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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

Mark 

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.

Funny story…

Hey Megan, why isn’t last week’s sermon up on the website yet?

Oooooh, funny story.  

See, last week, I made it back to Ithaca around 11:30pm on Saturday night.  I had been in Kansas City, finishing up wedding planning (pies ordered, BBQ selected, all set!) and I wrote my sermon on the plane.  I was so proud of myself, you see.  And that was my downfall.

I forgot to reconnect my computer to the interwebz, so my sermon didn’t upload itself to the Magic GlowCloud.  So when I arrived at church Sunday morning, all bright-eyed and full of caffeine, I discovered that Magic GlowCloud on my work computer held no sermon of any kind.  There was no sermon to print.

“No matter,” I thought to myself. “I shall reconstruct it from memory!”  And so, did I scribble the main points on a piece of paper, and scamper off to the sanctuary for the 8am service.

But then, dear reader, did disaster again strike.  For during the readings of 8am, did I then discover that I had written a sermon for the next week’s readings.  And not these.  I had a full sermon on James 2 and the Syrophonecian woman, and not James 1 or whatever Proverbs was on about.  

This could be a problem.  People tend to notice when you start harping on about a story they haven’t heard.  

So I readjusted again, and basically said some things about faith and praying and the creeds and I’m not entirely sure what else, but it seemed to work.  It ended up being a mix of half of my written sermon, and half of Things in My Head.  It is possible that at one point I compared Paul to Chidi in The Good Place.  (Because he is, and like Chidi, and moral philosophy professors in general, Paul is also generally uncomfortable to hang around.)

That’s a long explanation of why last week’s sermon never ended up on the blog; which is to say, it never quite existed at all.  THIS WEEK’s sermon, now–that both exists, and is here!  For your reading pleasure.  

Here’s what I said:

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

September 9, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 18

Mark 7

About a day’s walk away from Nazareth—less, actually, if you don’t follow the modern highways—is Mount Carmel, near today’s Haifa.  It’s lovely, relatively green, and picturesque.  It is also the site where, according to tradition, Elijah got into trouble with the court prophets of Queen Jezebel, and proposed a test.  Both he and they would pray to their respective gods to send down fire from the sky to consume an offering, and whoever succeeded—well, that was the true god of Israel.  

Elijah is a bit of a smartaleck, so he taunts the prophets of Ba’al as they pray.  He asks if their god has maybe fallen asleep.  Is he tired?  Maybe he’s too tired to send down the fire?  Does he need a nap?  Should they be praying louder?  Finally, the Ba’al priests give up, after quite a lot of ceremony.

Elijah steps up, douses his offering with water several times, and calmly proceeds to summon fire from the sky in the name of God to flambé not only the sacrifice…but also all the priests of Ba’al, and those Ba’al worshippers who were standing around, watching.  It’s a gruesome moment, one of the major events of the prophet Elijah’s life.  And one of the major events in the religious history of Israel—a history that had really ambivalent feelings about its relationships to people who weren’t Jewish.  

On the one hand, you have stories like this graphic one about Elijah—getting rid of the evil foreign queen’s evil foreign priests, with fire and lots of drama.  On the other, you also have stories like Abraham being friendly with the foreign residents of Hebron, and asking for a place to bury his wife, when she dies.  Or the story of Ruth the faithful Moabite, who becomes King David’s grandmother.  

Essentially, at the time of Jesus, the Jewish culture had a lot of different, and strong, ideas about how you were supposed to deal with people who were unlike you, religiously.  And Jesus, having grown up in Nazareth, in a Jewish town, in a Jewish family, as a Jewish person, would have heard and received all of those ideas.  Would have been raised in that culture and context.  Would have been raised an easy day’s walk away from the place where tradition says the greatest prophet in Israel’s history defeated the unclean ones for God!

So when you hear this week’s troubling gospel—and it is troubling—keep all that in the back of your mind.  Keep that landscape in your mind.  

Because in this moment of whatever, when confronted by this Syro-phonecian woman when she asked for help for her daughter, Jesus unthinkingly falls back into this pattern handed to him by his culture and his country.

Jesus has ventured outside of Israelite territory, we are told to get a break from the ceaseless crowds, and then that doesn’t work, and a woman of Syro-phonecian origin accosts him and asks for his help.  And he says something pretty mean to her.  It is not fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs. 

Ok.  Now.  I should say that there are scholars who try to soften or explain what Jesus does.  There are scholars who say that comparing someone to a dog back then wasn’t as bad as it sounds, because the word used is the diminutive form, so he’s really comparing her to a puppy.  Which is sort of cute, I guess.  

There are scholars who argue that what he was doing was using the woman as an object lesson: that he was trying to illustrate all that stuff about nothing on the outside defiling us, but only stuff from the inside he had just said for the disciples, and prompt a reaction out of them—so they would correct him.  It was all a plan, you see! 

Honestly I don’t care for those explanations; because I don’t find Jesus to be someone who would verbally abuse a woman in crisis, just to prove a point to someone else.  She does not appear to be in on the lesson.  And what kind of person mocks and slanders someone else, in order to teach?  We know from other sources that to be called a dog was just as much of a slur back then as it is now—it had similar (though not identical) ethnic overtones. 

