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On the Road Again

I think Jesus must have been in a super-good mood, after the Resurrection.  He seems to have spent most of his time playing the same joke on his disciples:  sneaking up on them, acting all nonchalant, then BAM.  They’d recognize him, and either have a teary reunion (a la Mary Magdalene) or he’d disappear (Road to Emmaus).  I don’t know exactly what got into him during his Time in the Tomb, but his newfound love of pranks cracks me up every Easter season.

I humbly suggest that, instead of Christmas pageants, or even Passion Week cantatas, we should dedicate a day of the liturigical year to sneaking around in disguise, and trying to suprise other church members with our kind deeds.

(Then leaping out from behind furniture, and yelling, “SURPRISE!” because why should Jesus have all the fun?)

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 30, 2017

Easter 3

Luke

You may have noticed that in these post-Resurrection stories we’ve been reading since Easter, Jesus has been a bit different.  He’s not doing his usual, Jesus-y things.  There’s less preaching, healing, and teaching, and more…..apparating?  More disappearing and reappearing?  More walking through walls, cooking fish, and showing off flesh wounds.  

 

This is not your imagination; the Resurrected Christ is, in fact, noticeably different from the pre-resurrection Christ.  And scholars talk about this at length, only they call it “Points of significant discontinuity as well as areas of continuity.”  They do not address whether JK Rowling derived any inspiration for Harry Potter from Jesus’ exploits, however.

 

These changes also seem to befuddle the disciples a bit.  Over and over, they seem to have trouble figuring out what to do.  They don’t know what they’re supposed to do in the aftermath of Christ’s death and resurrection, even when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary(s) give them fairly specific instructions, and when Jesus does show up, they are still confused, and often have trouble recognizing him.  

 

This is mostly not their fault–they’d been through a lot, and times were uncertain, and really, who does expect someone to rise from the dead and appear within a locked room?  After the trauma they’d collectively suffered, I think the disciples can, for once, be given a bit of slack for their general confusion–because the world was just confusing right then.

 

And so, on this particular day, we meet another pair of disciples, trying to make the best of things, and sort of making a hash of it.  

Now, things get weird in this story right away, but you don’t notice it unless you’re looking for it.  The text tells us that the two disciples are Cleopas and….we don’t know.  The other one never gets a name, nor a specified gender.  Western art usually depicts Other Disciple as a male, (assuming that all disciples were male), while Middle Eastern Christians have held that the Other Disciple is Cleopas’ wife, Mary–who has already made an appearance when she tagged along with Mary Magdalene to the cross, then to the empty tomb, so she does seem to be pretty involved.  For ease of preaching, I’m going to go with Middle Eastern Christians on this one.

 

So Mary and Cleopas are out on the road to Emmaus, and they are arguing back and forth about what’s happened in the past week.  While the rest of the disciples are back in Jerusalem, locked in an upper room somewhere, afraid and in hiding, it seems this pair has decided to flee town in the wake of Jesus’ death.  They are arguing about this, apparently, so much that they do not really notice when Jesus appears beside them and asks them what they are arguing about.

They explain the situation to him–there had been this wonderful friend and teacher, Jesus, who did miracles no one had seen before.  They had hoped and believed in him like no one else, but then he had been crucified by Rome.  Now they didn’t know what to do.  So, they were leaving.

 

Jesus, it would seem, absorbs all this, and starts walking with them, as they continue to discuss.  When it grows dark, they invite him to have supper with them–it’s the nice and hospitable thing to do— and when he shares the bread with them, something triggers in their memory, and suddenly they realize who he is.

 

In a flash, Jesus disappears again.  

 

But the disciples race back to Jerusalem, and tell the others what they experienced.  

 

That’s the curious part of this story.  Two people–lost, confused, hopeless, and irritable–encounter Jesus, and now they’re rejuvenated, and empowered.  These are the folks who were literally fleeing from the scene as fast as they could, and once they recognized Jesus, they turned right around and headed back.

 

And let’s be clear–it’s not like Jesus pulled a magic trick (beyond the weird undercover Messiah trick of sneaking up on them then disappearing.)  He didn’t overthrow Rome.  He didn’t dethrone Pilate.  He didn’t make Palestine safe for Christianity, and he didn’t erase the memory of that horrible last week.  All the things that Mary and Cleopas were afraid of are still back in Jerusalem.

 

What Jesus did was change them.  Just by his presence, just by his listening, just by being with them for a while, somehow, he gave them the strength and courage to go back to face what they were most afraid of facing.  

 

Jesus didn’t change the world; he helped Mary and Cleopas change the world.  

