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Author Archives: megancastellan

Continuing Education

On Saturday, I went to my first diocesan event in Central New York.

Here’s the thing with diocesan events:  I consider them a win if they are unremarkable and contain one or two pieces of information I can use.  Occasionally, diocesan events descend to the point where they test my continuing belief in my vocation, which is worrying, but mostly, they sort of float along unnoticed.  I go, I talk to people I don’t usually get to see, and life moves on.

Happily, Dr. Catherine Meeks was invited to be the keynote speaker at this particular event.  And Dr. Catherine Meeks is a freaking genius-person who can bring the gospel with the best of them.  Listening to her speak was a true highlight.  (If you haven’t read her book Living into God’s Dream, then you should do that.  Go read her book.). One of the things she said was that hatred, prejudice, bigotry, etc resulted from our own inability to do our own work.  When people were unable to process their own insecurities and their own damage, they projected the elements in themselves they were uncomfortable with onto the Other–whoever that might be–and that projected image became what we saw when we engage with the other person.  It’s fear, but not fear of difference in the other, as much as it is fear of difference in oneself.

For me, this melted my brain a bit.  I’ve heard all sorts of explanations for racism and sexism over the years: economic anxiety, lack of exposure to difference, ignorance, etc.  None of them quite fit for me–because there is always the person who grew up around difference, knows perfectly well the consequences of what they say and do–and just does not care.  I’m related to people like that, and just calling it cognitive dissonance doesn’t explain it fully.

I adore learning something that explains some of the world to me.  So I have, since Saturday, walked around marveling in my head how wonderful and brilliant this idea is.  How much it explains.  How useful it might be to explain yet more of the big world.

Dr. Meeks also made mention of God’s role in all of this; how God asks us to fully engage in the process of making justice and peace a reality, even as we would much rather wander around with our faces toward the sky, asking for someone else to do it for us.  That part, I used in my sermon on Sunday.  Here it is.

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

May 13, 2018

Ascension/Easter 7/ Frances Perkins shout-out?

Luke 24: 44-53

 

My fiancé and I have noted that when someone’s name appears floating through our social media, our first thought is “Oh no, I hope he’s not dead.”  Then, our second thought is usually “Oh no: what horrible thing has he been accused of?” 

It’s only been a year since the article was published that exposed Harvey Weinstein’s repeated crimes against women, and in that time, the #metoo movement has done much to shed light into some of the darkest spaces of our society.  By elevating women’s voices, and by using social pressure against those who harass and abuse the vulnerable, the movement has started to shift how we address these issues as a society.  (Started to.)

And one of the side-effects of that shift is that there has been more than one fallen idol in all this.  Louis CK seemed so affable and funny, until the stories about him came out, and suddenly it all looked different.  Bill Cosby was hilarious, and harmless, until he really, really wasn’t.  Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Garrison Keillor, in Missouri, the governor, Eric Greitens, and this week, the Attorney General of New York.

As I was reading about the latest case (which was really awful, and you should prepare yourselves) what struck me was the women who urged the victims not to come forward.  “He is what we need against Trump,” they argued.  “He’s such a key player.  He’s done so much good.  We can’t do this without him.”

What horrible calculus is that.  Don’t get me wrong; I understand the logic.  I understand why the victim of assault would not want to come forward, especially against a public figure.  But the thinking that one person, one person alone!, can save us.  The idea that any hope for change rests on One Magic Person being perfect is bound to end badly.  It’s a very dangerous thing, trying to make an idol out of anyone, much less a human.  But we try it all the time.  We do it in ways large and small.  Oh, how we would love for someone, ANYONE, to save us so we don’t have to.

Think about this burning human need for a savior, in the back of your mind, when you reread the Ascension story.  Because, on several levels, the Ascension story is WEIRD.  It’s a bit…unnecessary? Even?  Jesus has lived, he’s died, he rose again, and now?  He just lifts on off the ground, and for what?    I’m sure the disciples were really put out with this turn of events—they had just gotten the guy back 40 days prior, and here he is leaving again.  This was perhaps not the most helpful to the disciples.  They have all these expectations, all these things they want Jesus to do now that he’s new, Resurrected Jesus:  “Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Because surely now that he’s back, he’s going to get on with making the world perfect, with doing all the things he promised while he was alive.  

But nope! No sooner had they begun to get their minds around the resurrection than Jesus leaves again, and NOW what state of being is he in? They expected Jesus to fix everything now that he was resurrected, but instead, he leaves.  Again.  And they are left staring at the sky.

But two angels appear, and ask them what they’re doing “Men of Galilee, why are you staring at the sky?”  

Now that Jesus has departed, the disciples are a bit baffled, and more than usual.  Who will save them now?  Who will do all those things that Jesus said they should do?  How will anything get better?  Who will save the world now?

The disciples want Jesus, of course, to be the person to do all the heavy lifting—to be the one person who does all the work.  And of course, Jesus, during his ministry on earth, does an incredible amount of healing and teaching and preaching. 

But in the end, when Jesus departs for the heavenly realms, the disciples must pick up the torch of that ministry.  They must go out and do themselves what Jesus had previously done.  Peter must grow into the Rock Jesus declared him to be.  James and John must grow beyond their quarreling and bickering, and work together.  Thomas must venture beyond his cynicism and journey forward in faith.  Mary Magdalene must embrace a new life.    All of which wouldn’t have really been possible if Jesus had stayed with them.  But now that he’s gone, these gathered people grow from a lost band of confused individuals to the seed of the church.

