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Kinda-sorta about capitalism

At long last, we screech to the end of John 6, and the Never-Ending Ode to Bread.  I have an ambivalent relationship with the Revised Common Lectionary, but this has to be one of the stranger choices it made–to devote 6 solid weeks in midsummer to reiterating and tiptoeing through John’s sixth chapter.

As a result, it forced me (FORCED ME, I tell you) to preach on a Pauline epistle not once, but twice!  Can you even imagine!  ::hand to forehead, clutches imaginary pearls and adopts grandmother’s thick Southern accent of Doom::

Truth be told, I don’t need much encouragement to go on about corporate sin vs individual sin.  The minimizing of sin to merely moralistic failings within an individual’s soul is one of the worst ideas American Protestantism had (and remember, American Protestantism also popularized the prosperity gospel.  So the bar here is high***.) The notion that sin can be dispensed with if I figure out how to be really super nice is toxic.  The systems and societies that we build for our world can either perpetuate the injustices we commit from generation to generation, or seek to redress them–and that is not a value-neutral thing.  And because currently our society perpetuates and builds upon historic oppression, we are implicated and complicit in that sin.

One final note:  I cite Walter Wink a lot in this sermon, and his work is really amazing on this topic. One of the hopeful things he argues is that the powers and principalities of this world as we have constructed them are blind.  They are not animate of themselves; they are only know that which we have taught them.  So it is always within our grasp, with God as our aid and champion, to reform the powers of this world such that they align more properly with God’s intentions for this world.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

August 26, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 16

Ephesians

One of the little known perks of working in a church office is the occasional odd piece of mail.  For whatever reason, some people feel a need to send their conspiracy theories, their thoughts on the apocalyse, their warnings about oncoming nuclear war, whatever random thought is in their head, to all the churches in the phone book==thinking, I suppose, that we will prove helpful in their crusade.  I’ve amassed a small collection of these random end-time prophecies from different places—from the guy who insisted that Jesus was returning on the back of a nuclear warhead, to the guy this week who helpfully sent a pamphlet for me to put on my desk, so when I was raptured, whoever is left behind could find it, and feel appropriately terrified.  

I bring this up, not because I think there’s validity in these sorts of prophecies necessarily, but because today’s reading from Ephesians may strike you as something that belongs in one of those omnious tracts that people stick under your car’s windshield at the grocery store.  “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rules, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of the present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

What in the world is that about?

There is, as I’m sure many of you have heard, a notion called spiritual warfare, which holds that the creation is subject to two forces:  God, and God’s forces that work for the good, and those forces which rebel and turn away from God—which are evil.  The notion of spiritual warfare commonly holds that these diametrically opposed forces are in a constant struggle over all creation, and at any given moment, anything may be coopted by one side or another—so we have to be always vigilant, lest the wrong side win.  

That is not what the writer of Ephesians is talking about.  To be very blunt, the idea that there is any possibility that God and God’s love would ever not have the final word would have been nonsense to the early Christians.  Of course God wins.  Of course.  God has already won—That’s what had been proven once and for all when Jesus was raised from the dead—any suggestion otherwise was ridiculous.  We know how this story ends.  The powers of darkness don’t stand a chance against God; God has already won decisively.  

So we’re not talking about a pitched battle here.  We’re talking about something else.  

Remember, that Ephesians was written as basically a “Welcome to Christianity!” pamphlet for newcomers.  But it was also written at a time when Christianity was so new it didn’t have a name, and when it was illegal.  If you were considering baptism, you weren’t just considering a religious option; you were considering something that would put your life, and your family’s life, at risk.  The Roman Empire considered worshipping a god other that the emperor to be treasonous—and the Roman Empire controlled all aspects of life.  In some way, Rome controlled what you did, how you lived, what you ate, how you dressed, who you associated with, how you believed, what you valued.  Every aspect of a person’s life required them to interact with the Roman Empire, for better for worse—It was the mightiest power in the known world.  So to be a Christian at that time was to profess allegiance to something over and against the system that ran your entire world. It was major.

Walter Wink—a theologian from the late twentieth century—had a theory about systems like the Roman Empire—these inchoate, massive webs that we exist in, and that you can’t really remove yourself from.  We don’t have the massive Roman Empire nowadays; we don’t have an actual Caesar claiming to be an actual god—but we do have other sneaky systems.  Nationalism, late-stage capitalism, and that odd mix of ideologies that is American civil religion.           

For (a relatively non-controversial) example:  lending money at interest! Technically, all three Abrahamic faiths are entirely against doing this.  The Bible is clear—both Testaments, the Qu’ran is clear—you should not be doing this because it’s taking advantage of people in need.  However, it is entirely inescapable if you want to live in America today.  There’s no real way around it.  If you don’t have any credit history at all, you cannot do simple things like rent an apartment or open a bank account, because our way of life is entirely dependent on the notion of lending money at interest, such that someone should profit when another person is in need.

Of course, there are more complicated and tragic cases.  We all participate in systems that are larger than ourselves, and, for the most part, do not make for human flourishing.  The food that is most accessible isn’t healthy or sustainable, but it’s all most people can afford.  The clothing that is affordable is made by sweatshop workers in dangerous conditions, and shipped long distances, but it’s what most can afford, and so the cycle continues.  And it’s not a question of individuals making different decisions; these are entire systems set up with profit, or domination, or power as the highest good, instead of God.  

These systems are what Walter Wink called the ‘powers and principalities.’  This is what Ephesians is talking about—these massive webs that we exist within, that we know are idolatrous, that we know implicate us in actions that we wouldn’t choose for ourselves, but there is no way to exist outside of them.  And because we are wrapped up in them, our actions frequently have consequences that we would not have chosen at all.  

