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Vineyards, Violence, and Verbatim

Confession time:  I don’t like commentaries.

I like them fine for bible studies, and leading discussions.  I find them edifying when doing close readings.  But commentaries for preaching do not help me in my ‘process’ (imagine me wearing a beret, flipping my hair, and saying this with an overly dramatic flourish as befits an artiste.)

So, there are very few resources I lean on week in and week out when I’m writing a sermon.  However, this week I really leaned on ‘Left Behind and Loving It‘– a blog that offers a word-for-word literal dissection of the Koine Greek gospel text, along with some basic historical perspective.  There has not been a week that I’ve read his blog that it has not helped me in some way, so my sincerest thanks–especially for the inspiration for this sermon, in the wake of Las Vegas.

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

October 6, 2017

Ordinary Time, Proper  http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2014/09/resurrection-return-of-rejected.html

Matthew 21:33-46

 

Today is all about vineyards.  Isaiah and Jesus both tell us entertaining stories about vineyards that go bad, which sounds like an entertaining reality show on Bravo, that probably features catfights or something similar.

Isaiah’s vineyard has a loving owner–who comes to the land, plants it, tends it, builds a wall, and cares for it, only to have the vines spoil for an unknown reason, and the grapes turn sour.  

Jesus, in turn, reinterprets the parable in his conversation with the Pharisees and religious leaders, but changes a couple of important things.  In Jesus’s telling, the landowner–which is a Greek word that is literally ‘house despot’, and we should pull that back into circulation–the landowner gives the tending of the vineyard to some…odd people.

This band of tenant farmers tend the land, and succeed in farming it, but when the landowner sends servants to collect the grapes, the tenants decide to run them off with violence.  Ok, thinks the landowner, I’ll send my son.  They’ll have to respect him.  That also doesn’t work.  The tenants take the son and kill him.  So Jesus asks the leaders what the landowner should do about the tenant farmers?

They get right into the spirit of the thing–HE SHOULD KILL THEM.  KILL THEM ALL.  The evil ones should die evilly.  In the greek.  They proclaim.  But that doesn’t seem to be the right answer.

We should perhaps stop here and point out that this, like all parables, is weird.  And unlike most parables, it’s violent and bloody,  No nice farmers or happy widows to be found in here.  So it’s not really what we’re used to.  But for the Pharisees and leaders, they would be somewhat familiar with this story–after all, they knew Isaiah’s story well.  They knew the idea of Israel’s sinfulness being punished, and eventually being restored to wholeness and fruitfulness.  

One of the persistent ideas throughout the prophets, including Isaiah, is that whenever Israel messed up, God would send an invading empire to take over for a bit, until Israel got back on track.  Once that happened, the empire, in turn, would overstep in some way, and God would rescue Israel and all would be well again.  It was the circle of life, Ancient Israel style.  

Think of Egypt:  initially, the way the Israelites come to Egypt is through Joseph, when his brothers mess up, and sell him into slavery.  Whoops.  That leads to a famine, and Joseph, now the Pharoah’s number 2, is able to keep his family safe in Egypt.  It’s great.  However, years pass, and eventually a Pharoah comes to power who becomes afraid of all the Israelites in Egypt, and enslaves them.  This sets into motion God’s salvation through Moses and the Exodus.  It’s the cycle:  Israel messes up: empire steps in: empire oversteps: God rescues.  

So it’s logical to think that when they heard the story, the religious leaders assumed that they were safe in assuming that God was about to step in again and toss out the evil tenants.  Clearly the evil tenants were Rome!  Rome had overstepped!  God was coming to save them! This story was great!  

But no.  

And the way you know this isn’t right is the tenants’ thinking when the son shows up.  “We can kill him and keep his inheritance for ourselves.”  That doesn’t make sense.  Inheritance doesn’t work like that.  The tenants are wrong; but by then, they’re in a cycle of violence that they can’t break out of, and it’s easier to kill the son than to do anything else.

That sort of thinking isn’t God’s way of doing things.  

That sort of thinking is an empire’s way of doing things.  Specifically, that’s Rome’s way of doing things.  

Empires, after all, come in and kill people.  They reward violence with more violence.  If you rise up against an empire, then you receive violence in return.  That’s the way they work.  

In general, that’s the way the systems, the powers and principalities of the world work.  It’s the rationale of an eye for an eye, writ large.  How do we deal with violence?  More violence.  What happens if someone attacks us?  We hit back.  How should we solve the problem of mass shootings? More guns on the streets.  In this vineyard, power is only displayed and known through might.  It is the world of the tenants.

But Jesus points out the problem with that–it never stops.  There’s no end.  While the leaders might be excited to see another overthrow of an empire, it will only usher in another one down the line.  Ultimately, the cycle of violence does not solve the problem.  It feels good in the moment; it always appears like the right side has triumphed.  But all it does is delay the next step.  

