RSS Feed

Author Archives: megancastellan

Peace which is no peace

There’s a hymn we sing occasionally–They Cast Their Nets In Galilee. As a child, it struck me as incredibly dark and depressing. The text goes:

They cast their nets in Galilee
Just off the hills of brown
Such happy, simple fisherfolk
Before the Lord came down…

It goes on to detail how every nice fisherman ends up graphically martyred at the hands of the Romans, for a whole verse, while you sing to this lovely, lilting tune. How morbid! TeenMegan thought, Why in the world would we put this in the hymnal?!

Then I spent a summer living and working with Palestinian Christians, came home, was an emotional wreck, and heard the hymn again. “Oh my Lord, that is the most accurate description of the Christian life EVER”.

The final stanza says:
The peace of God,
it is no peace,
but strife closed in the sod.
Yet let us pray for but one thing–
the marvelous peace of God.

Here’s what I said on “strife closed in the sod” Sunday.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

August 18, 2019

Ordinary Time, Year C, Proper 15

Luke 12: 49-56

Occasionally, I like to imagine the chaos that would unfold if Jesus returned today.  Particularly, I like to imagine the headache that would be involved in being Jesus’s PR advisor.  Counseling him on how to shrink down his teachings for Twitter, how to hang out with the most select group of people, how to be popular and suave and make good appearances on the late-night-talk shows.  And all the while, Jesus is relentlessly telling inscrutable parables, hanging out with illiterate smelly rowdy fishermen and mouthy women, and frustrating the heck out of everyone.  (though—this would probably be a really great SNL sketch premise.) 

This section of the gospel sounds very-unJesusy.  It’s not the kindly Good Shepherd we’re used to—its the Jesus in the Temple and throwing over tables, and chastising the other Pharisees.  This is the Jesus that it’s hard to book on the morning talk shows, because this Jesus clearly cannot stick to our beloved “both sides” narrative.

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it was kindled!” “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth!  No, I tell you— I have not come to bring peace, but division!”

This Jesus will not get invited back to Anderson Cooper.  

On the one hand, Jesus is explaining to the disciples here something that has happened.  It is a descriptive statement, more than a proscriptive.  For the disciples, yes—Jesus didn’t exactly make their lives more peaceful.  He turned them upside down.  He caused Peter and Andrew to abandon the family fishing business, and James and John to frustrate their mother when Jesus told her that greatness was not what she envisioned.  Most of the disciples did not live long and happy lives—they were martyred at some point.  Division was the natural result of what Jesus did.  So, in one sense, he is describing what the disciples had already experienced, and what the early church that Luke was writing to had also experienced.

But also, Jesus is pointing to a deeper truth—one that we sometimes have trouble hearing in our “both sides” world.  Sometimes, conflict is needed.  Sometimes, conflict can bring us closer to God.  That may seem counterintuitive, especially right now, when conflict is all around us, and it feels like people are yelling day and night. But I think Jesus is reminding us that pursuing God’s reign will stir up conflict, and that we shouldn’t fear that.  

Because too often, especially as Church, we prioritize peace and calm over the Reign of God.  We confuse the silence of no one objecting with the peace that passes all understanding that Jesus promises.  But all too frequently, in this world, that sort of silence is made from people not being free to speak—and not from actual agreement.  It is not the peace of justice, and it is not a peace we can be comfortable with.  

But when we make it our goal—when we make our goal keeping everyone happy and comfortable and quiet, rather than pursuing justice, love, and mercy—those things that Jesus taught us, then we fall far short of the Kingdom, and we fall short of what God wants for us.

During the Civil War—every American Protestant denomination split in two in this country.  At least in two.  Over the issue of slavery.  The debate over whether it was permissible in God’s sight to own another human being was so divisive that every church—Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Moravian, you name it—had it out, fought long and hard, and ultimately, split apart.  Except for us.

The Episcopal Church, alone of all the non-Catholic American churches, didn’t split.  The Southern dioceses left, during succession, but they trickled back, and were readmitted as if nothing had happened.  Each time General Convention tried to discuss the morality of slavery, the issue was tabled as too divisive, too painful.  We had bishops who served as generals in the Confederate Army, after all.  

The legacy of that today, is that we alone never made a statement against slavery as a church. We maintained our unity and our peace as a church, but that was bought by ignoring the humanity of our enslaved brothers and sisters, and our complicity in this sinful system.  We bought peace through sin.  

I don’t know if we would have stayed unified had we debated slavery.  We have a much higher ecclesiology than other Protestant churches, so it’s difficult to say.  And also, unity is a good unto itself as well—I don’t mean to pretend it’s not.  

But I do know that when following Jesus, we cannot be afraid of conflict.  We cannot build God’s kingdom upon oppression, and when we pursue the path of justice and true peace, conflict will naturally come with it. While Jesus commands us to love one another, that command means we have to all love one another, we have to will the flourishing of everyone.  