Now, that may sound depressing.  The notion that we are involved in sin, basically, that we can’t control and can’t escape from.  Especially if you are used to hearing about sin as an individual failing you make in your morals.  I told a lie, so I sinned.  Whoops!  If I stop doing that, hooray!  I can stop sinning.  And yet, when the Bible talks about sin, 99% of the time, it’s not talking about what I do as an individual; it’s talking about what all of us do as a collective; how we treat the poor.  How we make decisions about war and peace, and how to allot our food resources, and how the king uses wealth for everyone’s benefit.  It’s about all of us, not just us as individuals.

  And yes, corporate sin as a concept is sobering to say the least.  

However, two important facts remain.  The first is that humans built these systems.  We created these ideologies and ideas that compose our world.  And though they are bigger than us, though they are geared to ends that we don’t agree with—they are not invincible.  We constructed them; we definitely can deconstruct them.  Though they seem powerful now, the forces of greed, hatred, and division can be taken down by us as surely as they were first put in place.  

And also, and most importantly, God has already won.  In Christ, God came to earth, and decisively won against any force that would stand against humanity, and life abundant.  That is already decided—there is no system, no ideology, that will win against God—not for long.  We’re caught up in these webs of corporate sin, but God has already forgiven us.  And so now, our job, daunting as it may seem, is to work in concert with God to redirect the systems we live in—to make every choice ultimately about how much we can help each other, instead of how we could hurt one another.  Humans made these webs; we can make them better once we are aware, with God’s help.  

And so, our fight is against these powers and principalities, these forces that seem to overwhelm our individual desire to do good on every side. But the God who called us is stronger than any generational sin.  God calls us and empowers us to redeem every part of this creation has set a vision before us of what the world can be when all humanity, all creatures are honored as the images of God that they are.  And with God’s help, not even the worst earthly power we can dream up will prevent that vision from taking shape.  

Amen.

 

 

Ode to a Pelican

When I was a kid, I liked to watch for pelicans at the beach, because my grandfather would recite a poem about them.  “Oh what a bird is the pelican! His beak can hold more than his belly can!” (Same went for whenever the wind blew in the winter, at which time we were treated to

“The wind will blow, and we shall have snow,

and what will poor Robin do then?

He’ll fly to the barn, to keep himself warm,

and tuck his head under his wing; poor thing!”

Bert had a solid avian repertoire.)   Little did I know that this was in fact preparing me for ordained life.

 

This sermon is both entirely about, and not at all about, the Pennsylvania grand jury report about rampant child abuse within the Roman Catholic Church.  I tried to read the report; I got about 85 pages into a 1350+ page document and had to stop.  It was overwhelming.

What hit me, aside from the abuse itself, was how closed off from the outside the entire church structure seemed–from even their own parishioners.  The Catholic Church has nurtured and built the faith of so many countless people, who faithfully attend, and sit in the pews each week, who say the rosary, and devoutly believe the best of their clergy and hierarchy–and the hierarchy portrayed in those internal documents seems entirely uncaring about how their actions and decisions will affect those people.

I hasten to add that this opaqueness can be found to a degree in all institutions–surely the Episcopal Church at times falls into this trap as well.  But it seems particularly and painfully on display in this instance.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

August 19, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 15, Year B

John 6:51-58

in the chapel at my seminary in New York City, was a mosaic floor.  Written in the lovely mosaics, as you walked down the aisle were the traditional virtues, inscribed in Latin.  Across the front of the chapel, by the altar rail, ran the three Christian virtues—faith, hope and love.  (Love was where they crossed).  And up in the chancel area, were various symbols set into the floor.  I would stare at them whenever I lost my focus saying the daily office—which of course never happened.

But behind the altar was an image that we almost never saw.  It was of a mother pelican feeding her chicks, there behind the altar, dead center.  

We don’t see pelicans much in churches anymore, but in the early years of Christianity, pelicans were a symbol of Christ—specifically mother pelicans.  People didn’t quite understand how pelicans worked, but they witnessed the birds bending down, and dumping food into the mouths of their babies, pressing her beak to her chest to make sure it was entirely empty, and so what they thought was happening, was that the mother bird was tearing bits of her own self to give to her children.  So, they thought, pelicans were like Jesus, who also fed his people with himself.  This was a very popular idea—Thomas Aquinas wrote a hymn about how Christ was the divine mother pelican.  Queen Elizabeth I called herself the mother pelican of the Church of England.  And there’s a pelican feeding her young on the front page of the first printing of the King James Bible.  

Of course, once we figured out what pelicans were actually doing—scooping up fish in their weird mouths, and vomiting into their children’s mouths….it seemed like a way worse symbol for Christ.  So it quickly fell out of favor.

Still, I am rather fond of the image of the pelican.  For one thing, it’s one of the classical female images we have of God in Christianity, so that’s cool.  

For another, it’s a symbol that emphasizes the self-sacrificial aspect of Jesus, which is important.  Other symbols talk of Jesus as the king or Jesus as the branch of David’s royal family line—this one is not powerful at all.  It’s entirely reversed.

In the gospel today, we’re still in John’s Never-Ending-Ode-to-Bread, as we have been for the past few weeks.  Remember, John’s Jesus wants to tell you the why of things, and not just the facts, so he’s been busy explaining at great length how he is like the Bread of Life, which is both like the bread that Moses gave the Israelites in the wilderness, and not like that—because Jesus’ bread lasts longer and does not turn into maggots after 24 hours.  (That’s true about manna—Google it.) 