What stops the cycle is not further violence; is not the landowner coming in to kill all the tenants.  What stops the cycle is resurrection.  It is when we trust God enough to give up violence, and believe that God can save us from the ways of empire, that God can give us a new way.  When we give up our need to avenge ourselves, and put our faith in God’s ability to resurrect even the worst and most violent of circumstances and people.  

Jesus points out that the only thing that breaks open the cycle of violence that the world is trapped in is the resurrection of God–God’s ability to recreate the world and the creatures within it.  And that requires immense trust on our part.  

Because for us, nothing feels as secure as violence.  Nothing feels as steady as returning tit for tat.  It is literally the only way we know.  But Jesus reminds us that it is a false idol.  It never gets us the peace we long for.  The tenants, no matter who they killed, no matter how much blood they shed, would never inherit the land.  Nothing would get them that.  No violence ever gets us what it promises.  No violence ever gets us safety.  Not forever.  Violence can’t deliver that–it lies.

The only safety to be found is through faith in God.  Not in might, not in strength, and not in accruing more weapons.  Safety can only be found through trusting in God’s power to work resurrection in our violent places, and getting out of the way of that work.  

Peace which passes all understanding is the final thing we say every Sunday in this liturgy.  We commit ourselves to this peace of God which goes beyond our abilities to harness, beyond our knowledge and our capacity to achieve.  This peace that we cannot reach with weapons or might–this is what we ask God for in a final act each week, and what we vow to live in.  Peace that requires such faith that it passes understanding in such a violent world.  

It requires a lot to turn away from the violence of the tenants–this way of life that the world promises will yield safety. It requires a leap of faith that feels terrifying.  But Christ has gone this way before us.  God waits ahead to guide us.  And the peace that passes understanding is ours as we go.  

Amen.

 

 

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Fairness, Justice, and all that.

I think I have mentioned on this here blog that I serve on the churchwide Standing Commission for Structure, Governance, Constitution, and Canons.  (Previously, I served on the group when we were just dedicated to the Constitution and Canons, but this is also fun.)  While it may not sound like a lot of fun, let me assure you that it is one of the most enjoyable church meetings I go to each year.  It’s a group of thoughtful, funny, and dedicated people, who all really want to get things done–a rarity in any institution, and therefore a delight to be around.  Also, many of them are lawyers, or otherwise lawyerly-minded, so they indulge my proclivity for rules and good order. (Also my proclivity to crack jokes, so a blessing be upon all their heads.)

So this sermon, given right before our final in-person meeting, is quietly dedicated to the good people like my Canon Comrades, who pursue justice in all its forms.

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

September 24, 2017

Ordinary Time, Proper 20

Matthew 20:1-6

 

When I was a small child, and my mother was still a fundamentalist, and my brother would be given a better seat in the car, or an adult’s menu at a restaurant, or a bigger slice of cake, I would complain that it wasn’t fair.  It wasn’t fair that I got a smaller piece of cake, or the kids menu at Red Robin when I was 13.  It wasn’t fair.

My mother would always respond the same way: Life isn’t fair.  If life were fair, Jesus wouldn’t have died on the cross.

That….is technically accurate.  But it is also a heck of a thing to say to a small kid.  I did not want to meditate on salvation or the atonement right then–I wanted more cake.  

What I wanted was the same slice of cake as my brother’s.  I wanted the same seat as he had, the same menu.  I saw what he had, and I wanted the same.  My brother has always, since the age of about 6, been much taller and bigger than me, which led to a lot of these situations.  When I didn’t get it, I got mad.  I wanted fairness.  ***

Fairness is this concept wherein we compare what we have to what someone else has, and we think we should have either less or more, depending.  The workers, in today’s parable, are upset, because their sense of fairness was upset.  They had worked so hard, for so long.  Some since the start of the day, others for a solid half the day, and they believed that based on the fact that they had worked longer, they should be paid more than the people who showed up and only did one hour of work.  Fair is fair!  And comparatively, sure. That makes sense.

Jonah, likewise, is irked because Nineveh has been horrible up until now; invading other places, ignoring justice, oppressing the poor, slaughtering the innocent, and now, at the 11th hour, they repent.  You could at least punish them a LITTLE, he argues at God.  Israel, for context, had just suffered through a massive invasion again, and they had ALWAYS followed God.  But here Nineveh was getting off scot free.  No fair.  And again, he’s right.  It’s not fair.

Fairness, by the by, is different from justice.  Fairness is judged when we measure what we have vs what someone else has.  Justice, on the other hand, doesn’t require another person.  Justice is about when we get what we need.  So the workers on that farm got justice–they got the wage they needed, the wage they were promised.  Even the workers who had been standing around waiting all day, sure that they wouldn’t be able to work enough to earn enough for their families–they ended up with enough too.  They got justice.  

Nineveh got justice too.  God interceded for them, and they were spared because of their repentance.  They got another chance to grow and flourish and do the right thing.  Even the cattle, as God points out.

