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Better vision

My brother got me hooked on a podcast recently called Behind the Bastards. (It uses, uh, not always suitable for work language. Clearly.). The premise of the podcast is one journalist who thoroughly researches various figures and ideas that contribute to our current morass of suffering, then tells that story to a Los Angeles comedian. Of course, the heavy hitters are covered–Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, but also more esoteric figures like the Guy who First Made a Multi-Level Marketing Scheme, and the origins of the John Birch Society.

What gets emphasized over and over is that human suffering is caused not by outlandishly evil people, but by a few average people making unethical choices, and a whole lot of other people not knowing quite how to stop them while remaining polite.

A reoccurring theme in the show is the idea of the power of positive thinking. This is a uniquely American heresy that reappears in a lot of places, from pyramid schemes to questionable wellness gurus, to the current Orange Individual in the White House. We’re a country founded by people who believed in the possibility of something better, so we really like the notion that believing is the key to success.

So, I wrote a sermon about that. And Key and Peele. As one does.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

October 6, 2019

Proper 22, Year C

Luke 17:5-10

There is a great comedy sketch from the tv show Key and Peele that comes to mind in light of today’s gospel.***  An NBA player has just made the tournament-winning shot across the court to win the title.  He’s beside himself with jubilation, and he is interviewed by the sportscaster in the locker room, post-game.  “How are you feeling? Must be feeling pretty great after that shot.  HOw’d you do it?” the sportscaster asks.  “OH!  I just believed in myself!  Just goes to show!  If you have faith and believe, you can do anything!”  Sports caster smiles, and encourages him. Player continues “You can do ANYTHING.  You just have to BELIEVE.  You can run faster than a train!  You can jump off buildings! You can fly!  Gravity will not affect you!” Sportscaster now looks a bit concerned—“well, but that’s a metaphor, and …”  Player chimes back in, still very pumped up: “NO!  It’s not a metaphor!  Literally!  You can do anything you believe in! Kids, ages 8 to 12!  You can run across busy highways!  You can turn yourself into a car with the power of YOUR MIND because you have not lost your childlike innocence!  (Sportscaster now looks positively panicked) Follow the sound of my voice, head for the nearest freeway and BELIEVE!!!”  

The screen then smash cuts to a very sober NBA player at a press conference “I would like to first apologize to all the families that lost children, because of my badly considered remarks.  I have done some research, and “literally” and metaphorically” did not mean what I thought they meant.  I apologize and will do better in future.”

Anyway.  The idea that you can do whatever you set your mind to, provided you believe in it hard enough.  Even if you don’t take it so far as deciding to flout gravity and leap off your roof—that’s a pretty prevalent idea in our world.  The power of positive thinking!  Think positive and good things will happen!  The law of attraction and that whole line of thought.  Marianne Williamson made a whole career for herself out of this idea—that faith and the power of thought can manifest our reality.  

The basic concept is that when we think positive thoughts, and control our minds enough, then we can more or less control what happens in our lives.  Happy people create happy things that happen to them.  And vice versa. 

The big draw of this is that it gives us an easy way to control the world.  I’m in control of what happens to me!  I just have to think the Right Things!  I can avoid loss and sorrow and pain if I just do all of this right—it’s all in my hands!  It’s a very reassuring thought.  The connection between the mind, spirit and body is real, and we can often see the effects, so believing that we can control the whole thing makes some sense.  

But, as with almost everything—it’s really way more complicated.  There are some ethical problems with this—namely that it obliquely implies that if something bad has happened to you, then you weren’t being positive enough.  And if you are sad, or struggling, then you should work harder to turn that around.  For people with mental illness, or who face tragedies outside of their control, encouragement to stay positive can feel like one more thing that they’re failing at.  

There are times when the way we talk about faith in God can sort of merge into this, too.  Think of the healing stories, where Jesus asks the person if they want to be healed, then says, “Your faith has made you well.”  Because of the proliferation of this mantra of positive thinking in our own culture, because of how prevalent it is to assume that if we just believe hard enough, we can do anything—it can be easy to hear Jesus saying “well, you believed hard enough, so I HAD to fix you!”  