Anyway, that manna part was the Opening of Jesus’ Great Bread Discourse, and now we’re into the rather peculiar part—which either is or is not about the Eucharist, depending on how you look at it.  In point of fact, at no point in John’s Gospel does Jesus actually eat a last supper with his friends, and present them with the bread and wine, and declare them to be his body and blood.  That doesn’t happen here; instead, what we will get at the end is Jesus eating a last meal, and then washing their feet.  But oddly enough, smack in the middle of the gospel, we have this discussion on Jesus offering himself as food and drink….which really sounds an awful lot like it belongs at the Last Supper.  

It is possible that the writer of John is doing that thing again where he is laying out the theology of something that he is assuming his audience already knows from other sources.  It is also possible that the writer of John is driving towards a point about the nature of Christ that in later times will become the language for what we believe about the Eucharist.

Regardless, the important part for us today in what Jesus is saying is the “my.”  “The bread that I will give is my flesh, and this for the life of the world.”  Jesus isn’t going to run to the store and purchase a sandwich tray; he won’t direct his disciples to take up a collection, even.  he will give of himself so that others may be fed.  

It may be hard to remember, but the story that immediately precedes the Great Bread Discourse is the feeding of the 5,000.  In that story, Jesus redistributes the five loaves and fishes of a little boy to an enormous crowd, and they are fed in a literal way.  Jesus finds a kid, uses his lunch to feed a lot of people.  But now, Jesus says, I’m going to feed you with myself.  With my very being and presence.  I will be bread for you.  It’s a pelican moment.

The words sound strange to us in the start of the 21st century; it’s not an image that we’re used to.  But Jesus is telling the crowd that he is so committed to them, to their happiness, their life abundant, that he will not only miraculously feed them, he will give all that he is, even physically, even his flesh and blood, to that end.  He will empty himself out for these people, so that they may be safe and loved. 

Every week, we celebrate the Eucharist, and I repeat the words we find in the other gospels, and declare that the bread and wine are, for us, the Body and Blood of Christ.  Because, for us,  in this holy moment, Christ comes near again, and says to us—this is how close I want to be to you.  This is how accessible I want to be for my people:  made present in the most common, boring bits of wafer.  I want to be here in the most mundane things, so that you can be empowered to go out and do the same,  So that you can go out, and live like this. 

This is the model Jesus sets for us—for us to go into the world, and give up whatever power and privilege we have in order to serve those around us.  We are called to use our power only to empower others who are kept to the side, to use our voices to amplify those who have been silenced. Our privilege is not for our own gain, our power is not to be used for ourselves or our profit—whatever we have, is for the benefit of the world.  Whatever loaves, whatever fish we have, is for everyone.  And all we have to do, this week in particular, is look around to see what horrors self-seeking abuse of power can create—in the grand jury report in Pennsylvania.  We are called to emulate Christ, and to give away what we have.  

There is such power in this sacrificial act—in the medieval mother pelican feeding her young; in Christ coming to us in a tasteless wafer.  How much more, then, are we empowered to replicate that humility, that service, to those we meet, when we can remember that this has been done for us?  When we can remember we have been formed by love like this? When we can remember that we have been enfolded by a God who willingly stoops to enter our muddy world because it is so loveable, how much then are we inspired to reflect that sort of love to this world’s creatures?  

Let’s find out.

Amen

 

Righteous Anger

As I said before, I don’t generally preach about the Pauline Epistles.  This isn’t due to my ambivalence about Paul–it’s mostly due to the fact that Paul tends to preach fine on his own; he mostly doesn’t need my help.  (In fact, he’d probably object to it.) Paul’s letters are essentially theological discourses connecting the basics of the Jesus story with concrete experiences or problems in the life of the community he addresses.  So sermonizing on them today is slightly redundant, I feel.

However, we have now entered what feels like Week 75 in the Great Johannine Ode to Bread, and at this point, I will take whatever opportunity arises to talk about anything from the pulpit besides the benefits of carbs.  (Side-note: what does the writer of the Fourth Gospel have against the gluten-intolerant, anyway?)

So, last week, I held forth about the occasional benefits of anger.  Enjoy.

