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Doubting Thomas in 2020

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 19, 2020

Easter 2, Year A

John 21

This is one of the gospel readings we read on the same day every single year.  Surprisingly we don’t have many of those.  We read variations on the Christmas story, the resurrection stories, the Passion narratives.  But this story, along with John’s Passion narrative on Good Friday, are the gospels we read each year without fail.  

One of the side effects of this familiarity is that there are some years where I am at a loss on how to make Doubting Thomas come alive.  We’ve just come off Easter, and there’s only so much that one can say about the dynamics of doubt and faith.

In most years.

Then there’s this year.

THIS year, Thomas lands right where we live, doesn’t he?  The image of the disciples huddled together in the upper room, the doors locked for fear of what lurked outside.  Worried and fearful about what the future held.  Wondering what they could believe in, who they could trust.  And then the Risen Christ shows up in their midst.   Just walking through the walls.

Thomas misses this initial appearance, and we aren’t told why.  But it would seem that Thomas has picked up the overall aura of fear and distrust, because when the other disciples tell him that Jesus appeared, he is not on board.  “Look, unless I touch the marks of the nails on his hands, and put my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

It’s also striking this year how much touching there is in this story.  There is a lot of touching.  Also a lot of people getting breathed on.   I’ll come back to that in a minute.

Thomas wants not just to see Jesus, but to touch the physical proof of his suffering and death.  He wants to more than see and believe; he wants to touch, see, and believe.  

And sure enough, the next evening, the disciples are again all together, all sealed off from the outside world, and Jesus appears to them again.  Twice now, and he offers his wounds for Thomas to touch.

—point of connection still available, even as connection in general is shut down (to outside world)

—Jesus shows up for Thomas alone

—Jesus gives us what we need, what ever that is.  Connection?  Accompaniment?  Companionship?  Jesus shows up.  Even in quarantine.  

—It will probably look different than we expect, and there will probably be a weird Jesus-y twist.  

—But Jesus provides for the disciples all of that tangible contact even as they are shut off from contact with the outside.  He provides their point of connection.

—So too with us.  Jesus will provide for us what we need; we just have to ask.  Even for hyper-specific things that we feel incredibly dumb asking for.  Often, with our prayers the problem is less Jesus’ response and more that we have trouble figuring out exactly what we want and asking for it.  And so we go vague “Jesus, I just want what’s best for me.”  ok, but there’s a way in which that request doesn’t build trust.  The reason we ask for things is not to be whiny, but so that we remember that God provides all we have in life, and indeed, our life itself, and to strengthen our relationship with God.  To build that relationship with God.  So, ask for what you need.  Get specific.  “Jesus, I would really like to feel the joy of Easter, even in this lock-down.”  “Jesus, I need a solid 5 minutes of quiet in my house/i need someone to talk to today.” And see what happens.  Watch for Jesus to show up.  Watch for the risen Christ to stroll through some walls.

Christ wants very much to give us what we need, Christ wants for us to feel comfortable enough in our relationship with God to casually make requests for whatever we need, the way we would with a trusted friend we know would help us without a second thought.  And Christ will, most of all, show up no matter what sort of locked room we find ourselves in.  

Amen.

Easter 2020

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 12, 2020

Easter Day, Year A

I am not a person who has ever been deeply shaken by revelations of biblical scholarship.  I consider myself pretty unflappable.  In college, I relished when I learned about how the gospel writers copied from each other, how not all of Pauls’ letters were written by Paul.  I thought I was a very cool and logical person.

Then, I was literally driving along one day, listening to NPR like a stereotypical Episcopalian, when I heard a discussion between the host and a quantum scientist.  And the scientist was discussing the outcomes of the Hadron supercollider.  “Basically,” he said, “not only does it appear that reality folds in on itself, but that super-charged particles can skip between layers of time/space.  And thus, Newton’s Third Law may not actually be true.”

I nearly wrecked the car.  I couldn’t not deal with this.  I was BESIDE myself. Look, there are certain things in life I rely on—one of which is that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. That’s how gravity works.  That’s how everything works.

HOW CAN THAT NOT BE TRUE ANYMORE.  

Matthew’s gospel doesn’t spotlight it as much as Mark’s, but one common theme in the resurrection stories is that the initial witnesses were scared out of their minds.  Mary Magdalene, Joanna, the other Mary—they were happy, yes.  But they were also petrified.  They were confounded.  They had no idea what this meant.