It’s only after the Ascension, after all, that we see Peter beginning to get a clue, and start preaching dynamic sermons in Acts.  It’s only after the Ascension that we see James and John band together and build up the church in Jerusalem.  It’s only after the Ascension that, according to legend, Thomas goes to India to preach the gospel and Mary Magdalene goes all the way to Rome to tell the emperor of the Risen Christ.  All of a sudden, it’s as if the Ascension spurs the disciples to grow into the people they were intended to be all along.  

In theological terms, we say that Christ doesn’t depart in the Ascension—or rather, he does, but only so that he can be more fully present with all of Creation.  While he was incarnate on earth, he was bound in time and space, but after the ascension, he was no longer so limited, and so could be present to all people in the same instant.  The spirit of Christ could accompany Peter as he taught, Thomas as he traveled, Mary as she preached—everyone all at once.  And us, as we gather here.

Instead of relying on an external Christ to magically save them, the Ascension pushed the disciples to rely on the spirit of Christ aiding them internally for guidance and strength. It pushed them to do the work that Christ had been preparing them for during his ministry, and to realize all they were capable of.  To claim their roles as co-laborers with God in this world.

Because really, we can’t rely on idols.  Idols, as the Psalms are always telling us, will disappoint us every time.  No matter what.  Idols won’t save us—no matter how well-intentioned.  If we want the world to be a more just place, we have to change.  If we want oppression to cease, we need to work on that.  If we want to see more love, more mercy, more forgiveness in our world, we need to start cultivating these within our own lives.

The Holy Spirit, present in our midst, empowers us to seek and do the will of God, even when its difficult, even when we aren’t sure how to begin.  It is the Holy Spirit that shifts us from gazing longly at the sky, wishing for another idol to rest our hopes on, to moving forward, ready to embrace the life and work that Christ calls us to.

  

Happy happy, joy joy

I did NOT decide to preach a sermon on the joy of Christ because I recently got engaged. (While I am really happy, I’d argue that the immediate inundation of “YOU MUST PLAN YOUR WEDDING THE FOLLOWING WAY” ads on all social media platforms really cuts down on the experience a bit.) I decided to do it because I am again indebted to D. Mark Davis’ lectionary/linguistic blog Left Behind and Loving It. In the post, he asks what the joy of Christ might look like, which got me thinking.  I’ve talked before about how I usually steer clear of commentaries, because they tend to overshadow how I hear the text with their own opinions and framing.  This blog just posits questions alongside the Koine text, which I find infinitely more helpful as a place to start a sermon.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

May 6, 2018

Easter 6

John 15:9-17

One of the side-effects of beginning your ordained career at a younger age than the average priest, is that you spend quite a lot of time in meetings with people trying to figure out how to speak the language of “Kids These Days.”  This is fascinating for a number of reasons, among them, the assumption that an entire generation has ever been of the same mind about anything, and also—that a person who felt called to enter the priesthood as a teenager would make a particularly good spokesperson for said generation.   I went to seminary at age 21!  I am not the most typical of young people!  

And yet, here we are.  In one of those meetings, I can recall sitting with my college students when I was a chaplain, and being surprised to hear adults in the room congratulate them for attending service.  “I can’t believe you come to church! Next time, we’ll make sure to reward you with lunch afterwards.” One said.  Another made some mention of college students not coming to Holy Week services, because “that’s just too much for them” and probably too boring.” 

I found this all quite strange.  In point of fact, my particular college students had pushed for a full schedule of Holy Week services, and would have probably loved it had I given in to their demands and done a full chanted Rite 1 eucharist with incense every week.  When I was introduced to one freshman in his first week of school, he shook my hand solemnly and informed me that the Hymnal 1982 was a sadly underutilized document within the Episcopal Church today. 

My college students LIKED church.  They liked church a lot, which was why they came, in a culture that increasingly looked askance at the openly religious.  There was no peer-pressure to attend church for them; in fact, there was just the opposite.  But they came to church because here, they found meaning.  Here, they found joy.

The gospel today is taken from a long speech that Jesus gives in the gospel of John.  At the last supper, after he washes their feet, Jesus holds forth for chapters and chapters in something called the High Priestly prayer—essentially recapping what his ministry has been about for the past few years.  He’s taking these last moments with his disciples to remind them of what they need to know before he leaves them.  

And so he reminds them that he has given his commands and lived his life in order that we should abide in his love, and so our joy may be complete.  The language in this gospel is more complicated than really it ought to be—it’s like someone is showing off—but this section is chained together with a little word that means either “so that” or “in order that.” I have said these things to you in order that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.  This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you—and no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

These ideas are connected like dominos—Jesus is saying that if we follow this command to love one another as he does, then we will find his joy. 

This, then, is what the Christian life is about:  his joy, and his love.  Joy that can sustain us thru everything in the world, and love that can overcome death.  The joy of Christ—that’s a somewhat unfamiliar thought, but if you’ve ever seen Desmond Tutu speak, then I imagine it might be similar to the joy that shines out from his face.  Because surely, someone who has experienced such suffering and human cruelty in their lifetime, yet can still beam with delight over a silly joke knows something of the joy of Christ, that persists even in the face of bleakness.  