That commitment will mean we have to pick sides—not red or blue, not Republican or Democrat, but the side of humanity versus the forces who would tear it down.  The side of life versus the forces of death.  The side of the weak versus the powerful.  The side of the oppressed versus the oppressor.  Neutrality, and sitting on the fence, does not bring about the kingdom.  All it does is achieve silence, and call it peace.

If we want the peace that Christ promises, the peace that passes all understanding, the peace which the world cannot give—that was the other thing he said—then we have to be brave, and willing to rock the boat a bit.  Choose sides.  Brave conflict for the sake of the gospel.  Because whenever we wade into the struggle, siding with the poor and the marginalized, the helpless and the victim, there we shall find the Jesus who caused so much conflict as to be put to death by an empire.  There we shall find the God who became human so we would never be alone in our struggles.  When we side with the powerless, there, we will find our peace, and there, we will find the Kingdom.  

Amen

We need new problems

Last week, I informed my husband on Saturday night that I loathed my sermon, so he should prepare himself. There was nothing especially awful about it–and I have extreme perfectionism when it comes to preaching, so I quietly think most of what I could preach could be much, much better, but on this occasion, I really was not feeling it.

It was a combination, I think, of being confronted again with more mass shootings, more religious hypocrisy in the public square, more stoking of bigotry and hatred by our leaders–more more more. And both the prophet Isaiah and I were feeling exhausted by the whole thing. I had just held forth on American idolatry last week; I didn’t want to wade back in there again.

Preaching, for most people, including myself, is sometimes an exercise in telling yourself what you need to hear in that moment. (It helps to realize you’re doing this, so you don’t end up preaching about how much God loves people who stop showing up to work, or something equally destructive. Sometimes, you don’t need to preach a sermon; what you need is therapy.)

Anyway, I decided to preach about finding hope in the midst of apparent garbage fires. (Then the Holy Spirit absconded with the last page of my manuscript, so I had to preach on the fly.)

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan Castellan

August 11, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 14

Luke 

Karl Barth once said that in order to be a good Christian, you have to always have the Bible in one hand, and the morning paper in the other.  The same advice is usually given to preachers, and some weeks, the lectionary makes that easier than others.

This week, Isaiah reads like the prophet has been watching CNN along with us, and providing commentary.  “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;  your hands are full of blood.”  I guess the prophet was not a fan of “thoughts and prayers” either.  He goes on to implore the people to “cease to do evil, learn to do good.  Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”  Do the actual thing.  Seek justice. 

We can hear Isaiah’s anguish through the centuries as he surveys the injustice that surrounded him because it is not all that unfamiliar to us.  A well-established religion whose speakers, comfortable in the halls of power, claimed that so long as the people prayed enough, so long as the king gave enough lip service, than God was going to bless the kingdom with safety.  God was fine with whatever, they assured everyone!  Just keep praying the way we want you to.  

But as it turns out, God cares very much for justice.  And God cares very much about the lives of all God’s children.  When lsaiah refers to the rulers of Sodom, and the people of Gomorrah, that’s what he’s talking about.

Contrary to probably everything you’ve heard, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah in the actual scripture story, in Genesis is not a particular type of sex.  (That notion begins to crop up in the Middle Ages.)  But within the Bible itself, the prophets tell us that the problem of Sodom is that the city was horribly unjust.  And also, within the story itself. the people of Sodom fail to extend hospitality to strangers. That was their big problem.  They are inhospitable to newcomers.  Lot does—and Lot gets saved.  

But what we know about Sodom is that the inhabitants have grown rich through an unjust system, and through being pretty mean to each other.  Which is why Isaiah references them here as a warning.  Don’t be like Sodom!  Sodom was awful and mean.  Be better.

Now, all this may not feel all that edifying.  The information that the world has basically always been dramatically awful, such that prophets have been yelling about it for millennia, may not fill your heart with Christian hope.  

That’s where the gospel comes in.  

The gospel is a bit odd, in that Jesus is trying to give the disciples a pep talk, and he throws in a parable-that-doesnt-sound-like-a-parable.  And all of a sudden, he shifts from “everything is going to be fine, God will take care of you” to “stay alert, because PEOPLE WILL STEAL YOUR STUFF.”  

Jesus is good at being Jesus, bad at being a HS football coach with the pep talks.  Because he’s talking about something different than just “everything will be ok.”  There’s a parable in the middle here, which means there’s a twist of some kind.

“God is overjoyed to give you the kingdom,” Jesus says.  Great! This is exciting!  Good news.  “Be like slaves who are ready for their master to come home.”  “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.”  

And there it is—nope,  no one would do that.  That is not a thing.  

For slaves to stay awake to greet their master would not have been congratulated—that was the minimum of their job.  And the master would DEFINITELY not have made them all sit down to serve them.  

But that sort of reversal would happen in the Reign of God. That sort of thing happens all the time, where the last is first, and the first last, and the hungry fed, and the mighty thrown down.  Jesus talks about it a lot.  