But faith, as we talked about last week, is again, more complicated that that.  Think again of Jeremiah buying that field as he’s about to be carried into exile.  Our faith in God isn’t a mechanism of control, and it isn’t a way we can always get what we want.  In fact, it is mostly a way we learn to lean into not having control.  

We said last week that faith was holding onto God’s vision of the world as it is meant to be, even as we grapple with the world in all its current brokenness. But the emphasis in that is on God’s vision.  In our faith, we are meant to grow daily to see the world as God sees it, not so much as we see it.  So, our growing faith is basically a constant exercise in handing over control of our wants and needs to God, because God has wrapped up all we could ever want in God’s dream of the world.  

Our call to faith, then, is not a mechanism of control—it’s not a way to get God to perform miracles for us or manifest tricks on demand.  Rather, it’s a gradual learning to recognize that we are actually not in control of anything at all—instead, God is in control of everything, and with God, all things are possible—even our abundant life.  When we have faith, we can see mountains—but only because we finally recognize that it’s not our command doing it—it’s God, and God can routinely bring about those things that seem entirely improbable to us.  

When we grow in faith, when we learn to see our lives and all of creation as God sees it, with the same boundless love and care, then we will see mountains move and impossible things come to pass.  When we learn to trust the almighty care of God working through our lives to make the world whole again, then we will see things happen we never could have imagined—but not because we believed hard enough or thought hard enough or prayed well enough—just because that is the nature of God in Christ—to love all of creation back together, and when we have the eyes of faith, then we can see that happening in our own lives too.

Amen.

***Just go to the link and watch it. They do it way better than I explain it.

In which I fantasy-cast a teen drama with biblical prophets

I was very excited when I wrote this sermon. I had a week off preaching last week (aside from the funeral) and was so pumped to get back in the pulpit. I had the privilege of hearing the Very Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas speak, and so my brain was all aflutter with new ideas and thoughts (how we know things is constrained by white supremacy! British Anglicanism’s weird mythos is kinda racist! Deconstruct and decolonize the formative narratives!) And so I was excited to put that into a sermon.

Then I stood up to preach at 8am, and discovered that I HATED this sermon. Had I been asleep when I wrote it? Where were the transitions? Did the computer rebel again? What on EARTH possessed me to write this?

I spent a good 15 minutes between the services amending and amplifying the text, and decided, in the words of my preaching prof, to walk the dog proudly, even if I doubted its beauty.

It never fails, but that whenever I think “Wow, this sermon is HORRID”, that’s the one that parishioners volunteer that they adore. Either this means that my judgment is lacking (very possible) or it means that the Holy Spirit is going to do her thing regardless of my ability or lack thereof (also pretty evident.). And sure enough, several people told me they LOVED this sermon.

Me, I love the following: listening to wildly-smart theologians, imagining which teen archetypes the prophets would inhabit, and that the Holy Spirit always takes over when I’m doubtful.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

September 29, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 20, Year C

Jeremiah

Were a person to cast a high school drama with the biblical prophets, then Jeremiah would be the emo theater kid.  (Isaiah would be the student body president, Ezekiel would be the weird kid in the corner no one ever talked to but everyone sort of worried about, and Amos would be head of the AV club.)  But Jeremiah would definitely be the theater kid.  He’s not bad, and he’s really a great guy.  He just HAS AN AWFUL LOT OF FEELINGS SOMETIMES< YOU GUYS.  

In some circles, he’s known as the Weeping Prophet.  Jeremiah gives us both Lamentations—an extended poem about the destruction of Jerusalem in an acrostic (one section for each successive letter of the Hebrew Alphabet.  (See?  This guy would EAT UP the sadder parts of Rent.)  And he gives us the very emotive book of Jeremiah—where he is either very Angry ( see chapter 7, where Jeremiah is standing outside the Temple in Jerusalem, telling everyone they’re Doing Things Wrong) or Very Sad (see last week! Where the Babylonians are about to invade) or Very Both (where he accuses God of making him a prophet when he doesn’t want to be and “being to me as a deceitful brook whose waters dry up.” Jeremiah just really has A LOT OF FEELINGS.  And considering the fact that he’s tasked with shepherding the Israelites through the fall of the kingdom, the Babylonian Exile, and the destruction of everything they thought they understood—he’s entitled.  