 

Perhaps part of why Jesus acts so oddly post-resurrection is that a shift is under way.  Before his death, he was living out the Gospel.  After his resurrection–we are the ones who need to live it out.  Us.  You, me, Mary, Cleopas.  

 

We are the ones who are sent back to Jerusalem, to heal, to teach, to comfort the lonely, to lift up the oppressed, and feed the hungry.  We are the ones sent back to preach good news to the sorrowful and let the captives go free.  We now step into the path Jesus paved for us.

 

And like the disciples on the road discovered, we don’t do this alone.  We have the resurrected Christ walking alongside us, to accompany us, and guide us.  Christ sneaks up during our moments of doubt and confusion, to show us where to go, and remind us of all we have learned and all we have to give.  Christ is with us when we least expect it: in moments of pain and in triumph, so that we are never alone on this journey.

 

The journey we have been taking with Jesus doesn’t stop at the Cross, and doesn’t stop with the empty tomb–it leads on into a wider world, where we are called on to each tiny village that needs our help.  So onwards we go.

 

Amen

Church Super Bowl

I got to preach on Easter this year.

Easter sermons are somewhat treacherous, as like Christmas sermons, they can become a Greatest Hits of everything the preacher would like you to remember, on the chance they won’t see you again until the next big holiday.  Or, you can go to the other extreme: to make the sermon dull and predictable so as not to offend the people who have stumbled, blinking, into your church, in hopes that they will stick around.  (Nothing is so attractive to newcomers after all as bumper sticker theology, amirite?)

So while Easter may seem like an easy gig, it’s really not.  Everyone pretty much knows the story, the expectations are high, the theological landmines abound.  Do you argue for the physical resurrection?  Do you skip over that bit?  Do you go full NT Wright, and talk about the coming fulfillment of all things in the eschaton?  SO MANY OPTIONS.

My job was made much easier this year by the fact that I have a parish who allows the liturgy and music to preach as thoroughly as the sermon.  Even when that liturgy occasionally involves an exploding thurible during the late service.  (Shoutout to the choir, who stomped out the flaming charcoal by rerouting their procession without missing a beat.  That’s professionalism right there.)

Here’s what I ended up saying:

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 16, 2017

Easter Sunday

Matthew

 

This story begins in darkness.  A whole bunch of darkness.  The preceding days have been dark and traumatic–Jesus has been put to death, the death of a convicted political criminal.  He has been shamed, made to suffer, humiliated.  His family and friends have been terrified and threatened.  All their hopes for the future, their dreams of where Jesus would lead them, dashed.

 

And on this morning, in darkness, the women head to the tomb.  It’s their job–in that time, it was an important sign of respect to anoint the body of a loved one.  It showed how much they were cared for–also in the days before chemical embalming, it was a sort of hygiene thing.

 

So off they went, in the dark, before the sun came up, to avoid drawing the authorities’ attention, to do one more service for their friend.  

 

And suddenly the darkness breaks, and instead of the gloom of a burial cave, they are met with a shining angel all in white, who tells the women that Jesus is risen, and they are to go and tell the disciples the good news.

 

I imagine this freaked them out pretty good–what with the earthquake and the angel in white.  I imagine they fled back to the disciples and told them what happened, and didn’t have much idea of what to make of it.  I imagine they were scared out of their minds.

 

Coming on the heels of Judas’ betrayal, the trial before Pilate, the crucifixion–suddenly being told that Jesus was alive would have probably seemed altogether too good to understand.  It’s like that feeling after a sudden traumatic event, when you feel like everything is a bad dream you just need to wake up from….only they did.  The world had been one way, and now….it wasn’t anymore.  The world turned upside down.

 

Darkness, see, is not hard to get used to.  Our eyes become accustomed to it fairly quickly.  We learn how to live and move with less light.  It’s not hard, and our expectations adjust accordingly.  

So then, when light comes, it becomes blinding.  Our eyes, so long accustomed to the dim light, burn and tear up.  We shy away from the brightness because it’s not what we’re used to.  Think Plato’s cave allegory.

 

So, too, it’s possible to get used to the dimness of the world.  While we may not like the things around us, while we may complain bitterly about injustice, or sinfulness, or the cruelty we see on display– it becomes very easy after a while to just throw up your hands and say, “well, that’s the way it’s always been.”  And mean, “that’s the way it always will be.” The world will always be broken.  The mighty will always crush the weak, the truth will always go unheeded, the vulnerable will always be expendable– Humans will always hurt each other.  World without end, amen.  