You and I, we have had the cushion of 2,000 of theologians telling us exactly what the resurrection means.  All the women had was a scary-looking shiny man appearing out of nowhere and telling them that their beloved friend was not dead; so go deal with it.  Ok, no more questions. 

And with a single word, everything has been flipped upside down.  Everything.  Three days after the crucifixion, the sharp blade of surprise has begun to wear down a bit, and you can imagine the disciples starting to come out of their stunned fear.  Start to think, OK—we have to figure out what to do now, if this world-without-Jesus is the new normal.  And just as suddenly, that world is gone again.

But not just that.  With the announcement of the resurrection, everything the disciples thought they knew has been overturned.  Because the truly unnerving part of Christ’s resurrection is that it shows just how impotent and fragile everything else in the world is.  The Roman Empire sure seemed like it was the mightiest power in the universe, and it invested a lot of energy and substance convincing the whole world of that.  It had armies, it had governors, it had a lot of forces on its side.

But now, Jesus, whom Rome had put to death, was alive again, and so Rome didn’t seem so threatening.  

So the disciples now had to reconsider—what else had they been wrong about?  If Rome wasn’t worth their fear, if this mighty pillar that seemed to hold up the world wasn’t actually in control of their very lives—how did the world make sense?  It wasn’t that they liked Rome—it was just that Rome was familiar.  Rome was predictable.  And they didn’t know how to live in a world where Rome just didn’t matter.

That’s really destabilizing—even if they were overjoyed to have their friend back.

We build our lives around empires, big and small, in countless ways.  We assume that these empires will always be there, and will operate the same way forever. EVEN AS we realize that the empires we rely on don’t seek our good.  They’re still so present that we build our lives around them.  They’re here, they’re tangible, and well, everyone else is doing it.   

But the promise of Christ’s resurrection is that these empires don’t last.  The scary part of Christ’s resurrection is that these empires don’t last.  And so we are required, we who seek a Risen Christ, to always remember that we cannot trust in empires to save us.  We can only trust in the God who brought Jesus Christ from the dead.

Because just as frightening as it is to realize that God alone is the mightiest power in the universe—or multiverse—and that God really has some preferences in the way this all goes down—it is reassuring to know that God is on the side of life, and life abundant when the empires around us seem only capable of distributing death and sacrifice.  

Our God does not demand from us human sacrifice to appease an almighty wrath.  Our God instead comes to us in love, to teach us to love better.  Our God enters into the brokenness of the human heart and suffers with us, shattering forever the bonds of sin and death which plague us.  God does that.  Only God does that.

So when the empires and institutions of the world claim to provide safety, stability, and the only path to life, remember the empty tomb.  Remember the joyful panic of those first women.  And remember who our God is.  Our God gives us life willingly and freely, in the face of every empire that would set limits before us.  

Because Christ is risen.  Alleluia!

Amen.

—Resurrection brings new life out of death.  But it also shows us the impotence of our old ways of being which is downright terrifying.  

—everyone is terrified, because even within the hope, they will have to go back and reconsider EVERYTHING.

—Jesus’s resurrection isn’t just unambiguous good news.  It is, but it is news so good that it reveals the frailty and paleness of everything else our lives depend on.  

-It casts into doubt the other pillars we build our lives on.  It reveals the other powers in our lives as idols.

—And that is freaking scary.

Good Friday 2020

(Or: In Which I Unlock a Profound Life Achievement and Reference John Mulaney on Good Friday)

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 10, 2020

Good Friday, Year A

John Mulaney, the comedian, made a kids TV special and released it at Christmas.  It’s surreal—like a more self-aware version of those kids shows from the 1970s—and it’s also oddly poignant.  It features a series of interviews where he asks the kids what their greatest fear is—and the kids answer quite honestly.  Everything from “the various horror movies of Jordan Peele” to “losing my family” to “drowning” to “being killed by a clown.” 

Kids are, of course, scared of a lot.  It’s a scary world for everyone, but for kids, it’s particularly scary, in a way that adults frequently forget.  The primal fear of not understanding so much of what happens around you, yet also being very aware of your own powerlessness and dependency on others is a potent cocktail that makes for a lot of anxiety when you’re a kid.

Gradually, we age out of it. We paper over that innate sense of powerlessness with our knowledge and lives we build that we can control.  But inside each of us, I think, there remains a quiet suspicion that the world is big and scary, and we are small humans, and we actually can’t control very much.  