This joy isn’t denial, by the way, and it isn’t emotional manipulation.  I don’t think Jesus wants us to deny or manufacture emotions—the sort of joy I speak of cannot be conjured up through force of will, really, or a key change in emotional music.  It’s born of being rooted deeply and surely in the love of God for all creation, and knowing that God’s love will have the last word, no matter what.  And feeling the delight of that knowledge set you free.  

Oddly, this joy is not always what we associate with church—love and joy and good news.  Church is frequently talked of as a somber, stale thing, filled with frozen people who must assent to a lengthy list of do’s and don’ts, and who probably don’t understand science.

 

But that popular conception hardly seems like the sort of thing that Jesus is talking about here.  Or the sort of thing that would be lifegiving at all.  Faith, he tells the disciples, is meant to be joyful.  Our relationship with God is meant to be a source of freedom and joy.  It is supposed to connect us to that sense of joy.  By this the world will know that you are my disciples—that your joy may be complete.  That you abide in my love. 

How strange is it, then, that in so many places, what passes for Christianity does the exact opposite.  How odd that what is called the gospel by many is such a soulless, hard thing—that so often what we hear shouted from rooftops and quoted by politicians is not the joy and love of Christ, but something else.    After all, the gospel is called good news, and so good is what it should be.  

And not just good news for the person proclaiming it—not just good news for the rich, the privileged, the fully-able, those of white privilege, those society already favors.   but good news for everyone.  

Good news for the poor, the sick, the politically oppressed, the disabled, the struggling, people of color, LGBTQ, the marginalized—if what we say is not good news for these, then it is not the gospel.  If what we proclaim does not bring the life-giving love of God into the world, then it is not abiding in Christ.  if It does not speak of that joy that laughs in the face of evil because it forces its coming downfall—it is not the gospel.  

Because if we let it—our faith is joyful.  That was the secret those college kids had discovered years ago.  What could be dour or dull about what we do here?  THIS IS FUN.  THIS IS HAPPY.  Celebrating God come among us, and the eternal triumph of love incarnate—that is incredibly joyful.  

This is the joy we need to share with the world; this is the joy we need to celebrate, especially in a world so often dismal and sad.

Amen

You, Me, and CAMEL! makes three

I realize that I have again fallen behind in the sermon-posting.  However, this time I swear I have a good excuse!

I got engaged last weekend to my boyfriend-though-we-both-agree-that’s-a-rather-silly-name-for-an-adult, Ben.  Hooray!  We are both very excited about getting married, which will happen in October, God willing and the wedding industrial complex consenting.

However, it does turn out that getting engaged takes up some of your time and energy?  Who knew.  So I hereby apologize for my tardiness in posting last Sunday’s sermon, but here you go.  (It does not mention my romantic life,  but it does mention a camel.  Because camels are cool.)

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 28, 2018

Easter 5, Year B

Acts 8!

I took a group of young adults to the Holy Land over the summer on pilgrimage.  I’ve been there several times, but one of the things that hits me every time I go is how very wild the wilderness is.  On this trip, we went out to the desert outside of Jerusalem, early one morning before the sun came up.  We went only a few miles outside the city to the southwest, and soon were in the heart of the desert, with nothing around us except the barren hills.  

We celebrated the eucharist as the sun came up over the hills—with nothing as far as the eye could see—only hills upon hills, and the glimpse of a road in the distance heading back to Jerusalem.

But as I was praying over the bread and wine, suddenly, I noticed a Bedouin family appear over the crest of the hill, riding a camel.  I don’t have any clue where they came from; but they appeared from seeming nowhere in the middle of nowhere.  They quietly waiting, the older man and the young child, until we finished praying, then they offered us rides on the camel and beaded bracelets.  It was them and us, alone in the wilderness.  No buildings, no roads, really, no nothing.  Just a group of wayward Americans, and some friendly Bedouin.  And a camel.  Quite the odd gathering that morning.

I was sitting with that image as I read Acts 8, because it seems like a similarly disparate gathering is occurring in that desert.  To set the scene, things are not going well for the disciples.  Stephen has just been killed in Jerusalem, at the urging of Saul.  So the pressure on the brand-new church is fiercer than it ever has been, and as usually, they do not have a plan.  So Philip is traveling down to Gaza through the desert, partially to get out of dodge again. 

And on the way, in the desert, he encounters a fellow traveler who is also lost—a government official from Ethiopia.  And he’s lost in several important ways: The text says this guy is the treasurer for the Candace—the Ethiopian queen, so he’s clearly important.  Some of the other context would indicate that he is interested in the Jewish faith and has been up to the Temple to worship, but the Temple rules were really against him.  For starters, he’s not an Israelite—he’s Ethiopian, so that’s the first issue.  Second issue is that unless he is willing to fully convert, and be circumcised, he would not be allowed to enter the Temple, and this was generally not a popular idea among adult male converts.  Third, as a high-ranking court official of the queen, chances were good he was a eunuch—which also meant he couldn’t enter the Temple.  Basically, despite his expressed desire to encounter the God of Israel, he has several major strikes against him.  

