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Palm Sunday

I heard someone (I think it was Dr. Amy- Jill Levine) say years ago, that we like to think that the Holy Week liturgies speak for themselves, but they don’t. They speak loudly, but unless you consciously unpack what they say, and what people hear, you run the serious risk of adding another reinforcing layer of the culturally-Christian-miasma that we all swim in as Americans right now, instead of pointing out how our liturgies and stories subvert it.

Palm Sunday is, for me, the touchiest. On a personal note, the day has immense meaning for me. On a cultural, historical note, the day where Christian communities gather to tell and act out the Passion story has scary echoes in a world where white supremacist terrorism is emboldened yet again. If we don’t take pains to lift up how subversive these stories are, other voices will step in, and interpret them for us.

So here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 14, 2019

Palm Sunday, Year C

Luke

And here we have it—the foundational story.  In the gospel of Mark, the description of the last week of Jesus’ life takes up easily half of the gospel.  In Luke, it’s less, but the impact is no less.  In the course of our liturgical year, everything has been leading towards this—all of Lent, the slow march after Christmas, we have turned our faces towards Jerusalem along with Jesus.  

At the beginning of this service, we channel the triumphant entry as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem.  We wave palms, and shout Hosanna to the highest heaven!  Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  We reenact what the crowd did as Jesus rode into the holy city on a donkey, praising him, and praising God, who sends salvation.  

But the giddiness wears off quickly, and by the time we get to the Gospel reading of the passion narrative, we hear where the week ends up.  The palms are put away; the shouts are silenced, and Jesus is arrested, betrayed, and killed by the powers that be.

There’s a common enough way to hear this Palm Sunday story—that is to hear it as a story of the crowd.  It’s the crowd’s fault, we think, this inconstant crowd that first celebrates Jesus as he rides into town, and then turns on him at the trial before Pilate.  How faithless!, we are told.  How fickle they were!  We must not be like the crowd of Jerusalem!  

The fickleness of the human heart is an important failing to reflect on, to be sure.  However, as it is played out in the Passion narrative, it can be a dangerous one to dwell on overmuch. Historically, the story of the Passion has specifically been used to stir up antiJewish hatred.  People would watch passion plays in the middle ages, then so frequently go out and commit acts of violence against their Jewish neighbors that they began to be banned as early as the mid 14th century.  Even today, in our own time, In Kansas City, a few years ago, a man attacked the Jewish Community Center on Palm Sunday afternoon.  This story, and the way we as Christians tell it, has baggage.  This story has been used to damage and hurt, rather than to lift up and heal.  So we must be conscious and careful.

In point of fact, John Dominic Crossan argues that our assumptions about the crowd may be faulty.  He points out that the Passover was a well-known festival with political overtones, and Pilate was a notorious tyrant.  We know that the Romans always upped security around the high holy days in Jerusalem anyway.  And Passover was particularly sensitive—if you’re Pilate, you do not want mass gatherings of zealous faithful, recalling how God delivered them that time from foreign oppression.  They might get rebellious ideas.  

So the likelihood that Pilate would have allowed a mass gathering to greet Jesus as he entered the city at the start of Passover is quite small.  The word translated “crowd” here just signifies “more than two.”  In art, in our minds, we think of this scene as being a popular demonstration—but more likely, if they wanted to avoid immediate arrest, it was a small gathering of friends.

Likewise, when Jesus goes before Pilate, and the crowd shouts for his crucifixion—again, it’s the same Greek word.  We’re looking at any gathering larger than two people here.  And again, Pilate, notorious grump, is not going to allow any gathering of any size anywhere near his fortress.  Pilate—it’s worth noting—was such a despot that Rome actually had enough of him and recalled him in 36CE.  THAT’s how mean and terrible he was.  Even the Empire thought he needed to cool his jets a bit.

All of which is to say—it’s not the same crowd.  It’s not like the general inhabitants of Jerusalem adored Jesus one moment, and despised him the next.  Instead, what we are left with is a much more complicated situation.

We are left with collaborating religious leaders who want to save their own power.  Oppressive rulers who just care about order—but not what makes for peace, wholeness, or tranquility.  And a system that churns up the children of God as it runs along.  

The injustice that culminates in the crucifixion of Jesus is easier to swallow if it can be neatly pinned on one person, or one discreet group of people.  It was Pilate’s fault! It was Caiaphas’ fault! It was the crowd, it was Judas, it was the Romans, it was the soldiers, it was the one guy who always looked kinda suspicious.

Truth is, though, the sin that nailed Christ to the cross can’t be pinned to one person or group.  The sin that put Christ on the cross was the result of entire systems that everyone contributed to.  Entire ways of being that kept the world spinning, yet relied on daily injustice to keep going.  Systems that, in the words of Abraham Heschel, no one is responsible for, but where everyone is guilty.  To preserve the status quo, to preserve the world as it was, to preserve the lives that everyone knew and enjoyed—Jesus was hung on a cross.  Because of the sin of the entire world.  

Christ came into the world preaching the reign of God—a reign that fundamentally destablized everything.  Such a reign as he preached would have altered everything, every person’s life.  To make the last, first would have changed so much—the world can not allow it.  

The sin that condemns Jesus on that day so long ago still haunts us.  We live in a broken world that humanity has shattered over generations, and now the brokenness extends past what we ourselves can fix.  The brokenness is in the air we breathe, the assumptions we make, the water we swim in.  We live in Palm Sunday day in and day out.