This pandemic for many of us has brought all that feeling back.  Because, after all, here we have an enemy that we cannot see, cannot measure, cannot cajole, cannot buy off.  We cannot control this virus; we can only avoid it, hope for the best, and wait it out.  And all of the carefully-constructed world doesn’t seem to be able to offer much protection against a novel virus, as civilized as we thought we were.  We are, again, small humans in a big scary world.

Good Friday, when we mark the death of Jesus on the cross, is a day when the church stares squarely into that big scary world.  It’s the day that we remember that when God chose to become human, God didn’t flinch from the worst parts of our human experience.  That God-incarnate experienced what it was to be abandoned, alone, and killed, unjustly.  The creator of the universe became, like us for a moment in time—small, scared, and seemingly-powerless against the forces of evil and death.  When Christ died on the cross, punished by a cruel empire, Christ felt the brunt of humanity.  He felt what it was to be a small, lone human in a big, scary world.  And he died.

And yet, we call this day Good, because we also know that death didn’t win.  Evil didn’t have the final word. Three days later, Jesus rose from the grave.  Though he most certainly died on the cross, even more certainly did God raise him from the dead.  The big, cruel, scary world that seemed so overpowering actually was proven powerless, toothless, against the almighty love of God.

So, on this day, yes, we stare into the depths of the big scary world.  We do that because on this day we know that God is bigger than any of them.  That Jesus has already blazed a trail right through their heart.  And that even when we feel most alone, most powerless, and most vulnerable, there is nothing that can truly harm us because God has already defeated anything that we had to fear.  All the worst is over.  God has won.  God’s love has won.  Our small fragile human selves are safe wrapped in God’s arms.  And we need never fear the power of death again.

Amen.

Maundy Thursday 2020

This one is a bit of a sequel to the earlier piece about Eucharist I wrote.

Maundy Thursday!

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 9, 2020

Maundy Thursday, Year A

The first church thing I fell in love with was the Maundy Thursday service when I was a kid.  I have very clear memories of it.  It wasn’t a traditional service—we had a communal meal, and celebrated the Eucharist at big tables.  The adults drank wine, and we ate bread and cheese and fruit.  We said prayers and washed feet.  Afterwards, we processed over to the sanctuary in the dark, and stripped the altar, as someone chanted the 22nd Psalm, and smoke rose from the incense.

It was spooky and dramatic and even over the top, and I LOVED it.  I loved it.  I would look forward to it all year.  I would dress appropriately for it—in my kid-brain, I thought wearing all black would be appropriate to the occasion.  Like a liturgical goth.

I loved it.  The drama, the camaraderie, the lament.  And the holiness woven through it all because it all was happening in church.  

Tonight, honestly, it feels like a strange, bizarro version of those days.  Maundy Thursday is the night on which we liturgically recall Christ giving us the Eucharist—something that we haven’t had for awhile now.  It’s a night where we partake in so much of our sacramental life:  not only the eucharist, but cleaning the altar, washing each other’s feet—all the concrete, material symbology that help make our worship life rich and meaningful.  And in these strange times, we witness it all through a computer screen dimly.

In these days when we haven’t had the blessing of experiencing our sacraments directly , I want to talk a bit about them.  Because perhaps, you have noticed, like I have that you really miss them.  And I don’t just miss the spiritual sensations of the Body and Blood of Christ.  I miss seeing your faces when I say the prayer, listening to people shuffling around and dropping prayer books, and turning pages—I miss pressing the water into your hands, and telling you that God has come near to you.  That is what I miss.

In our Anglican tradition, we believe that these things are a part of what makes the eucharist the Body and Blood of Christ.  That all of us, gathered together, physically, with our material beings, make the Body of Christ.  Our selves, our noises, our hands, our minds, and our prayers.  It’s never just me by myself with my magic priest hands.  It’s all of us, together, becoming the Body as we partake the Body.  St. Augustine tells us that we eat the Body of Christ so that we may more fully become the Body of Christ—Behold what you are, he says, become what you see.

So this means, that while we cannot be together during these days, we fast from the physical sacrament, but it also means that we become the Body of Christ in new ways.  Because Christ gives us on this night not just a ritual to eat and drink magic food and drink in order to make ourselves feel better; Christ gives us a way of being Christ’s body in the world—precisely and exactly when that Body is absent.