 

It is easy, sometimes, to become used to the gloom.  To become accustomed to functioning without the light we instinctively long for.

 

When we become used to the gloom, we look at the crucifixion and say “Well, what did you expect?  Going around, threatening Caesar.  It was just too good to last, now wasn’t it?”

 

And then Easter surprises us with all its shining glory, and upends what we know of the world.  On Easter, Christ is risen from the dead.  And the darkness and brokenness we had become so accustomed to in the world is swept away.  For once, hate doesn’t win.  For once, the weak is made strong.  For once, death doesn’t have the last word–because God’s love proves stronger than anything else this world can dream up.  

 

Christ’s resurrection is God’s answer to the darkness of the world.  Easter is God’s firm response to the problems that plague us, God’s insistent reminder that no matter how desperate or dire things might seem, darkness does not win in the end.  Hatred does not win in the end.  Evil does not win in God’s creation.  Not in the end.

 

In the end, peace wins.  In the end, life wins.  In the end, truth and justice win.  In the end, Christ rises from the dead, and God promises us that the darkness that seems immovable will break, and light will have the final word.  So we can’t be content with things as they are.  Because they aren’t going to stay this way forever.

 

Easter is when we are invited, blinking, back into the light of this hope.  The hope that no matter what is occurring in our world at the moment, it isn’t final, because we know the cross isn’t final. Pilate’s reign of terror isn’t final.  The tomb isn’t final.  The dark isn’t final.  The blazing light of the Easter sunrise is what greets us at last, in the light of God’s love.  

 

Love is what is final.  And God’s love will ultimately win.  

 

Amen.

 

Everything on One Day

Last year, the parish administrator and I coined a new term: Holy Week-ing.  This describes, as little else does, the phenomenon well known to church staff and clergy–that during times of high liturgical stress, everything and everyone chooses this particular moment to have a crisis.  People get ill, people die, copiers break, organs implode, weird occurances become commonplace, and everything basically goes bananas for a period of a few weeks.

For people new to church work, this is often upsetting, and they wonder if they have done something to provoke this, or if they could have prevented it.  Would better planning have prevented the $250 copier malfunction?  Would more meetings ahead of time?  Would more pastoral attention have averted the 3 parishioners who chose this week to enter hospice?

The answer, dear ones, is no.  No, not a single thing you do (in most cases) can prevent the holy week-ing of those around you.  There are just certain times when the world goes nuts and it is no one’s fault.  Best to see it coming and roll with it.

To that point: this week has been another case of epic holy week-ing.  A sudden, tragic death in the school community, and the (somewhat expected) death of a parish patriarch hit on Monday.  Then came the news that the new “rushing wind” sound of the organ was not a fun new effect, but a symptom of a cracked windbox.  Then, yesterday, the lovely lady cleaning up after the midday Eucharist dashed into my office to inform me that smoke was rapidly filling up the sacristy, and would I like to evacuate?!  I went to check; apparently plumbers were running a smoke test, in which they pump smoke into the pipes to see where it comes out, to diagnose leaks.  They just forgot to warn us.

And then there’s whatever is currently happening in our whirlwind news cycle.

The good news, is that whether or not we actually get our act together, Christ still rises from the dead on Sunday.  Regardless of whether I get the smoke cleared, or whether we can duct tape the organ back together, Christ still defeats death, and all we have to do is show up.   And there’s nothing like holy week-ing to reinforce that lesson.

Anyway, here’s what I said Thursday night.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 13, 2017

Maundy Thursday

 

Every year, at the Jr High Retreat, we have a workshop where youth can ask anonymous questions of a clergy panel—any question they’ve pondered, or long been troubled by.  Usually, we get the same sorts of things:  do all religions go to heaven, is it acceptable to disagree with my priest, who created God, etc.  Some easy to respond to, some requiring lots of hand gestures and diagrams.  

The one question we almost always get is something about the Eucharist:  what happens to the bread and wine?  

I always get a kick out of this one, and not just because I get to read the part in the 39 Articles that says that “transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of the Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.”

Now, clearly, that’s a thought from centuries ago, and not necessarily something we actually hold to.  (The same article also says we aren’t supposed to reserve the sacrament either….which we do.  Whoops.)

But clearly, this idea has always inspired some passion, shall we say.  What is the Eucharist, this thing we do each week?  This ritual that was established on this night, so long ago?

It’s the organizing ritual of who we are as Episcopalians, this thing we do, and yet, we don’t talk about it all that much.  We just do it, over and over.  We take bread which tastes like nothing, and some really strong wine, and bless them and give them out, week after week.  To the point where it becomes both routine and absolutely necessary.  What even is church, we start to wonder, without this organizing principle, of bread and wine, blessed and shared?