God, as it turns out, doesn’t give us fairness; God gives us justice.  God doesn’t give us all the same thing–God gives us each what we need.  God gives each what will help us grow into the creatures God made us to be.  Gifts and resources intended for us to use on our individual journeys.

 

The workers didn’t get the same; but they got enough to make ends meet for each of their families

Nineveh didn’t get the same as Israel, but they got what they needed to become a city of justice and peace.

The problem we have is that we confuse justice for fairness.  We don’t keep our eyes on our own work, so to speak.  We look at what someone else has, and want THE SAME THING.  Or we want more or less depending on how we’ve judged them.  The problem is, that actually doesn’t work out so well.  

No one else is on the same journey as you.  No one else has the same circumstances; the same gifts and talents and strengths, weaknesses as you.  And God is just as invested in everyone else’s flourishing and abundant life as God is ours.  Christ came for their life abundant as he came for ours.  So, harsh as it may sound, God is less interested in making sure everyone has the same, as God is making sure everyone has life abundant.  God is about justice.

So then, what would it look like if we also pursued justice?  What would our world look like if we also held justice to be a higher virtue than fairness?  If we paid more attention to what each person needed, rather than how what they got compared with what we got? If we strove to treat each person as a beloved Child of God with specific needs, context, and a right to a life just as fulfilling and abundant as ours.  

How would the world change?  

Because, at no point in our baptismal covenant do we promise to promote fairness in the world.  We do, however, promise to pursue justice.  We follow in the footsteps of a God and a Christ who was most unfair, loving humanity when we least deserved it.  So we, too, are called to be gloriously unfair, spreading the justice of a generous love far and wide.

So go forth this week, and be unfair.  Be just.  And be abundantly loving.

 

***A dear friend pointed out that this sermon read to him like I was defending unjust treatment in my childhood.  I can see that; I don’t think I worded this section quite well enough.  What I wanted to communicate was the childhood sense of unfairness that is nearly universal–whether or not it is justified by a sense of injustice behind it.  If I ever revisit this topic, I promise to choose a different anecdote!

 

Paul’s Reckoning

Look, can we just agree that St. Paul is The Worst?  I realize he has his good points (Romans 8, FTW, as well as Galatians 3:28) but on the whole, Paul does not come off like a great dude.  In Acts, he appears to swagger in and immediately throw his privilege around.  In his own letters, it’s even worse.  He takes pains to point out how awesome he is at everything, including being humble, so you should probably be taking notes.  And his writing is confusing, to put it mildly.  After we struggled with a single line from Romans for about 45 minutes one day in Greek, our professor told the class, “Look, there are times when it is you, and there are times when it is Paul.  This time, it’s Paul.”  For our graduation, we got it engraved on a bookmark as the class gift.

And, of course, Paul also takes credit for the sexism and homophobia that crops up in the NT.  His shadow is indeed long and dark.

However, Paul casts too big a shadow to entirely ignore, and from time to time, I do try to work with the guy.  He will never be my best friend, but he has graduated into something of a neighborhood crank that I lovingly indulge.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

August 27, 2017

Ordinary Time, Proper 16

Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20

I know he’s our parish namesake, but I must be honest with you all and confess that the Apostle Paul is not my favorite.  

While he has good moments in his letters, he also is prone to unfortunate statements about women remaining silent in church, and women should cover their heads, and the like–so I am convinced we probably wouldn’t get along well.

Nevertheless, I am going to do something different today, and preach on Romans.  So buckle up.

Romans is Paul’s longest letter, and also one of the letters ascribed to Paul that we know he wrote.   (Timothy, Titus, and Hebrews, not so much.)  From what we can tell, it was written to the Christians at Rome sometime during the rule of Emperor Nero, so sometime between 54-68 CE.  

Several things were happening at this time: There were significant crackdowns on the Jewish community, because we’re almost to the Jewish Revolt of 70.  And Nero, in reaction to problems with his own floundering rule, also clamps down on Christians, and anyone who isn’t prepared to worship the Emperor as divine.   However, while you’d expect that these persecutions would drive the communities closer together, quite the reverse was happening.  Reading between the lines of Paul’s letter, it would appear that the Christians who kept Jewish law did not get along with Gentile converts.  And so there was also a lot of infighting to contend with.

So Paul has a lot of ground to cover in his letter.  A lot of things are going very wrong.  

 

He starts out by describing the righteousness of God–or faithful justice of God.  God, Paul says, has been kind and merciful to everyone alike–Jew and Gentile, because all of us have fallen short of what God wants of us.  All of us struggle to do what God would require, and none of us is better than another of us.  It was through Judaism that the world first figured out what it was that God wanted, Paul reasons.  God gave Moses the law, and so taught humanity what justice was, and so we knew where we were going, sort of where to aim.  But that doesn’t mean that we succeeded in achieving it.  