And we can spend a lot of time twisting the text around to make Jesus’ words less troubling, but the truth is, I think Jesus just didn’t think.  And I think he echoed his uncles, his grandparents, his parents, when they were tired, and griping around the table late at night.  I think he just spoke out of what he learned as a kid, from his culture, from the people around him—he gave voice to that free-floating something, and there it was.  

But two things happen—One, the woman gets sassy.  She will not take this.  This is NOT what she came for, gosh darn it.  “Yes my lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table.” Mic drop.   She will MAKE Jesus deal with her humanity, dammit. She is not content to go quietly away—she argues back.

And remarkably, Jesus changes.  His brain kicks back in.  He thinks, and plugs into all that good stuff he was just saying, and he decides to heal her daughter.

Now, maybe he was just demonstrating something for the disciples.  Maybe she was in on it and the two of them had worked it out beforehand.  But this is the one time in the gospels that Jesus appears to reverse course, and so it’s notable.   

The humanity of this woman breaks through the knee-jerk rhetoric.  Having to see her as an individual, and not a category, not a stereotype, not a cutout for a larger problem—that changed the conversation.  It is in that moment when the woman speaks for herself, pushes back against the weird aphorism that Jesus dismisses her with, that he changes his mind.

It is easy to be dismissive of others when we keep them as others.  When we keep them firmly categorized in our minds in the boxes we create for them:  “Different” “Other” “Bad” “Entirely unlike Me,  Who Is A Good Person”.  Sorting people, things, and experiences into one-dimensional categories is a safety mechanism, right?  It’s how we move through the world without our brains exploding, Malcom Gladwell tells us.  And that’s fine, insofar as it goes.

But people aren’t actually one dimensional.  People are images of God, unique and individual, and beautiful in diversity.  And the foundation of our faith is to love God, and love our neighbor—which is in fact difficult to do without knowing our neighbor, recognizing our neighbor as unique, and human and beloved.  God requires not that we sort people easily, but that we know one another.  That we meet one another as unique human beings—with our variety of experiences, histories, stories, and wisdom.  

The risk in that, of course, is that we also have to be willing to be humans ourselves.  We have to be willing to be honest about our own frailties and failings.  Which can be pretty darn uncomfortable!  I imagine Jesus didn’t feel great when he realized what he had said to the woman.  But if he was going to meet her in her full humanity, that required him to acknowledge that he had been raised in a culture that had been cruel to her.  

Dr. Catherine Meeks, a professor in Atlanta, says that in the end, the only way to truly overcome prejudice is love.  When we love ourselves with compassion for every part of our humanity, we will be able to love each other in another’s full humanity.  It is only through this sort of humble love for self and one another that the barriers between us crumble.

It is this sort of love that Christ gives to us, that he models for us, the sort of love that reaches out, that cherishes each beloved child of God, and assures us that there are shall be no outcasts in God’s kingdom.


Kinda-sorta about capitalism

At long last, we screech to the end of John 6, and the Never-Ending Ode to Bread.  I have an ambivalent relationship with the Revised Common Lectionary, but this has to be one of the stranger choices it made–to devote 6 solid weeks in midsummer to reiterating and tiptoeing through John’s sixth chapter.

As a result, it forced me (FORCED ME, I tell you) to preach on a Pauline epistle not once, but twice!  Can you even imagine!  ::hand to forehead, clutches imaginary pearls and adopts grandmother’s thick Southern accent of Doom::

Truth be told, I don’t need much encouragement to go on about corporate sin vs individual sin.  The minimizing of sin to merely moralistic failings within an individual’s soul is one of the worst ideas American Protestantism had (and remember, American Protestantism also popularized the prosperity gospel.  So the bar here is high***.) The notion that sin can be dispensed with if I figure out how to be really super nice is toxic.  The systems and societies that we build for our world can either perpetuate the injustices we commit from generation to generation, or seek to redress them–and that is not a value-neutral thing.  And because currently our society perpetuates and builds upon historic oppression, we are implicated and complicit in that sin.

One final note:  I cite Walter Wink a lot in this sermon, and his work is really amazing on this topic. One of the hopeful things he argues is that the powers and principalities of this world as we have constructed them are blind.  They are not animate of themselves; they are only know that which we have taught them.  So it is always within our grasp, with God as our aid and champion, to reform the powers of this world such that they align more properly with God’s intentions for this world.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

August 26, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 16

Ephesians

One of the little known perks of working in a church office is the occasional odd piece of mail.  For whatever reason, some people feel a need to send their conspiracy theories, their thoughts on the apocalyse, their warnings about oncoming nuclear war, whatever random thought is in their head, to all the churches in the phone book==thinking, I suppose, that we will prove helpful in their crusade.  I’ve amassed a small collection of these random end-time prophecies from different places—from the guy who insisted that Jesus was returning on the back of a nuclear warhead, to the guy this week who helpfully sent a pamphlet for me to put on my desk, so when I was raptured, whoever is left behind could find it, and feel appropriately terrified.  