So here he is, in the desert, in the middle of nowhere, reading Isaiah by himself, when he chances across Philip.  Philip hops in the carriage with him, and reads the scriptures along side him.  And it is this interaction that leads the official to ask to be baptized.  

It’s interesting to note that Philip doesn’t appear to notice the barriers that restricted the official’s access to worship in the Temple.  They don’t register to him.  Also, it’s not clear that Philip has all the answers that the official seeks, or that Philip figures out how to solve the oncoming persecution of the church in Jerusalem.  

But somehow, these two people struggling with their own immense questions manage to find each other in the wilderness and aid each other in a powerful way.  

This event marks a turning point in the life of the baby church—it is the first time that a Gentile converts to Christianity, and it is the first time that the growing Jesus Movement heads outside Jerusalem to discover what other plans God might have in store for it.  To be clear, the church did this the same way it undergoes all change: under protest.  Philip didn’t decide the best strategy for growth was to head out towards the desert and preach to people there; he panicked and tried to flee, but God still pointed him towards the right decision.

Despite their common lostness, both Philip and the Ethiopian official manage to be icons of the divine for each other in this encounter.  Philip guides the official to a new acceptance and faith home, and the official begins Philip on a new journey for the church.  But that common sense of not having all the answers, I think, is part of what brings them together in the first place.

Part of the experience of being in the desert, in the wilderness, is how vast and isolating it can be.  When you encounter another person out there, no matter who it is, you rely on them because there is literally no one else for miles and miles.  We, as travelers in the journey of faith, each have times when we feel more in the wilderness than others.  When we feel more adrift in an ocean of sand and lost.  But the struggle for us in these moments is to recall that the people we encounter are also traveling like us.  Everyone we encounter in this walk of faith is also lost, to some degree or another.  No one, despite their claims to the contrary, has all the answers.  Not me, not you, not Philip, and not the court official.   We share a common experience of trying to put the pieces together.

And this common experience should gift us with humility towards others and towards ourselves.  For even as neither Philip nor the official really knew much about what they were doing, that did not stop them from being a great comfort to each other.  Even as we struggle along, if we are open to the Spirit, and open to each other, we can shed light upon the path for one another.  The action of the Spirit does not depend on our understanding or comprehension, only our openness to it.  

But this reliance on the Spirit and on each other, ultimately, brings us closer to God, and closer to each other.

 

Amen. 

Sheep!

It was hard, I tell you, not to spend this whole sermon talking about how lovely sheep are.  As a knitter, this was a real danger for me, and I feel you should count yourselves lucky that I didn’t just devote 10 minutes of homiletical time to describing various sheep breeds and the characteristics of their wool.  (TARGHEE!!!  BFL!!!!). I realize that so-called “Good Shepherd Sunday” is right up there on the Unpopular Sermon list with Trinity Sunday and Low Sunday, but guys.  Sheep are actually awesome.  And so shepherds must also be.  And why wouldn’t we all be really psyched to be compared to an animal that is pretty intelligent, and can produce milk, meat, and wool?***  Move over, cows.

In view of my sheep-fixation, I decided to go basic with the sermon.  So here’s what I said.

(And no, I don’t explain the various types of wool.  Though, if you’d like me to offer an opinion, I can do that.)

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 22, 2018

Easter 4/ Good Shepherd

1 John/ I am the shepherd

I had a professor in college who taught a whole semester on the Gospel of John.  The thing he most appreciated about it, he said once, was that it was confusing.  I can attest that he was correct.  Jesus uses several metaphors to explain who and what he is in the Gospel of John.  Each of them could fill a book, if you unpacked it all the way, and none of them are what you would call clear.  The gospel of John as a whole doesn’t seem to be intended for people just entering the Christian life; it’s Christianity 2.0—the why of things are rather than the who and the what.  Not the facts, but the reasons behind it all, the grand theology uniting it.

Which is lovely, but also confusing.  So buckle up, because we’re going to be spending a few weeks here in the post-Easter lectionary.  

One of the last metaphors Jesus uses for himself as he’s talking is “I am the good shepherd.”  Now, this one is unlike the other metaphors he’s been using.  For one, it is a person metaphor:  he’s not becoming a plant, a gate, or a food item.  For another, his Jewish audience would have had an immediate context for what he was saying.

Not only were shepherds pretty familiar images in the hills of Palestine, as they still are today, they were also a common metaphor for leadership.  Israel’s prophets would talk about the king as the shepherd of the people, in either positive or negative terms.  Usually negative.  Usually VERY negative. 

  Jeremiah, for example, laments that his people have only had bad shepherds to care for them, shepherds who let all the sheep scatter and be lost.  Ezekiel, too, has a long metaphor of bad shepherds neglecting the sheep of Israel, and letting injustice and corruption reign in the country.  “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed a flock? ‘You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly, you have not strengthened, the diseased, you have not healed, the broken, you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought in, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and severity you have dominated them.”  

So, it’s bad.  And what will God do?  “Thus says the Lord God—I am against the shepherds.  And I will demand my sheep from them and make them cease from feeding sheep.  So the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore, but I will deliver my flock from their mouth, so they will not be food for them.”  God is not messing around.

