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Herods all the way down

First, a funny story.

I misread the lectionary last week. You may know (or may not) that right after Christmas, the Episcopal Church goes a bit off-road, and insists on reading John 1, then does Matthew 2, or Luke 2 on Christmas 2. No other RCL church does this. I forgot (mea culpa) and so I wrote my sermon for last week on Herod on the slaughter of the innocents. I arrived at church, and realized that oops, this was not a thing I could preach just now.

So I figured out something else, about icons and imagery, and things, and you can hear that via the podcast. And I saved Herod for this week.

Then the president got a bit trigger-happy and we all got a bit closer to war and suddenly talking about Herod and the deaths of lots of people felt a bit more relevant than even last week. So I rewrote a bit, with a fair amount of trepidation.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 29, 2019

Christmas 1, Year A

Matthew 2

—This is the Christmas story we don’t often hear

—Comes around once every three years, on the Sunday everyone’s usually still working off Christmas dinner.

—it doesn’t get animated specials; it doesn’t get carols (except the Coventry carol)

—yet for non-western Christians, this story is Very Important.

—for Coptic Christians in Egypt, it’s their claim on the Christ Child (we gave him shelter!) 

—for my South Sudanese parishioners in Kansas City, this was their favorite story every year.  They sang about it, they made up a dance about it.  This was THEIR story.  Jesus became a refugee—this was a story they could get behind.

—After all, this is the part of the story that for many around the world feels familiar.

—Baby born in a stable, lauded by angels, maybe not.  But baby born to parents who immediately have to flee their home, because their political leader is a murderous jerk?  Oh yes.  

—that’s a really familiar tale to all too many people in today’s world.

—And while we don’t have independent evidence for Herod the Great ordering the deaths of thousands of babies, we do have independent evidence for Herod being a generally awful human being.

—Herod was made king of the Jews by the Roman Senate in 36 BCE, in a move that was popular with really only Herod. He had used political allegiances and various marriages to get to the top of the pyramid, and he had the added bonus of being Jewish.

—Though, he was Jewish by conversion, and wasn’t too serious about it, and for devout Jews who could remember the time a few decades back when the Jewish Maccabean kings had ruled Judea themselves, this was not a small matter.

—Herod tried to curry favor with the local population and with Rome by building things and then taking credit for them.  He built many fortresses, and trading ports.  He built the Second Temple in Jerusalem.  He build a massive tomb complex for himself called Herodium that basically made an enormous man-made mountain south east of Jerusalem so he could be the tallest thing around after death.

—However, his “win fans through building” program didn’t really work.  The Pharisees objected to his building cities and temples for Roman gods, since he was supposed to be a Jewish king.  The Sadducees objected when he wouldn’t take their advice on how to build a properly devout Temple.  And no one liked that he bankrupted the treasury with his enormous buildings.  

—There was the additional problem that he was a paranoid narcissist.  He ended up killing off all his immediate family members, convinced they were turning against him.  He was so worried that no one would mourn his death, that he demanded the entire aristocracy attend his deathbed, and then be killed once he had died, so that the whole nation would suitably mourn.  (The queen declined to carry this through.) 

—My point here is twofold—

—one, that this kind of person as Herod evidently was would conceivably react by ordering a full scale children massacre

—and that the kind of person as Herod was is not unfamiliar in the halls of power, sadly.

—it can be easy to see Herod as a one-off villain, a sort of supernaturally evil person who is there to thwart and threaten Jesus.

—But the gospel text remarks that “Herod was filled with fear, and all Jerusalem with him.”

—Leaders like Herod occur all throughout history.  It’s not a one-off aberration.  For every evil Herod-tyrant king, there are hundreds of soldiers who carried out his orders.  Dozens of courtiers who flattered and bowed to him.  Hundreds of merchants who didn’t stand up because it would be bad for business.  There was a whole vast system in place to support this.   One person doesn’t make injustice; it takes a village.

—Part of the shock of the incarnation is that Jesus’s life, the life of God incarnate, rests so clearly on humanity making the right choice.  We have to choose to stand up to tyrants.  We have to choose to welcome the refugee.  We have to choose.  And our actions have consequences to God.

—Now, God’s will for the world will never be thwarted for long by our wrong choices.  God is God, and God can and will always work through our mess to find another way.  But our choices affect God.  Humanity and God are now bound together and affect one another, and we see that so clearly in the life of this baby.