Instead, as Paul says, “Since we are justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”  

In other words, knowing what it was God wanted of humanity wasn’t enough.  Christ had to come and live as human, and die at our human hands in order to reconcile us to God.  THAT was what brought us grace.  And that sacrifice also equalized the playing field between both Jews and Gentiles.  “Just as one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”  

We now, all of us, Jew and Gentile, can live vicariously through Christ and be righteous to God.  

Whew.  That’s just the first six chapters.  Paul crams a lot in there.

And it’s important to understand what we mean when we say things like “justification” and “righteousness” because those are some very churchy words that tend to get tossed around, til we just assume everyone knows what we’re talking about.

To justify someone was a legal term–it meant to prove them worthy, or to prove them to be in right relationship.  The general idea in those times was that each person owed things.  You owed things to society, you owed things to your family and you owed things to God.  You owed your parents material support, you owed your civil authorities loyalty and respect.  You owed God worship and obedience.  You owed the poor care and compassion.  Basically, there were expectations laid on each person.  To be justified, then, meant that you had met your expectations well.  You were justified.  You had done what was expected of you.  The state of being justified is being righteous.  You lived with justice towards all.

I’m saying all this because frequently, when Paul gets preached on (and, not in Episcopal churches) or we talk about justification, it tends to sound like an internal thing.  Are you justified?  Are you righteous?  But Paul is not actually concerned about your internal state.  Paul is worried about how you treat other people, when he talks about being justified.   He’s talking about justice, not about purity.  

So all of that is to say, when Paul starts talking about being conformed to Christ, and not to this world–he is reminding us that this world works differently than God does–the world has a different expectation of justice than God does.  What may be acceptable and legal in the world is not what God would consider to be just and righteous, and our job is not to worry about what the world says, but the justice of God.  

Don’t worry about the world’s standards; worry about God’s.  What does God say is just?  What does God say is right? The world asks us to be nice, to be polite.  God asks of us something higher, something greater. God’s justice is bigger than the world’s. Paul is writing to a group of people who were being hunted down and killed, and he is reminding them not to worry about it, but to keep their eyes on the prize.  God’s justice was on their side, so keep your focus doing God’s work in the world.

Perhaps it’s easier now, in the new world in which we live, here in 2017, to feel ourselves closer to the Christians of Rome, under Nero.  Perhaps we feel ourselves closer to their state of fear and anxiety as we watch the news and wonder who, exactly, our government is representing these days.  But Christ asks us the same thing he asked his disciples: not who does the world say that I am, but who do you say that I am? God isn’t concerned about the world’s standard’s. And we shouldn’t be either. Lest we forget–when the disciples answered Jesus’ question that day, they didn’t become nicer people. They became outlaws. They literally became criminals in the eyes of Rome. And they were standing in a city named for the empire. Christianity isn’t meant to make us nice. It is meant to make us faithful. Loving. Just.

I had the privilege of worshipping with a Palestinian Anglican community this summer in Zababyeh, in the West Bank. The church was packed on Sunday morning, and the priest had generously preparered us an English bulletin so we could follow the Arabic service. As we began the Eucharistic Prayer, and the priest prayed over the bread and wine, several Israeli fighter jets buzzed the building, low enough that the windows shook. My American friends visibly quaked in their seats. The Christians of Palestine went right on praying, that they, along with the gifts, would be acceptable to God as a living sacrifice.  

We don’t get buzzed by weapons of war here. But we are posed with the same question: shall we be nice, or shall we be faithful? Shall we be conformed to the world, it’s forces of empire, or shall we follow Christ, and his justice and love for all people?

To seek out those places of injustice in the world and set them right, because any system that abuses the children of God, allows hatred to fester, or encourages division, racism and bigotry is not worthy of our Creator.  

God calls us as his children to something better than the world does. God promises us we are more, we are greater than the world does. .  God asks us to be worthy of the justification he gave all of us in Christ. The world asks us to be nice to one another, but God asks us to regard one another as images of God himself.  THAT is God’s justice.  That is a reflection of the infite worth we have been given.

Today, we are asked the same question as those disciples at Caesarea Phillipi and those Christians at Rome. It is up to us how we answer.

Amen.

 

Wheat and Tares

This time I firmly recall why I used bullet points for this sermon.  I had just gotten off a plane from Jerusalem and my brain was jetlagged, emotional, and mushy.  I couldn’t sentence at all.

(Why haven’t I written about my Holy Land pilgrimage?  Perhaps I still will.  There’s a saying that if you spend a day in Jerusalem, you can write a book.  Three days, and you can write a paragraph.  A week, and you can’t write a sentence.  I have always found that amazingly accurate to my experiences there each time.)