Yet this is not where God leaves us.  God does not leave us condemned to the wreckage we make of God’s creation.  Even after our sin tries its best, Easter shows us that nothing can permanently stop God and God’s redemption.  Out of the darkness of this present hour, God’s love will come blazing forth ever more radiant.  We may be standing in Holy Week, but if we just wait in faith, God will bring us into Easter’s triumph.

Amen.


Bible Misquote Show

I have a very clear memory of the sermons I heard as a child. Though–sadly, not what amazing theology they included.

What I remember is the illustrations. I have a crystal-clear memory of being about 9 years old and hearing a sermon about….something, and the associate priest talking about how when baby turtles were hatched, they had to make it all the way across the beach, to the sea, and MOST OF THEM DIED. This factoid so horrified me that I couldn’t listen to the rest of the sermon (I’m sure it had a great point, and was very enlightening.) All I could think of was the poor baby turtles being eaten by evil seagulls or something. Like Apocalypse Now on the Beach.

I say this because I am fairly certain I went into baby-turtle-territory in this particular sermon with my idea** that we should start a Bible Misquote Awards Show. We should give awards for the most flagrant misquote! The most self-serving out-of-context proof-texting! The most cringeworthy ignoring of irony!***

However, we SHOULD. Because seriously, people misquote “the poor will be with you always” with the bravado of a frat guy just discovering the Big Lebowski.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 7, 2019

Lent 5, Year C

John 12

If they gave out awards for Bible Verses most Taken out of Context, first of all, I would definitely watch that show.  You could have categories like “Most Inappropriate Bible Verse to Quote on a Vision Board”.  “Most Awkward Verse to Base a Self-Help Book on”, “Verse that Definitely does not justify the discrimination you think it does” and “Odd Proverb that Just Isn’t Quoted Enough”. 

Someone should do this, is my point.

But one of the heavy hitters, I would argue, at least in the past thirty or so years in this country, would have to be a verse from this gospel.  “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”

Every so often, a politician or other famous person will quote this line.  In 2017, a Kansas congressman said that he was in favor of massive cuts to Medicaid, because Jesus said we would always have poor people, and this reflected his belief that some people—he called them Medicaid people—just didn’t want to be healthy, or to be helped, so why bother?  

While I will stipulate that Jesus, in this context, is not discussing the role of the federal government in poverty prevention, I also wish to state that Jesus is NOT saying that there is no point in helping the poor.  Hence, why this verse is a contender for the Most MisInterpreted.  

First off, we know this because the writer of John kind of says so himself.  The objection to Mary’s actions come from Judas Iscariot, who the narrator immediately tells us is not trustworthy, and in this case, is lying.  He doesn’t care about the poor—he just wants to steal more money.  

But also, we know because Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy—something everyone in the room would have known.  And the Deuteronomy verse he is quoting says, “SINCE there will always be poor among you, therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are in need.”  

And if that wasn’t enough—there’s the entire context of why this is happening in the first place, so let’s backtrack a minute.

So, in the Fourth Gospel, the last major action that happens before the entrance into Jerusalem is the raising of Lazarus.  In John’s gospel—Lazarus has just died, and Jesus has just raised him back to life.  Now, Jesus is staying over at Mary and Martha’s house the night before he triumphantly enters Jerusalem, because Bethany is just outside the city walls.  (Today, Bethany is called in Arabic, al-Lazariyah, in honor of this family.) Anyway. 

That’s what’s just happened.  Lazarus, who now is reclining at dinner with everyone else, was just DEAD, and Jesus raised him.  So the emotions at play here make a lot more sense, right?  Mary is overcome with gratitude because she has her brother back.  She takes expensive nard and anoints Jesus’ feet with it.  Nard was routinely used to anoint the bodies of loved ones who had died.  Because the burial practice of the time was to use above-ground tombs, smells were a real concern.  To put it delicately.  It is likely this is what she had left over from her brother’s burial, and in an overflow of emotion, she offers it to Jesus, who recognizes a deeper meaning at work. 

Judas, meanwhile, is irked.  He is outside of the emotional moment here. 

And there are many reasons why—the writer’s statement that he was a thief may or may not be true.  There definitely were reasons that the writer needed to depict Judas as a clearly evil guy, given what he ends up doing.  But it’s also worth noting that in a straightforward way, he’s not…wrong, exactly?  I suppose Mary could have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor.  

But Judas, like the other disciples, is really good at missing the point, and that’s what he does here.  Sure, she COULD have done that.  But that’s not really what’s called for in this particular moment.  While God always commands us to be open-handed and generous to the poor, Jesus also points out that Mary’s act is one of generosity towards him, in particular…and that’s ok, too.  (If for no other reason than Jesus too is poor.  Remember, he is currently homeless, and relying on the kindness of two unmarried women and their recently-dead brother.) 

It’s striking that at a moment right before he faces betrayal, violence, and death, Jesus accepts gratitude and love from his friends.  He relaxes at a dinner cooked by Martha, he chats with Lazarus, and he receives Mary’s gratitude.  Perhaps part of what Judas is struggling with here is that Judas doesn’t know how to conceptualize Jesus—Son of God!—accepting help and comfort from others.  

After all, shouldn’t the Savior of the world be set on helping others?  Isn’t that the moral of the world?  Help others, and meanwhile, you should be able to stand on your own two feet, and pull yourself up via your sandal-straps.  What business does Jesus have accepting anything from his friends?

And yet—that’s precisely what Jesus does.  Even the Incarnate God pauses, for a moment, before the final act of his life, to enjoy time with his friends, and the people who love him best, to relax and renew.  Because no one can stand on their own, not even the Christ.  