But today, Jeremiah takes a bit of a detour, and I confess that as much as I adore Jeremiah (and I really do) that this is my favorite part of this book.  Jeremiah BUYS SOME LAND.  That’s it!  That’s what he does!  It’s so great! 

Now, that probably doesn’t seem so exciting, or important, or even enough to write a sermon on, but a few things to bear in mind.  This is the end of Jeremiah’s story.  This is the last we know of him.

Everyone by now has been carried off into exile, along with the whole rest of Israel.  He is sitting in jail, along with his deposed king.  The government is gone, the Temple is destroyed, Jerusalem has fallen, the Babylonian armies have surrounded the city and are laying siege.  Everything is ruined.  And Jeremiah, sitting in jail, takes this moment, to buy a plot of land in Jerusalem.  He seals the deed in a jar and buries it.  He tells his friend back home about it.  Does everything properly and by the book. And that’s basically the last thing we hear from Jeremiah, before he’s either carried off into exile, or killed.

Here’s the thing about the land purchase–it’s not an act of denial. Jeremiah knows exactly what’s happening because he’s spent the last 35 chapters warning anyone who would listen that the Babylonians are coming and they’re going to destroy the city.  Jeremiah knows he’s never going home.  His kids probably aren’t going home either.  They’re stuck in a foreign land, in exile.  But Jeremiah also knows that someday, this disaster will be over, the Exile will end, and the people will be able to go back to Jerusalem to resume worship and so he buys the land as a promise for that day.  He won’t live to see it, but he knows it will come, because he knows God has promised that it will. Jeremiah has faith.

I heard the Very Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas speak about where we are in terms of American history a few days ago, and she mentioned that one of the chief calls to institutions like the church is that of moral imagination.  We have to remind people that what currently is, is not how the world is meant to be.  And she used the image of the slaves who never gained their freedom, lived and died in bondage—and yet built a cultural world of dignity and resistance anyway.  Because they could envision what freedom would mean even in the midst of what their reality was. They had a Jeremiah-type faith.

Faith means holding on to the vision of the world to come, even as we grapple with the fact that our own world is manifestly not that.  It means living as if we are already in God’s kingdom, even as we are surrounded by things that are so broken.  So every day, we try to live with justice, mercy, and love, because we know that in God’s reign those things will be supreme, even if right now they don’t.  Each day, we treat one another, and especially the marginalized and the oppressed as beloved images of God with infinite worth, because that’s how we know the reign of God works—even if we know we live in a world that does not see everyone as worthwhile and precious.  But the more we enact the reign of God in our lives, the more it becomes real—both to us, as we grow used to living this way, and in the world.  

When we live with this sort of faith, efficacy doesn’t really matter.  Or, it matters less.  Faith in the reign of God doesn’t require us to obsess over what action we can take that will have the greatest impact, or whether what we do will yield measurable results.  When we focus on living with this moral imagination, with this daily sort of way of life, then we can safely leave it to God to bring about results.  We don’t have to worry about that part—we just worry about treating one another with dignity, working for justice, and buying our plot of land, as it were.  We live out our faith.  We buy the land for the day we know God is bringing.  We live out that reality now.  God takes care of the results.

We aren’t told what the rich man’s deal was, in the parable. But I wonder if what kept the rich man from helping his impoverished neighbor was this anxiety about results?  We aren’t told what his issue is—but we do know from context that he knows the Lazarus (he must!) and that the rich man has many regrets by the end of his life’s journey.  “Look,” says Abraham, “You had Moses and the prophets.  Let them listen to them.”  In other words, you knew the whole time what you had to do.  You knew what love and justice looked like–you knew what the reign of God was. You just had to do it.  And what’s interesting is even after death, the rich man never does it–he never speaks directly to Lazarus.  He orders him around—he tries to get Lazarus to wait on him (!!!) but even as he’s reaping the consequences of his actions, the rich man can’t figure it out.  I picture Abraham as being rather put out by the end of this.  Look, Lazarus is RIGHT HERE. You can start treating him with dignity right now! You can SEE HIM.   Don’t worry about whether learning his name will create a culture of dependency, or whether giving him some food will teach him to beg instead of work. Don’t worry about anything else—just do the thing because it’s the right thing to do.