Rev. Megan Castellan

August 12, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 14

Ephesians 4:25—5:2

  • Bless your heart as a common expression in the South
    • Denotes pity, scorn, possibly outright shaming, but all in a socially acceptable way.
    • You disapprove without disapproving.
  • There is no similar expression in the Midwest.  Closest one can come is a lengthy silence, and the suggestion that you, yourself, have failed.  Coupled with ANOTHER lengthy silence.
    • Basically, there’s really no socially acceptable way to express disagreement. It is not done.***
  • Similar to the case for many of us, in Church, I suspect.  
  • For here there is a rumor that to be a Christian is the same as being ‘nice.’ ‘Agreeable’
    • That the 11th commandment is to Be Nice at all costs, come what may.
  • I think this was based in a good place—surely the heart of being Christian is to love one another.  But over the years, we have seen the command to love be turned into a command to be polite, to be nice….And that is a very different thing. 
  • So today, as we read the letter to the Ephesians, the instruction to Be Angry, but do not sin, might take you by surprise.  It did me.  
  • The writer (we don’t think it was Paul, but it was someone claiming to be Paul, and people back then didn’t stress about copyright the way we do.) is writing a group letter to the newly-formed church in Ephesus, in what would become Turkey.  
  • Ephesus at the time was at the crossroads of several major shipping lanes, so people from all over were passing through, coming and going, and here, a new church had sprung up.
  • The letter then is basically a Welcome to Christianity! Here’s What You Can Expect! pamphlet.
  • The other letters deal with specific situations or controversies—usually Paul is telling someone why they’re wrong, or trying to solve some theological muddle.  Here, the writer is just trying to explain what a person might want to know if they were just starting out and getting their bearings.  What the church was for, what salvation looked like, how to relate to others, those sorts of things.
  • Basic Church 101
  • And of course, in any community of people, especially different people, from different places, with different expectations, there will be conflict.  So are the new believers supposed to just pretend like everything is fine?  Nope.  “Be angry, but do not sin.  Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.”
  • In other words, have disagreements, but dont’ let them run the ship.  Don’t let them fester.  And don’t let your anger control you, or force you to do something you regret.  
  • But anger, in and of itself, does not seem to be a problem.  At least not when it is controlled.
  • It’s worth noting of course that Jesus seems to have gotten angry a fair amount. 
  • There was that time he got mad at those selling things inside the Temple, and he chased them all out.  
  • There was that odd time he got mad at a fig tree that didn’t have figs on it, so he cursed it. 
  • We definitely know he ranted against the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day, and looking at the language he used (whited sepulchres! Blind guides!) he was probably pretty angry when that happened.
  • In contrast to the mild-mannered Jesus of hazy paintings, really, he got fired up a fair amount.  
  • But what’s interesting about Jesus’ anger is a few things:
    • 1. that he never directed his anger towards anyone else’s harm.  He got mad at people, and occasionally at things, but he did not hurt people.  
    • 2. He was made angry consistently by injustice.  
    • Jesus becomes angry at the religious leaders when they don’t live up to their own words; he becomes angry in the Temple when he sees people being taken advantage of
    • Jesus becomes angry when he sees injustice that hurts people
    • One way to understand anger is what emotion results when a boundary is violated. So, when someone breaks one of the understood rules, hurts someone else, violates that boundary, then anger is that feeling of frustration that results when we witness that. 
    • in that sense, i would say that there are situations where anger is called for.  
    • We are called to be angry when we witness the helpless being hurt, when we see the meek being trampled, or the rights of the poor being taken away. 
    • When we see that the justice of God is still a long way off, we are right to be angry. 
    • Some situations surely call for it.  There are times when politeness and niceness won’t cut it. 
    • Then, the question is what to do with that emotion? It can be scary, especially for those of us raised in a world where anger was discouraged at all costs.  
    • Anger is fine, but we cannot let it rule us. 
    • It is a momentary reaction, but not a trustworthy guide. 
    • Anger, channeled improperly, usually turns into resentment and bitterness. 
    • The thing we have to remember is that anger at injustice is prompted at the beginning by love. 
    • love of others. Love of the world. And hope that things could be better. 
    • Anger can flash in the moment, and provide momentary motivation, 
    • But our core must always be this love. Because this love tempers our actions, and centers us on God’s path for us and for our world. 
    • In the end, anger is not capable of bringing us to Christ. Love is. 
    • So we must allow our anger to point us back to this love, and not distract us from it.  We must use our anger as a warning and a messenger, and not as a way of life. 
    • Anger that stems from love and returns us to love; anger that ultimately inspires us to fight for all God’s children—this is a righteous thing.  
    • The path of Love that Christ calls us to doesn’t just ask us for niceness or politeness.  There are times in our broken world where, in order to reckon truthfully with what is happening, anger is called for.
    • But, in the model of Jesus—so anger at a situation, at a system.  Not at a person, and not leading to violence or hatred.  Anger as an inspiration to further work for the wellbeing of all. 
    • Its the anniversary of the events in Charlottesville, where members of the neo-Nazi and white supremacist communities killed a woman who had gone to spread a message of love for all people.  Surely, anger at her death is justified.  
      • But let that anger move us to work for greater love for all God’s children.  Let that anger move us to work for an end to hatred and an end to white supremacy.  And let that anger remind us that the path of division and bigotry ends only in death, whether it be physical or spiritual.  

And may we use our anger as the gift that it is to walk together further down the path of Christ’s love.

***ETA: This was what I said at the 8am.  However, a wise parishioner reminded me afterwards that there IS in fact a Midwest equivalent of sorts: a tight smile, and saying “Awwwwwww” then pausing for maximum effect.  The subtlety of Midwest scorn is unparalleled.  It should be studied.

Listen to Smart People

Several things collided this week to create a sermon.  One was the ever-wise Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney writing about David and Bathsheba. (If you don’t read her work, you should.  Stop reading this and go read Dr. Gafney.  Just go.)

Ok, I am assuming if you’re reading this then you’ve already read what Dr. Gafney wrote.

The other was that I realized I have never preached on David and Bathsheba.  Never.  And that, I realized, cannot stand.  Not in this age of #metoo and #churchtoo and all the other hashtags we are faced with.  Despite my discomfort (there are KIDS in the congregation!  Can I put a trigger warning in the bulletin? etc) I knew I needed to talk about this story.

Sure enough, so many people came up to me afterwards to thank me for preaching on it.  Not that I made the story palatable (it’s still not; it’s still a horrid story) but I think we forget as preachers how confusing it can be to hear some of these readings in the pews, and then have the most bizarre things skipped right over like they never happened.  So we can talk about bread for the 45th time.

Talk about the confusing bits.  Lean into the troubling parts.  If it bothers you, I will bet money that it bothers someone in the pews.

Here’s what I said–and please note–the exegesis here is all Dr. Gafney.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

July 29, 2018

Proper 11, Ordinary Time, Year B

2 Samuel 11:1-15

I find it curious sometimes at the stories we tell children.  When I was growing up, we had this VHS tape of cartoon bible stories:  One was Noah’s ark, and one was David and Goliath.  The animation wasn’t fantastic—I am too old to have been the target of Veggie Tales.  But what I remember is that both stories had some really horrific scenes of death and destruction.  Noah’s ark had a whole lot of people drowning in a flood.  And David murders Goliath in a pretty bloody way, and it’s fairly graphic.  

