, running water.  And plumbing.  And roads.  And transportation.  And cities, really.  And trade.  And security.  And…and…and…”  Point well made.  (Like the rest of their canon, Life of Brian is remarkably well researched regarding life in first century Palestine.)  And it does nail the socio-political milieu pretty well:  Rome did A LOT in Palestine during their rule, which is why there are several Caesarea’s all over the place.  Entire cities built by one Caesar or another.  The one we’re interested in today is up at the headwaters of the Jordan, up in the Golan Heights, where the freshwater springs are.  Caesarea Philippi.  

Traditionally—an ancient center of Roman/Greek worship.  For thousands of years, because of the continual supply of fresh water, people had gone there to worship the god of the moment.  First the gods of the Canaanities, then the God of the Israelites, then the Babylonian and Assyrian gods, then the Greek and Roman gods—Caesarea Phillippi was one of those places in the ancient world that just attracted worship.  So the springs were littered with temples to one god or another—Tons of various temples to all the gods at the springs. So when Jesus asks this question, they’re literally standing surrounded by other gods.  The location of this conversation is not coincidental at all. 

Who do you say that I am?  One like these?  

No—We say you are the Messiah, the Christ!  Hooray—50 points to Gryffindor.  Everyone is very excited—the disciples finally got one right!!! 

Then Jesus explains what that means.  (Notable, in each gospel, as soon as a disciple figures out who Jesus is, Jesus announces he will be crucified.  Crucifixion and Messiahship are inexorably intertwined.) 

Peter reacts badly.  NO.  Messiahs don’t do that.  Messiahs are big and strong and fix things.  Messiahs can be described in easily systematized theological statements, and hypotheticals, and are not confusing.  Look at all these marble statutes!!!  Aren’t they nice!  Don’t you want to be respectable like them?!  The point, the whole point, in Peter’s mind, of Jesus being the Messiah is that Jesus, his friend, is a god just as big and as imposing as these statutes that surround them.

It never fails to be surprising and upsetting, this Messiahship of Jesus.  It is the constant tension that runs through the gospels.  

Because Jesus is unlike any god we are used to.  He is not like those statutes at Caesarea Phillippi.  Jesus is not like Zeus, not like Mercury.  He is not like those ancient Canaanite or Babylonian gods. Jesus is not like any other god we know. 

And we know that, of course we do—which is why, when Jesus forcibly reminds Peter that his job as Messiah, is not to get his face carved into marble, but to climb upon a cross to die, we nod, because we know this story.  And after all, there aren’t many temples to Ba’al left in our world.  (Outside New Jersey, because there is literally every religion current and ancient in New Jersey.) 

Though, I daresay, there is some perverse way in which it’s a lot easier having a god like those nice marble statues, whose heads crown the rocks around the springs at Caesarea Philippi.  They were predictable—you knew what to do with them.  You didn’t have to worry that they would up and die one day.  You didn’t have to worry that they would abandon you; if they proved faithless, well then make a better sacrifice the next time.  Easy.

But what does one do with this suffering God?  How does a human cope with a loving, suffering Messiah?  It’s a bit much, isn’t it?  It gives us no room to hide.  We can’t stick our own less-than-great behavior under any divine cloud, because there’s Jesus, always showing us something better. 

Jesus, sheerly by being who and what he is, draws us to something better, shows us that life can be lived better, more fully than this. 

Frustratingly, Jesus refuses to play by the same rules as the old gods—he won’t hate the people we do, or be as emotionally petty as we are, so that we can have an excuse, and feel justified.  He irritatingly will not succumb to our attempts at bribery and bargaining, much as we would want.  He doesn’t produce magic, and cannot be manipulated to our own ends—despite our best efforts, he remains just out of our reach.

We often confuse him with the other gods—not so often ones made of marble now, but fancier ones.  Ones made of ideas like the market and security, and ideology.  We, like Peter, still want to conflate the Christ standing before us with all the various gods that cry for our attention.  We project all of our own stuff onto Christ, then blame him for it.  

One of the miracles of God that I can never quite get over, is how God never allows us to get away with that entirely.  I heard Bishop Mark MacDonald compare it to growing cranberries—you have do to all this work to grow cranberries; prepare the soil just right, water them just right, plant them, tend them, do all this impossible work, still it only works half the time—-but then occasionally, you look across the road and darn it if cranberries aren’t growing wild in the forest just because.  

There are voices in our world that would tell us that really, God hates quite a lot of people.  That everything is hopeless, so we best just buckle down and hope we make it into heaven.  Or at least the Rapture.  And we have places in the institutional church that are so broken and diseased that they have been hurting and abusing vulnerable people for decades—if not longer.  

And yet.  In spite of all that—in spite of all the voices of our world that would encourage us to see Jesus as just another fallible marble figurehead—petty and changeable—somehow I meet people day after day who know—who just know—in spite of all this—that God is real, that God loves them beyond knowing, and that Jesus is different, somehow.  Somehow, despite the world’s best efforts—those cranberry seeds are still growing.  Somehow, despite all that would trick us into thinking otherwise, Jesus persists in being himself.  Persists in being Unlike all our other Gods.  

but still, quietly, consistently, and subtly, Until such time as we notice.

About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

3 responses »

  1. The Rev. Dr. Virginia W. Nagel

    How about giving us the dates of your installation and marriage so we can pray you through them?


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