Just buy the land.  God will bring forth the kingdom’s reign of justice and equity in its fullness, when all creation will be healed, and the whole earth will be redeemed and renewed—and whether we live to see it or not, we can participate in that by doing our part.  Living like that is right now.  

And though we may not see that day in its fullness, who knows but that our small actions of mercy, justice and love will plant the seeds for that time to come?

Amen

On Funerals, Patriarchs, and Ecumenism

On Saturday, we had a funeral for one of Ithaca’s major town figures. He shuffled off this mortal coil at the elegant age of 95, and spent his entire life serving his community. The church was packed.

Because his entire family was Roman Catholic, few of the people who came were Episcopalian, but because Jerry was, the family thought it was very important that he be given an Episcopal service.

I adore funerals because of things like this. Funerals (when they’re not traumatic) are one of the few chances we have to be public theologians; to speak into people’s lives when they would never usually darken the door of your church. And also–really, the BCP funeral liturgies are second to none. They are stellar.

I don’t usually post my sermon notes here, for a few reasons. First, I don’t usually write out my homilies. Much depends on how the congregation seems to be hearing me, and I tend to adjust on the fly.

Also, while I don’t preach the same sermon at every funeral–I do try to get to the same ideas at every funeral. That the way we loved this person spoke to us of how God loves us, that this love we know testifies to how life can endure beyond the grave, and how surely if we love someone so much, how much more does God love them, and will keep them in safety even now?

Funerals, after all, are a remembrance of the resurrection. Even at the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia–which is probably one of the most radical statements we make. That refusal to permit death–in any of its myriad forms–to have the last word, even on days when it seems most triumphant.

Here’s what I said–and I’m grateful that we got to proclaim resurrection in ways large and small on Saturday.

Surprised we’re here?  Let me explain. We at St. John’s had the honor to be Jerry’s spiritual home for years. 

Jerry married a RC woman, and agreed to raise the kids RC.  Because those were the rules (and still are).  But he just kept on coming to the Episcopal church.  First Grace, in Syracuse, then this one.  He’d drop the kids off at Immaculate Conception, down the street, then hop over here.  

Now, when his kids told me this story, I was FASCINATED, and I still am, frankly. Because I didn’t get the sense that Jerry’s decision to come on down the street to us implied judgment of the rest of his family’s Catholicism–indeed, he took them to church! And when he became unable to bring himself here, they brought him! No, I think something else was going on.

Every week.  For years.  No matter what.  New prayerbooks, old prayer books, new priests, people came and went.  Jerry would show up on Sunday, at 8am and come to mass.  Because he was an Episcopalian, and That was What You Did when you were Episcopalian.

In politics, he oversaw the Tompkins County Republican Party, and worked with Connie Cook (another parishioner of blessed memory).  Til his dying day, he was a Republican, win, lose, or draw, because again—that was what you did, because that was Who You Were.

Even as the decades wore on, and the social landscape changed around him: party politics shifted, priests came and went, trends rose and fell, Jerry never strayed from a clear-sighted notion of who he was, and what he was loyal to.  It didn’t matter what anyone else did, or what the entire rest of his party shifted to (I don’t have to remind you that a Republican Party that runs Connie Cook is a far cry from the Republican Party of today.)

What stands out to me in these stories is a person who had a particular sort of faith. Not faith in a fad or another person, or a ideology, but the certain sort of stalwart faith in what was right, and therefore, what he himself was called to do. Everyone else could do what they would, and that was fine, but he was going to do as he was called.

And I think that was the source of his eternal optimism–I wonder if that was the wellspring of the hope he found in his life, the force that made him the coach who would say when their sports team would lose or win!—well, we’ll get them next time.  And when the Republican Party faced defeat after defeat–we’ll figure it out next year. Hope was always on the horizon, because you just had to be the person you were created to be.

Today, we celebrate Jerry’s life, and all the ways in which he gifted this world while he was here.  I think most of his gift of steadfast faith—-in his quiet, resolute way of being that always found hope around the corner.  That sort of quiet steadfastness speaks deeply of God, I think.  The God who consistently meets us where we are, and bears with us, in ways large and small, and promises us that a new, brighter day is just over the horizon. Once we listen to that still small voice that urges us on, that sees in us the people that God created us to be.  