Yet these are stories for children!  And if you look at the Bible stories marketed for kids—those are the central ones!  I think it’s for marketing purposes, perhaps, or perhaps the people doing the marketing haven’t actually read them—and all they see is—on the one hand, a lot of cute furry animals, and on the other, a heroic kid with sheep.  

But truth be told, the Bible has some really awful, not at all G-rated stories in it.  One of which we get today. And I decided to preach about it because I think that facing that which makes us uncomfortable is often better than ignoring it, or glossing over it, and that this is doubly true when it comes to our faith.  Because the Bible often has these horrible things in it because our world also has horrible things in it, and it is only in facing them squarely that we can figure out where God is in all this mess.

To that end—just what is going on with David and Bathsheba?

The last time we saw him, David was really just a kid, fleeing from Saul, the king who quickly fell from grace. Now, he’s the king of all Israel in his own right, with all the power in the world, waging war on other kingdoms, and feeling so secure he sends his army off to battle without him!  In every way, David has the power.  And Bathsheba does not.

It is that power differential that it is vital to keep your eyes on here.  Yes, there are folk songs about this story—yes, the text gets pretty metaphorical about what exactly is happening.  But in the end it is important to remember that one of these people is literally the most powerful person in the world, and the other is not.  So choice—even the illusion of choice—does not exist for Bathsheba.

Bathsheba, though—-she’s a bit of an enigma. And here’s what I mean.  Like the folk songs written trying to romanticize what is definitely not romantic (looking at you, Leonard Cohen), there has been a lot of art trying to make Bathsheba into a scarlet woman—a woman who basically got what was coming to her. She gets the Mary Magdalene treatment in Western art—“Here is a woman, we know she’s not the Virgin Mother, ergo she must be a direct path to hell.”) But whoever wrote this text took pains to do a couple of things on her behalf.  For one, she gets a name—which is incredibly rare for a woman in the Biblical narrative, let alone for her father to also be named.  The fact that her father is named is probably an assertion that she came from a “good” family.  Her family was known enough for her father’s name to be relevant to the story.  

For another, she is depicted as adhering faithfully to the Jewish laws of purification, which was a big deal.  Bathsheba was doing what she was supposed to—she was following the law.   Meanwhile the first thing we are told in this story is that in the time kings rode forth with their armies—this king was instead lounging around breaking one of the ten commandments.  

Then breaking a few more of them. 

Bathsheba is doing what she is supposed to.  In the world of the text, she is vindicated.  

David, on the other hand, is very, very wrong.

David takes by force a woman who cannot and does not consent, and forces her to bear his child.  And when Bathsheba’s husband refuses to cover his tracks, David has him killed. We have words for those acts in this world.  

We are used to hearing this story as David’s story—as an illustration of how even a great king can make horrible mistakes—but as Bathsheba’s story, it’s even worse.  

Make this story about David, and there’s an easy-enough-light to see at the end of the tunnel.  David is still king, and though he’s in trouble, God preserves his life, and still speaks with him.  

Bathsheba, though?  Where’s the redemption for her?  Where’s God’s presence for her? 

This is one of those stories where we need to be careful how we read it, we need to be careful not to make it too spiritualized—because as horrible as it is, it is also not unfamiliar.  We are living in a cultural moment where more and more of these stories are being told, where it is becoming evident that for a long, long time, many in positions of power have felt free to behave just as David did.  And the Bathshebas in those real-life stories were left to disappear into the shadows without names or voices.  From Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer, to Bill Cosby, we’ve watched the famous and beloved figures admit to some really horrible treatment of those less powerful than they.  

In ways large and small, the story of David and Bathsheba continues to play itself out in our world, before our eyes, and so it is vital that we, as people of faith, figure out what we are called to do in response.  What is our response to be, to the Bathshebas in our time?  To those misused and abandoned by those in power?  What is our response to be to the Davids of the world?  

The story goes on, after our lectionary cuts it short.  What we see this week is David’s sin—what we don’t see is Bathsheba’s victory.  You see, after all this horribleness happens to her, and she ends up with a dead husband and kidnapped and living in the palace, she has this baby.  And Nathan, the prophet, calls David out by name, and accuses him in front of EVERYONE for his actions towards Bathsheba.  Nathan and Bathsheba sort of team up, from then on, and despite Solomon’s lowly status, they contrive to have him rule Israel, instead of the first-born.  And when Solomon takes the throne, he establishes a special role for his mother, as the queen mother, and insists that the kingdom honor her as they would a queen.  

The trauma still happened, of course.  She still suffered greatly. and what David did should never have been allowed to occur in the first place. And yet, though Nathan’s intervention, through God’s grace, in a way, Bathsheba was vindicated in a powerful way.  David’s hubris and pride caused his downfall, but God lifted up this wronged woman, and in the end, gave her a form of justice over the most powerful man in the world.  

Because in the end, God does not care about how powerful anyone is. God doesn’t care how rich anyone is, or how polite, or how outwardly moral.  God cares about how we treat one another.  And when we mistreat each other, then God is there to lift up the victims, to comfort the survivors, to assure them that even when justice and redemption seem impossible this side of heaven, that God hears the cry of the oppressed.  God hears the cry of the downtrodden.  God heard Bathsheba, God hears those who cry out today, and we as the church need to do likewise.  We must be like Nathan, ready to come to the aid of the victimized, however unpopular it might be.

The presence of stories like this on in the Bible does not mean that God condones what happens here—the presence of this story in the Bible means that God gives us a job when tragedies like this one occur in our time.  It means that God urges us to be ready to side with the Bathshebas of the world, and ready to stand with the Nathans.  God calls us to give voice to the voiceless, to give support to those who have been pushed aside; to be the Nathans of the world. And when we live into that role, no one need fear David’s power any more.

Amen.