I bring this up, not because I think there’s validity in these sorts of prophecies necessarily, but because today’s reading from Ephesians may strike you as something that belongs in one of those omnious tracts that people stick under your car’s windshield at the grocery store.  “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rules, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of the present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

What in the world is that about?

There is, as I’m sure many of you have heard, a notion called spiritual warfare, which holds that the creation is subject to two forces:  God, and God’s forces that work for the good, and those forces which rebel and turn away from God—which are evil.  The notion of spiritual warfare commonly holds that these diametrically opposed forces are in a constant struggle over all creation, and at any given moment, anything may be coopted by one side or another—so we have to be always vigilant, lest the wrong side win.  

That is not what the writer of Ephesians is talking about.  To be very blunt, the idea that there is any possibility that God and God’s love would ever not have the final word would have been nonsense to the early Christians.  Of course God wins.  Of course.  God has already won—That’s what had been proven once and for all when Jesus was raised from the dead—any suggestion otherwise was ridiculous.  We know how this story ends.  The powers of darkness don’t stand a chance against God; God has already won decisively.  

So we’re not talking about a pitched battle here.  We’re talking about something else.  

Remember, that Ephesians was written as basically a “Welcome to Christianity!” pamphlet for newcomers.  But it was also written at a time when Christianity was so new it didn’t have a name, and when it was illegal.  If you were considering baptism, you weren’t just considering a religious option; you were considering something that would put your life, and your family’s life, at risk.  The Roman Empire considered worshipping a god other that the emperor to be treasonous—and the Roman Empire controlled all aspects of life.  In some way, Rome controlled what you did, how you lived, what you ate, how you dressed, who you associated with, how you believed, what you valued.  Every aspect of a person’s life required them to interact with the Roman Empire, for better for worse—It was the mightiest power in the known world.  So to be a Christian at that time was to profess allegiance to something over and against the system that ran your entire world. It was major.

Walter Wink—a theologian from the late twentieth century—had a theory about systems like the Roman Empire—these inchoate, massive webs that we exist in, and that you can’t really remove yourself from.  We don’t have the massive Roman Empire nowadays; we don’t have an actual Caesar claiming to be an actual god—but we do have other sneaky systems.  Nationalism, late-stage capitalism, and that odd mix of ideologies that is American civil religion.           

For (a relatively non-controversial) example:  lending money at interest! Technically, all three Abrahamic faiths are entirely against doing this.  The Bible is clear—both Testaments, the Qu’ran is clear—you should not be doing this because it’s taking advantage of people in need.  However, it is entirely inescapable if you want to live in America today.  There’s no real way around it.  If you don’t have any credit history at all, you cannot do simple things like rent an apartment or open a bank account, because our way of life is entirely dependent on the notion of lending money at interest, such that someone should profit when another person is in need.

Of course, there are more complicated and tragic cases.  We all participate in systems that are larger than ourselves, and, for the most part, do not make for human flourishing.  The food that is most accessible isn’t healthy or sustainable, but it’s all most people can afford.  The clothing that is affordable is made by sweatshop workers in dangerous conditions, and shipped long distances, but it’s what most can afford, and so the cycle continues.  And it’s not a question of individuals making different decisions; these are entire systems set up with profit, or domination, or power as the highest good, instead of God.  

These systems are what Walter Wink called the ‘powers and principalities.’  This is what Ephesians is talking about—these massive webs that we exist within, that we know are idolatrous, that we know implicate us in actions that we wouldn’t choose for ourselves, but there is no way to exist outside of them.  And because we are wrapped up in them, our actions frequently have consequences that we would not have chosen at all.  

Now, that may sound depressing.  The notion that we are involved in sin, basically, that we can’t control and can’t escape from.  Especially if you are used to hearing about sin as an individual failing you make in your morals.  I told a lie, so I sinned.  Whoops!  If I stop doing that, hooray!  I can stop sinning.  And yet, when the Bible talks about sin, 99% of the time, it’s not talking about what I do as an individual; it’s talking about what all of us do as a collective; how we treat the poor.  How we make decisions about war and peace, and how to allot our food resources, and how the king uses wealth for everyone’s benefit.  It’s about all of us, not just us as individuals.

  And yes, corporate sin as a concept is sobering to say the least.  

However, two important facts remain.  The first is that humans built these systems.  We created these ideologies and ideas that compose our world.  And though they are bigger than us, though they are geared to ends that we don’t agree with—they are not invincible.  We constructed them; we definitely can deconstruct them.  Though they seem powerful now, the forces of greed, hatred, and division can be taken down by us as surely as they were first put in place.  

And also, and most importantly, God has already won.  In Christ, God came to earth, and decisively won against any force that would stand against humanity, and life abundant.  That is already decided—there is no system, no ideology, that will win against God—not for long.  We’re caught up in these webs of corporate sin, but God has already forgiven us.  And so now, our job, daunting as it may seem, is to work in concert with God to redirect the systems we live in—to make every choice ultimately about how much we can help each other, instead of how we could hurt one another.  Humans made these webs; we can make them better once we are aware, with God’s help.  