Jesus is saying here to stay watching, because there are signs of the kingdom breaking through all around us.  Even as the world continues to struggle with injustice and oppression and wrongdoing, even as we suffer with our brokenness and sin, even as our prophets continue to cry out like Isaiah—there are signs of God’s incoming redemption around us, if we are alert and able to see.  Signs of God’s reign are at hand to encourage us, even when it seems like the new day will never come.  Surprising signs of that ultimate resurrection reversal await our gaze.  We just have to find them. 

All around us, in ways large and small, God is working God’s purpose out. The creation is being renewed. People are making amends and changing their lives. Enemies are being reconciled. People are loving one another and caring for one another across the divisions our world sets up. And early on a Sunday morning, all these people come together to find God, just because they want something greater in their lives.

There is hope, when we learn to look for it. When we learn to be alert, and prepared. The reign of God breaks in all around us–little pinpricks of light shining in the midst of the storm, lighting our way to the dawn of a new world coming, slowly but surely.

Amen.


In which we discuss idolatry

I had already pondered doing a deep dive into idolatry at some point, because I had mentioned it in passing last week. I don’t like leaving the idea in people’s minds that some issue or another is a problem just for the ancient Israelites–the whole point of the Hebrew Bible is that all their issues are really ours, too. (except perhaps for the constant worry about leprosy.) So, idolatry it would be!

Then, America did what America does best–let violent young white men kill a whole bunch of people all at once with military weapons in a civilian setting. Not once, but twice in a 13 hour period. Because America can do almost anything, but one thing we can never seem to manage is how to limit access to guns.

I walked into church on Sunday morning, feeling somewhere between “Burn it all down” and “I will turn this car around RIGHT NOW”. Had I been at all convinced the parish would have gone for it, I would have just yelled in inarticulate rage and frustration for 10 minutes, rather than actually preach. But, my people are demanding, and ask for things like subject-verb agreement, and actual words.

And looking out at them, right before I preach, I found my sense of hope, yet again. All these different faces, from all over the world, wrestling with so many different things, sitting together doing something rather subversive. Listening and longing for a better way, a better world. Pledging loyalty to a God who came to be the least of these, in order to subvert the power of death forever.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

August 4, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 13

Luke

[Joke about the kid in Sunday School—the answer is always Jesus.  Actually—it’s always idolatry. ]

Of course, the REASON prophets were always complaining about idolatry is that it’s commonplace.  The Israelites were constantly falling back into idolatry.  It was basically a national pastime.

Part of what was happening was context.  The Israelites were always a religious minority.  Monotheism (or, various variations on it) was never dominant, so the Israelites were always living among Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, all of whom who worshipped many gods.  So, for many many people, it periodically seems like a great way to get along with your Assyrian boss to make a nice sacrifice to the high place while you’re en route to the Temple, or to cover your bases while you’re waiting for the harvest, to pour out some nice oil at the sacred trees.  It just was a thing and everyone was doing it.

The OTHER reason idolatry was so common is because it’s a human impulse.  Idolatry isn’t just worshipping a statue instead of God—it’s placing any created thing in place of God.  Whether that be a government, a system of belief, a particular thing, or ourselves.  Human beings really enjoy idolatry.  We do it all the time.  It is basically our favorite hobby.

In the gospel story, Jesus is telling this story about a rich man, who dies, and has to leave all his worldly goods to someone else.  That, in and of itself, probably doesn’t seem odd to us.  But to Jesus’ first audience, there are a few things that would have sounded odd.  

For starters, no trustworthy person in the gospels talks to themselves.  That’s not a thing people did.  Interiority, having an interior monologue,  wasn’t really a concept that takes off until the Enlightenment.  If you wanted to talk, you did it with other people, because there were always other people.   When all you had to talk to was yourself, the understanding was that you were doing something wrong, because to be a good person, you maintained right relationships with other people, and God.  To be cut off from both, such that you didn’t consult them, was problematic.

So, when the rich man consults only himself about what to do with his excess, that’s a big signal that something is really wrong.  Why doesn’t he ask his neighbors, his family?  Why does he only ask himself what to do?

It shouldn’t perhaps be surprising then that his self then recommends he stockpile his goods rather than any other option.  We don’t hear about what else he could do—raise the wages of his workers, leave more to be gleaned by the poor, be more generous to the town’s impoverished.  Because he hasn’t thought about the community around him, he doesn’t think of them now.  He consults himself, and decides to keep his new wealth for himself.  But, of course, this situation can’t last forever, and indeed, God intervenes, and reminds him that whether or not he wishes it, he cannot stand alone as the center of the universe.

The rich man seems to be trying hard to idolize himself.  To live in such a way as to keep himself, and his needs at the absolute center of the universe.  He doesn’t speak as if he is thankful to anyone for his windfall, he doesn’t act as if he wants to repay anyone or if he might want to bless anyone with his resources.  To hear him tell it, no one else really exists.

The continual challenge of the life of faith is to keep God at the center of our lives, and not give into the temptation to put other things there.  Other things that offer us what we want, and promise that it will be quicker, easier, cheaper, this way.  Because it is so easy, and it is so tempting—and it also becomes difficult to find the line sometimes.  it’s all a matter of degrees.