Take a break

I feel like I preach this gospel every time I return from vacation, but guys: Vacation is a WONDERFUL thing.

This year, I broke my own precedent and took 6 days off of work after General Convention.  6 days where I could just sleep, knit, watch British murder mysteries, and sleep some more.  (And also finish unpacking my books.)  This novel approach meant that for the first time ever, I did not come down with a post-Convention sickness of some kind, neither did I subject my dear parish to my incoherent blathering after a 10 day stretch of no sleep and little food.

In short, I recommend vacation.  My heartfelt thanks to the supply preachers who showed up to give me a break, and also naps.

Here’s what I said (when I returned.)

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

July 22, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 11

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

I like to knit—I think I’ve told you this.  I started knitting when I was in college, and kept at it on and off ever since.  I have noticed that my knitting tends to increase exponentially especially in times in stress.  When I was studying for comprehensive exams at the end of seminary, I knit three sweaters in one month.  When I had to go to stressful diocesan meetings, I knit countless pairs of socks.  

This isn’t stress relief—it’s something common to most people in helping professions.  I knit because I need to do something that I can see is productive.  There are times I need to see something concrete emerge from the time and energy I apply—especially when so much of my working life is spent in ephemeral ideas, putting effort into things that matter immensely—but the effects of which cannot be seen or measured.  So, when things get stressful, I need to do something that results in something tangible.  Even if it’s a shawl I am accidentally knitting backwards.

Our world likes productivity.  We like producing things, we like doing things.  It influences so much of how we live, how we relate to each other.  One of the first things we ask, when we meet someone new is “what do you do?”  What field are you in?  Having a job, keeping a job, is an implicit requirement for being seen as an adult, or a contributing citizen in the country.  (Just think what that phrase implies—contributing citizen.)  In much of our culture’s public discourse, when we talk about people, we talk in economic terms: what people contribute, what they can produce.  And this is every side of our political spectrum, really.

Because this sort of language is so endemic (and really, once you start listening for it, it starts to spring up EVERYWHERE) it bears repeating that this is not the language we find in Scripture.  In fact, from the very start, God seems entirely disinterested in what human beings can produce.  

Actually, before God even gets to figure out the true potential of these new human critters, GOD TAKES A BREAK.  God goes on vacation.  God finishes creation, creates humanity, and then…takes Sabbath.  And from then on, God tells humans to do the same—work for six days, and then on the seventh—do nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  This is the basic pattern for what becomes the Jewish tradition of the Sabbath.  It get further fleshed out in laws, and descriptions, but there’s the pattern, set by Godsownself.

The idea is that one day a week, humanity has to stop entirely and do no work.  Not just no wage-earning work, but no work entirely.  No lighting stoves for cooking, no turning on cars for running errands that didnt’ get done while you were at work, no starting up the computer to catch up on email—no work whatsoever.  It was a day just to exist and to be—and to reclaim that initial relationship with God.

Because, if you notice in that Genesis 1 story, God does not immediately create humans and then sets them to work; God creates humans and then…lets them be.  The initial relationship between God and humanity is one of pure enjoyment of each other’s existence.  They hang out with each other in a familiar and intimate way, in the cool of the evening as God comes strolling through.  

It’s only when the first humans mess up, and hide from God, that the intimacy is broken, and one of the consequences of leaving the garden is the burden of constant work.  Losing that intimacy with God now means that humanity is scared, and wants to continually prove that it’s good enough, can do enough.  And so work becomes a burden, instead of a joy.

So with ALL THAT as context: when Jesus turns to the disciples and tells them to take a break, it’s not necessarily because he’s exhausted, or he wants a vacation.  He’s calling them back to their own religious tradition’s practice of sabbath.  That there be periodic times where you don’t have to be productive, but you just get to stop and just be.  He’s reminding them that they need to stop doing and just be with God.  

So off they go—for a time of quietness and prayer, just to observe some momentary Sabbath.  It doesn’t quite work out the way they want it to, but the recognition of the Sabbath is important for a number of reasons.  

For one thing—humans need to rest.  We aren’t Energizer Bunnies; if we keep working all the time, we burn ourselves out.  And this is one of the times when our dear RCL cuts out a lot of the story.  In between the time when Jesus tells everyone to go take a break, and when the crowd discovers them, and make them go on a healing spree, two massive miracles happen: the feeding of the five thousand, and the walking on the water.  These are some pretty sizable miracles, certainly larger in scale than what he’s done up until now.  So for one thing, as a practical matter, Sabbath—reconnecting with God—enables us to recharge, so we can better concentrate on doing God’s work in the world.  

But for another, the primary reason we need Sabbath is to remember our true value.  Because we live in a world that’s so defined and fascinated with what we can produce, what we can earn, we badly need time to break free of that so that God can remind us that our value does not lie there.  Rather our value lies in our very existence as children of God—and that’s it.   Even if we never earn a dime in our lives, even if we never produce a single marketable anything,  the very fact of our existence speaks to our worth and value to God.  And the time we take away from our work is a witness to our inherent value and dignity as images of God, entirely apart from what we can produce. Sabbath is a moment to witness to who we fundamentally are, and a reminder that nothing we do or don’t do can change that ultimate relationship with God.

The miracles Jesus does (that the RCL skips here) are Sabbath-y type miracles, too.  He feeds a harassed and harried crowd, when his disciples want to send the people out to find food for themselves.  Make them do some work!  Make them earn their own food!  Jesus refuses, and just gives them lunch.  Because on their own, without working for it, or having to earn it, those people are worthy of having their needs met.  Those people are worthy of Jesus’ compassion and love.  They don’t need to do anything; just as they are, as they exist, Jesus cares for them.  Such is the Sabbath.