And so, our fight is against these powers and principalities, these forces that seem to overwhelm our individual desire to do good on every side. But the God who called us is stronger than any generational sin.  God calls us and empowers us to redeem every part of this creation has set a vision before us of what the world can be when all humanity, all creatures are honored as the images of God that they are.  And with God’s help, not even the worst earthly power we can dream up will prevent that vision from taking shape.  

Amen.

 

 

Ode to a Pelican

When I was a kid, I liked to watch for pelicans at the beach, because my grandfather would recite a poem about them.  “Oh what a bird is the pelican! His beak can hold more than his belly can!” (Same went for whenever the wind blew in the winter, at which time we were treated to

“The wind will blow, and we shall have snow,

and what will poor Robin do then?

He’ll fly to the barn, to keep himself warm,

and tuck his head under his wing; poor thing!”

Bert had a solid avian repertoire.)   Little did I know that this was in fact preparing me for ordained life.

 

This sermon is both entirely about, and not at all about, the Pennsylvania grand jury report about rampant child abuse within the Roman Catholic Church.  I tried to read the report; I got about 85 pages into a 1350+ page document and had to stop.  It was overwhelming.

What hit me, aside from the abuse itself, was how closed off from the outside the entire church structure seemed–from even their own parishioners.  The Catholic Church has nurtured and built the faith of so many countless people, who faithfully attend, and sit in the pews each week, who say the rosary, and devoutly believe the best of their clergy and hierarchy–and the hierarchy portrayed in those internal documents seems entirely uncaring about how their actions and decisions will affect those people.

I hasten to add that this opaqueness can be found to a degree in all institutions–surely the Episcopal Church at times falls into this trap as well.  But it seems particularly and painfully on display in this instance.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

August 19, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 15, Year B

John 6:51-58

in the chapel at my seminary in New York City, was a mosaic floor.  Written in the lovely mosaics, as you walked down the aisle were the traditional virtues, inscribed in Latin.  Across the front of the chapel, by the altar rail, ran the three Christian virtues—faith, hope and love.  (Love was where they crossed).  And up in the chancel area, were various symbols set into the floor.  I would stare at them whenever I lost my focus saying the daily office—which of course never happened.

But behind the altar was an image that we almost never saw.  It was of a mother pelican feeding her chicks, there behind the altar, dead center.  

We don’t see pelicans much in churches anymore, but in the early years of Christianity, pelicans were a symbol of Christ—specifically mother pelicans.  People didn’t quite understand how pelicans worked, but they witnessed the birds bending down, and dumping food into the mouths of their babies, pressing her beak to her chest to make sure it was entirely empty, and so what they thought was happening, was that the mother bird was tearing bits of her own self to give to her children.  So, they thought, pelicans were like Jesus, who also fed his people with himself.  This was a very popular idea—Thomas Aquinas wrote a hymn about how Christ was the divine mother pelican.  Queen Elizabeth I called herself the mother pelican of the Church of England.  And there’s a pelican feeding her young on the front page of the first printing of the King James Bible.  

Of course, once we figured out what pelicans were actually doing—scooping up fish in their weird mouths, and vomiting into their children’s mouths….it seemed like a way worse symbol for Christ.  So it quickly fell out of favor.

Still, I am rather fond of the image of the pelican.  For one thing, it’s one of the classical female images we have of God in Christianity, so that’s cool.  

For another, it’s a symbol that emphasizes the self-sacrificial aspect of Jesus, which is important.  Other symbols talk of Jesus as the king or Jesus as the branch of David’s royal family line—this one is not powerful at all.  It’s entirely reversed.

In the gospel today, we’re still in John’s Never-Ending-Ode-to-Bread, as we have been for the past few weeks.  Remember, John’s Jesus wants to tell you the why of things, and not just the facts, so he’s been busy explaining at great length how he is like the Bread of Life, which is both like the bread that Moses gave the Israelites in the wilderness, and not like that—because Jesus’ bread lasts longer and does not turn into maggots after 24 hours.  (That’s true about manna—Google it.) 

Anyway, that manna part was the Opening of Jesus’ Great Bread Discourse, and now we’re into the rather peculiar part—which either is or is not about the Eucharist, depending on how you look at it.  In point of fact, at no point in John’s Gospel does Jesus actually eat a last supper with his friends, and present them with the bread and wine, and declare them to be his body and blood.  That doesn’t happen here; instead, what we will get at the end is Jesus eating a last meal, and then washing their feet.  But oddly enough, smack in the middle of the gospel, we have this discussion on Jesus offering himself as food and drink….which really sounds an awful lot like it belongs at the Last Supper.  

It is possible that the writer of John is doing that thing again where he is laying out the theology of something that he is assuming his audience already knows from other sources.  It is also possible that the writer of John is driving towards a point about the nature of Christ that in later times will become the language for what we believe about the Eucharist.

Regardless, the important part for us today in what Jesus is saying is the “my.”  “The bread that I will give is my flesh, and this for the life of the world.”  Jesus isn’t going to run to the store and purchase a sandwich tray; he won’t direct his disciples to take up a collection, even.  he will give of himself so that others may be fed.  