The idea of a shepherd-king being invoked as the person who rules was really familiar, then. Here, though, Jesus is picking up shepherd part, but more on the ‘good.’ The prophets used it all the time, but usually to make the point that SOMEONE had messed up, and now here the people were, wandering around lost, like errant sheep.  But Jesus is doing something different.  He’s making the point that yes, he’s definitely been given some sort of power, but more than that, that the way in which he uses his power marks him as trustworthy and good. 

Those other shepherds us sheep had no choice but to follow, but this shepherd we do.  

 He’s not just the shepherd we have to follow, because we’re sheep.  He’s the shepherd who is good, so we want to follow. 

Jesus says “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  His sheep know his voice.”  He draws a clear distinction between a leader who is good, who cares deeply and intimately about the creatures they care for, and someone who is just in it for the money, who abuses the trust given to them.  Look, he says, I am the good one.  I am the one you can trust because I care so much. I even sacrifice myself for those I care for!  I am the good shepherd. 

I know we know that God loves us.  Or at least, I hope you know that.  But how often do we sit with that knowledge for a bit?  How often do we recall that Jesus really does love us?  In a wonderfully-specific and life-giving way, born of knowing us intimately, and still just relishing the fact that we exist.  I had a friend in college who was particularly skilled in finding what was lovable in others.  One day we were discussing Shakespeare, and she commented that she would love Hamlet for his puns alone, and I thought that this must be how God sees us—utterly delightful in our uniqueness and complexity.  God must love us for our puns alone.

So often, maybe, we skip to all the other truths about our faith—forgiveness, grace, salvation, our call to justice, and all that, that it’s possible that we can gloss over the foundation of the whole thing—that peculiar delightful love that Christ has for each one of us that keeps drawing us in.  Calling us to follow.  That we are loved in spite of, and even because of, our quirks and oddities, and our failures, and broken places, and that somehow, Christ loves us into something more whole, more holy each day.  

The work of our lives in faith, perhaps, is to learn to love the whole world with this sort of love.  The epistle has talked a lot about living in love, and this, really, is what it’s talking about.  Gradually, we are meant to mirror outwards the love Christ shows us, so the whole world can bask in its warmth.  But this is a challenge for two reasons:  First, because other people are often irritating, and it is hard to love them, and frankly, it would be easier not to.  Other People frequently live on the other side of the world, where we forget about them.  Or they have different loyalties to ours, which makes it hard to agree with them, and sometimes we confuse that with love.  And sometimes, other people hurt us badly.  And it can be difficult to continue to wish the best for someone after they have clearly not wished the best for you. 

But secondly, this can be a challenge to mirror this sort of love because it is sometimes hard to remember that we are loved.  We live in a world that confuses so many things with love: agreement, conformity, even abuse, at times.  And so to hold on to the idea proclaimed to us at baptism that we are God’s beloved, sealed as Christ’s own forever, can be hard, in the face of all that.  That Christ loves us with a non-coercive, enveloping and freeing sort of love.

But the more we hold onto this as our birthright as humans, this inner knowledge of God’s love for us, the more we can show this same lifegiving love to the world around us.  

Because it is this love that builds a better world, when we accept and cherish others.  It is this love that urges us on to be better people, when others can see in us better than we believe ourselves to be, and it is this love that draws the lost and the lingering sheep back home.

***I know–Jesus isn’t using this metaphor to compare his followers to sheep, as much as he is comparing himself to a leader, like the ancient kings of Israel.  The metaphor is about the shepherd, not the sheep.  But, still.  Sheep are cool, is my point.  They don’t get enough credit in this bovine-centric world.

And then THAT happened…

Part of coming to a new church is learning all the new stories of “How THAT happened.”  I unabashedly love this part of the job.  Church stories are generally bananas, and wholly unbelievable to anyone who has not spent much time around churches.

Take, for example, the local legend of the Little Old Lady who had passed into blessed memory prior to my arrival at my first parish.  One Sunday, she came upon an unfamiliar family seated in Her Pew.  The regular parishioners knew not to cross her, for LOL was known for being of a cantankerous disposition.  But these newcomers knew not Joseph, as it were.  She took one look at them and proceeded to beat them about the face and head with her pocketbook until they beat a hasty retreat.  Thus victorious, she reclaimed her seat.  And so it was that the congregants never changed pews again.

To date, I have not heard any similar tales of sanctuary fisticuffs from St. John’s.  (Y’all will tell me if there were any, right?  Because, now that I think about it, I can recall some story of a physical altercation in at least three of the churches where I’ve served. I don’t know if that says more about me, or them.)   I did, however, spend several hours pouring through assorted historical documents, pamphlets of history, and “Important Sermons” to get a sense of how the parish sees itself, and what has shaped it over the years.  This sermon was partially inspired by that.

Rev. Megan L Castellan

April 15, 2018

Easter 3

Luke 24

We have now reached that part of the Easter season when we get to experience the slightly odder Resurrection stories, having exhausted the initial appearances of Jesus to his disciples, and to Mary Magdalene and the other women.

Most of these second-order appearances include eating something.  Jesus, it would seem, returns from the dead quite hungry.  He eats dinner with the disciples traveling to Emmaus.  He cooks and eats breakfast with Peter and the others on the beach by the Sea of Galilee.  And here, he shows up to the disciples, and asks for some fish.

This is all happening, mind, as the disciples are all in a tizzy because Cleopas and Unnamed Disciple have run back from Emmaus to inform the others of their Resurrection sighting.