We see glimpses of the value of that time through Holy Week, as Jesus mimics Mary’s action of washing his feet with his disciples, and as he mimics Martha’s actions at the Last Supper by feeding them.  What has been given to him, he now knows how to give to others, and teaches them to give on to the world.   

God calls us into community, so that we can recall that we are not alone.  So that we do not have to stand alone against the challenges of the world.  The communities we are placed in are meant to serve as reflections of God’s ever-present love and care for us, as we bear one another’s burdens, comfort one another, cheer one another, and support one another.  We can provide, in material terms, the support we know that God offers us every day.

The poor will always be with us—both those who are materially poor and spiritually struggling— and so will the love of God.  But it is up to us to connect those two things.  It is up to us to support one another who travel with us in this journey, and to give to others what has been poured into our hands.  As we build communities where God’s love and blessings are shared abundantly, 

**My idea is brilliant. It’s a brilliant idea. If you would like to hear my actual pitch for this, please email me. I am taking meetings.

*** Currently, the world-record holder for Most Cringeworthy Ignoring of Irony by Person Quoting the Bible is Gov. Mike Huckabee, who suggested that God was in favor of capital punishment, because Jesus was crucified. Please clap for the governor, and his impressive achievement in cognitive dissonance.

Prodigal Elder Brother

So remember that time that I posted my first Lent sermon, then went quiet til after Easter? Ah, memories!

It has been quite the Lent around these parts. The husband and I bought a house in town, thus staring down all manner of Millennial stereotypes. The parish had a delightful Lenten series on the Eucharist. (Much of which is on our FB page.) And, as tis my rector-perogative, I got my lay preacher and my deacon to preach for Lent 2 and 3. (Mwahaha.)

All that established, here is my Lent 4 sermon on the Prodigal Son, which focuses neither on the Prodigal-ness nor the younger Son ness. Please discuss.

Rev, Megan L. Castellan

March 31, 2019

Lent 4. Year C

Luke 15. Prodigal, Angry Son

In the adult forum during Lent, Deacon Pat has been leading us in a book study of Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories of Jesus—a book on the parables.  Now, Dr. Levine is one of the foremost experts on New Testament studies writing today, and she also is an Orthodox Jew. So she combines both the insight from her religious tradition, with the knowledge from her academic expertise in her writing, and it makes for a very enlightening experience.

This is one of the parables she addresses in her book. She pairs it with the parable of the lost sheep, and the parable of the lost coin, also in Luke—pointing out how Luke has a particular concern for things that are lost, then found.  But also pointing out how these parables appear simple on the surface, but like all parables, once you dig deeper they confuse and turn the hearer around.

In the case of the lost sheep, the shepherd has one hundred sheep, loses one, and abandons the others to look for it in the wilderness.  That’s….not how a good shepherd does anything.  That’s how you end up with 100 lost sheep, not just one.  And 100 sheep is a huge flock—signifying a very rich owner.  One might be forgiven for not noticing that one had gone missing, and yet here is this shepherd chasing the one lost.  The lost coin story is similar.  The widow, who loses a silver coin, already had two, which would have made her very wealthy.  She immediately lights lamps and sweeps her whole house, then throws a party when she finds the one coin—which again, signifies great wealth, and the ability, the privilege  to casually misplace money in the first place.  

And in this category, Dr. Levine places the familiar prodigal son story, long memorialized in art, and song, and story.   The younger son approaches his father, and demands his share of the property.  Now that’s unusual, maybe, but the father doesn’t appear to object—giving us the first signal that this father makes some wacky parenting choices.  “Sure, kid! Take half my stuff and leave me!” A father who is able to support the rest of the family on half his lands and flocks is, like the earlier shepherd and widow, clearly a man of means.  There is abundance at work here. 

The younger son departs, heads off to a distant land, and spends all the money, doing we-aren’t-told-exactly-what, but we can guess.  Disreputable stuff.  Buying Beanie Babies, or trading cards, thinking they’ll appreciate, at the very least.  And when a famine hits, the younger son realizes his predicament, and is stuck.

It’s worth pointing out here that so far, this story of Jesus’ is about on track with other Hebrew bible narratives.  Think of Jacob and Esau—Esau being the good, older brother, and Jacob being the screw-up, who nevertheless, gets the blessing and the promise from his father through trickery.  Scripture is full of younger siblings who make bad choices, and whose parents still love them, and older siblings who do the right thing.  Scripture, as it happens, has a pretty good bead on human family dynamics.

So when the younger son decides to return, and the father welcomes him home, we are still well-within the scope of Scripture so far.  That’s really not the shock of the parable.  Granted, the father is still making some questionable decisions, (running? A big party?) but what loving father would not welcome a long-lost returning son like this?

No, the hinge of the story is the elder son, and his reaction.  Remember, Jesus is telling this story, according to Luke, to deal with the Pharisees and the scribes who don’t think he should be hanging out with tax collectors and sinners.  They are having a reaction to younger sons everywhere.  

And when this good, dutiful elder son realizes that his sibling has returned, he has a similar reaction.  He becomes angry, resentful, and you can hear his very recognizable emotion flying off the text.  All this time I’ve worked for you and you’ve never given me so much as a goat for a party with my friends, but once this son OF YOURS turns up (not brother any more, but son OF YOURS) you kill the fatted calf for HIM!  