It may be hard to remember, but the story that immediately precedes the Great Bread Discourse is the feeding of the 5,000.  In that story, Jesus redistributes the five loaves and fishes of a little boy to an enormous crowd, and they are fed in a literal way.  Jesus finds a kid, uses his lunch to feed a lot of people.  But now, Jesus says, I’m going to feed you with myself.  With my very being and presence.  I will be bread for you.  It’s a pelican moment.

The words sound strange to us in the start of the 21st century; it’s not an image that we’re used to.  But Jesus is telling the crowd that he is so committed to them, to their happiness, their life abundant, that he will not only miraculously feed them, he will give all that he is, even physically, even his flesh and blood, to that end.  He will empty himself out for these people, so that they may be safe and loved. 

Every week, we celebrate the Eucharist, and I repeat the words we find in the other gospels, and declare that the bread and wine are, for us, the Body and Blood of Christ.  Because, for us,  in this holy moment, Christ comes near again, and says to us—this is how close I want to be to you.  This is how accessible I want to be for my people:  made present in the most common, boring bits of wafer.  I want to be here in the most mundane things, so that you can be empowered to go out and do the same,  So that you can go out, and live like this. 

This is the model Jesus sets for us—for us to go into the world, and give up whatever power and privilege we have in order to serve those around us.  We are called to use our power only to empower others who are kept to the side, to use our voices to amplify those who have been silenced. Our privilege is not for our own gain, our power is not to be used for ourselves or our profit—whatever we have, is for the benefit of the world.  Whatever loaves, whatever fish we have, is for everyone.  And all we have to do, this week in particular, is look around to see what horrors self-seeking abuse of power can create—in the grand jury report in Pennsylvania.  We are called to emulate Christ, and to give away what we have.  

There is such power in this sacrificial act—in the medieval mother pelican feeding her young; in Christ coming to us in a tasteless wafer.  How much more, then, are we empowered to replicate that humility, that service, to those we meet, when we can remember that this has been done for us?  When we can remember we have been formed by love like this? When we can remember that we have been enfolded by a God who willingly stoops to enter our muddy world because it is so loveable, how much then are we inspired to reflect that sort of love to this world’s creatures?  

Let’s find out.

Amen

 

Righteous Anger

As I said before, I don’t generally preach about the Pauline Epistles.  This isn’t due to my ambivalence about Paul–it’s mostly due to the fact that Paul tends to preach fine on his own; he mostly doesn’t need my help.  (In fact, he’d probably object to it.) Paul’s letters are essentially theological discourses connecting the basics of the Jesus story with concrete experiences or problems in the life of the community he addresses.  So sermonizing on them today is slightly redundant, I feel.

However, we have now entered what feels like Week 75 in the Great Johannine Ode to Bread, and at this point, I will take whatever opportunity arises to talk about anything from the pulpit besides the benefits of carbs.  (Side-note: what does the writer of the Fourth Gospel have against the gluten-intolerant, anyway?)

So, last week, I held forth about the occasional benefits of anger.  Enjoy.