I think Jerry, in his loyalty and his faith, showed us a glimpse of the love of God in how he lived his life.  And I know that the Christ he followed so faithfully now welcomes him home as a beloved and long-awaited child.  

Don’t Blame the Sheep

The usual approach to the one lost sheep/the one lost coin is that the lost sheep is the metaphorical sinner who repents, and the shepherd who chases it is Jesus. Likewise the coin is the sinner, the woman, Jesus. (That last one isn’t preached much, though.)

However, I guess I’ve been reading too much AJ Levine, because when I read the stories this time, that just didn’t click for me. Sheep don’t just wander off; the shepherd’s ONE JOB is to make sure the sheep don’t do that. Similarly, it’s not like coins have all that much agency.

Given the rise of “Cancel-Culture” and the #metoo movement, a lot of conversation today hinges on wrongdoing, and how we as a culture address sin, repentance and forgiveness. Do we allow someone back into public life if they express appropriate remorse? What does that look like? What else should be required? Should they just go away forever if their sin was bad enough? Is the passage of time, alone, enough to allow them back into positions of power, or public life? (Think of the repeated “That was twenty years ago!” excuse that gets trotted out for people like Weinstein, Kavanaugh, etc.)

This was my stab at what probably could be a whole discourse on why Christian theology on forgiveness needs to be much, much deeper and more serious, especially now.

But, it’s a sermon, and those pews are only so comfortable.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

September 15, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 19, Year C

Luke 15:1-10

  • These gospel stories are very familiar.  And their interpretations are likewise familiar.
  • 99 sheep, one gets lost, shepherd goes to find the one lost sheep.  Poor lost, little sheep, wandering away.  Widow has one coin, it gets lost, so she goes all out to find it, then rejoices greatly when she finds it,
  • The notion of the one lost sheep is really familiar.  
  • Of course this is a parable, so whatever is familiar is probably wrong, because that’s the point of parables.
  • Amy-Jill Levine points out that no smart shepherd is going to leave 99 sheep to fend for themselves.  
  • But also?  Let’s work within Luke’s framing for a second.
    • Why do we assume that the sheep-person needs to repent?  
    • What was the shepherd doing that he lost a sheep?
    • And how was the widow so careless that she misplaced her ONE coin.  (Lady, you had ONE job.)
    • perhaps these stories are not about the sad little lost sheep in need of repentance, but the Shepherd, and the widow.  
    • Perhaps these stories are about what repentance and amendment of life look like in practice.
  • because forgiveness, repentence—these are sticky subjects.  We can struggle with them.
  • There’s a common sort of idea that forgiveness, when granted, is like a magic spell.  It erases the wrongdoing of the past entirely, so when you forgive someone, it means you’ve hit the reset button.  Everything goes back as it was.
  • That’s not forgiveness, that’s time travel.  
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean adopting an attitude of willful denial—it means finding a way to reconstruct something new to move into greater wholeness.  
  • And there are two pieces of that: First, you have to RE-Construct what was broken.  Then, you have to Move to Greater Wholeness.
  • if you have done something you realize is wrong, something you realize has hurt someone or many someones, then you need to make amends for that.  
  • You need to fix that which has been broken in some why.  
  • The shepherd here heads out and turns over every rock and stone to find that one missing sheep that he let wander off some how.
  • The widow burns all her oil in order to find her one coin that she lost.  
  • Finding forgiveness means you have to make amends—and there are times when it may not be possible to make amends to the person you have injured.  But you can make amends going forward.  For those of us who live as beneficiaries of white privilege, whose families achieved wealth and stability through the forced labor of those we enslaved, we have a moral obligation to make amends for that sin going forward.  I cannot go back in time and free my ancestors’ slaves.  I can consider that legacy, vote wisely, and make reparations now.  
  • But you need to make amends somehow.  Do something that acknowledges and takes steps to repair the brokenness.
  • And—move to greater wholeness.  
  • This varies from situation to situation.  Sometimes that means the relationship can be restored, after a fashion.  Sometimes it means the relationship is transformed and is more distant, because that will enable more to health.  Sometimes, finding forgiveness means that the relationship that was, has to die, so that everyone can find new life.  
  • But the goal of forgiveness, is to enable everyone to move to the wholeness Christ intends for us: for the person who did wrong not to be forever trapped by it, and for the wronged person not to be consumed by it either.  
  • Moving into wholeness, making amends, enables that to happen.  But when we exchange forgiveness for a shallow idea of resetting, or remaining trapped where we are, where we “just have to let it go” then we don’t find wholeness or a life more abundant.  
  • The truth is, sin is inevitable.  We all do it.  We all mess up ALL THE TIME.  
  • Even when we try not to, we sin.  We create brokenness in this world.  
  • But Christ assures us that our brokenness is not the end of the world (literally) by empowering us to make amends and to move forward.  
  • We can’t endlessly beat ourselves up when we fall short—we sin, because we’re human.  But we can seek forgiveness, we can chase after the new life Christ promises us.  
  • Because when we do that, we can escape the cycle of guilt, shame, and denial that shallow reset-forgiveness promises.  
  • Christ wants for us the deep joy of being human—the deep joy of a baby learning to walk, and not afraid to fall down, because getting up and trying again is an expected part of the process.  
  • That’s us—that’s how we do it.  And when we do, Jesus is right there, waiting to catch our hands, and help us take our next steps forward.