Sidenote: Luke doesn’t tell us who is with Cleopas on the road to Emmaus.  Either the person was not considered important enough to have a name, or they were considered so famous that a name was beside the point.  Christian tradition in Palestine says that the unnamed disciple was Mary, Cleopas’ wife (who is named in several other gospel accounts as following Jesus).

For context—Cleopas and Mary decided to Get Out of Dodge, and head out of town but on the road, they encounter Jesus, who asks why they were bickering (told you they were married).  They explain what they’ve been through, and why they’re disappointed.  Then he explains back to them what their experience means in the context of the scriptures, and they’re so entranced, they ask him to stay with them for the evening meal.  And just as they finally recognize him, he vanishes.  

It is at this point, after they’ve run back to Jerusalem to tell the others, that Jesus shows up again, and asks for fish.  Apparently, dinner with Mary and Cleopas wasn’t filling.

Everyone goes nuts.  Cleopas and Mary are excited because their story is now proven right.  The disciples are excited because they get to see Jesus again.  Party all around.

But once Jesus gets them to quiet down,  he does the same sort of thing he did earlier with Mary and Cleopas on the road:  he “opens their minds to understand the scriptures.” 

Like the focus on food, the focus on the scriptures is a reoccurring theme in these second round resurrection appearances.  Because once people got over the initial shock that Jesus was alive again, then they needed to understand What This Meant.  How did this strange event fit into everything that had come before?

And like any life changing event, you can’t do much in-depth analysis in the moment, when you’re first getting used to something.  It takes a while for the shock to wear off.  So Jesus doesn’t really make the disciples do theology until he shows up for Round 2.

That’s actually where the all the food comes in, too.

Bear with me, now.  

Scholars think that the reason Jesus keeps asking for food, post-Easter, is because the gospel writers want to disprove the theory that the resurrection of Jesus is incorporeal.  That is, they want to dispel the idea that Jesus is showing up as just a ghost or something.  Because surely, there can be no more human, flesh-and-blood task than eating breakfast.  So, at every turn, Jesus is handling physical objects and proving he has a physical form.

But the food does something else, too.  Every time Jesus shares a meal with his friends after he returns from the dead, he incorporates this resurrection life into their daily experience.  Because, again, what could be more perfectly human than sitting down to breakfast together?  

So now, the resurrection is not something inapproachable, concerned only with the Very Holy and the Very Pure.  

Now the resurrection makes you breakfast, sits you down, and insists that you really should have a second helping because you’ve been looking tired lately.  The resurrection is as normal as daily bread.  

So closely woven into the daily lives of the disciples, then, does Jesus weave his resurrected presence, that it actually might become difficult to follow his final line in the gospel.  You are witnesses of these things.  Because it is tempting, for us, at least, to say, “Really?  What things?  The breakfast?  The fish?  The community?”

Over the years, Christ has so intricately woven resurrection into the life of the Church that we have almost become accustomed to seeing it, the way we are used to eating a meal with friends.  It’s all around us, wrapped around the daily rhythm moments of our lives.  But Christ reminds us that not only is resurrection familiar, but resurrection must be witnessed.  

So we who follow in the footsteps of Christ and his disciples must learn to recognize the resurrection around us.  We must learn to witness to its presence, to tell these stories when we see them.  New life springs up all around us, and all of us have experienced it.  But we must take note, and we must honor that new life by witnessing it.

Because when the world seems lost and bleak, it is our witness to the Risen Christ that reminds us not to give up.  When the news seems all bad, and chaos seems more persistent than ever, our testimony to the daily resurrections that surround us are more needed than ever. They are a reminder that though the world is still broken, it will not stay that way forever, and God is still at work.  So these stories are vitally important.

I’ve been reading the history of the parish this week, including two pamphlets written for the purpose.  I commend them to you—both are delightful in different ways, if both clearly of their respective times.  But one of the things I was most struck by, aside from the colorful characters that built this parish, that sustained it, and that kept it running through the years, 

Is its persistence.  

If you read all of the parish history, it’s been a series of ups and downs.  There were wars, divisions, population surges.  There were good priests, and not as good priests.  There were budget concerns, and budget surpluses.  There were liturgical changes and staunchly-resisted liturgical changes.  But time and again, this parish stayed faithful to its mission, and kept on.  It was reborn countless times out of who knows how many crises and conflicts.  St. John’s, is, in itself, a testimony of resurrection—just a normal-seeming church, and yet a miracle in its own right.   

What is your own story of resurrection?  How have you seen resurrection in your own life?  What is your own story to tell of the Risen Christ, active and present in your life?  Think of these stories, cultivate and care for them.   

See These Bones

Last Sunday was pretty much my first Real Day at work.  My first two Sundays with St. John’s were spent in the whirl of Palm Sunday and Easter, so Easter 2 was my first Normal, Regular opportunity to see how everything functioned when we weren’t concerned with either Welcoming Our New Rector or Celebrating Our Lord’s Victory over Death.

Spoiler alert:  everything was terrific.  I finally got a handle on how not to consecrate all the wine in the Finger Lakes region.  I got a laugh out of the early service crowd with my sermon.  And the little girl I had convinced to help me do the dismissal on Easter had written down her line in preparation for this week’s attempt, which was flat-out awesome.