Rev. Megan Castellan

August 12, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 14

Ephesians 4:25—5:2

  • Bless your heart as a common expression in the South
    • Denotes pity, scorn, possibly outright shaming, but all in a socially acceptable way.
    • You disapprove without disapproving.
  • There is no similar expression in the Midwest.  Closest one can come is a lengthy silence, and the suggestion that you, yourself, have failed.  Coupled with ANOTHER lengthy silence.
    • Basically, there’s really no socially acceptable way to express disagreement. It is not done.***
  • Similar to the case for many of us, in Church, I suspect.  
  • For here there is a rumor that to be a Christian is the same as being ‘nice.’ ‘Agreeable’
    • That the 11th commandment is to Be Nice at all costs, come what may.
  • I think this was based in a good place—surely the heart of being Christian is to love one another.  But over the years, we have seen the command to love be turned into a command to be polite, to be nice….And that is a very different thing. 
  • So today, as we read the letter to the Ephesians, the instruction to Be Angry, but do not sin, might take you by surprise.  It did me.  
  • The writer (we don’t think it was Paul, but it was someone claiming to be Paul, and people back then didn’t stress about copyright the way we do.) is writing a group letter to the newly-formed church in Ephesus, in what would become Turkey.  
  • Ephesus at the time was at the crossroads of several major shipping lanes, so people from all over were passing through, coming and going, and here, a new church had sprung up.
  • The letter then is basically a Welcome to Christianity! Here’s What You Can Expect! pamphlet.
  • The other letters deal with specific situations or controversies—usually Paul is telling someone why they’re wrong, or trying to solve some theological muddle.  Here, the writer is just trying to explain what a person might want to know if they were just starting out and getting their bearings.  What the church was for, what salvation looked like, how to relate to others, those sorts of things.
  • Basic Church 101
  • And of course, in any community of people, especially different people, from different places, with different expectations, there will be conflict.  So are the new believers supposed to just pretend like everything is fine?  Nope.  “Be angry, but do not sin.  Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.”
  • In other words, have disagreements, but dont’ let them run the ship.  Don’t let them fester.  And don’t let your anger control you, or force you to do something you regret.  
  • But anger, in and of itself, does not seem to be a problem.  At least not when it is controlled.
  • It’s worth noting of course that Jesus seems to have gotten angry a fair amount. 
  • There was that time he got mad at those selling things inside the Temple, and he chased them all out.  
  • There was that odd time he got mad at a fig tree that didn’t have figs on it, so he cursed it. 
  • We definitely know he ranted against the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day, and looking at the language he used (whited sepulchres! Blind guides!) he was probably pretty angry when that happened.
  • In contrast to the mild-mannered Jesus of hazy paintings, really, he got fired up a fair amount.  
  • But what’s interesting about Jesus’ anger is a few things:
    • 1. that he never directed his anger towards anyone else’s harm.  He got mad at people, and occasionally at things, but he did not hurt people.  
    • 2. He was made angry consistently by injustice.  
    • Jesus becomes angry at the religious leaders when they don’t live up to their own words; he becomes angry in the Temple when he sees people being taken advantage of
    • Jesus becomes angry when he sees injustice that hurts people
    • One way to understand anger is what emotion results when a boundary is violated. So, when someone breaks one of the understood rules, hurts someone else, violates that boundary, then anger is that feeling of frustration that results when we witness that. 
    • in that sense, i would say that there are situations where anger is called for.  
    • We are called to be angry when we witness the helpless being hurt, when we see the meek being trampled, or the rights of the poor being taken away. 
    • When we see that the justice of God is still a long way off, we are right to be angry. 
    • Some situations surely call for it.  There are times when politeness and niceness won’t cut it. 
    • Then, the question is what to do with that emotion? It can be scary, especially for those of us raised in a world where anger was discouraged at all costs.  
    • Anger is fine, but we cannot let it rule us. 
    • It is a momentary reaction, but not a trustworthy guide. 
    • Anger, channeled improperly, usually turns into resentment and bitterness. 
    • The thing we have to remember is that anger at injustice is prompted at the beginning by love. 
    • love of others. Love of the world. And hope that things could be better. 
    • Anger can flash in the moment, and provide momentary motivation, 
    • But our core must always be this love. Because this love tempers our actions, and centers us on God’s path for us and for our world. 
    • In the end, anger is not capable of bringing us to Christ. Love is. 
    • So we must allow our anger to point us back to this love, and not distract us from it.  We must use our anger as a warning and a messenger, and not as a way of life. 
    • Anger that stems from love and returns us to love; anger that ultimately inspires us to fight for all God’s children—this is a righteous thing.  
    • The path of Love that Christ calls us to doesn’t just ask us for niceness or politeness.  There are times in our broken world where, in order to reckon truthfully with what is happening, anger is called for.
    • But, in the model of Jesus—so anger at a situation, at a system.  Not at a person, and not leading to violence or hatred.  Anger as an inspiration to further work for the wellbeing of all. 
    • Its the anniversary of the events in Charlottesville, where members of the neo-Nazi and white supremacist communities killed a woman who had gone to spread a message of love for all people.  Surely, anger at her death is justified.  
      • But let that anger move us to work for greater love for all God’s children.  Let that anger move us to work for an end to hatred and an end to white supremacy.  And let that anger remind us that the path of division and bigotry ends only in death, whether it be physical or spiritual.  

And may we use our anger as the gift that it is to walk together further down the path of Christ’s love.

***ETA: This was what I said at the 8am.  However, a wise parishioner reminded me afterwards that there IS in fact a Midwest equivalent of sorts: a tight smile, and saying “Awwwwwww” then pausing for maximum effect.  The subtlety of Midwest scorn is unparalleled.  It should be studied.

New Hobby

One of the reporters at the Hutto prayer service asked me, as serious as could be, “So, these large outdoor prayer meetings–I assume this is a weekly tradition for Episcopals?”

Oh my sweet, summer child.

“No,” I replied, quite emphatically. “We are an indoor people.  My people do not venture forth out of doors.  Do you know the Royal Wedding?  The queen, the hats, the tea?  We are the people who brought you THAT.  Today is VERY UNUSUAL.  Please consider how bad things have to be in order to force Episcopalians to go OUTSIDE.

WHERE THE SUN IS.”

However, God is quite the joker, because no sooner did I arrive back in Ithaca, then Mass on the Grass rolled around.  This is an annual tradition of St. John’s, which used to be termed “Rally Day” but because no one quite knew what a rally day was, we decided to change the name this year.  We go out to a local park, rent a big pavilion, and have one big service and picnic to celebrate summer, and to have fun.

My response to that reporter was slightly tongue-in-cheek, but mostly honest.  Because the heart of our tradition is liturgy, when we move where it happens, it feels radically destabilizing.  Sometimes, that’s healthy, and sometimes, that’s just chaotic without purpose.  But in all cases, it’s deeply felt.  So we don’t tend to just “go outside.” Outside is chaotic.  Outside there is wind and water, and whatnot.  You can’t always control things outside.