Amen. 

And then that. Plus mugs

So, about two weeks ago, my husband was walking home from work and got hit a tad bit by a car.

I realize this sounds very traumatic and awful, and really, it was not great at all–however, now that we are on the other side of a stitched-up ear, and an ankle surgery, things are calming down. All told, we were extremely lucky.***

However, that whole Spouse-Gets-Hit-By-Car thing did put a crimp in my sermons for a minute. I wrote the last two in bullet-point form because I thought to myself “There’s no way that I can make actual, thought out sentences at present.”

Then, uh….many complete sentences resulted.

Please enjoy.

***Protip: Do not get hit by a car. Also, do not hit a person with your car. Basics, mes amis.

***Also, I should add: everyone has been amazing and incredibly supportive. The congregation, the bishop, the diocesan staff–everyone. If you have to deal with something like this, then I’d advise you to clone all my people, and borrow them before you do.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

Sept 8, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 18

Luke 14, Philemon

  • A few months ago, I discovered a subgenre of Etsy shops that I hadn’t known existed.  Etsy, of course, is a huge website where you can find basically everything handmade for sale.  
  • So I was poking around through the assorted “Inspirational Sayings” section—the section where you can find the same 5 Bible verses in brush-script printed on mugs, journals, wall hangings, t-shirts, wine glasses, etc.  Stuff like “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord” from Jeremiah, or “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” in Philippians, or some part of Proverbs 31, about the perfect woman, or just “Believe!” or “Faith!” or “Hope!” That sort of stuff.
  • I’m not knocking this—there have been times in my life when I’ve been struggling, and I found that keeping a verse that I found meaningful around was just what I needed.  That being said, Christianity is a LOT more than writing “believe!” on a coffee mug.  And sometimes this stuff strays into the performative arena.  
  • When, lo and behold, I came across a Qu’ranic verse in the exact same brush script lettering!  
  • I have rarely been more excited.  YES.  Apparently, this desire to condense an entire vast religious tradition down into the Pumpkin-Spice Latte-version of signifiers is universal!
  • So, if you want, you too can buy a mug that says “Fiqr, coffee, then the day”—a reference to early morning prayer.  Or a wall hanging that reminds you that Allah is surely with the patient, or to say Thanks be to God in all things.  (seriously, it’s so great.)
  • My point here is that the tendency to shrink down our religious traditions to nice, safe packages that don’t demand too much of us is pretty across the board.  
  • And in that context— This gospel is a bit off message?  It probably won’t be on a mug any time soon.  “Hate your father and mother” surrounded by flowers.  
  • Because a lot of popular Christianity, the high-selling, Hallmark, brush script kind, tends to rely on the assumption that Christianity is family-friendly!  Not, family-hating, I guess.
  • Remember, Jesus here has just left his fancy dinner with the Pharisees, that we saw last week.
  • So, part of what he is saying is to reset expectations for the folks in the crowd who have only been with him since he has enjoyed such rich friends.  “no—this way of life isn’t the best way to win friends and influence people.” 
  • But it’s also a very blunt statement of priorities.  The term translated as “hate” here doesn’t quite have the feelings-heavy connotation we hear in English.  Jesus isn’t quite asking his followers to become furious with their families.
  • The other place this verb is used is when he points out that you can’t serve two masters—you either love one and hate the other, or vice versa.  So you can’t serve God and money.  
  • The connotation here is one of priorities, of where your first loyalty lies.  You cannot have your family ties as your priority over God and be a disciple of Jesus.
  • How’s THAT for family values?  
  • To be a disciple of Jesus means to have that come first.  To order the entirety of your life according to the reign of God.  
    • and the reason Jesus is reminding people to count the cost is because frankly, that’s a lot!  