—In the earlier story that Matthew is hearkening back to, two midwives, Shiprah and Puah defy Pharoah’s orders and save babies from the slaughter.  They make a flimsy excuse to Pharoah, “You know those Israelites!  They just have babies so fast!  We don’t have time to get there and kill them!!”  but manage to stand up against the injustice they see around them.

—here, that heroic choice is made by the Magi.  Zoroastrian priests coming from Persia. Strangers by language, strangers by nationality, by faith, who see in this baby something worthy of saving, and so they defy the order of a tyrant for him.  

The Magi defy Herod in this story, and so give the Holy Family time to escape.  

—What prompts people to thwart injustice, and create conditions for God’s reign to come is not always massive  heroic actions.  Sometimes it’s small defiance.  Sometimes it’s listening to that still small voice.  But always, it’s recognizing that their actions make a difference—both to other people and to God.  

—we are never just going along—we are making choices that affect others, and affect God.  

—whether consciously or Unconsciously, because our human lives are intimately bound up in the life of God now.

—So when we keep that in mind, we create space for God to break in and establish the kingdom, even among the reign of Herod.

The reign of God doesn’t depend solely on our actions and decisions,  but it is especially important to remember today, as the drums of war have begun to beat again, that our tradition tells us that life of God Incarnate was saved by Persian wise men.  Not because they necessarily understood the message he brought, not because they forswore their previous allegiances and identity, but because they saw in him something worthy.  Something reflective of the God they sought, that we all seek.

God’s reign comes into this world when we love each other.  When we cross boundaries that usually divide us.  When we challenge the death-dealing tyrannical powers of our world. When we care for each other, because we see in each other the reflection of Christ.  That is how the reign of God enters this world. not through war, not through killing, and not through death.  Only when we brave the wrath of Herod and we care for each other, as we would for that baby.  

It is a scary time right now; there are Herods everywhere.  But I believe there are also magi everywhere.  And as we learn to embrace the reality that our existence depends upon the grace of others, and of God, then surely, with God’s Grace, we can learn to extend that same grace to others.

Amen.

Add a French Accent

My brother used to write copy for a vast video game empire run out of Montreal. One of his gigs was to write lines for people to read while they introduced the new games every year at the giant video game company convention, hosted by Famous Comedian Human. Despite not having any knowledge of gaming whatsoever, I would watch the livestream each year, to loyally support my baby brother’s endeavors.

My favorite all time bit, by far, was the year a French game engineer came onstage and introduced a game for the Nintendo Wii by reciting extremely mundane information about physical exercise, but in a very, very thick French accent. “Ex-yer-ceyes ees bor-hing! No one wants to do eet. But now! Wiz zis ah-mayz-ing gahm! Yu too! Can ex-yer-ceyes your way to a nu layfe!” It was like listening to the most bored existentialist philosopher muse about the banality of push-ups on the banks of the Seine. It was genius.

Christmas sermons are difficult for many the same reasons exercise game pitches are. We know this stuff! Most of your audience knows this content, and little else! You have them for this moment, and possibly none others. How are you going to make it interesting enough for them to listen to you, while not overplaying the hand you’ve been dealt?

This year, I elected to go the French accent route. Tell the story, tell it simply, and double down on what makes context unique.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 24, 2019

Christmas Eve

Luke

Bethlehem is a small town.  It was in the first century; it is today.  There aren’t actually palm trees, and from time to time it does snow.  It’s up in the hills, you see, so it can get pretty chilly.  You can grow some wheat there, and the hills make it good for sheep grazing.  Because it’s only about five miles from Jerusalem, sheep are a big deal—both to feed the larger city, and for Temple sacrifices. But that’s basically all you have.  Some people, some sheep, some houses.  That’s it.

But my point here, is that it’s a small town.  It’s a boring place.  It’s not special, it’s not pretty.  It’s not magic. And it has never known for anything in particular.  It’s not Jericho which grows oranges.  It’s not Sepphoris up north that’s the trading hub. It’s not Rome with the seat of power.  It’s just…it’s just there.  There once was a famous king that came from Bethlehem, but now all that glamour and magic are done.  And it’s back to being a boring little town by the time that the gospel of Luke starts talking about it. 