However, more and more it would seem that outside is just where Christ is calling us.  Regardless of the geese that honk while we pray, and the wind that threatens our nicely-lit candles–Christ seems to be calling us outside into this creation, so go there, we shall.

Here’s what I said.  (It’s in bullet points because I was trying to be ‘looser’ and more ‘free.’  This sort of worked?

Bread vs bread 

CAT FOOD EXPERIMENT in 4th grade 

Moral: don’t be a cat. Hold out for the good stuff. 

  • Recall now that we’ve switched from Mark to John’s gospel
  • Mark was “Just the facts” 
  • John wants to also tell you the Why. The theological background. 
  • John is Gospel 2.0 
  • Which is why he spends 3 chapters ranting about bread 
  • Bread here isn’t just bread. 
  • (as you might suspect from Jesus chiding them for wanting a snack.)
  • As usual, John is operating on several levels 
  • For one thing, John would like us to notice that Jesus is being super-Moses like here. Which is why he has told us that it is Passover. 
  • Remember how Moses, among his many accomplishments, fed a huge crowd of people? 
  • He prayed, and God gave the Israelites manna in the wilderness. 
  • Here, Jesus prays, and God feeds a crowd again.
  • But! Jesus’ bread is not like the manna, which turned bad after a day. Jesus’ bread is 1. for everyone and 2. everlasting. 
  • So Jesus is both in the footsteps of Moses, and building upon Moses. 
  • Don’t settle just for manna, John’s Jesus tells us. There’s more out there, and God wants to give it to you. 
  • Don’t just settle for surviving, Jesus tells us. Reach for an abundant life. 
  • The crowd seems to want the basics—bread! Magic! Miracles at their beck and call! And it makes sense—free bread sounds pretty great. 
  • But Jesus wants to give them something more complicated, more risky and more real. 
  • Following the way of Christ is not just survival.
  • In fact, loving God and your neighbor as yourself does not necessarily make for survival. 
  • Following Christ opens us up to a life beyond surviving— it opens us up to a life of vulnerability, and richness, and joy, and sorrow, and hope.  
  • There are times, certainly, when it seems safer to settle for bread.  We know bread! And we also don’t want to get our hearts broken. 
  • But the life that Christ offers us beckons with so much beyond our imagining—it makes the occasional heartbreak worth it. 
  • We’re here today in this park to celebrate. But not the survival of St. John’s. We are here to celebrate our thriving. Our abundant life we are finding together. 
  • Time and again, this parish has chosen to reach for an abundant life, rather than the safe one. We have chosen to follow Jesus when he led us onto the water rather than to stay on the shore. And recently, I followed Jesus and got to join you on this path. 
  • so here we are, rejoicing in the abundant life this parish has found together. And in the adventures that Christ has in store for us just over the horizon. 

 

Listen to Smart People

Several things collided this week to create a sermon.  One was the ever-wise Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney writing about David and Bathsheba. (If you don’t read her work, you should.  Stop reading this and go read Dr. Gafney.  Just go.)

Ok, I am assuming if you’re reading this then you’ve already read what Dr. Gafney wrote.

The other was that I realized I have never preached on David and Bathsheba.  Never.  And that, I realized, cannot stand.  Not in this age of #metoo and #churchtoo and all the other hashtags we are faced with.  Despite my discomfort (there are KIDS in the congregation!  Can I put a trigger warning in the bulletin? etc) I knew I needed to talk about this story.

Sure enough, so many people came up to me afterwards to thank me for preaching on it.  Not that I made the story palatable (it’s still not; it’s still a horrid story) but I think we forget as preachers how confusing it can be to hear some of these readings in the pews, and then have the most bizarre things skipped right over like they never happened.  So we can talk about bread for the 45th time.

Talk about the confusing bits.  Lean into the troubling parts.  If it bothers you, I will bet money that it bothers someone in the pews.

Here’s what I said–and please note–the exegesis here is all Dr. Gafney.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

July 29, 2018

Proper 11, Ordinary Time, Year B

2 Samuel 11:1-15

I find it curious sometimes at the stories we tell children.  When I was growing up, we had this VHS tape of cartoon bible stories:  One was Noah’s ark, and one was David and Goliath.  The animation wasn’t fantastic—I am too old to have been the target of Veggie Tales.  But what I remember is that both stories had some really horrific scenes of death and destruction.  Noah’s ark had a whole lot of people drowning in a flood.  And David murders Goliath in a pretty bloody way, and it’s fairly graphic.  

Yet these are stories for children!  And if you look at the Bible stories marketed for kids—those are the central ones!  I think it’s for marketing purposes, perhaps, or perhaps the people doing the marketing haven’t actually read them—and all they see is—on the one hand, a lot of cute furry animals, and on the other, a heroic kid with sheep.  

But truth be told, the Bible has some really awful, not at all G-rated stories in it.  One of which we get today. And I decided to preach about it because I think that facing that which makes us uncomfortable is often better than ignoring it, or glossing over it, and that this is doubly true when it comes to our faith.  Because the Bible often has these horrible things in it because our world also has horrible things in it, and it is only in facing them squarely that we can figure out where God is in all this mess.