See, it is perfectly fine for that rich man to say “You know, I am so thankful I have enough to get through winter this year.  And I have had my eye on a new front door—so let me get one of those.  But I am also aware that my workers contributed to this bounty for me, so let me reward them accordingly.”

What idolatry does not allow for is competing interests.  What makes something cross over into idolatry is when we can no longer allow that other things might also be good; other claims, even when they compete, might also be valuable and true—because THIS ONE THING must not be questioned or taken away from.  And that is dangerous.  It is that sort of blinded vision that gets us as humans into trouble.

So much of what is plaguing us right now can be traced back to creating idols of one type or another.  The human rights crisis on the southern border, can be called instead idolatry of a common notion of America. Rampant inequality can be called idolatry of money.  

But where we see it most clearly, I think, with yet another mass shooting, we have to face again our country’s idolatry of guns.  Here is this thing—made of metal, of human hands, from a factory, that symbolizes so much in our culture.  For many it promises safety, and freedom from fear, and freedom from tyranny, and independence.  For so long, so much meaning has been poured into this object, that even though we are watching a staggering death toll every year, even though children go to school and practice hiding from gunmen, even though I receive emails about once a month asking what I will do in case a shooter ever enters my sanctuary during service, which I know is a real threat—even as we watch the death toll rise—we do nothing that would compromise the power of this one object.   We are in its thrall, for all that it promises.  

But all idols lie.  All idols lie.  Guns cannot provide what they promise.  They cannot provide us perfect security.  They cannot provide us freedom from the fear of death.  They cannot provide us a life without worry.  Only God can do that.  And God asks us to put God first—and not to kill.  

Because when the living God is at the center of our lives—then everything changes, because we are forced to contend with the One who is continually out of reach of all of our images and idols.  God will always force us to confront our ideas about God, and reckon with how they fall short.  When we keep God at the center, it allows us to extend generosity and love to all the other competing claims in our lives, because God reminds us that with God, we prioritize not a thing. not an idea, and not an image, but a being that surpasses all our human minds can fathom.  Prioritizing God causes us to always expand our vision, and our sense of what is possible, good, true and holy—not to narrow it.  Prioritizing God causes us to embrace the rest of creation, as we flourish too. 

God asks us to open up our vision, to let go our grasp on the idols that we’ve been clutching closely.  The ideas and the images and the things that do not allow us to let in all God has in store for us.  Open up your grasp, and let God shake things up a bit.  

Amen.

“It’s always whoredom.”

The EFM class at my parish has a running joke about this passage. It’s one of those readings that makes parents silently wish that they had NOT taken their children to get a nice dose of religion this morning. And it’s one of those that makes me squirm when I read it, because the patriarchy is particularly strong with most readings of the text.

But this time, I read it and thought “This sounds like a job for Dr. Wil Gafney–she must have written on this.” And lo, it was so. Her sermon on Gomer is a big influence on what I said, and if you haven’t read it, you should.

I’ll wait.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

July 28, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 12

Hosea and Luke

At my last parish, we had a fervent lay reader with an extremely thick Mississippi accent.  And on the day that this OT lesson was assigned, she had volunteered to sub for the assigned reader, and I thought it best to give her a heads-up, lest she be taken by surprise by the contents of what she was about to read.  No worries, she assured me—these were her favorites!  

And sure enough, she imbued the reading with enough enthusiasm and emphasis as to make one think that Foghorn Leghorn had found religion, and also to provoke many awkward questions in Sunday School. 

So, in the interests of forestalling whatever awkward questions you might face later, let’s discuss old Hosea.  

WHAT.  ON.  EARTH.

Let’s start with some context, because there’s a LOT going on here.  Hosea, so far as well can tell, is one of the 8th century BCE prophets, (there were a whole group of them.)  He, in particular, was preaching in the Northern Kingdom, after Elijah and Elisha had sauntered off to glory, and the united Kingdom had split.

Israel (up north, recall), was on the verge of being conquered by the Assyrian Empire.  It’s looking bad.  Hosea, personally, is concerned that the leaders of the kingdom are not faithfully adhering to God’s law and ways of justice, which will lead to the collapse of the kingdom.  As per usual, the Israelites had wandered off again from worshipping God alone, and had started setting up shrines to other gods, and getting away with the low-level idolatry that other people did—the same sorts of things that everyone back to the time of Abraham had been concerned about.  

So, this is where we pick up.

Now:  the metaphor of marital infidelity being used for religious infidelity was extremely common. It is found all through the prophets and the rest of the Hebrew Bible.  Because Judaism understood God to have created a legal covenant with Israel, the nearest analogy for people to grasp was generally a marriage covenant—also legal, also a contract, also (in those times) an unequal balance of power.

Hence, the descriptors of Israel being the unfaithful woman, and God being the cheated on spouse with the sole discretion to divorce her would have made sense.