Anyway, I landed at Kansas City around 12:30am on Saturday morning, and preached this sermon at 5pm on Saturday evening.  At least, I think I did.  I was pretty tired.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

July 23, 2017

Ordinary Time, Proper 11

Matthew

 

  • –Holy Sepulchre is disappointing for many people.
  • –They go, expecting a beautiful, transcendent experience of universal Christianity, and instead
    • It is an exploded furniture warehouse run by rival mafia families.  Basically.
  • First off, the building is weirdly ugly.  It was built in stages over centuries, all ramshackle and whatnot.
  • Then its pretty run down.  Black smoke tar all over every thing.  Icons faded, disappeared over time.  The Assyrian altar looks like four pieces of wood held together with prayer and duct tape.
    • Know when it was last renovated?  5 years ago, and it was paid for by the King of Jordan.
  • And it’s loud.  Thousands of pilgrims taking selfies, pushing and shoving, not understanding how lines work.  Crotchety priests telling tourists that they can’t come in because they’re wearing shorts.  Rival processions of monks trying to out-pray the others.
  • And it’s disconcerting.  6 different churches control areas of the church, and they do not get along.  Armenians, Roman Catholics, Coptics, Assyrians, Ethiopians, Greek Orthodox.  And they fight.  Example: Greek Orthodox control the tomb where Jesus was buried…but the Copts control where his head was laid.  Periodically, one will stage a small incursion into another’s territory and a literal fistfight breaks out.  It’s so bad that since the 1850s, two Muslim families have been charged with being the caretakers of the church, since they don’t have skin in the game.  
    • My favorite story is that of the Immovable Ladder:  a 6 step ladder up the edifice of the church, which has been there since the 1840s.  It is now against the law to move the ladder now, because of the Status Quo agreement–the top of it is on Armenian territory, the bottom is in Greek Orthodox territory, so periodically, the ladder has to be replaced.  Once, the ladder was replaced with a DIFFERENT ladder, and great controversy ensued.  
  • All of which is to say–for many pilgrims, the holiest site in all of Christianity ends up feeling like less of a holy experience.  
  • They walk out into what they expect will be a field full of lovely wheat and WTH–it’s all tares.  Not cool.  
  • (This is sort of the crowd reaction I think Jesus expects from his parable.  IT IS NOT OK TO MESS WITH SOMEONE ELSE’S CROPS.  DUDE.  MAJOR PARTY FOUL.)  
  • Additionally, the word used here for ‘weeds’ is a specific one.  The weeds are a specific plant that cannot be torn out because their roots are intertwined with other plants.  So to weed your field would also mean destroying your good crops.  Someone’s getting punked pretty good.  
  • Again, parables were meant to shock and slightly discomfit the hearers.  We, on the other hand, have gotten so used to the shock we no longer hear it.  But the crowd would have been very upset at the prospect of having dumb weeds all in your nice field.  
  • So, too, with having dumb tourists all in your lovely shrine.  On a visceral level, it doesn’t seem right.  Aren’t we supposed to be holy and silent and contemplative over here?  
  • Why do we feel the need to have what feels and occasionally looks like the Worst Shopping Mall Ever built over our holiest spot on earth?
  • When what we want is a glorious, calm, neo-platonic vision of beauty to carry us to God?
  • The truth is, we would prefer not to have any messiness in our religion.  No corruption, no confusion, no crossed signals….and, I daresay, if we could get away with it, no humans at all.  They only muddy things up.
  • Better to just have me and God, calm and quiet, forever.  A perfect field of wheat, ripe for the picking.
  • Instead, we walk out into Christ’s promised field and there are all these weeds we have to get through.  What the heck!
  • But here’s the thing.  It’s easy to get angry at the weeds when they aren’t what we expected.
    • But In the midst of that chaos and confusion of the Holy Sepuchre, there are moments of beauty.  The Muslim family ahead of me in line to pray at Golgatha.  The hungry cat who snuck into Mary Magdalene’s Chapel and was finally fed by a Catholic priest.  The hundreds of thousands of tiny crosses carved into the stone walls, left by medieval pilgrims who travelled across the known world.  
    • God, after all, doesn’t deliver us from the chaos of humanity in Christianity.  God comes to dwell in the midst of it.  God doesn’t clear out the weeds–God instead plants wheat down here with us.  It is therefore fitting that the holiest place in creation to us would be the place where all of humanity’s foibles are on unique display, and God shows up anyway.  
    • The weeds don’t disguise or prevent the wheat from flourishing.  Indeed, the weeds display the hardiness and strength of the wheat.  
    • Our God doesn’t allow any weeds to prevent the goodness of creation from shining through at last.  
    • So we have no need to fear or disdain the weeds of the world–God has planted wheat in the midst of them for us to discover.  

Divisive gospel

The downside of this #sermondump is that the summer was so filled with news events that influenced the sermons, that a few of them make less sense when lifted out of context.

Take, for example, this sermon.  I wrote it in the midst of the healthcare debate, as the Senate had just voted to open debate on repealing the Affordable Healthcare Act, and it looked like the uninsured rate would again skyrocket, along with premium costs.  (This didn’t end up happening, praise God.  Though it looks like they’re about to try again and 2017 has been crazy, so who even knows?  Perhaps we’ll all end up going to specialist zombie doctors before the reconciliation period ends on September 30.)