Perhaps the reason this story is so ever-present with us is how immediately human these emotions are.  Who among us has never witnessed a reaction like this?  Or had one ourselves?  The older son has done everything he thought he had to, and now, he is coming to grips with the fact that his sibling has done none of it, and is receiving the same.  He’s jealous, he’s anxious, he’s angry, he’s so many things.  Where does he fit, now that the favorite has returned?

Yet the father reassures him, “Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate because your brother was lost, and is found.  Was dead, and has come back to life.”  You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  On one hand, it’s a very practical reassurance that the elder son’s inheritance is intact.  On another level, it’s a reassurance that no amount of work, no amount of returning sons will diminish the father’s love for his elder son either.  Both sons are beloved of their father.  Both sons are valued and cherished.  The father has more than enough for both of them—and yet, in their own ways, both sons remove themselves from the father’s care. And we are left at the end of the story, not knowing the elder son’s response.  Does he finally go into the party?  Or does he remain recalcitrant and stuck, standing outside?

What is it that keeps the elder son outside the celebration?  Does he not trust his father’s love for him?  Is his jealousy getting the better of him? What is the problem here?  Because the problem of the younger son was somewhat easily solved—he made diagnosable, bad choices, then he repented, and his father forgave him.  But here the elder son has seemingly never left, yet in the end, stands outside of the celebration.  Not because he isn’t invited, but because of himself.

I read this story once in a bible study with young adults in Arizona.  One young man was Navajo, and began crying as we read the text.  He said that it forcibly reminded him of one of his own family members, who had left home and cut ties with his own family.  In his culture, this amounted to a death, a loss of identity.  Your tribe and your family ties determined who you were—without them, you did not exist.  So, in a real way, within the similarly structured culture of the time, the younger son literally strips off his identity when he leaves home.  Hence, the text says “he came to himself” and realized he wanted to come home.  

The story can be read as a reconstruction of identity—for both sons, the father gives them their identity back, as beloved and cherished children, outside of what they have done or not done.  He throws a cloak around the younger and clothes him with love.  And he assures the elder of who he is “Son, you are always with me, and all I have is yours.”

And for both sons, the identity of the one does not detract from the identity of the other.  The younger son’s restoration does not diminish what the elder son has.  The elder son’s work does not prevent the younger from being welcomed home.  Though the elder has trouble recognizing it, the father has enough for both, and the identity of both sons rest on that abundant love.

For us, it can be easy to map ourselves onto the younger son.  The one who makes a bad decision, but then is gloriously welcomed home with the party and celebration.  It can be harder to recognize in ourselves the elder son’s frustration and anxiety at the welcome accorded to others.  Yet, I would argue that we all have both sons within us.  We all are that younger son, from time to time.  We all make dumb decisions, completely mess up, and wonder if we are even worthy to be called God’s beloved ever again.  

And at the same time, there are times when we look at others, and wonder why in the world we have been working so hard all this time.  There are times when we worry that if God welcomes so and so, does God really still care enough about me?  There are times we just really want to be the one with the beatific vision, the perfect certainty, the great spiritual life.  And we have trouble believing that God still is present with us, when all the bells and whistles are muted.

Yet, both sons are beloved. Both sons are cherished.  Both sons find their identity, ultimately, in the abundant love of their father, who delights in nothing more than celebrating their very presence with him, regardless of whether they feel they are worthy.  

Our job is to get to the party.  

Who do you think you are?

Given the number of times I’ve said it lately, on my tombstone, it will say, “Do. The. Power. Analysis.” ***
Generally, one of the thing we privileged-types are loath to do is to consider who holds power in any given situation, and how that dynamic affects the results. And yet, power: who holds it, who appears to have it, and who we attribute it to, affects all aspects of our lives.

Like in the Lent 1 gospel, where Jesus goes out in the wilderness and Satan comes to irritate him. You can read this as Jesus using his Power for Good, like Superman (and I preached that once–it’s in the archives.) But this year, I approached it as a power question of a different sort: who do we give power to tell us who we are, and what we are worth?

Here’s what I said. Also, do the power analysis, please and thank you.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

March 10, 2019

Lent 1, Year C

Luke 4

If you are…If God loves you….If you are that powerful, prove it!  Prove yourself!

When I was a kid, for a period of time in elementary school, I recall that it was very important to boast about how many Big Macs you could eat in one sitting.  That was the status measure in the cafeteria.  Not how rich you were, or how tall, or how many cool stickers you had—how many Big Macs you could eat.  

No idea why this was.  Proximity?  Their stability as a measure of currency?  I just knew that if I wanted to have ANY FRIENDS AT ALL, I needed to figure out a way to eat at least one whole Big Mac.  Which was, for me, a tall order.

My whole identity rested on this.  Whatever childhood status I could muster.

Of course, that’s a ridiculous way to measure yourself.  For starters, it’s a good way to end up in cardiac arrest.  Also, there is no way those kids were all telling the truth.

Also, that’s a really faulty frame for identity.  None of us can be measured in something so trivial as fast-food.  And yet, so much of what we consume tries to tell us that indeed, our worth, our identity is measured by things like this.  

Watch any ad anywhere, and you will get the message that unless you purchase this product/experience, you are not this particular type of person.  Buy this shampoo and you will be beautiful!  Buy this soda, and you will be cool!  Buy this pair of jeans, and you will be young again!  Buy this car, and you will be…a mysterious person who can wax philosophical about creativity and freedom while appearing rich and unburdened!  (Car commercials are confusing.) 

There is a lot in the world that challenges our sense of identity, especially as we live in a world that persists in ranking those identities based on these arbitrary things.  And that’s where the gospel this week fits in.  Because this story of the Temptation in the Wilderness is all about identity.