Also, one of the ways prophets sometimes made their point was by engaging in symbolic acts.  Ezekiel, later on, will do the same thing.  He wanders about wearing dirty clothes, and eating bread cooked over a fire made of human dung. (Which, he argues down to cow dung, because ew.)   Hosea, though, goes to a new level in roping other people into this.  We are not told what, exactly Gomer and the kids thought of this extended modern art performance, (a point we will return to) but I can’t think they were thrilled.

Anyone will tell you, if you show up at school with a name like “Not My People” or “Unloved”, the kids are going to pick on you.  Also, your priest is going to have a tough conversation with you about working out your issues on your kids.  

Nevertheless, Hosea proceeds.  He marries Gomer, and has three children, all with increasingly dire sounding names.  And we are told, prophetically, that this is to symbolize the breakdown of God’s relationship with Israel.  

And that may be hard to square with the God that Jesus is on about in the gospel.  The God that runs to open the door at 3am when we pound on it, asking for something again.  The God that never hesitates to listen when we pray.  That God.

Where is THAT GOD in the world of Hosea?  Because Hosea’s God just seems to have some really harsh words to say about women, and some really odd ideas about how to get a point across.

Dr. WIl Gafney, Episcopal priest, biblical scholar, and general genius human, argues that part of the issue in reading this text is a problem of translation.  Gomer, she points out, is described as  (just) promiscuous, which is a different Hebrew word than prostitute—we know because Israel is described that way.  Gomer herself is never called that.  Gomer, she points out, is described merely as proliferate prior to her marriage—abundant with love, and she points out that even the daughter named Unloved is unique in that we are told Gomer nurses her.  Her, the daughter named Unloved.  

Here, Dr. Gafney argues, is where we find the reflection of God.  In the actions of Gomer, who loves fervently and without boundaries.  In the love of a mother who loves even the children that others call worthless.  In the dedication to each other of two partners, despite some questionable choices.  That widespread, unstinting love of God that is so prodigal that it becomes scandalous.  That love that dares to love the people of Israel, even when they consistently make horrible choices.  

It is that love that Jesus describes when he teaches his disciples to pray, when he reassures them and us that God loves us enough to hear whatever we want to say.  That God loves us enough to want us to love the other people that God loves.  That God loves us enough to want other people to love and care for us too.

It’s an odd thing, but I’ve found that we need frequent reminders that God loves us.  And not just in a vast, theological-clockmaker of the universe-way, but that God actually loves us and likes us.  When we live in a world that is filled with stingy neighbors, who don’t want to open their doors to each other, it can be hard to remember that there exists a God that pours that unbounded love into all of us, and yet, it is so.  Our job, is to reflect that sort of Gomer-ish love in the world so that it becomes easier to remember.  Easier to believe in.  To love one another so much and so well that it becomes easier to remember just how much and how well God loves us too.

Amen.

Sermon for a Slave Girl

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

July 7, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 9

1 Samuel 

The story of Naaman’s healing is one of those Biblical stories that is internally famous in scripture.  Jesus mentions it in his first sermon in a synagogue in Nazareth, and it’s part of what gets him in trouble.  (We will see why in a minute.)

This story gets cited a few times within the canon itself.  

But it might strike our ears as a bit odd this morning.  Because there is nothing about Naaman that seems like he’s a sympathetic character in any way.  We’re told he’s an Aramean general. Arameans, during this time, had a group of small kingdoms that were constantly scuffling with King Saul and then King David, pushing the boundaries a few inches back and forth every so often.  They were the eternal, annoying enemy.  And evidently Naaman is so good at his job that he has even taken a child captive to give to his wife as a servant.  Awesome.  Great.  Upstanding guy, this Naaman.  Why does he get a story?

And then Naaman gets leprosy.

Leprosy, in the biblical world, was a pretty vague diagnosis.  It wasn’t exactly the dire disease we know today.  Leprosy was a general category for “Something That Is Suddenly There, That Should Not Be There.”  Any time some spot, rash, or blemish appeared, it was leprosy, and had to be dealt with—you called the priests, spent a while in time out, kept a watch on it, and most times, it went away on its own. Because so little was understood about how the world works, leprosy was understood as Something Very Bad, which needed Divine Intervention. 

 Freckles could be leprosy.  A mosquito bite was leprosy.  Baldness, also leprosy.   Houses could get leprosy—though we would call this mold, or mildew.  Books, clothing, scrolls—all could come down with leprosy, which would require the person to immediately get right with God.  It wasn’t necessarily that the person had sinned; but if leprosy appeared, something had gone awry in God’s order of things, and needed tending to.  

So, the fact that Naaman gets leprosy after he’s won a battle against the Israelites, and carried off their children as slaves——would not have been surprising to the earliest audiences.  OF COURSE he should get leprosy.  Good grief, of all people, he should get so much leprosy!  

What IS shocking is what happens next.