The larger point, however, still stands.  The idea that you can absent yourself from ‘politics’ or ‘divisiveness’ is, to a very large extent, a function of privilege and power.  When you aren’t ‘divisive’, that doesn’t imply you aren’t taking a stance; it just means you’re taking a silent stance in support of the status-quo.  That, too, is political.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 25, 2017

Ordinary Time, Proper 7

Matthew 10:24-39

 

So, WHY does the gospel produce such division?

 

There are readings after which it is difficult, if not impossible, to respond with “Thanks be to God!”  Usually, they are the ones where a prophet is pronouncing imminent doom on the chosen people, or something horrible has happened, or Jesus has just told that one parable about the dishonest steward who comes out ahead.  These aren’t really stories we feel like affirming in the moment with much gratitude, you know?  

And depending on how you feel this week has gone in the world, this might not be a gospel reading you want to affirm either.  Families being torn apart, communities turning on one another, Jesus’ message producing division and not harmony–none of this is particularly comforting, and at the close of a week where comfort has been hard to come by, expressing gratitude for this particular reading might be a tad difficult.  

Jesus is telling his disciples that life isn’t going to be easy–that the good news they have to deliver to the world will not produce the rapturous applause they expect, but will produce divisions, betrayal and hardship.  If they’ve called him the devil, then they’re going to call you the same.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth–I have not come to bring peace but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and on and on.”  

This isn’t the sort of thing you can inscribe in a Hallmark card.  “Deepest sympathies on your tough time. Sorry you lost your family member.  Remember, Jesus they were probably going to turn on you anyway.”

The pressing question this raises is why?  Why would all this be happening?  Why should the gospel–which, is literally good news–be greeted with anything other than joy?  Why, instead, is Jesus giving out dire warnings about what’s going to happen?

And to be clear, I don’t think that this passage is some sort of apocalyptic prophecy of some specific round of Christian persecution.  Matthew’s community was undergoing several rounds of Roman oppression, so this was, in a sense, more of a description of current events than a proscription of what was to come.  So that would partially answer the ‘why?’ question–The Romans don’t like Christians because they seem disloyal to Rome, which placed a lot of stock on people seeing Caesar as a god.  Because Christians (also Jews) didn’t, they were tantamount to traitors.  And presto–lots of bad stuff ends up happening.

So while there’s a level of specificity to its context here, there’s also a timeless element.  Because there is also a sense in which the gospel of Christ is also not popular now.  There is a sense in which it again causes divisions.  Remember what Jesus told the disciples to do last Sunday, as he sent them out:  When you go, take nothing with you, rely on the kindness of strangers.  In every town that welcomes you, feed the hungry, heal the sick, and announce that the kingdom of God has come near.  You received without payment, so give without payment.

That sounds awesome–very exciting, everyone on board, right?  But transpose this to America.  What do you think would happen if the disciples were to wander into St. Luke’s hospital, and announce that those doctors need to start healing the sick without payment, because this was the Kingdom of God, and God wanted everyone to have life and life abundant?  

What do you think would happen if they were to wander into the Senate and say that same thing as this healthcare bill is on the floor?  What do you think would happen?

Here’s the thing–it’s not that these hypothetical doctors at St. Luke’s are evil, and I don’t even think the Senate is evil (though I would have told you differently on Thursday.).  We know they’re not.  But we have a system, we have a way of life, that we really can’t exempt ourselves from. And here comes Jesus, with his demands and pie in the sky thinking, and Jesus asks us to do radical things that threaten our system.  And whenever you question a system, that’s how you get those divisions.

The problem we struggle with is that we have no perfect choices when we follow Christ, and we never do.  There is no choice that we can make, when we follow Christ that will deliver us to a life free of struggle and pain, a life free of trying to find the least-bad compromise.  As humans, this is what we have.  

We err, though, when we pretend that by not making a choice, we can avoid the struggle.  That by ignoring the dilemma we can avoid all the mess.  Christ calls us to follow him, and part of that means making choices, even if both options are less than great.

Stan and I were talking about his trip to Greece, and he was telling me about this game the Roman soldiers used to play as recruits.  It was called the Basilisk game, and the winner would get everything he wanted for 3-4 days: food, better bedding, anything.  On the third day, he was killed in front of his regiment.  The idea was to illustrate to the soldiers that they had no purpose but to kill, no worth outside of fighting.  

This is part of the context that Matthew writes his gospel–to a group of Gentile converts some of whom would have been former soldiers.  They didn’t have many good choices either–they too were products of a really awful system.  Maybe they didn’t try to profit off the sick and the poor, but they definitely had death panels.  Christ still called them to pick up their cross and follow.