For context, it’s important to remember that immediately before Jesus goes into the wilderness, he was baptized in the Jordan River.  John the Baptist, under protest, baptizes him, and everyone sees the Spirit descend, and the voice from heaven proclaim him to be God’s Beloved Son.  

The next thing that happens is that Jesus heads out into the desert to fast and pray.  Geographically, this makes sense—the Jordan River runs to the east of Judea and Galilee, and is bordered in the south by the desert, before the elevation rises and you approach Jerusalem.  So, there’s desert all over—anywhere Jesus went after the Jordan was going to be desert.  In a way, he didn’t have a choice.  But also, this stretch of praying and fasting was a time-honored way to communicate with God, after such a powerful experience.  

And after we are told that 40 days (or Bible-speak for “A long time that I am not willing to count, because Math Is Difficult”) has passed, the devil appears, and starts to bother him.

Like I’ve said before, we hear mentions of Satan with 21st century ears, primed with images of the red guy with the pitchfork and the pointy ears.  But the culture of Jesus’ day didn’t have that dualistic of an understanding of good and evil.  Ha-Satan was essentially a generic adversary—rather than a supernatural Sum of Evil that rivals God in power.  (In their interaction here, Satan is a sly talker, but you don’t get the sense that he really poses a threat to Jesus.  He’s just obnoxious.) 

Anyway.  Three times, the devil tries to mess with Jesus, saying “IF you are the Son of God, turn this stone into bread!  Throw yourself off the Temple!  Worship me and take all the power for yourself!”

What’s striking is that, aside from the “Worship me!” request—what the devil is suggesting is on fairly solid ground, scripturally.  Of COURSE Jesus can turn stones into bread!  He’s going to multiply loaves and fishes later on!  Of course he could fly from the Temple tower—he magically got himself out of an angry crowd in this same chapter!  Even seizing all the power for himself—he definitely shouldn’t worship the devil.  That’s clear.  But…isn’t he the King of Kings and God incarnate?  Maybe there’s a workaround here?

(Also, please note the devil is quoting scripture to back up his points.  Which is why PROOFTEXTING IS BAD DONT DO IT.)

The sticking point here is the IF.  If you are the Son of God, prove yourself!  If you are who you say you are, prove yourself to ME!  The devil wants Jesus to question who he is, God’s love for him, so that the devil can see proof of his identity.  

And each time, Jesus says no.  No, he doesn’t need to do that.  No, he knows exactly who he is, and doesn’t need anyone else’s validation.  He was there when John poured the water.  He was there when the dove came down.  He heard the voice from the sky.  He knows exactly who he is.  He doesn’t need the devil to comment on that.  

Jesus’ strength here is rooted in his faith in his baptismal identity.  He knows he is the Beloved Son of God, and nothing the devil can throw at him can change that—no magic trick, no sly questioning, nothing.    The same is true for us—who we are, fundamentally, is children of God.  Beloved, cherished, unique children of God, made in the image of our Creator.  And nothing: absolutely nothing can take away from that core identity.  

Over our lives, we face various temptations that would tell us that we need to prove ourselves.  Prove ourselves worthy of respect, prove ourselves worthy of forgiveness, worthy of dignity, worthy of love.  We hear the various voices of temptation in our ears from our world, telling us that really, if we just worked a little harder, bent a little more, then the world would validate us enough, and we could derive our identity from that instead.  But this is the devil whispering sly lies into our ears again.

Our worth, our dignity, our loveableness rests entirely, and only in our identity as Children of God.  We don’t ever have to do anything else.  We don’t ever have to be anything else.  We don’t ever have to buy anything else or achieve anything else.  All the forces of the world that ask us again and again to prove ourselves worthy of love and dignity cannot take away the essential truth spoken by God at our baptism:  we are God’s beloved, and with us God is deeply pleased.  

Lent is a chance for us to rest soundly in that core identity, to let the world’s temptations to be something newer, better, shiner, go, and to relax into the knowledge that God has assured us that we, and the rest of humanity, are already cherished and precious.  


***In toto, it will read, “Here lies Megan Castellan, beloved human, viewer of original Hamilton cast on Broadway, wearer of red shoes, first of her name, righter of wrongs. Do. The. Power. Analysis.” My descendants will have to shell out for this tombstone.

Happy Lent!

When I finally allowed my then-boyfriend, now-husband to come to church with me for a regularly-scheduled service, it was Ash Wednesday. I believe I let him come because there was to be good BBQ afterwards, as was our Kansas City tradition.***

To my surprise, he informed me afterwards that he really enjoyed the liturgy. “You get to apologize for all this stuff that’s wrong!” he told his mother, later “And it feels really nice!”

Til then, I hadn’t contemplated the idea that repenting corporately could be experienced as a positive. The conventional wisdom I had inherited taught that we should probably steer clear of sin and repentance, because it bummed folks out.

Yet, the truth is, we know things are wrong, in the world. We see people make bad choices. We see those choices cause suffering. We even see people justify their hatred and violence in the name of God. And when the church refuses to name that reality, I don’t think it helps any; rather I think that it feeds into a culture of denial and hypocrisy.

Lent, for one, helps us name the reality that Everything Is Not Ok, and also reassures us that even though Things Are Not Ok, that doesn’t mean this is permanent, or that we are powerless in the face of it.