Honoring the Sabbath isn’t something that comes naturally to us.  We don’t have a tradition that emphasizes it and structures it weekly like Judaism.  And we live in a world that pushes us more and more towards constant connectedness and constant productivity.  But that makes it all the more important for us to consciously take time, periodically for sabbath.  Maybe not every week, but try every month.  Every two months.  Every quarter.  Just try taking one day and devote yourself to not doing anything.  Do nothing productive at all.  Don’t take care of anyone or anything.  Just spend time the God who loves you, and reconnect to your essential value as a beloved Child of God.  

Because in the end, we don’t have to do anything to earn God’s love.  We don’t have to produce great achievements for Christ to care for us, or provide for us.  God cares for us just because we are.  We are loved just because we were created in God’s love.  And in the knowledge of that love, we can rest secure in our worth, and worry less about our production.  

Continuing Education

On Saturday, I went to my first diocesan event in Central New York.

Here’s the thing with diocesan events:  I consider them a win if they are unremarkable and contain one or two pieces of information I can use.  Occasionally, diocesan events descend to the point where they test my continuing belief in my vocation, which is worrying, but mostly, they sort of float along unnoticed.  I go, I talk to people I don’t usually get to see, and life moves on.

Happily, Dr. Catherine Meeks was invited to be the keynote speaker at this particular event.  And Dr. Catherine Meeks is a freaking genius-person who can bring the gospel with the best of them.  Listening to her speak was a true highlight.  (If you haven’t read her book Living into God’s Dream, then you should do that.  Go read her book.). One of the things she said was that hatred, prejudice, bigotry, etc resulted from our own inability to do our own work.  When people were unable to process their own insecurities and their own damage, they projected the elements in themselves they were uncomfortable with onto the Other–whoever that might be–and that projected image became what we saw when we engage with the other person.  It’s fear, but not fear of difference in the other, as much as it is fear of difference in oneself.

For me, this melted my brain a bit.  I’ve heard all sorts of explanations for racism and sexism over the years: economic anxiety, lack of exposure to difference, ignorance, etc.  None of them quite fit for me–because there is always the person who grew up around difference, knows perfectly well the consequences of what they say and do–and just does not care.  I’m related to people like that, and just calling it cognitive dissonance doesn’t explain it fully.

I adore learning something that explains some of the world to me.  So I have, since Saturday, walked around marveling in my head how wonderful and brilliant this idea is.  How much it explains.  How useful it might be to explain yet more of the big world.

Dr. Meeks also made mention of God’s role in all of this; how God asks us to fully engage in the process of making justice and peace a reality, even as we would much rather wander around with our faces toward the sky, asking for someone else to do it for us.  That part, I used in my sermon on Sunday.  Here it is.

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

May 13, 2018

Ascension/Easter 7/ Frances Perkins shout-out?

Luke 24: 44-53

 

My fiancé and I have noted that when someone’s name appears floating through our social media, our first thought is “Oh no, I hope he’s not dead.”  Then, our second thought is usually “Oh no: what horrible thing has he been accused of?” 

It’s only been a year since the article was published that exposed Harvey Weinstein’s repeated crimes against women, and in that time, the #metoo movement has done much to shed light into some of the darkest spaces of our society.  By elevating women’s voices, and by using social pressure against those who harass and abuse the vulnerable, the movement has started to shift how we address these issues as a society.  (Started to.)

And one of the side-effects of that shift is that there has been more than one fallen idol in all this.  Louis CK seemed so affable and funny, until the stories about him came out, and suddenly it all looked different.  Bill Cosby was hilarious, and harmless, until he really, really wasn’t.  Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Garrison Keillor, in Missouri, the governor, Eric Greitens, and this week, the Attorney General of New York.

As I was reading about the latest case (which was really awful, and you should prepare yourselves) what struck me was the women who urged the victims not to come forward.  “He is what we need against Trump,” they argued.  “He’s such a key player.  He’s done so much good.  We can’t do this without him.”

What horrible calculus is that.  Don’t get me wrong; I understand the logic.  I understand why the victim of assault would not want to come forward, especially against a public figure.  But the thinking that one person, one person alone!, can save us.  The idea that any hope for change rests on One Magic Person being perfect is bound to end badly.  It’s a very dangerous thing, trying to make an idol out of anyone, much less a human.  But we try it all the time.  We do it in ways large and small.  Oh, how we would love for someone, ANYONE, to save us so we don’t have to.

Think about this burning human need for a savior, in the back of your mind, when you reread the Ascension story.  Because, on several levels, the Ascension story is WEIRD.  It’s a bit…unnecessary? Even?  Jesus has lived, he’s died, he rose again, and now?  He just lifts on off the ground, and for what?    I’m sure the disciples were really put out with this turn of events—they had just gotten the guy back 40 days prior, and here he is leaving again.  This was perhaps not the most helpful to the disciples.  They have all these expectations, all these things they want Jesus to do now that he’s new, Resurrected Jesus:  “Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Because surely now that he’s back, he’s going to get on with making the world perfect, with doing all the things he promised while he was alive.  

But nope! No sooner had they begun to get their minds around the resurrection than Jesus leaves again, and NOW what state of being is he in? They expected Jesus to fix everything now that he was resurrected, but instead, he leaves.  Again.  And they are left staring at the sky.

But two angels appear, and ask them what they’re doing “Men of Galilee, why are you staring at the sky?”  

Now that Jesus has departed, the disciples are a bit baffled, and more than usual.  Who will save them now?  Who will do all those things that Jesus said they should do?  How will anything get better?  Who will save the world now?

The disciples want Jesus, of course, to be the person to do all the heavy lifting—to be the one person who does all the work.  And of course, Jesus, during his ministry on earth, does an incredible amount of healing and teaching and preaching. 