This meal is the foundation of who we are.  

And it is on this night, that we remember how we got here.  That on the night before he died, Jesus did an ordinary thing–ate an ordinary meal with his friends.  Surely, they had done this countless times before, over the years they had been together, shared meals before.  And surely they had even eaten Passover seders together.  Over the three years they had travelled around, preaching and teaching, they had shared a lot together and become a community.

But on this particular night, Jesus did something different.  He took this ordinary meal, and changed it.  He took the ordinary bread, and blessed and broke it, and proclaimed it to be his Body.  He took the ordinary wine–more common then than even water, blessed and shared it, and announced that it was his blood.  “Do this,” he told them, “each time you gather, to remember me.”  

Suddenly, the ordinary was no longer ordinary.  Common bread became, not just food, but a reminder of Jesus–normal wine became not just a way to quench thirst but a memory as well.  Ordinary things made extraordinary.

Perhaps that’s the power of the Eucharist–Christ takes the most common elements of our lives, and makes them into the holiest things imaginable, so that everywhere we looked, we would find God, even in the most mundane and common things.  In the Eucharist, Jesus shows us what his life had been about the whole time–God made tangible for us to hold.  God was no longer far off and inscrutable, up a mountain or behind a flashing cloud–God was here, in this piece of bread.  God was in this sip of wine.  God was in this ordinary guy from your hometown.  

God is right here.  God is real, and accessible, and present, in ordinary, common things.  

So the glory of the Eucharist is both how holy it is, because it is that–it is how common it is.  Because each time we say these prayers and take this bread, it changes us.  Not in a flashy, immediate sort of way, but it does transform us.  Each time we take this bread and drink this cup, we embrace the God who wants so badly to be with us, and allowed himself to be broken and given away.  Each time we share this bread and wine, we grab hold of the God who shared himself with us.  

Now, I don’t know if the bread and wine magically change into literal Jesus particles.  Honestly, I don’t know if that even matters.  The miracle of the Eucharist is less about what happens to the bread and wine, and more what happens to us.  Because as we participate in this sacrament over and over, as we remember how God came among us in ordinary things, as we remember how Christ was willing to be broken for his loved ones…..slowly, we become those holy ordinary things too.  Gradually, we too become the vessels of the divine in the world–what carries God out into all the broken places into the world around us.  We become the consecrated Bread and Wine–common things transformed into the presence of God, so that it may be broken and given out for the life of others.  The more we partake in the Eucharist, the more we become it.  The more we become the Body of Christ.  

In the midst of some of the darkest times in our history, Christ gave us a way to cling to the presence of God in the world.  And more than that, to become, ourselves, that material of God in the world.  So on this night, when we remember this immense gift, we remember also the betrayal, violence, and darkness.  Because these are why it was given.  So that no matter what comes, no matter what we face, God would never be farther away from us than the commonest of things.  

 

 

The Wisdom of Moonstruck

I’ve been a fan of the playwright John Patrick Shanley for years now.  He wrote the screenplay for Moonstruck; he also wrote the play Doubt.  His Twitter presence is both strange and profound, in turns.

I like the way he writes, because he manages to find the mystical in ordinary people and circumstances, and then make it approachable and funny.  (I still quote the final breakfast scene from Moonstruck, where the old man bursts into tears because he’s confused.)

Anyway, here’s how I managed to quote Olympia Dukakis in a sermon about Ash Wednesday (and get in a joke about Oscar Accountants.)

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

March 1, 2017

Ash Wednesday, Year A

Matthew

 

In the movie Moonstruck, the character Olympia Dukakis plays, named Rose, is really concerned about her husband, Cosmo.  She thinks he’s cheating on her (he is.).  It’s not so much the fact of this that concerns her, as the why of it that bothers her.  So she asks everyone she comes across why he would make such a dumb choice–why do men chase women.  (And the script takes pains to illustrate what a dumb choice it is.)

She doesn’t’ actually listen to the theories of various characters, however. Her own theory she voices early on– “I think,” she intones” that it is because he is afraid of death.”  As if on cue, her erstwhile husband returns home, and Rose, emboldened by her breakthrough, greets him with “Cosmo, I just want you to know; no matter what you do, you’re gonna die, just like everybody else.”  Cosmo, entirely confused, thanks her.

Seems like a very Ash Wednesday type scene to me, because really, death is something we have a hard time with.  In the 21st century, we put a lot of time and energy into staving off death, denying its existence, talking around it, sanitizing it…and yet, it remains.  Fixed and immutable.