It is arguable that Naaman is actually not the protagonist of this particular story, given his clear misdeeds, and now his problems with leprosy.  It is arguable that, actually, the captured slave girl is our protagonist, and here she finally takes a bow.  She sizes up the situation, and suggests that Naaman ask Elisha, the new prophet in Israel (you know, the guys he just defeated) for help.  

Naaman suspects a trap, but he is also out of options.  So Naaman sends a whole ton of stuff to Israel, hoping to make nice.  Gold!  Silver!  Horses! Rhinos! Monkeys!  That whole Prince Ali parade from Aladdin!  Remember, he KNOWS they don’t like him, and now he sort of needs their help.

The King of Israel sees all this coming and also thinks it’s a trap. He thinks the Aramean general is basically back for more, since they did so well in the first battle.  Elisha finally steps in, tells everyone to simmer down, and tells Naaman what to do: go wash in the River Jordan.  Boom.  Problem solved.

Naaman is now CONVINCED this is a trap.  Sort of hilariously.  The back and forth between Naaman, and the King of Israel, and his servants is pretty great.  Naaman is NOT going to wash in that dumb river, because that’s way too easy.  Shouldn’t he have to do something hard?  What was all the gold and silver sent over here for? 

It’s worth noting that so far in this story, only the slave girl, Elisha, and now the other servants of Naaman, have showed much common sense.  The people of high status are having a hard time trusting anything anyone else does.  Naaman, in particular, is beside himself—he both knows he needs help desperately, but cannot bring himself to accept it, because the source of that help is historically suspect to him.  

It may be that what Naaman expected was something along the lines of what the King of Israel expected: a tit for tat retaliation, a continuation of the cycle of vengeance that they had been waging.  Israel strikes Aram, Aram strikes back.  On and on and on.  Naaman doesn’t expect the slave girl or Elisha to actually direct him to healing—why would they?  He enslaved a child!  He was an enemy of Israel!  Naaman is pretty in touch with who he is and what he has done, and it is that consciousness that tells him to expect some harsh treatment from his servant girl.  After all, that’s what Naaman would do.  That’s what makes him a great general.

But that’s not what the slave girl does.  She alone stands up, and breaks the cycle.  She could, of course, go a different way—the way Naaman expects.  But she doesn’t.  She sends him to healing, because she knows that the God of Israel is a God who heals everyone.  The God of Israel is a God who extends mercy to everyone.  It is only Naaman’s shame, and inability to think differently that stands in his way.

Naaman has trouble moving outside of the cycle of violence, but God is already there.

Sometimes, what prevents us from being made whole is not our lack of faith, it’s not our ignorance—it’s our suspicion.  It’s when we are clinging so closely to our own sense of our own unworthiness that we cannot let God do anything with us, because SURELY there would have to be more, right?  SURELY God would require much more from us than just this?  SURELY we have to be over here wallowing a bit more in our own guilt a bit longer, right?  

But as Naaman learned, guilt is not always a helpful emotion.   So long as Naaman was parading around with all his wealth, feeling bad about himself, he also was managing to avoid rectifying what he had actually done wrong.   So long as he was worrying over whether he had cleansed himself enough in the right river, or paid enough money to the right king, he also wasn’t setting the slave girl free.  He wasn’t taking care of the soldiers’ families in his army.  And he also wasn’t getting any better himself.  There was a lot he could be doing that he wasn’t to actually bring about healing.  But he was stuck on his own sense of importance, which blocked his ability to heal.  

I found it hard this week, to read about the slave girl in this story, and not think about the children at the border of our own country.  The thousands of young people separated from their families and held in brutal conditions by our own government.  It is easier than ever, I think, to become overwhelmed, guilt-ridden and paralyzed when we hear about the horrible things taking place in our world, many of them on our own doorstep.  It can be easy to sink into a quagmire of despair, and convince ourselves that, like Naaman, only a huge enormous effort far beyond any of us can possibly make any difference.  It’s too awful for us to fix or contemplate.

But God isn’t interested in our beating ourselves up.  God doesn’t need our outsized offerings of guilt.  God asks of us only that we do what we can, whatever we can, to make this better.  That we do our little bit, all together.  That we pray, we call, we march, we donate, we pray some more—we each figure out what we’re called to do to push this world into the dream God has for all God’s children.  Guilt doesn’t save us; God alone saves us, through following Jesus.  And all Jesus asks of us is that we try our best, in all the ways we can.  For that slave-girl’s sake, and for Naaman’s sake, and for all our sakes.

Amen. 

Trinity Baptism: Let’s just do everyone

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 16, 2019

Trinity Sunday, Year C

So, one of the classics, in the genre of Arguments Protestants Have, is who should get baptized?  

Protestantism has lots of classic arguments like this: things like how much water should you use for a baptism, and whether wine is allowable at communion, and how often you should have communion?

For the most part, Episcopalians, because we are really neither partisan Catholics nor partisan Protestants, sit these debates out, but from time to time, we do enter in the debate over Who Should Be Baptized?