    • it’s uncomfortable, and weird, and people yell at you sometimes.
    • Occasionally, you end up, like the disciples, wandering about in the wilderness following a homeless rabbi for three years instead of inheriting the family fishing business
    • Sometimes you get a very heavy guilt-trip in letter form from Paul telling you to free your slave Onesimus, whom you just located again after he ran off.
    • Sometimes you open a laundry in your church basement.  
    • Weird stuff happens, is my point.
  • and the breadth of that cannot be explained or captured in a mug slogan.
  • In fact, those mug slogans are deceptive.  Because when Jeremiah says “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to hurt you” God is saying that as the Israelites are being led into exile in Babylon.  It’s a note of comfort, but it’s also saying “Don’t worry—your descendants will be fine.  You should get comfortable however.”
  • Philippians, when Paul talks about getting strength in Christ, he’s writing from prison.  Christ is giving him strength to bear up under imprisonment for preaching the gospel.  
  • And Proverbs?  That’s literally designed to be a trite piece of wisdom.  It’s from a tradition where young men would learn to be wise by copying pithy sayings.  It was intentionally a pithy saying.
  • Jesus informing us that we need to hate our families, and consider well how much this will cost may worry us, but it’s just that Jesus doesn’t want us to settle for a pat, slogan sort of faith.
  • Christ invites us into a faith that will transform every part of our lives, including the relationships we have with our nearest and dearest.  Christ offers us not worn-out sayings that fall short, but an ongoing, transformative way of life that deepens and changes as we grow, that keeps up with us as we face the trials of life.
  • So, don’t hate your family and don’t put your faith in a mug.  Instead, concentrate on the God who can fill your whole world with new abundant life.  That is what will save us.

Amen. 

Bedbugs and fancy parties

This sermon was inspired by two things, or rather two people: Bret Stephens and Rev. Dr. Mitzi Smith. (Aside from both being beloved children of God, there’s not a lot of overlap on their respective Venn diagrams.).

This week, Bret Stephens threw an unholy temper tantrum because a random GW professor compared the bedbug infestation in the NY Times to him, metaphorically. Stephens emailed the guy personally, demanding an apology, and emailed the guy’s boss, demanding he be fired. The power analysis here will make your head spin: nationally syndicated NYT opinion columnist, vs guy with 100 Twitter followers, who didn’t even tag Stephens in the tweet.***

So I was pondering that, as I read Prof. Smith’s commentary on this week’s gospel, where she does a power analysis that I hadn’t considered. Jesus, when he goes to the Pharisee’s house for dinner, is invited because he is considered a VIP–the first-century equivalent of a NYT op-ed columnist. He’s impressive! He has Thoughts! His opinions should be listened to! And he basically pulls a reverse-Bret Stephens.

Here’s what I said.

***And not for nothing, but if I took the time to track down and threaten everyone who ever yelled at me online, I wouldn’t have time to sleep. Or eat. Much less do my actual job. Mr. Stephens, have you considered a more fruitful hobby? I understand the Nintendo Switch is a lovely gaming console! Invest, good sir!!

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

September 1, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 17

Luke

The internet is a great place to find people acting badly.  It’s like an archive of horrible human behavior.  In times past, I suppose that petty behavior went largely unremarked upon—now there are entire websites devoted to People Acting Badly in Restaurants, or People Being Mean to Retail Workers, or Entitled Interactions that Happen on CraigsList.

I used to work retail, when I was in high school, and college.  I survived working at a discount department store, even working returns on the day after Christmas.  I survived working at a dry cleaners.  People, when they so desire, can be horrendous.  I had a woman cordially threaten me that if I personally failed to launder her t-shirts and blue jeans to her specifications, then she would hunt me and my first-born down with dogs.  Sadly, this was pre-internet, so I could not share this experience widely.  