And not only are we told that this is happening nowhere important, but we know that Other People—no where near our story— are definitely in charge now.  Caesar Augustus in Rome.  Quirinius, over the whole region of Syria.  The gospel writer takes pains to remind us that other people are calling the shots.  Far away people.  Important people.  People who are not in this story.  OUR people aren’t in charge.  And we know that because everyone is getting moved around randomly so Caesar can count us up and get more taxes.  As the story starts, everyone is in chaos—a whole big mess.  What kind of leader would throw the known world upside down like this?  Honestly!  

And so, Joseph and Mary come down to Bethlehem, because of some long-distant ancestor no one can quite recall, and on the command of a ruler no one has seen.  And in the middle of this mess, she has a baby.

And it’s as if all the chaos and confusion that has led up to this point suddenly snaps into sharp focus.  Here are these rather ordinary people, Luke tells us, who are following irritating bureaucratic orders from far away like anyone else, ending up in a perfectly unremarkable town, on a perfectly unremarkable night.  

And then, somehow God shows up.

Right then, right there.  In the middle of all that everydayness.  God shows right up.  In the flesh of a tiny human baby, squalling, fussing, shocked into life.  In the arms of an exhausted mother, and a worried father.  In the straw of a dark space meant to shelter animals, because it was the best they could find.  In the midst of where no one expected and in the most unprepared, unready place—God showed up.

And the first people who get the news that God has shown up are not the far-off rulers with their decrees.  Neither are they the rich and powerful who could at least get the baby a proper bed.  Shepherds show up.  The night-shift workers of the first century.  The people who worked hard just to scrape by, and don’t get noticed.  The angels come to them and announce that for them, FOR THEM, a savior has been born. 

The story of the Incarnation is a story of the absolutely ordinary transformed by God so that nothing would ever be ordinary again.  It’s a story of God breaking into the mundane rhythms of human existence to transform what it means to be human, and what it means to live on this earth.  What we can hope for, and what we can expect.  

At Christmas, with the birth of Jesus, God transfigures humanity, and begins to dwell with us as one of us, to show us what a life lived out of pure love looks like.  Jesus comes to us and shows us what a life lived in the power of God’s love looks like.  What our world can be when we live into God’s reign, and not the empires of this world.  He challenges oppression.  He mocks hypocrisy.  He embraces the sinners and the lost.  He heals the sick and the hurting. He comforts the poor and the outcast.  And not even the fury of the Roman Empire and death itself could stop him for long.

In Jesus, God comes to us and takes on what it means to be human, so that humanity would never be apart from God again.  In Jesus, God wraps up our human lives in the arms of Divine Love.  In Jesus, God finds us in the midst of wherever we find ourselves in this life, no matter where that is.  Because in Jesus, God has forever bound us to Godself.  

Just think—in the birth of Christ, God broke into that quotidian stable, in that humdrum town, in the middle of that everyday governmental chaos.  So now, God is just as present in our most basic of circumstances, in the minuteae of our lives.  God shows up, like God did that night all those years ago.

God shows up when we are exhausted and frustrated.  When we are scared by the empires of this world and their raging.  When we are excited and triumphant.  When we are grieving and in pain.  When we are rejected and abandoned.  God shows up, like God showed up on that night.  

Because through that little baby, God showed up, and will keep showing up, for you and for me, forever.

Amen.    

On the virgin birth

Year A is not my favorite, because Matthew doesn’t talk about Mary enough. Instead, he detours into talking about Joseph, and his several dreams (and as Amy-Jill Levine points out, this should remind you of Genesis’ Joseph and HIS dreams. Because Matthew is all about re-enacting the Tanakh in a pretty on-the-nose way, once you know to look for it.)

However, I decided that even if Matthew wasn’t going to talk about Mary, gosh darn it, I was. I like Mary, I have a fondness for mariology, and we don’t talk about her enough.

So, behold, I decided to unpack the doctrine of the virgin birth. It took me years and years to come around on it, but I did, and so here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 22, 2019

Advent 4, Year A

Matthew, Isaiah

I had a professor in college who said that really, you only need to recall a handful of dates, and with those, you can put almost everything else into context.  One of those dates is 1848.  In that year, several major things were happening:  Charles Darwin’s first book on evolution had come out, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and the first new translation of the Bible since the Reformation had also emerged.  So, lots was changing, very quickly.  