To be clear, I don’t encourage death.  Please don’t hear me saying that.  It’s sad when people die.  It’s tragic when we lose loved ones before their time.  Medical progress is good.  Preventing disease, combating physical ailments, all good.  

And yet, for all the magic medical advances, for all the progress we’ve made, behold, death remains.  For each and every one of us.  Death is a constant, whether or not we acknowledge it.

Now, for some, that constant leads us to make really bad decisions.  Either because we want to avoid death at all costs, or we figure that since death is inevitable, then what does it matter?  YOLO, as the youthz say.  Mortality looms like a really giant elephant in the corner of our lives, and if we don’t acknowlege it, then we spend a lot of time dealing with its demands.

But see, we have Ash Wednesday.  One day a year, wherein we come to church, and we smear ashes on our forehead, and we recall that, like Cosmo, no matter what we do, we’re gonna die.  We are dust, and to dust shall we return.

This can sound fairly gruesome, but I think it’s meant to be freeing.  On this day, the Church reminds us that there is nothing we can do to escape mortality….and so we no longer need to work so hard on that project.  

Instead, we are asked a question–given that we are dust, and we are returning to dust–what shall we do with this time in between?  This time we are given, in this mortal life, if we aren’t hoarding it, if we aren’t using it to find loopholes in this game, then how shall we spend this time?  

Isaiah reminds us that we, like those accountants at the Oscars, really only have one job.  We are to love.  We are to love God, to love one another.  We are to spend this life in the work of love.  It is precisely because we have a limited time on this earth that we are called to work so hard for a world of justice, a world of peace, freedom and love for everyone.  Because all of humanity is as fragile, as limited as we are, God asks us to make this short life better. Make this fragile life all it can be.  For them and for us.  As we all face the same limitations.  So be repairers of streets to live in.  Be restorers of the breach.  Spend your time on earth working to make it a better place for the fragile creatures who will come after you.

Because ultimately, what we are assured of is that even though we are going to die, God is right here with us.  We may be mortal, but God does not abandon us, not even to death.  Jesus Christ died too, so that we would know the power of God even in the midst of death.  Even in the midst of the mortality that so shadows our lives. Our mortality doesn’t define us, doesn’t limit us.  God breathes life into our very dust, and helps us to build this world, in the time we have, into the dream of God.

So maybe we are just dust in the wind.  Maybe we are going to die.  But that is not all we are.  And while we are here, for as long as we are here, with God’s help, we have a job.  

 

Amen.

Salt, Ham, and Resistance

There’s an article that’s been floating around on Slate.com written by an Episcopal priest, about how hard it’s been to preach since the election.

I can attest that this is true.

The problem is not that there’s nothing to preach about–the problem is that there’s so much to preach about, and it all cries out to be addressed, all at once.  The refugee ban, the Islamophobia, the selling of the government for profit, the blatant disregard for any move towards unity…on and on and on.  The ancient prophets would have a field day if they were alive (and, let’s not kid ourselves, would also be promptly chucked into a cistern or jail.)

Adding to that is that most of us have politically diverse congregations who are really struggling as all this news hits.  While I am incredibly lucky at St. Paul’s to have a congregation who is used to the rector and I addressing current events from the pulpit, the fact remains that people are reacting differently to what’s happening right now.  Some are mobilizing into activists for the first time in their lives.  Some are doubling down on activist efforts.  A few are in a deep denial about the severity of what’s happening.  And many are having to come to terms with the idea that the assumptions they’ve held for their entire lives about America, government, and the essential nature of this world are now not holding true.  Trying to reach all these groups at once in a sermon is hard, especially when you recall that preachers are human, read the news, and also feel tempted to spend much of their time hiding under their desk as of late.

Here was my attempt this week.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

February 4, 2017

Epiphany 5

Matthew 5

 

My family has a tradition of eating Smithfield ham at Christmas time.  This is not an easily found product–this is a locally produced variety of pork that dates back from colonial times before refrigeration.  The ham was salt cured, seasoned with brown sugar and cloves, then hung in a barn to dry out.  Then, you stuck in in a burlap sack to keep.  To prepare it, I recall my mother soaking it in a sink full of water for 2-3 days to leach some of the salt out of it, and then, scrubbing the naturally occurring mold off.   (Yeah.  It wasn’t all glamorous back then.)

The end result, however, was delicious.  Salty ham that is great fried up with eggs, or served cold on a biscuit.  And now I’m hungry.

But the takeaway is this:  salt is really important.  To the people of Jesus’ time, salt did everything for you.  It was used as currency.  It kept your food edible, it flavored it, it worked as a medicine, it seemed practically magic, because it stopped things from going bad.  