Jesus meets with his friends on the night he is betrayed and arrested, and tells them that if they want to be known as his disciples, they need to love one another.  They need to serve one another.  As his physical body is leaving them, he gives them away to be Christ to one another and to the world.  

We receive the Eucharist each week, not in order to be holier, and not in order to feel special, but in order that we may be guided to more fully emulate Christ in the world.  We partake in the Body in order to be the Body as we go out in the world.  It is a learning of how to be Christ in spaces where Christ feels distant.  We celebrate the eucharist each sunday, preparing to go out into the stripped altar of the world.  

We are the eucharist now.  We are the Body of Christ now.  The presence of Christ we long for, the material reassurance that God loves the world, and is with us—that is you and I, my friends.  We are the footwashers, we are the comforters, the challengers, the song-singers, the light-bearers.  We are the Body of Christ in a world that feels shadowed and alone.  And now, as it was then, the light dwells with us, and will never be overcome.  

Amen.

Palm Sunday 2020

Hey, I’m not disappeared by aliens!

Please forgive the blog-silence; my attention has been on the immediate stuff these past few months. But I am now trying to get the blog back up to date with previous sermons as best I can.

I want to warn you–preaching in pandemic is a different beast, at least for me. I haven’t been doing as much full-manuscript writing. There’s been more “write the high points on a page, and go for it.” Preaching to a camera rather than a group of people is a whole different energy, and I find that it’s easier for me to keep the energy up if I can just Talk About This Interesting Thing, rather than Preach To These People I Am Having To Imagine.

With that caveat, let’s get with the catchup! First up: Palm Sunday from 2020.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 5, 2020

Palm Sunday, Year A

Palm Sunday is about a story.  Today is the day we begin to remember the most central story of our faith—the story of the last week of Jesus’ life.

When I was a kid, I was in a touring production of Godspell for two years.  (This description makes it sound very important—it was a kids’ production that went around to local nursing homes and churches.)  But for two years, a few times a week, we would put on this story through songs and strange, 1970s era skits.  And before each performance, our director, a secular Jewish guy, would remind us—remember that the audience loves this story.  You’re telling them the story that they love.

And we do love this story.  Not because it’s a nice story.  It’s really, really not.  This is a story that—if we were to remove the place markers—wouldn’t sound so out of place on the newsfeed of today’s litany of awfulness.  A leader, who has gained some popular support for suggesting that religious and political reforms are necessary, comes into the capital city.  He’s quickly arrested on charges, tried without evidence, and condemned to death.  It’s both no one’s fault and everyone’s fault, as well-meaning bureaucrats wash their hands and say “Well, I did the best I could.”  It is a story of institutions failing their people, and people turning on each other. Of friends abandoning and betraying one another.  Of power corrupting, and of human life held cheaply.  It is a story of abject human brokenness and cruelty.

And we tell it again and again, because in this story we see parts of our own story.  In this story, we see the moments when our friends failed us.  We see when we were treated unjustly.  We see when the powers of earth ally themselves against the weak.  We see when violence is dealt out indiscriminately.  We see those times when the children of God have been silenced, brutalized, and harmed.  When we have turned against one another, when we have failed one another.  In this story, we see reflections of our own story.

But most of all, we cherish this story because in this story, we don’t just see ourselves—we see God.  We see God come within this story of despair and anger and violence and injustice.  We see God-Incarnate experience the WORST humanity can experience, and the worst that humans can do to one another—all the worst effects of our pride and arrogance, hatred, and ignorance.  We see Jesus go through that, and we know that none of it defeats God’s love.  That somehow, God endures all this—all of it—and loves us anyway.  Gives us a way out of the wreck all of this has built for us anyway.  God endures all of the worst humans can dish out and in the end, God wins.  God’s love wins.  Wins out over evil, over hatred, over violence, over death.  

This is the story Christians have been telling ever since the beginning.  That we knew a God that loved us so much that God entered the essence of what it was to be human, and that God was not defeated by the forces that seem so scary in our world.  And we have told this story in the good times, and the bad times.  When we were at the head of conquering armies, or hiding from those armies in the catacombs.  This was the story that gave us hope when there was no more hope to find.  That God came to be with us when death seemed all around, but that not even death could separate us from God.  

This has been our story for the ages, and this is still our story, even now.  This week, may we all hear in it the same truth and hope as the first disciples did.

Amen.