In response to all this, a group of conservative minded Protestant leaders met in Seneca Falls, New York to figure out a way forward. They felt under attack, from all these new ideas swirling around.  And they came up with what they called the 5 Fundamentals of the Christian faith:  5 statements that they felt were bedrock to Protestantism.  Those who could sign onto them were called fundamentalists—and so began the modern fundamentalist movement.

The statements were things like : a belief in the absolute inerrancy of scripture, something called penal substitutionary atonement, the divinity of Jesus, the literal bodily resurrection, and….the virgin birth of Jesus, which gets a lot of play in our readings today.

Now, it’s worth noting that the Episcopal Church has never been a fundamentalist church—we have never endorsed the five fundamentals for various reasons, which would take a much longer sermon than you want to listen to.  

But my point here is that the idea of the virgin birth gets people VERY INVESTED.  Even people who generally don’t have a lot invested in Mary, Mother of Jesus, like fundamentalists.  It tends to carry the weight of many projections having to do with sexual morality, and purity, and the role of women, and all that baggage can be really off-putting for many of us.

So what is going on in Isaiah and Matthew today?  And since Matthew is quoting Isaiah we probably should start there.

Well, first of all, this is first Isaiah talking.  (Isaiah actually has three different prophets combined into one book.  The Title of “Isaiah” was like Dread Pirate Roberts—first one guy did it, then another guy inherited it.  Basically whenever Israel was in a pinch, an Isaiah turned up and started writing.)   The kingdom of Israel (so all the northern bits) is about to be invaded by the Assyrian Empire, and the king is very scared.  Isaiah, in his role as Court Prophet, tells him to calm down, but the king is not hearing it.  “Look,” says Isaiah—“God won’t let anything bad happen to you.  See that young woman over there?  She’s going to get pregnant and have a son, and he will grow up and live long enough to eat solid food.  That’s how you know that God is with you.”

Assyria is threatening a siege, and Isaiah is promising that they will survive it.  So the sign of a woman giving birth is less about a miraculous birth, and more about the passage of time.  They will all live long enough for these things to happen.  And sure enough, Assyria withdrew its armies, and the kingdom of Israel survives for a few more years.

Fast forward to Matthew’s gospel.  The writer of Matthew knows the Isaiah prophecy and figures it fits pretty well with Jesus’s birth.  Again, God comes to be with his people.  Here, the writer is intending to stretch the prophecy a bit—now the miracle is no longer the passage of time; now the miracle is how the baby arrives.  

Matthew’s audience, after all, knows all about miraculous births.  There were stories and legends of special stars appearing when Caesar Augustus was born, and they knew all the stories of gods springing magically from the foreheads of other gods in Roman lore.  This wouldn’t have fazed them.  

What would have stood out is two things: that Mary does so much on her own, and that the child that results is so vulnerable.

In the ancient world, not much was understood about the birds and the bees.  Besides being lesser members of society, women were not credited with any contribution in childbearing: they were literally empty vessels that were filled by what the ancient Greeks and Romans envisioned as teeny tiny people, contributed by men.  

So when we look at it in this way, the story of the virgin birth is pretty remarkable.  Mary somehow bears God into the world, we are told.  This young girl from Nowheresville, Galilee.  Who has nothing, and has done nothing and is in no way remarkable.  She gives flesh to God Incarnate, because that’s how willing God is to be with us.  

That’s an incredibly powerful and affirming assertion to make.  Mary does something incredible, through the power of God, but also by herself.  Leave science aside—the insistence in the gospels about the virgin birth is about the worth of a normal girl who can hold God.  

And this is the second thing that would have struck them.  Unlike the miraculous birth stories they were used to hearing, where gods are carving themselves out of other god’s legs, or springing forth from suns, the end result here isn’t a tiny invincible superhero, but a normal-seeming baby.  Right from the start, Joseph has to act to protect his family, because they’re vulnerable—something unthinkable if we were telling this story about the legendary Caesar, or Zeus.  

But the story of the Incarnation is all about God becoming vulnerable to be one of us.  Not—mind—that God ceases to be omnipotent, but that God willingly forgoes power in order to accompany us in this way.  The baby Jesus is small and fragile, because that’s how we are.  Our lives at the start are full of risk, and anxious nights, and frantic new parents, and so that’s how Jesus entered the world.

The miracle of the virgin birth is so much bigger and transformative than a trick of science or a morality lesson.  It’s God radically affirming the value and worth of a human girl.  It’s God becoming as breakable as we are, so that we might never be alone again.