Hence, my Happy Lent! sermon.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

March 6, 2019

Ash Wednesday 

Isaiah

In my varied career, I’ve been a school chaplain for preschoolers several times on Ash Wednesday.  Each time, there has been dire concern expressed over how such young children will react to this particular holy day in our calendar.  “Isn’t it a bit much for them?,” well meaning adults ask.  “All the sin and death.  Can’t you save this for when they’re older?” 

The same sorts of concerns arise around Holy Week (once I was explicitly told not to tell small children that Jesus died “because they’d be sad”.  Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure they figured that one out anyway.) 

Ash Wednesday has that reputation—actually, all of Lent has that reputation.  This is the time of the church year when we are to be properly sad about ourselves, right? When we are to recall with guilt and shame that we are dust, and we should feel bad about it.  The music is sad, the colors are sad, the weather, too, is mostly sad.

Lent is sad, Repentance is sad, sin is sad.  So we should avoid it at all costs, and focus on the nice, happy things, and avoid all this sad stuff.

Here’s the problem: the theological constructs of sin and repentance actually get at something very important to the human condition.  They describe something fundamental that exists.

Sin is fundamentally the notion that the world we know has missed the mark that God has set for us.  That the world we inhabit, the choices we make, does not live up to all that God intends for us.  That basically, this world—the way things are— is broken.  

And there is a deep truth to that fact that we innately recognize because it is possible to see in this world both the potential it holds, and how we squander it.  We can see institutions and systems that increase inequality and oppression between people.  We can see injustice occurring around us.  We can see poverty, hatred, and violence, and the innocent suffering.  We can see things that we know are unfair, that should not be present in the good God’s good creation.  And so, the language our tradition gives us for that wrongness, both on a macro level and when we individually contribute to that brokenness, is sin.

Sin—it’s when things go wrong.

And it is hard, I believe, at this point in our history, to look around and not recognize the presence of things going wrong.  Not recognize the presence of sin.  The front page of the newspaper is testimony enough to the idea that everything isn’t going great.  Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, to quote Yeats.

And so, our tradition gives us the idea of repentance.  Because left unto itself, the reality of the broken world is sad.  Goodness knows, listening to the news too much will make a person lose it.  But we are called, over and over, in a multitude of different ways, that when we fall short, when we discover that things are broken, the proper response is to turn back, and try again.  Repent means to literally turn around, so when we repent, as we do today, we are turning back from the brokenness, and promising to try something different.  

In this reading from Isaiah, the prophet reminds the people that repentance isn’t just about wailing, and weeping and gnashing of teeth.  It’s not about feeling guilty and sorry for yourself and saying the right series of prayers.  The repentance God wants is a renewed pursuit of justice.  A renewed dedication to equality, to truth, to doing the right thing for all people.  That when we discover that our lives, or the world as a whole, has gone wrong, we stop, turn around, and try something different.  The point of sin is not to make us sad, and it’s not to impress upon us how horrible we are.  The point is to urge us to turn around and try again.

Because Isaiah makes very clear—when we try again, when we figure out we’re going wrong and turn around, God is immediately at hand, to answer our call, to show us the way, and to lighten our footsteps.  God’s role is not to shame us or guilt us—instead God encourages us to get it right, to try one more time, to pick up, and take one more shot, till we set this world aright.

Ash Wednesday is not about how wretched and sinful we are.  Or rather, it sort of is, but along with that comes the rather good news that none of our sins, none of our mistakes are the end of the story.  For as dire as our mistakes seem, as in deep trouble as this world is, God is right there, hands outstretched, ready and waiting for us to turn around, and try a different way.  Sin is no barrier to God’s love, and neither is our mortal frailty.  For as often as we fall short, for as frequently as we mess up, God is just as ready to pick us up, to steer us the right way, until we figure this out.  We may be fallible dust, but God transforms even our ashes and dust into a profound, splendid creation.  And that is good news indeed.

Amen.



***The first time a priest brings a new romantic partner to their church is a BIG DEAL. It’s like introducing a new partner to your children, if you were a single parent, and if your children are 3 years old, and you have 60 of them. They are all adorable, you love them dearly, but you are also aware that they will get attached Very Fast, and have Many Feelings about the situation that you will then need to manage. It’s fraught, is my point.

Safety on the Plain

This was a bit of a week. Ben and I went to NYC (delayed wedding present of Hamilton tickets 🙂 ) and then it was straight home for me to go to Hamilton, The Town-Not-Show (much less hip hop, much more white) and join in the diocesan visioning retreat.

So, by the time I got to Sunday morning, my brain was all mushy. So there was that.

I wrote the sermon half in sentences, half in notes in my notebook, and managed (I think) to sound coherent and thoughtful, and not just say “There was a plain? And also security isn’t safety? And walls are bad.” which was my basic hope.

I went back and typed it all up, because several folks asked for a copy. What is here isn’t exactly what I said, but it should be a fair representation of what I preached.

Also, the fruit/vegetable story is entirely accurate and is A Thing That Happened in 2004. I have witnesses.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

February 17, 2019

Epiphany 6

Luke 5

One time, quite soon after 9/11, I went to a government function with a lot of security.  As I was passing through the checkpoint, I noticed the posted sign: No weapons, No Metal, No bags, no signs….no fruit.  

This confused me, so I struck up a conversation with the Marine who was inspecting me.  “No fruit?” 

“No, ma’am.”

“How about vegetables?”

“No fruit, ma’am.”

“Ok, I get that, but I could conceivably do some damage with a carrot, like if I threw it.  Or an eggplant.”

He looked at me for a second, stone-faced.  “Ma’am, do you have a carrot?”