And yet no one ever had a lot of it.  Salt was expensive.  You had to hoard it.  And trust me–you did not want to overdo it on salted pork.  A little bit of salt is good.  Too much salt is not good.

Salt, in other words, is a really good minority. It does best when it is outnumbered.  You only want a pinch of salt in your cooking to add flavor, otherwise you end up with a mouthful of awful. (Light, actually, does the same thing.  If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a laser beam to the face.  Lots of concentrated light is bad–a little, artfully applied is good.)

And so Jesus tells his disciples that they are the salt and the light of the world.  

That implies some pretty great and empowering stuff–namely that–hooray!  We get to change the world!  We get to save the world!  We can go out and PRESERVE STUFF LIKE SALT DOES.  I’mma be some salt!!!  All tangy and whatnot.

But there’s another side of this too.  Jesus’s comment also implies that we are going to be vastly outnumbered.  We will be salt, but not in a salt shaker– in an ocean of water.  Light in a pretty big night.  This is coming right on the heels of the beatitudes, in the sermon on the mount, and like Jesus said then–this being salt business doesn’t make you popular.  It doesn’t give you the majority.  You are doing something that most others aren’t.  

We talked about this last week–

But being salt in the world, living by the beatitudes, following Christ in the world constrains you to live in a different way.  And not in a way that makes us powerful, or important, especially not right now. When Christ asks us to be salt in the world, Christ is asking us to be powerless, to be outnumbered and to embrace that.  Majorities and minorities live in very different ways in the world– We have to live differently, because we are outnumbered, and our job is a big one–to flavor all this food in which we live.  

So what does that task look like for salty people?  How then do we live as faithful, outnumbered grains of salt?  Because that can be exhausting!  

I had lunch with a friend this week and we were comparing notes on the state of the world, and we figured out our mutual struggle right now was with feeling powerless.  I told her that .  I am a middle class straight white woman–I am used to being empowered!  I am used to DOING THINGS and Leaning In, or at least feeling really guilty if I am not doing things.  I have just not been socialized to feel so powerless.  And yet that is precisely where the gospel places us.  In a place of (relative) powerlessness.

I would say first that Jesus wasn’t joking when he says that salt that has lost its flavor is in deep trouble.  We need to be careful to retain our saltiness.  We need to be careful not to spread ourselves too thin.  We can’t do everything.  We can’t put out every fire.  (Salt can even extinguish grease fires!)  There will be times when you get tired, and you need to take a break and that is ok.  While we are flavoring this bland world, take time to reconnect.  Connect to the Christ that calls you, to the God that made you, to the beauty that inspires you.  No one of us has to do everything, conquer every mountain, achieve every goal.  

Connect to the other lone grains of salt doing the same work you are.   Here are all these other little grains doing this hard work too.  They are here to remind you that you are not alone in this struggle. It’s not just you out there–there’s me and you and you and you and her and  him and that other guy over there. They are here to help you, and you are here to help them.  (That’s why we have church, you know.  This is a salt cellar.)

Then head back out there.  Because though we are small, and though we are outnumbered, we can do so much–through the God who called us to this in the first place.  And through God’s power, we will yet transform this big, bland world.  

Amen

John the Baptist is coming for you!

Funny thing, but all those readings about the end of Days no longer seem quite so bad as they did a year ago.  Now, when Scriptures talk about the coming desolating sacrilege, I think, “Huh.  What did The Orange One tweet now?”

I learned in college about the role of apocalyptic literature for minority communities, and always liked that interpretation, but I confess that I had never understood it on an emotional level.  While I could intellectually grasp why someone hiding in the catacombs would feel better hearing about Michael the Archangel fighting with the Beast, for me, those texts were still mired in a lot of ‘Left Behind’ stuff.

This year, it’s starting to make sense.  So here’s a sermon about that.

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 4, 2016

Advent 2, Year A

Matthew 3:1-12

 

 

I had a dear friend in college named Claire.  Claire has spastic cerebral palsy, uses a motorized wheelchair to get around, and is easily the smartest person I know.  She would sit in class and memorize the lecture, rather than take notes, and had firm opinions about everything from the puns in Shakespeare to the politics of the ADA. *Americans with Disabilities Act

Second Advent was unironically her favorite Sunday of the year.  “It was” as she explained to me one year “the accessibilities act of the bible–the mountains were lowered and the valleys lifted, the rough places made plain–so that even people in wheelchairs could get to the house of God without trouble.”  