Normal Church contains its own joys.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 8, 2018

Easter 2, Year B

John 20:19-31

Do you remember last week?  Remember Easter Sunday?

Think past all the people—the pretty flowers, the chocolate, the jubilant hymns, and the great meal.  Remember the story of Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus in the garden, and thinking he was a random gardener?

Did that strike you as strange?

Because here’s the thing.  Presumably, Mary has been with Jesus for YEARS now.  She knew full well what he looked like. She knew what his voice sounded like.  He was a dearly-loved friend.

But suddenly, she mistakes him for a gardener?

The mystery of why, post-resurrection, Jesus’ friends don’t recognize him is one of those mysteries that theologians and biblical scholars like to write books about, and discuss at parties.  “Maybe he could only be seen through the eyes of faith!” “Maybe the resurrection reflects both profound continuity and discontinuity with the previous reality, such that the common laws of time, space, and matter were affected!” 

It is not always a helpful conversation for those of us who are neither biblical scholars, nor theologians.  Which may be why those folks don’t have a great party reputation.

However, looking at the gospel today, you can see some of the same confusion that Mary experienced.

When the disciples are holed up together, in that upper room, convinced they’re about to raided and arrested—remember, it’s only really been a few days since Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, and the practice of Rome was to go after everyone associated with a traitor: family, friends, everyone—to make a public example.  Jesus just appears to them.  In a locked room.  Walks right through a locked door, and tells them to not be afraid.

THAT’s easier said than done—because not only are they convinced they’re about to be arrested, but their good friend Jesus just ghosted through a wall.  EVERYTHING seems frightening! 

Then, Jesus breathes on them (also, let’s face it—strange) and tells them to receive the holy spirit.  Should they retain the sin of any, it is retained.  If they loose the sin of any, it is loosed.  

Thomas, it should be noted, isn’t here at this point.  We don’t know why; maybe it was momentary—he stepped out to get lunch.  Maybe he gave up and went home.  Maybe he was having a real crisis of faith.

We know from earlier in the gospel that Thomas was pretty committed—when Jesus was talking about going back to Jerusalem to see Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and there was a risk of arrest already, Thomas solemnly proposed going along so as to die with him.  Thomas was not a flakey disciple—we don’t have evidence that he fled like Peter at the crucifixion.  

But for whatever reason, he is absent on this occasion.

So when he turns back up, he is skeptical about the story the others tell him.  It doesn’t sound right to him.  I was reading a commentary this week that posited that the language around Thomas’s exit and return sounds like a person who had left permanently and then is sought after—a nuance of verb tense that doesn’t quite come through in English.  So this commentator imagined that Thomas had suffered a crisis of faith—a betrayal of sorts, and had left the community for a time to sort it out.

For a person like Thomas who had so much invested in Jesus, and what he represented, that he was willing to die for him, it would follow that to witness a passive Jesus be crucified at the hands of Rome would be a real blow to his faith.  And he might need time to discern what this meant for him.

Yet the other disciples, having seen the risen Lord, go and track him down.  They tell him the story.  They try to get him back in their community.  

But Thomas isn’t having it.  Because, again—the story sounds ludicrous.  Jesus walks through walls?  Jesus breathing on them?  Jesus being alive after he was most certainly dead?  No.

Also, consider that if Thomas is having a crisis of faith, then it’s not so easy to just return.  He feels betrayed, and guilty for having left, and is probably unsure of his reception.

Crises of faith are not so easy to bounce back from.  Traumas are not so easily healed.  Even after we experience new life, the suffering we endure leaves its mark.  So when Thomas returns   to the fold, and he encounters the risen Christ for himself, is it any wonder that what he asks for is to see the wounds of Christ?  Not proof of life, per se, but proof of suffering. Proof that somehow, Christ too knows what Thomas and the others went through, scared and alone locked in that upper room.

What brings Thomas back into community is Jesus’ scars, more than Jesus’ new life.  Yes, Jesus is alive again, and he is risen, and that is glorious, but Jesus still bears the wounds of a person who was crucified—of a person who went through the experiences that he went through.  The resurrection, as it turns out, does not erase or undo the past week—it transforms it into something new.  Something more powerful.  Something that can reach out and speak to Thomas.

It is tempting to think of our faith in the resurrection as a ‘get out of death’ free card.  As a sort of magic trick that will save us from having to endure anything scary or difficult for long.  Jesus, after all, didn’t stay dead, so why should we get too upset about it?  Why should we fear or grieve death, if we know its not the end?  

But Thomas has a point in his dramatic faith crisis this week. Easter does not wash away the memory of what has happened.  Resurrection does not erase the crucifixion, or the misery of Holy Week.  Those things still happen; we still endure death, and loss and grief.  But God in his wisdom and mercy refuses to let the story end there.  God participates in our suffering, to be with us, and to transform it into something redeemed.  

For Thomas, it was the sight of Christ’s wounds—the knowledge that Christ had suffered in some sense as he had—that affirmed for him his place in this community again.  The wounds of Christ had been transformed into instruments of healing for Thomas and the disciples.   Instead of being mere reminders of a painful experience, now they were a bridge to bring Thomas back to his friends.

For all of us, the resurrection of Christ is not just a one time event.  For us it offers a chance not to erase our pain but to redeem it, to transform it into something new.  To change it from open wounds into scars that can work creative good in the world.  