To that end—just what is going on with David and Bathsheba?

The last time we saw him, David was really just a kid, fleeing from Saul, the king who quickly fell from grace. Now, he’s the king of all Israel in his own right, with all the power in the world, waging war on other kingdoms, and feeling so secure he sends his army off to battle without him!  In every way, David has the power.  And Bathsheba does not.

It is that power differential that it is vital to keep your eyes on here.  Yes, there are folk songs about this story—yes, the text gets pretty metaphorical about what exactly is happening.  But in the end it is important to remember that one of these people is literally the most powerful person in the world, and the other is not.  So choice—even the illusion of choice—does not exist for Bathsheba.

Bathsheba, though—-she’s a bit of an enigma. And here’s what I mean.  Like the folk songs written trying to romanticize what is definitely not romantic (looking at you, Leonard Cohen), there has been a lot of art trying to make Bathsheba into a scarlet woman—a woman who basically got what was coming to her. She gets the Mary Magdalene treatment in Western art—“Here is a woman, we know she’s not the Virgin Mother, ergo she must be a direct path to hell.”) But whoever wrote this text took pains to do a couple of things on her behalf.  For one, she gets a name—which is incredibly rare for a woman in the Biblical narrative, let alone for her father to also be named.  The fact that her father is named is probably an assertion that she came from a “good” family.  Her family was known enough for her father’s name to be relevant to the story.  

For another, she is depicted as adhering faithfully to the Jewish laws of purification, which was a big deal.  Bathsheba was doing what she was supposed to—she was following the law.   Meanwhile the first thing we are told in this story is that in the time kings rode forth with their armies—this king was instead lounging around breaking one of the ten commandments.  

Then breaking a few more of them. 

Bathsheba is doing what she is supposed to.  In the world of the text, she is vindicated.  

David, on the other hand, is very, very wrong.

David takes by force a woman who cannot and does not consent, and forces her to bear his child.  And when Bathsheba’s husband refuses to cover his tracks, David has him killed. We have words for those acts in this world.  

We are used to hearing this story as David’s story—as an illustration of how even a great king can make horrible mistakes—but as Bathsheba’s story, it’s even worse.  

Make this story about David, and there’s an easy-enough-light to see at the end of the tunnel.  David is still king, and though he’s in trouble, God preserves his life, and still speaks with him.  

Bathsheba, though?  Where’s the redemption for her?  Where’s God’s presence for her? 

This is one of those stories where we need to be careful how we read it, we need to be careful not to make it too spiritualized—because as horrible as it is, it is also not unfamiliar.  We are living in a cultural moment where more and more of these stories are being told, where it is becoming evident that for a long, long time, many in positions of power have felt free to behave just as David did.  And the Bathshebas in those real-life stories were left to disappear into the shadows without names or voices.  From Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer, to Bill Cosby, we’ve watched the famous and beloved figures admit to some really horrible treatment of those less powerful than they.  

In ways large and small, the story of David and Bathsheba continues to play itself out in our world, before our eyes, and so it is vital that we, as people of faith, figure out what we are called to do in response.  What is our response to be, to the Bathshebas in our time?  To those misused and abandoned by those in power?  What is our response to be to the Davids of the world?  

The story goes on, after our lectionary cuts it short.  What we see this week is David’s sin—what we don’t see is Bathsheba’s victory.  You see, after all this horribleness happens to her, and she ends up with a dead husband and kidnapped and living in the palace, she has this baby.  And Nathan, the prophet, calls David out by name, and accuses him in front of EVERYONE for his actions towards Bathsheba.  Nathan and Bathsheba sort of team up, from then on, and despite Solomon’s lowly status, they contrive to have him rule Israel, instead of the first-born.  And when Solomon takes the throne, he establishes a special role for his mother, as the queen mother, and insists that the kingdom honor her as they would a queen.  

The trauma still happened, of course.  She still suffered greatly. and what David did should never have been allowed to occur in the first place. And yet, though Nathan’s intervention, through God’s grace, in a way, Bathsheba was vindicated in a powerful way.  David’s hubris and pride caused his downfall, but God lifted up this wronged woman, and in the end, gave her a form of justice over the most powerful man in the world.  

Because in the end, God does not care about how powerful anyone is. God doesn’t care how rich anyone is, or how polite, or how outwardly moral.  God cares about how we treat one another.  And when we mistreat each other, then God is there to lift up the victims, to comfort the survivors, to assure them that even when justice and redemption seem impossible this side of heaven, that God hears the cry of the oppressed.  God hears the cry of the downtrodden.  God heard Bathsheba, God hears those who cry out today, and we as the church need to do likewise.  We must be like Nathan, ready to come to the aid of the victimized, however unpopular it might be.

The presence of stories like this on in the Bible does not mean that God condones what happens here—the presence of this story in the Bible means that God gives us a job when tragedies like this one occur in our time.  It means that God urges us to be ready to side with the Bathshebas of the world, and ready to stand with the Nathans.  God calls us to give voice to the voiceless, to give support to those who have been pushed aside; to be the Nathans of the world. And when we live into that role, no one need fear David’s power any more.

Amen.