We don’t get a perfect world–we get this one.  We make choices to follow Christ in this world, and we have to decide what that means in this broken, mixed up, traumatized world.  In our world, in our place, when we proclaim the gospel, even with our imperfect choices, it will cause turmoil.  It will cause struggle.  Other Christians may make different imperfect choices–so we talk about that.  But we still have to choose.  

What is clear is that we have to figure out what the gospel means for us, for our time and place, and we have to act on it.  Even in a broken world, with bad choices, Christ still calls us to take up our cross and follow, in the hopes that together, we can mend it all into wholeness.

Power of the Trinity

Preaching on Trinity Sunday is the domain of all unseasoned preachers.  It is the ultimate hazing rituals; the job each preacher with any seniority whatsoever wriggles out of as best they can, because who wants the job of having to explain the mystery of the Trinity?

Me, that’s who.  I’ve preached on Trinity Sunday since I was 21 years old.  It’s grown on me these many years.  I cannot lie and tell you that I’ve figured out the nature of the Trinity, or how to explain it to anyone, but I do like explaining why this is important.

As opposed to when to properly celebrate Ascension during the week before Pentecost, this IS a ditch I will die in.

Bad theology kills people.  It literally kills people.  The words we use about God matter immensely, and in a world where dangerously misguided people dare to think God condones the sort of hate and violence we’re seeing, I can’t imagine what could be more important.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 11, 2017

Trinity Sunday, Year A

John something or other

 

My liturgics professor in seminary had an expression.  Whenever we were asked to discuss some vast theological concept in class, like the ontological change at ordination, or the nature of transubstantiation, or something like that, and a student would try to get out of it, he called it ‘hitting the mystery button’.  Inevitably, the student would try to dodge giving a straight answer to a straightforward question like “What happens to consecrated bread and wine at the Eucharist?” by saying “I don’t know; it’s a mystery.”

Professor Farwell maintained that this was a dodge, and beneath us.  If, he said, we wanted to be taken seriously as clergy, we needed to be able to say something substantive about our faith; the way it fit into the world, the way it fit with other aspects of life and belief, and not just wave off questions by claiming that EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE WAS SO MYSTERIOUS, OMG WHAT.

So, please keep that in mind as I tell you that today is that most special of days, that feast most cherished by all preachers: Trinity Sunday.  The one day we set aside to again attempt to understand the Trinity.

To recap: the Trinity is that confusing idea that God is three-in-one, and also one-in-three.  That God is simultaneously God the Father, creator of all that is, also God the Son, Jesus the Christ, and also God the Holy Spirit, who animates and flows through creation working to redeem it.  That these three persons are neither separate, nor overlapping, in any way.  

We’ve had this general idea about God for a long time, since about 350 CE.  And it has been super-confusing from the get go.  It was this doctrine that sprouted most of the early heresies, as people tried to figure out how to explain it.

Well, some said, God was like an apple: there were different parts, skin, seeds, core, but one whole.  Nope! Said the church–that’s partialism.  That’s not quite right.

Well, ok.  Maybe it’s that God is experienced in different ways at different times.  Like someone can be a mother, a sister, a wife but still the same person.  Also, nope, said the church.  That’s modalism.  That’s also not quite it.  

Well, fine.  So maybe it’s that God functions in different ways at different times?  Like water, ice, and steam?  Also, sort of no.  Said the church.  Still modalism.  And still no.  

Part of the problem is that it’s not like Jesus ever held lectures on systemic theology while he was on earth.  And even if he had, it’s highly doubtful that the disciples would have managed to retain much of it either.  Jesus and the disciples, instead, focused on the experience of God, rather than the rules of God.  Jesus focused on showing, who God was, and how God was–and that was how we learned instead.

Jesus healed the sick, and so we learned that God wants us to be whole and healthy.  Jesus cared for the poor and the outcast, and so we learned that God cares for the lost and the least.  Jesus loved and forgave and showed mercy, even when it seemed impossible, and so we learned that God did the same.  

Theology for Christians is less about coming up with rules, and more about describing this experience.  We try to work backwards from our experience of God, and our experience of Jesus, and put words to that experience.  We try to find words to tell that story.  

This means two things:

–Both that words matter

To choose the wrong words leads to wrong actions and harmful assumptions.  Even though what we are ultimately doing is describing an experience, the words we choose matter, because other people hear our stories. For people who don’t have direct experience of God, our stories, and the stories of the disciples, these words matter, because they’re largely how people learn about God. And we want them to know the same loving God we know, and not a cheap imitation.

— But it is also true that words ultimately fall short.  As in the case of the Trinity.  We have words, we have stories, but all words ultimately pale before the experience of God.  All the stories all the words in the world can’t fully explain or capture God. So even we find our best words, and all of us bring our stories, our different stories, and we tell them together like a crystal scattering sunlight, but it still cannot fully describe the reality of God.  And that keeps us humble. Because there’s always more for God to do. God meets people in our stories, but God is never confined to our stories alone. God will always flood out of our mere words to Greet his creation. So while we try our best to find the right words, we can also trust God not to be limited by our mistaken words.