The argument goes as follows: there are some, mostly of a Protestant-y bent, who argue that only those who can adequately profess faith in Jesus Christ should be baptized—the doctrine called Believer’s Baptism.  So, children should wait until they hit the age of being able to decide for themselves before they get baptized.  

It’s not a half-bad idea—it’s good for people to choose for themselves something this important.  That adds weight to it.  

And, this also moves baptism towards being an affirmative choice.  Baptism, when its chosen by the person themselves, becomes something they want to do, a sort of life they want to lead, and less about fire insurance. 

So, believer’s baptism is great!  Fine idea. 

Though, it is worth saying that confining baptism to JUST people who can make that choice for themselves leads you to some odd places.  For one thing, it’s not always as easy as you would think to figure out who can make a profession of faith that “counts.” My best friend, growing up, was Southern Baptist, and her little sister has Down’s Syndrome.  The church they went to had a hard time figuring out if Kara, the sister, could be baptized—even though Kara was a dedicated Sunday School attendee, and proficient in every Bible song they taught. 

  And what counts as an adequate confession?  There are parts of the faith that I, after years of dedicated study, cannot explain to you with full confidence.  I don’t have the 39 Articles memorized, nor the Athenasian Creed.  And while I do delight in explicating the conflicts of the Nicene Councils, it is quite possible that I get it wrong.  So does that invalidate my baptism?

All of which is to say, infant baptism remains in vogue  (and a good thing as we’re going to be baptizing a baby here in a few hours/moments.)

The thing about infant baptism is that it has nothing to do with the baby.  The baby, delightful as they are, are not expected to do or say anything, and is not even expected to even refrain from crying.  There is absolutely nothing the baby can do to either encourage or discourage the process.  The baby just has to be.

Meanwhile, the community of faith comes together and does this immense thing on the child’s behalf—the parents and godparents make huge promises, the gathered Body of Christ promises to help too, and all of us know that these are promises we can’t possibly keep all the time, so we ask God to help us, and the newly-baptized to do our best.  And somehow, the mystery of new birth is given to another human being.  

Baptizing a new baby, especially a tiny infant, is a good reminder that after all that, there’s really nothing we can do to make God love us.  There’s nothing we can do to make God think we’re important.  We receive baptism, and the miracle of our life of faith, just because God does love us, but that gift comes just because we are.  And not through anything we had to accomplish on our own.  God already loves us.  God already thinks we’re incredibly important; each one of us.  Just because we are.  And nothing we do, say, think, or try, will ever change that.

Trinity Sunday is when we remember anew the central mystery of our faith—that the God we worship is Three-in-One and One-In-Three. The central diversity-in-unity in the midst of what we proclaim is vital for any number of reasons: the complexity that reveals God to us affects a lot of what we profess. 

The Trinity gives us an example of complexity in the heart of our faith, it grounds us in the multiple ways God has acted in the world, and the unifying ways that action points back to God.  

But it’s also important to remember that even in our struggles to get it right, we won’t get it perfectly correct.  And God still loves us.  Because God has come to us before we could even say the words, and God has proclaimed us as God’s own forever.  And when we fumble our way along, and feel lost and confused, God is already with us.  Because there is nothing we have to figure out, or get right to win God’s approval.  Not even the doctrine of the Trinity.  (It HELPS if we get it mildly correct, but God still loves us no matter what.)  

God has come to us before we could shape words, or raise our heads.  When we were still afar off, God ran to us to welcome us home.

And now, we get to welcome another child of God into our midst, as Christ has already welcomed us.

Amen. 

Pentecost, postmodernism and language

One of the things they warn you about in seminary is How to Do Liturgical Change. There are lots of dire stories about parishes who moved their altar back against the east wall in the dead of night, parishes that to this day refuse to use the 79 BCP, Altar Guilds that went rogue and used flowers that the clergy was deathly allergic to. (Ok, that last one isn’t real, but SOUNDS like a great murder mystery, right? Get on that, Midsomer Murders.)

At my parish, I have wanted to try to experiment with the approved trial use liturgies that were approved at GC2018, and see what people thought. So I wrote this sermon to sloooooowwwwly roll out that change, and explain why, and how, we were doing this.

Stay tuned for what the parish says at our Fall check-in.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 9, 2019

Pentecost, Year C

Acts 2

—I think I’ve told you this, but I promised my godmother when I was ordained, never to alter the 8am Rite 1 service, no matter where I was.  

—And so, wherever I have served, the 8am service (or the 7:30am service in one benighted place) has been Rite 1.  

—But there was one exception—in my Kansas City church, at the Rite 1 service, when I got there, we said the old form of the Nicene Creed, which includes the line “I believe in Jesus Christ, who died for us men, and for our salvation.”  

—Now, I know intellectually what “for us men” means.  It means for all humanity.  I know that.  And I also know that the reason we were still saying the old form of the Creed was because there was one particular individual who really found great meaning in it, and would have it no other way.  It was a pastoral concession to her.  