This sense of entitlement—that we are Special People, thus entitled to Particular Things, often results in some really extraordinary behavior.  The sort of behavior that ends up on viral videos.  And Jesus, as usual, has some things to say about it.

In this gospel story, Jesus is going for dinner at the house of a Pharisee.  Remember, the Pharisees are a whole political-religious party.  And Jesus had a lot in common with them.  So while Jesus was just in an argument with them last week, at other times, he’s hanging out with them, and they are helping each other.  It’s a complicated relationship.  

So here, he’s at their house for dinner, and he’s decided to use the opportunity to do some teaching.  (…this is probably why he isn’t invited to many dinner parties.  it’s like going to a dinner party with a psychiatrist and having them offer analysis of all the guests.)  

Jesus points out that figuring out the order for seating is very awkward.  At formal dinner parties back then, like in many other cultures, people sat in particular places based on how important they were.  (We still have remnants of this. Think about the convention of the father sitting at the head of the table and the mother at the foot.)  

If you’re smart, says Jesus, you’ll sit as low as you can manage, so the host will correct you, and move you up higher.  That won’t be embarrassing at all—whereas if you decide your seat should be up higher, and the host has to move you lower, it will be excruciating.  

Likewise, when you throw a party, only invite people who absolutely cannot invite you in return. Invite the poor, the disabled, the excluded—in other words, Invite only people who cannot do you any networking favors, who can give you no social capital.  That is what makes a solid dinner party, says Jesus.  

Remember where Jesus is standing as he’s saying this.  There’s a slight edge in this, given where he is.  He himself is at a dinner party, thrown by An Important Person.  So Jesus essentially is informing his host—hey, you’re doing parties wrong!  You thought you could invite me and get something out of it, but really, you should have invited poor people!  

It might be counterintuitive, but Jesus here is in a position of power.  As Prof Mitzi Smith observes, Jesus to this point, has been recognized as having some authority.  He heals, he teaches, he has been consulted on various matters.  He is popular with the crowds—he has been invited to this important person’s house because of his reputation as a rabbi and holy man (also, there’s what we know about him being the Son of God.) But the Pharisee and the others at this party have given him a measure of power.

And he chooses to spend it here on behalf of upending their social hierarchy.  He uses it on behalf of those not at the party.  It’s a subtle turn that’s instructive.  

Because what would have happened had Jesus shown up to the fancy party, be flattered he was asked by the important people, and begin to feel that such flattery was his due?  Of course—who doesn’t like fancy dinners!  Do that for long enough and you begin to maybe feel entitled….But by turning the tables on his hosts—politely!  gracefully!—Jesus avoids that path, and advocates for those without what he has been given.

Entitlement assumes a hierarchy of people.  I should get this because I am better than you, so you should give it to me.  What Jesus calls us to is to recognize that we aren’t entitled to anything.  Both because the hierarchies that enforce entitlement don’t exist in God’s sight, and because what we have: the momentary power we might have, the wealth, the prestige, the privileges, all of it, have been given to us only so that we can use them to bless others.  

Because we are all children of God, each and every one of us, we are all deserving of basic respect, dignity, and the ability to flourish.  But we don’t deserve that at the expense of another child of God, because they deserve it too—just as much as we do.  Entitlement insists that my needs supercede yours.  Jesus reminds us that whatever I have, is to be used for our benefit, together, as equal images of the divine.

 That change in our frame of reference can make a big difference in how we approach the world around us.  Now, all we have, all that we do, is an opportunity to build up the world, and the people around us. Running to get coffee?  How can you take this opportunity to make the barista’s day a bit better?  Stopping for groceries?  What can you do to ensure the people you encounter and the workers you deal with are better off for having encountered you?  

All we have in this life, and indeed, our life itself, has been given to us. Poured into our hands like a free gift.  Christ asks us to use everything we have to build up each other, and this world, and to trust that others will build us up as well.  Because we aren’t entitled to this life—God graciously gives us life, and so much more.  And it is our great adventure to join with God in using all we have been given to continue the great work of God’s redemption of the world.

Amen.

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