Wind, fire, and all that jazz

There are times when I don’t write out a whole manuscript.  Those times are rare–I think better through writing, and the act of writing helps me remember better, so by the time it comes to preach, I am less tied to my paper than I would be with just notes.

But there are times when the week is too busy or when I don’t have the brain power to organize sentences, paragraphs and an organized rhythm to the sermon.  So this usually results in bullet points, as in the Pentecost sermon.

I should note, that my bullet points do not always directly translate to what I say.  Sometimes I have put things in much looser language than I deliver from the pulpit.  Sometimes I have a coherent sentence in mind, and then I expound on it.  All of which is to say that you should not take the below document as an indication of the quality of my Pentecost sermon.  At least, I am 100% sure I didn’t actually say “Ye Olden Times”.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 4, 2017

Pentecost

Acts 2

 

Tower of Babel reversal idea undone. Holy Spirit unites us in diversity

 

  • Let’s pause for a moment and recall a story from Genesis: the tower of Babel! People in Ye Olden Days were one language, one culture. Then, they got bored, maybe, and decided to build a tower up to heaven to reach God. This doesn’t thrill God, who likes being up there on his own, so he strikes down the tower, scatters the people and then everyone speaks their own language in their own place. Boom–cultural differences are created!
  • So story of Pentecost, wherein disciples are again hiding
    • Which they’ve been doing ever since the crucifixion, with momentary breaks whenever Jesus has shown up. But remember, he ascended, so now they’re back to the hiding thing.  Because he told them to stay put in Jerusalem
  • There’s the sound of a great rushing wind, and descending fire
    • Both pretty scary images, actually
  • And the Holy Spirit shows up
  • The traditional understanding of the Pentecost story is that it is a reversal of Babel
    • Babel was a sin against God, and caused division.  Everyone worked together to build a tower to ascend to heaven, but this was pride and God put a stop to it.  
    • People were then divided by language, culture, creed, etc.
    • So the old understanding of the Babel story was that this diversity was basically, if not a mistake, then something reversible.
  • Pentecost, then, was an event in which the sin of Babel was undone.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the divisions which were in place were erased, and God united everyone in a common belief.  Yay.
  • I’m going to argue that this is not exactly correct.  
  • For one thing, the sin at Babel was pride.  It’s another Genesis story where we conveniently get the sin wrong, not unlike Sodom and Gomorrah, where the sin was rape and a failure to welcome the stranger.  Not, you know, anything else.
  • People divide into different languages and cultures and fail to communicate….but you can also argue that this division also stems from pride  
    • What, after all, keeps us from trying to understand someone else’s point of view, but a deep-seated conviction that we have the answer and they do not possibly have anything to add? It’s a tower of a different sort.
  • At Pentecost, pride isn’t erased.  Language, culture, context still are different.  The descending Spirit doesn’t erase the differences between people.  Everyone doesn’t suddenly start speaking Esperanto, or King James’ English.
    • Instead, suddenly people can understand one another.  People who grew up only understanding Aramaic now can make sense of Greek.  People who spoke only Latin now can comprehend Arabic.  The spirit doesn’t erase the differences; it bridges them.
    • As the church grows, too, it actually will rely on the differences to survive.  Diversity will become its strength.  In 6 chapters, the church will get booted from Jerusalem. In 7, it will be booted from synagogues. So it had better figure out how to rely on diversity or it will not survive.
    • So perhaps the miracle of Pentecost is a reversal of Babel, in that the pride that keeps us from each other is removed, if only for a time.
  • How easy it is, though, to forgo the gift of the spirit in this regard!  How easy it becomes to shun the gifts that God’s diverse creation offers us, because it’s too hard, or too much work, or seems too confusing.
  • The world encourages us to build walls. If not towers, to wall us off from people who look different, who sound different. Who live different. Telling us that the Spirit of God we know COULD NOT POSSIBLY be speaking to them as well.
  • Last night I went to an iftar–a breaking of the Ramadan fast–with the  Crescent Peace Society. Group whose sole purpose is to make Muslims known to non-Muslims in KC area, so they’re more than scary names on the news.
  • We sat there discussing Boy Scouts, and annoying the sound of water bottle flipping was, and how to make really good hummus, which Girl Scout cookie bakery was better, and how scary the world is right now and how hard it is to get up each morning and do one small thing to make the world a better place, as we all agreed God called us to.
  • We sat there as the news from the latest London attacks rolled in, and I thought, driving home, how blessed moments like that are. How important it is to sit with people you wouldn’t normally know, and listen for the work of the Spirit in their lives. Move outside our towers, and witness to the blessings they bring to the world.
  • We may not get fire, and we may not hear wind, but we still do get the Spirit in this world. We just have to move out and look for it.