To Claire, John the Baptist wasn’t bringing a message of doom–he was bringing a message that sounded like inclusion. Because interpretation depends on location.  

To the Pharisees, John sounded like a really mean man.  (Getting called a brood of vipers will make you a bit irritated, as I understand.)  Also the Sadduccees.  But to the rest of the people flocking to him, he offered something lifegiving, even as his words sound pretty harsh to us.  

Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.  And anyone who does not bring forth fruit worthy of repentance is thrown into the fire. What he’s talking about here isn’t individual sin, it’s plural.  It’s sins, it’s corporate.  John is describing a repentance of EVERYTHING–not just individuals deciding not to cheat on their taxes any more.  

And yeah, that may not sound so great.

 

But here’s the thing.

When we’re feeling on top of the world, and powerful, and like everything is going great, then John’s message of the coming judgment sounds harsh and scary.  We like the way things are going; we don’t want to hear that we’re doing something wrong.

But when we are feeling like the world is working against us, like we are outnumbered by forces beyond our control, like we are being taken advantage of by mighty systems that don’t have our welfare at heart–then John’s announcement that judgment is coming is good news indeed.  

It just depends on where you fall when you hear this.

Think about who John’s audience is after all.

For the Pharisees and Sadduccees, they’re doing ok.  They’re organized, they’re basically political parties of Second Temple Judaism.  They have pull in the temple structure, and they have the ear of King Herod.  On the other hand, the people in the crowds don’t have any of that.  For the most part, they are excluded from a lot of the religious power and the political power structures of the day.  They live in an empire that doesn’t give them rights, and frankly–there’s a lot that’s going wrong for them.

Then John shows up and proclaims that they aren’t wrong–everything IS broken.  Everyone does need to repent.  And God is coming soon to fix this broken, messed up world.  The Pharisees don’t like it, but boy, do the crowds love it.  They were right all along!

Real quick, I want to point something out.  There is a profound difference between what John is saying and the sort of political populism that we’ve seen sweep the globe recently.  John’s repentance does not depend on turning people against one another or spreading fear and distrust.  It rests on raising the valleys and lowering the mountains–bringing everyone together.  The difference is in the perception of that–because if you have lived on a mountain all your life, that doesn’t sound as good as being raised out of the valley.  But that’s very different from being told you will be supplanted as king of the mountain and made to serve someone else.  

All this to say–the judgment of God doesn’t come in the form of earthly political systems.  What John is preaching has material implications, but it begins and ends with the action of God.  We repent and turn towards God, and God resets the world, and God brings us all in.  

So where are we in this scheme?  Are we the Pharisees or are we the crowd this morning?  Does John’s call for a complete turn around sound like the apocalypse or a welcome reprieve?  

When I lived in Jerusalem, a wise bishop told me that to the oppressed, God’s judgment always comes as good news.  It is only to the oppressor that judgment is feared. So I wonder if we are both right now.  If there are parts of us that, like the powerful of that time period, are not thrilled when John tells us that we need to repent, that the way things have been is not the way God wants them to be.  Because–let’s face it–we’re not doing that badly.  Most of us.  Most of the time.

But in other ways, we are like the crowds.  While there are parts of us that love the comfortable lives we enjoy, the security of this country, and the lives we know, in other parts of us, we do know that something is wrong.  We do know that this world is broken.  And in that part of our soul, we can welcome the coming advent of God, when the rough places shall be made plain, and the lion and lamb shall lay down together.  

Because in each of us, I would wager, there is a Pharisee and a dispossessed crowd member.  Someone happy in the world as it is, and someone anxious for the world to change.  The struggle for us, this Advent, is to decide which inner voice we will listen to.  

There’s Fanfiction about Mary

I know that there are many conspiracy theories about the extra-canonical gospels, but despite what Dan Brown has told you, there is no there there.  Rather than being a font of SECRET WISDOM OMG, much of the extra texts are basically fanfiction that early Christian groups wrote, in order to either combat a nasty rumor (Jesus was the bastard son of Mary and a Roman soldier!) or to further fill in unfortunate gaps in the narrative (what DID happen in those missing 18 years between 12-30 years old?)  So, yes.  All those hours you’ve spent pouring over Tumblr is now paying off.

Here’s what I said about that:

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 18, 2016

Advent 4, Year A

Matthew 1:18-25, also Isaiah though

 

If you, like I did as a teenager, spend your time reading the extra canonical gospels and infancy narratives, not only will you have a thriving social life, but you will learn lots of odd rumors about who Jesus’ parents were and where he came from.