The miracle of the Incarnation shines through all of human existence, blessing all that is human with the divine touch.  Isaiah promised that God would come and be with us to save us, and in Jesus, God has.  God has become one of us to transform humanity into the image of God.  Our vulnerabilities, our pain, our fragility, Jesus takes into himself, in order that we might be able to find ourselves in God.  

That’s the real miracle of the virgin birth.  That we, in all our weird humanity, are caught up forever in the divine life of God though Jesus. 

That, I can get behind.

Amen.

Expecting a sermon

This past Sunday, we had our Lessons and Carols at 10:30, which meant I didn’t preach at that service. Instead, the choir and the rest of the music program did the heavy lifting of expounding on the Scripture through music and song. It was lovely. (I know there’s been a recent kurfuffle on Twitter about the the Anglican choral tradition, but look–if it is authentic to your people, your cultural context and you can pull it off? Go nuts. I personally love our choral heritage…along with the diversity of music that has made up the mosaic of worship in our history. Just don’t get all fan-boy “My fave is THE ONLY WAY” about it.)

Anyway.

I did write a sermon (sermonette?) for 8am, so that they were not left comfortless. Also, I really love this gospel from Matthew, where Jesus praises John the Baptist before he dies.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 15, 2019

Advent 3, Year A

Matthew (what did you go into the wilderness to see?)

Now, by all that is right, we should be talking about Mary this week.  We’ve lit the pink candle and we are saying the Magnificat.  However, in Year A, we stay with John the Baptist a little bit longer, and so we get this little interlude between Jesus and John’s disciples, after John was thrown in jail.

Recall—Herod The King was a not-nice human.  Among his poor decisions was killing his siblings and marrying his brother’s wife.  Herod was kept in power by Rome, because he was kinda-sorta Jewish, and he built a lot of cities. so Rome thought the local population would LOVE him.  (Like a first century token!)  

Lots of devout Jews found him to be AWFUL, however, because of the murdering, the paranoia, and the sister-in-law-marrying.  John, in particular-had some objections.  So Herod puts him in jail.  (He’s going to end up killing him, which John could probably see coming.)

And in this moment of despair, John sends his followers to Jesus, asking if he is the Messiah—the one John has spent his whole life advocating for.  It’s pretty moving, really.  You can imagine poor John, in a prison cell, in a moment of weakness, and doubt, asking if his whole life has been wrong.

Jesus reacts differently to this request than he does to a lot of the other queries about who he is—he doesn’t dodge or flip the question around.  He says  “Go and tell John what you see.  The lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind receive their sight.”  In other words, don’t be afraid to believe this good news.  It’s right here.

In Isaiah today, the prophet paints a fairly fantastic picture of what will happen in the future.  He’s telling the exiled people of Israel who were carried off to parts unknown that one day, they will get to go home.  And when they do, the desert will bloom, and the desert animals will become friendly and cuddly, and all of the natural world will transform with the glory of what God has brought about.

The imagery is somewhat outlandish.  Deserts are, by definition, unfriendly, unhospitable places.  They want to kill you.  Everything out there is dangerous.  But Isaiah is UNDETERRED.  God is going to make it happen!  He insists.  Just you wait.  Expect it!  

And indeed, the exiles of Israel do go home.  After a time.  Unbelievable as it seems, Cyrus the Persian lets them go home and rebuild.  

Unbelievable as it seems, Jesus repeats the words of Isaiah back to John’s disciples, in order to reassure them.  Remember that unbelievable thing that God did?  It’s happening again.  

Jesus’ speech about John is a reminder about expectations.  Because expectations are a big part of faith.  Isaiah encourages us to expect God to do amazing, impossible things.  And Jesus reminds the crowd that when they went to see John, they expected something incredible, even if they had trouble really putting words to it.  As people of faith, it is our right to expect God to act, to expect God to make that desert transform.  To do the improbable.

This doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility—we have a part to play too.  And we do our bit, trying to follow where God leads.  But we should expect God to act, and act gloriously to transform our world, even when, and especially when things seem the most dire.  Because God does act.  And when we learn to expect it, then we can learn to see it.  We can learn to see God showing up in marvelous ways, transforming the world around us, and making the inhospitable places safe and lifegiving.  

Amen.

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.