“Oh no, I would never! This is hypothetical situation. Like, how would you count a tomato…”

He cut me off. “No fruit, ma’am. No weapons.”

“No, sir!  No, of course not.”

He did not have a demonstrable sense of humor about the situation.

I got to thinking this week about emergencies.  About crises.  And how we handle them.  All the readings today reflect on where we put our trust, when danger looms, and the world warns us that safety is at a premium.  What do we do?  Where do we turn?  What do we trust to keep us safe?

In today’s gospel, Jesus essentially outlines two basic approaches to this conundrum.  He lays out the Beatitudes—those pronouncements we are all pretty familiar with, hopefully.  Blessed are the poor, blessed are the peacemakers, things like that.  

Now, importantly, these Beatitudes are not Matthew’s Beatitudes.  Gordon Lathrop, a renowned liturgist, said once that meaning derives from one thing set next to another, and so we need to consider the context of these particular Beatitudes.  Notably, Jesus is standing in a whole different place than in Matthew.  Literally.

In Matthew’s gospel, this is the sermon on the mount.  So, the first thing he does is go up on a mountain, and gather the crowd below him, at his feet, and talk to them from high above, making sweeping pronouncements.  Blessed are the meek!  For they shall inherit the earth!

But catch what happens in Luke!  Right at the start, Jesus goes the other way! He goes DOWN the mountain, to the plain, and starts addressing the disciples and the crowd from BELOW.  And whereas in Matthew, he addresses the entire crowd, here he singles out the disciples specifically.  “Blessed are YOU POOR. For you shall be rich.  Blessed are YOU HUNGRY.” etc. These aren’t sweeping pronouncements we might write off to being about a future state; these are instructions for specific people, in a specific place and time.  Hey you!  Blessed are you!  You, right there!  This is much more pointed.

And then Jesus goes a step further.  Not only does he lay out what is Blessed—he also lists out what brings woe.  Woe to you rich, for you will be poor.  Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will be weeping.  Woe when everyone speaks well of you, for such their ancestors did to the false prophets.  These things may seem great now, but they will not end well for you.

Ironically, the list of woes that Jesus illumines is precisely where we so often put our trust.  Riches, and status, and power, and strength, are precisely the things that promise us security over and over again in this world.  In moments of crisis, it is precisely these things Jesus warns about that the world tells us will deliver us safety.

In reality, Jesus tells us, these things do not protect us.  They do not save us.  Security which the world promises is not safety.  

Counter-intuitively, Jesus tells us that the very things that promise us security over and over will, in fact, doom us.  

It is only through vulnerability, only through solidarity with the other creatures of God, only through mercy, peace, justice—only through opening ourselves up to the reign of God will bring us true safety.  Everything else just takes us farther away.  

But ooooh, how we’d like it to be so much easier.  How much we’d like it if safety could be conjured up through a simple ban on all fruit!  Or in building a bigger tank!  Or in a larger stockpile of weapons, or in one more massive fortress.  

The problem with these solutions, however, and the reason they bring us so much woe is the disconnection.  They isolate us.  Were we to spend our lives building walls and fortresses and stockpiling more and more food in search of security, we would never have to contend with the humanity in each other.  We would never have to realize how indebted we are to each other, how much we depend on each other.  We would never have to recognize how much God loves each and every one of us, and how much each and every one of us reflects God’s image.

When we put our faith in the idols of security, in the things that bring woe, we never have to grapple with ourselves or with God.  We remain utterly alone.

But God loves us little dust-creatures so much that God calls us to something greater.  Impossibly, God loves us fallible, desperately mortal humans so much that God graciously hands out eternal abundant life in our very mortal-ness.  God gives us total safety, total life and freedom right when we are at our most vulnerable—as if we are standing undefended on a plain.  The more connected we are to God and to one another, the safer we are and the more life we find.  Even as the world chants in our ears that danger is all around—we find our life and help in God and these connections.  No idol gives us that.

The solution, then, to any human emergency is found only in each other.  Is found only in God.  The way out of our mortal peril, in any turn of circumstance, is in being Christlike with each other, and with the world God has given to us.  And in this way, we bless the world.

Amen.

Tea Cozies Save the World

I promised myself in seminary that I would never preach about my family members (my future kids, really) without their full consent, and would definitely, never, ever, ever, EVER preach about my dog. Or cat. But certainly not my dog.

This is not meant as shade towards those who do preach about their pets; I just have experienced some highly painful sermons that centered around pets, and went full moral therapeutic deism about it. I have post-pet-sermon-syndrome. So, no dog sermons for me.

Knitting sermons, on the other hand, I have no apparent problem with. To my shock, I have talked about knitting, or knitting related things at least three times (that I can recall) in my preaching career. Which is more than any other subject.

Also, the link to the woman I’m referencing and her amazing books is here.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

February 10,2019

Epiphany 5, Year C

Luke 5

Failure of Imagination.  What could we even possibly do?  

There’s a woman in New Zealand, a textile artist, really, who knits insane things into tea cozies.  (You know what tea cozies are, right?  They’re fabric covers that go over your tea pot in order to keep your tea warm.)  Now, tea cozies, if you’ve seen one, are generally boring.  They’re half-moon shaped, they go over the teapot, sometimes they have things written on them.  But this lady contemplated tea cozies, and decided to just go nuts.  She made tea cozies to resemble a bowl of fruit.  A 3-D bowl of fruit.  A tea cozy to look like a rooster.  One to look like a vase of flowers, and one to look like the several hats that Princess Beatrice wore to Will and Kate’s wedding.  And—here’s the kicker—all of these are knitted.  She knit these amazing sculptural things.  There are entire books of her knitting patterns, so you, too, can make a delightful, bananas, tea cozy out of yarn, so that your teapot resembles a tower of colorful fez hats.  If you wanted.