But I also know, that at 8 o clock in the morning, before I’ve had a chance to have my coffee, that my smart, intellectual brain has a hard time catching up with the rest of me.  And the rest of me does not realize that “Jesus Christ came for us men, and for our salvation” includes me too.  And it’s a really jarring feeling to feel yourself outside of salvation that early in the day.

And so, in that one spot, every week, I would skip the line.  Because I couldn’t bring myself to do it.  

Language is a funny thing, in that it allows us to communicate with each other. And yet, the vast constellations of connections and connotations we attach to words are entirely our own, and that can never fully be explicated—so, language is at once common, and entirely opaque. And the line between the two shifts, and changes over time.

Here’s an example: I was talking to some friends, a number of years ago—perhaps 7 years ago, and they asked me, quite seriously, why a person would be on the internet.  What could one do there?  I had a hard time answering.  Because again, intellectually, I know what I do on the internet: I watch movies, I procrastinate, I save my sermons in several places in case I lose a copy, I communicate with friends and family, I read things, I learn things, I…live my life?  The problem was, I wasn’t just trying to explain tasks to them—-I was trying to explain a whole new world.  A new way of being almost.  And I was having trouble finding language that worked for that.

This is one of the reasons that language shifts and changes over time.  Words that meant one thing at one time, come to mean something else, as a critical mass of people’s connections and connotations change to mean something else.  “Nice” used to mean correct.  Now, it means something like polite, kind, sweet.  And, “men” used to mean “all people” and then….it doesn’t quite.  Because we have other, better words for that purpose.

You may be wondering why I am devoting an entire sermon to language, and how it changes.  “Why is she dissecting the minute of words and what they mean?”  For one thing, I’m a writer; and I write sermons each week.  So choosing good words is a hobby of mine.  But for another—given how big the challenge is of communication, given how meanings change, and when we speak, we are evoking meanings that we might not even guess at, it’s really miraculous that we manage to communicate with one another at all.

And yet, on Pentecost, this is the miracle that the Spirit gives the disciples to announce her arrival:  a rush of wind, a burst of flame, and language.  Suddenly, all the pilgrims from all over the world could hear and understand the wondrous news of Jesus in their own language.  Suddenly, the disciples were communicating across culture, across class, across every divide that existed.  The Spirit, in a moment, gave them the words to blow past all of that.  

With the right words.

I imagine it was incredibly uncomfortable.  We know from the text, that not a few of the passers-by assumed that they were all drunk (and, you have to love Peter’s rebuttal:  No!  For it is only 9am!  BUT ALSO!!!  Peter never fails to be Peter.)

And yet, here we are.  When the Spirit shows up, the disciples are given words so that the Good News can be understood.  Even across all the incomprehensibility of the world.  

It is like the Spirit would like us to work hard at this task of communicating.  To really apply ourselves to examining our language, and to re-interpreting our words to make sure we are getting across what we want to.  From the Pentecost story, we learn just what a miracle it is when we communicate, and how much God would like us to do it, and to do it well.

In celebration of Pentecost, for the next season of church, that’s what we’re going to try to do here.  I wrote a bit about this in the Fledgling, but starting today, at the 10:30 service, we will be using a new version of the Eucharistic Prayer.  This version is official—General Convention passed it, the bishop approved it—I promise I haven’t broken any rules or invented any thing bonkers.

But it has become evident, for a while now, that our language may not be communicating the fullness of the Good news as we would wish.  The Eucharistic Prayers we use now were written almost 40 years ago.  Not to make you feel old, but that is before I was born.  

More to the point, that was before our language practice took into account the fullness of humanity.  

When the Prayer Book was written and approved, we were just starting to talk about what it meant that God was beyond, and unconfined by, gender.  Women’s ordination had not happened yet.  The civil rights movement was in process.  There was a lot we, as a church hadn’t yet lived through and processed.  

What we now know is that using masculine pronouns for God exclusively, like the BCP does, limits our vision of who God is and how God acts in the world.  It also can limit who we expect to represent God in the world.  It essentially puts God in a particular box, and while it’s not that any of the writers of the 1979 BCP had a limited understanding of God, or a faulty theology—it’s that our ways of hearing language and of talking about things has changed, in light of where we stand.  So our words about and to God need to change too.

We’re going to try this for a while, and see how it works.  This was approved for trial use at Convention, so it’s meant to be experimented with, tried out.  You may find that you hate the changes.  You may find you want more changes.  You may find you don’t recognize that they’re there at all.  

I encourage you to try it—take stock of how you feel right away saying the words, and hearing them.  What do you think of?  Does it make you think of something different?  As the weeks go on, do the prayers grow on you? Do you find yourself growing deeper into the words, praying deeper into them?  

Whatever you think and feel, the goal here is to talk about it.  Talk to me, talk to each other.  We will discuss how this feels in the fall, as we approach the end of our experiment.  

Pentecost is about the Holy Spirit being among us still, prompting us to find new words, to speak in new ways, to bridge the divides of time, culture and place, because the gospel of Christ cannot be limited even by our poor grasp of language.  With bravery, let us follow where the Spirit is leading us.