Contrary to popular conspiracy theories, the extra canonical gospels weren’t kept out of the Bible by some vast churchy-cabal, determined to silence minority voices.  They were kept out because they were written later than the 4 that wound up in there, they are mostly incomplete, and also, they are straight up weird.  

There’s the one where child Jesus strikes the neighborhood bullies dead because they bother him.  There’s another where he keeps getting into fights with his teachers as a 5 year old and knocking them unconscious, til Joseph tells Mary just not to let him out of the house.  (SEE WHY THAT ONE DIDN’T END UP IN THE BIBLE!?)

Then there are the stories about Mary.  And there are a LOT.  There is an entire fragmentary gospel about Mary’s childhood–saying that she was raised in a shrine in the Temple, that angels fed her, and that the young women of Israel danced for her amusement.  And that Joseph is assigned to be her husband because he won a game of lots.  (This is less icky than it sounds, but still sort of eye-brow raising to 21st century sensibilities.)

Why all the focus on Mary?  

Partially, it’s because of how important Jesus was.  Common thought in the first century was that if you turned out to be important, then your birth must have been extraordinary too.  And so, since Jesus said and did such miraculous things, surely his mother must have been incredible too. Caesar Augustus, for example, claimed to have been the result of a virgin birth.  Because he was so awesome and emperor-like and all.  It helped solidify his claim to the throne.   

Conversely, in some of the anti-Christian writings we have, there are some pretty nasty allegations about Mary having an affair with a Roman soldier–as a way to delegitimize Jesus.  So, early Christians were united in their opinion that Jesus’ birth had to have been extraordinary in some way, because he was extraordinary.  

The virgin birth, as it appears in the gospels, is less about Mary being pure, and sex being bad, and more about foreshadowing how incredible these people were–how important this baby was.  So incredible that even his birth was amazing!

Like the rest of the miracles in the gospels, the writers don’t get caught up in how it happened or laying out details–what they care about is why.   In the Bible, saying “virgin birth” is tantamount to holding a giant flashing neon sign above whatever is about to happen, signalling that GOD CARES ABOUT THESE PEOPLE.  GOD IS GOING TO BE INVOLVED IN THEIR LIVES.  

Now, a weird thing has happened, in that in modern times, when we hear these stories, we sometimes get distracted and think about the supposed purity of it all.  We dwell on the mechanics–  Entire theologies have been built around the idea that what made Mary special was her purity.  Her virgin-ness.  Her super-human-meekness.

Here’s the thing–what makes Mary special is not her superhuman purity.  Regardless of whether she was a virgin or not, the miracle of Jesus’ birth was that new, divine life, sprang out of humanity.  And God was with us.  Mary facilitated that just by being human, and being there.  

 

It starts with Isaiah, after all.

Isaiah, who we meet in the first reading today, trying to talk the King of Judea off a ledge.  See, here’s what had happened:  the same as had happened every 5 years or so, someone was threatening to invade.  In this case, it was the joint threats of Israel to the north, and the Assyrian Empire, who had just taken Israel as a client state.  (Sort of like Russia, and whatever client-state they are currently controlling.)

In any case, the king of Judea is worried for several reasons.  He doesn’t have a good army, he doesn’t have many resources, and he is located on any sort of path Assyria would want to use should they expand.  It’s the classic Luxembourg problem.  So he suggests to Isaiah that the smart thing to do is go ahead and surrender now.

Isaiah is not on board.  “Look,” he says to the king, “why don’t you ask God for help?”  The king protests that he couldn’t do that, for Reasons.

Isaiah is having none of this, and announces that a woman in the court will have a child.  She will be the sign.  She will bear a son, and before her child is old enough to make decisions, the enemies will be gone.  

That’s pretty much what happens–before two years are out, Assyria is conquered, and Judah survives a while longer.

To be clear, Isaiah isn’t saying that this unnamed woman is going to conceive miraculously.  The miracle is That God will be with them, they all will survive, and this new life is the proof of that.  

However it comes about, bringing new life and new hope into broken situations is the miracle God excels at.  This is what God does–God takes our human messes and brings new life out of them.  God comes into our screwed up situations and transforms them.  

What we are required to do, to be a part of that, is not to be magic.  Not to be purer-than-pure or have secret talents or to have been fed exclusively by angels.  What we are required to do is be human.  To show up.  To bring our whole, vulnerable selves into a relationship with God.  And to say yes to God’s dreams for us.  However crazy or outlandish they may seem.  

Because God is always with us, in times of danger and in times of uncertainty.  In times of triumph and plenty too.   Our job is to make space for that presence, to make room in our human lives and await the miracle.