What really delights me (aside from the idea of making my teapot into a work of art) is why she says she does this.  Early on in her book, she comments that she realizes that this is an absurd thing to do, in the face of so much wrong in the world.  But, she says, it takes imagination to engage fruitfully with the world, and these works of art are primarily about imagination.  

Now, I do not have the sort of imagination that lends itself to looking at a Van Gogh painting and wondering how I could turn it into a nice knitted hat.  However, I do agree that engaging with the world, especially as people of faith, requires a certain type of imagination—which we need to cultivate, because it goes missing on us at times.

Imagination, after all, is the ability to envision what is not, but what might be—and that is not so far off from the work of faith, which asks us to practice engaging with things unseen, but that are.  As followers of Christ, and as people who work to usher in the reign of God, one of our primary tasks as disciples is to cultivate a sort of double vision—to see things as they are in the world, but also see things as God would have them be.  And that takes the imagination of faith.  It takes learning to see things that are not there, and yet getting ready for them anyway. 

In this gospel story, this morning, Jesus has given his first sermon, gotten run out of his hometown, and now he’s enjoying the morning sunshine on the banks of the Sea of Galilee.  He runs into some fishermen, who have spent the whole night fishing—because that’s when fishermen went out on the sea.  So now, their workday is over, they’re coming home, and they’ve caught nothing.  Nada.  Zip.

And Jesus says, Hey, why don’t you try the other side?  Peter is not a huge fan of this idea, and points out that they ARE professional fishermen, they did try that already, but fine, whatever.  And sure enough, their nets nearly break with all the fish that immediately fill them.

They had to ask James and John for help, because their boat almost sank.  They were not prepared for all these fish.  Totally unprepared.

“Don’t worry,” says Jesus—“From now on you will be fishing for people.”

Peter and Andrew were entirely unprepared for all those fish.  Now—they were fishermen, they had nets, they had a boat, they were prepared for some fish—Not all the fish.  They weren’t ready.  They hadn’t imagined that.  And so when it happened, they were flummoxed, and nearly capsized.  

They were, I imagine (hah) used to the world as they knew it, a world where they were moderately successful fisherman, caught some fish and then went back out the next day, and did it again.  That was their life, and it was fine. 

And so hadn’t imagined that a new way of being might break in, until one morning Jesus arrives and does just that.  Suddenly, more fish than they EVER BELIEVED dove into their nets.  Such prosperity, such generosity.  And now they are no longer fishermen, now they were something altogether different— fishers of people—a role that requires an even bigger step outside their ordinary worlds.

Following Jesus requires quite a big leap of imagination.  It requires us to see things not as they are, but as God would have them be, as Jesus has been telling us they could be. And that requires of us a vision based on hope, alongside our clearsighted view of what actually is.  It is imagination that allows us to live as Christ calls us to live, because to seek the kingdom, to follow Jesus, is to begin to live in the world as Jesus describes it even as we still live in the current world.  We have to live now as if the reign of God has already begun.  

So we imagine ourselves there.  Small kids do this all the time—it’s that game of make believe, only this time we do it with higher stakes.  We imagine a world into being where all people do matter, as children of God, and so we act like everyone we meet is of infinite value.  We imagine a world where the most important priority is the welfare of all people, and so we ourselves try to prioritize human flourishing, even in a society that seems to value profit over all else.  We imagine a world where the earth is seen as a gift for us to care for, and so we take pains to preserve and celebrate God’s creation, instead of just exploiting it for our own ends.

It takes imagination to follow Jesus in our broken world, because when all we have ever known is this world as it is, anything else takes a leap into faith, as Kierkegaard would say.  Like Peter and Andrew, we just have small boats, because who could imagine such a world as Jesus brings about?  So as people of faith, we have to use our imaginative powers.  We have to dream a little, and we have to live with a foot both in that imaginary, not-yet world of the reign of God, and in this world. We need to imagine up some big boats for this task. 

What would our city look like, for instance, if the reign of God has come, fully?  What would your life look like, if everything Jesus talked about in his sermon in Nazareth were now true—the poor brought good news, the blind given sight, the prisoner freed, the captive released, the Year of Jubilee proclaimed, all that? 

Think of what you have on your schedule tomorrow, when you go to school, or go to work, or run errands.  What would be different tomorrow?  Just Imagine what that world would be like.  What would be the same?  What would be different? If everyone was valued and loved, and had what they needed, and the earth was safe and cherished and full with the glory of God. 

Now, is there one thing, just one thing, you can do already to make that world a little closer?  

Can you do one thing tomorrow that would make the world you imagine a little closer?  Donate money to a non-profit, help someone that needs help, decide to do something good, or just do something anonymous and kind.  What can you do tomorrow to bring the world Jesus describes, the world we imagine with God, a little closer?

We talk sometimes in church about being co-creators with God, and our presiding Bishop talks a lot about God’s dream for the world, but what I sometimes think that means is imagining with God.  When God created the world, he spoke the world into being, and imagined something out of the chaos and waste that there had been.  Our faithful imagining of a new world along with God is how we join with Christ in making that new world a reality.  And when we step out in faith and slowly act on our imaginings, step into that bigger boat, then surely Christ meets us along the shore.  

Amen.