As we journey farther into Easter, let us always remember that the glory of Easter is with us, reaching out to transform the wounded heart of the world into something new, something holy.  

Amen.

Easter Morning: Faith in the Garden

I got to have Easter dinner with a seminary classmate that I haven’t seen since graduation (hooray!  Hi, Ann!) Not only did Ann recommend an AMAZING documentary about people who raise and show chickens (Chicken People on Amazon Prime–go watch it. I’ll wait.) our host also borrowed for our viewing, an 18th century engraving of Mary Magdalene conversing with Jesus-as-gardener in this passage from John.  Unusually, Jesus is actually dressed as a gardener, with hat and shovel, and Mary has a look of shocked grief on her face.  I don’t know who did the engraving, but it was really fantastic.

May your Easter be also full of such joy!

 

Here’s what I said.

Easter Morning:

Welcome, again, happy morning!  Welcome to Easter—the feast of the Resurrection, the celebration of the empty tomb and all the promise it holds for us.

It’s a joyful day—all our hymns say so, all our dresses say so.  All those commercials with the Easter bunny hopping around say so.  This is a happy holiday—families, chocolate, dyed eggs—the works.

Weird, then, how there’s so much crying in the gospel.  Think about it.  The gospel story is not precisely full of joy.  Mary Magdalene rises at daybreak to go to the tomb, to anoint the body of Jesus.  She’s certainly not happy; she’s grieving, and anointing his body is the traditional ritual of grief performed as a last act for loved ones.  So she goes to the tomb, but she finds the stone rolled away, and the body missing.

And she’s even more upset.  She is convinced this is a catastrophe.  Not only has her teacher and Lord been put to death at the hands of the Roman Empire, not only was he crucified as a traitor, but now, the final humiliation—she cannot even mourn at his gravesite.  So she runs to find the disciples.

And, true to their nature, Peter and John (let’s go with John) show up, and investigate.  They are not so grief-stricken as to not compete with each other on the way to the tomb, but they discern that indeed!  It’s empty.

So they leave.  They go home.  They give up.

And so it is Mary Magdalene, alone, who hears the message of the angel.  Mary alone who meets the risen Christ.  And Mary, alone, who is the first to recognize the joy of the Resurrection.  Because everyone else left.

And not because they were so distraught—clearly, Mary is beside herself—and not because they are going to Do Something Important.  I think they leave because they think they know how this story ends.  I think Peter and John leave because they have decided that they know what happens next.

Because it would be so easy to look at this story and think to yourself “Of course!” “Of course our teacher and beloved friend was killed by the powers that be.  Of course!  That’s how the world works—nothing that good can last for long.  Of course the good and the peaceful are trampled down into the dirt.  Of course the powerful and the violent triumph.  Isn’t that what always happens? And now this, the final degradation—we can’t even bury him properly.  Of course.  We should have known.  The world will never change.”  It would be so easy to have seen all this, and think you know how the story goes.  To fully expect the powers of death and destruction to win, because for all intents and purposes, they had.  And Peter and John had been around long enough to feel the weight of their reign.  They knew better than to hope for more.

But somehow, Mary held on to something.  Mary remained, clinging onto hope—though it probably felt more in the moment like a broken heart.  But Mary, in that moment, had enough hope and faith in the God of justice to believe that this couldn’t possibly how the story ended, and so she stayed, crying in grief and frustration, and pestering every random stranger who might help her.

And that hope-against-hope is how Mary catches sight of the miraculous resurrection.  Of life where it has no reason to be, of God changing the story on us.

It takes faith, after all, to remain in our gardens.  It takes faith in the ability of God to somehow, some way, bring new life from certain death.  It takes a whole lot of faith to keep us going, to keep on fighting what is wrong in the world when it seems like we don’t make any progress.  And there are times when it surely would be easier on our hearts to give into cyncism and just go home.  Consign ourselves to the same old story of a world lost to the darkness.

But my friends, to choose the easy path would be to miss the joy of the resurrection.  Resurrection is never easy—the resurrection sneaks up on us when we don’t expect it—it comes up behind us when the story seems over, and when all seems lost.  Resurrection comes to us when all we have left is that thin shred of hope that God will somehow bring life out of death.

But if we learn one thing from the glory of Easter morning, it is that this is precisely what God does.  God transforms the way the world has always been, the way we expect and know the world to be.  God transforms our injustices, our hatreds, our suffering and, in the brilliance of the Easter dawn, shows us what a world would be like with these things removed.

The resurrection is when God imposes God’s logic upon our logic, that has long since ceased working, and reminds us that this world is not yet perfected—but God is getting there.

And in the meantime, hope is what we cling to.  Until that blessed day when Christ has finally redeemed all creation, and all the whole universe has been transformed by resurrection light, we struggle on with God, holding to hope.  That even when things look their bleakest, even when the story seems over, even when the mighty seem to have won, and the powerful seem to be trampling the weak, and evil again seems to be in charge—despite EVERYTHING—God will still have the last word.

Because there is nothing—no power in this creation—greater than God’s love for us, and every creature under heaven.  So our hope, our Easter hope, rests in that love.  That love that moves mountains, shakes the earth, and conquered death.

Amen.