But in the end, when Jesus departs for the heavenly realms, the disciples must pick up the torch of that ministry.  They must go out and do themselves what Jesus had previously done.  Peter must grow into the Rock Jesus declared him to be.  James and John must grow beyond their quarreling and bickering, and work together.  Thomas must venture beyond his cynicism and journey forward in faith.  Mary Magdalene must embrace a new life.    All of which wouldn’t have really been possible if Jesus had stayed with them.  But now that he’s gone, these gathered people grow from a lost band of confused individuals to the seed of the church.

It’s only after the Ascension, after all, that we see Peter beginning to get a clue, and start preaching dynamic sermons in Acts.  It’s only after the Ascension that we see James and John band together and build up the church in Jerusalem.  It’s only after the Ascension that, according to legend, Thomas goes to India to preach the gospel and Mary Magdalene goes all the way to Rome to tell the emperor of the Risen Christ.  All of a sudden, it’s as if the Ascension spurs the disciples to grow into the people they were intended to be all along.  

In theological terms, we say that Christ doesn’t depart in the Ascension—or rather, he does, but only so that he can be more fully present with all of Creation.  While he was incarnate on earth, he was bound in time and space, but after the ascension, he was no longer so limited, and so could be present to all people in the same instant.  The spirit of Christ could accompany Peter as he taught, Thomas as he traveled, Mary as she preached—everyone all at once.  And us, as we gather here.

Instead of relying on an external Christ to magically save them, the Ascension pushed the disciples to rely on the spirit of Christ aiding them internally for guidance and strength. It pushed them to do the work that Christ had been preparing them for during his ministry, and to realize all they were capable of.  To claim their roles as co-laborers with God in this world.

Because really, we can’t rely on idols.  Idols, as the Psalms are always telling us, will disappoint us every time.  No matter what.  Idols won’t save us—no matter how well-intentioned.  If we want the world to be a more just place, we have to change.  If we want oppression to cease, we need to work on that.  If we want to see more love, more mercy, more forgiveness in our world, we need to start cultivating these within our own lives.

The Holy Spirit, present in our midst, empowers us to seek and do the will of God, even when its difficult, even when we aren’t sure how to begin.  It is the Holy Spirit that shifts us from gazing longly at the sky, wishing for another idol to rest our hopes on, to moving forward, ready to embrace the life and work that Christ calls us to.

  

Happy happy, joy joy

I did NOT decide to preach a sermon on the joy of Christ because I recently got engaged. (While I am really happy, I’d argue that the immediate inundation of “YOU MUST PLAN YOUR WEDDING THE FOLLOWING WAY” ads on all social media platforms really cuts down on the experience a bit.) I decided to do it because I am again indebted to D. Mark Davis’ lectionary/linguistic blog Left Behind and Loving It. In the post, he asks what the joy of Christ might look like, which got me thinking.  I’ve talked before about how I usually steer clear of commentaries, because they tend to overshadow how I hear the text with their own opinions and framing.  This blog just posits questions alongside the Koine text, which I find infinitely more helpful as a place to start a sermon.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

May 6, 2018

Easter 6

John 15:9-17

One of the side-effects of beginning your ordained career at a younger age than the average priest, is that you spend quite a lot of time in meetings with people trying to figure out how to speak the language of “Kids These Days.”  This is fascinating for a number of reasons, among them, the assumption that an entire generation has ever been of the same mind about anything, and also—that a person who felt called to enter the priesthood as a teenager would make a particularly good spokesperson for said generation.   I went to seminary at age 21!  I am not the most typical of young people!  

And yet, here we are.  In one of those meetings, I can recall sitting with my college students when I was a chaplain, and being surprised to hear adults in the room congratulate them for attending service.  “I can’t believe you come to church! Next time, we’ll make sure to reward you with lunch afterwards.” One said.  Another made some mention of college students not coming to Holy Week services, because “that’s just too much for them” and probably too boring.” 

I found this all quite strange.  In point of fact, my particular college students had pushed for a full schedule of Holy Week services, and would have probably loved it had I given in to their demands and done a full chanted Rite 1 eucharist with incense every week.  When I was introduced to one freshman in his first week of school, he shook my hand solemnly and informed me that the Hymnal 1982 was a sadly underutilized document within the Episcopal Church today. 

My college students LIKED church.  They liked church a lot, which was why they came, in a culture that increasingly looked askance at the openly religious.  There was no peer-pressure to attend church for them; in fact, there was just the opposite.  But they came to church because here, they found meaning.  Here, they found joy.

The gospel today is taken from a long speech that Jesus gives in the gospel of John.  At the last supper, after he washes their feet, Jesus holds forth for chapters and chapters in something called the High Priestly prayer—essentially recapping what his ministry has been about for the past few years.  He’s taking these last moments with his disciples to remind them of what they need to know before he leaves them.  

And so he reminds them that he has given his commands and lived his life in order that we should abide in his love, and so our joy may be complete.  The language in this gospel is more complicated than really it ought to be—it’s like someone is showing off—but this section is chained together with a little word that means either “so that” or “in order that.” I have said these things to you in order that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.  This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you—and no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

These ideas are connected like dominos—Jesus is saying that if we follow this command to love one another as he does, then we will find his joy. 

This, then, is what the Christian life is about:  his joy, and his love.  Joy that can sustain us thru everything in the world, and love that can overcome death.  The joy of Christ—that’s a somewhat unfamiliar thought, but if you’ve ever seen Desmond Tutu speak, then I imagine it might be similar to the joy that shines out from his face.  Because surely, someone who has experienced such suffering and human cruelty in their lifetime, yet can still beam with delight over a silly joke knows something of the joy of Christ, that persists even in the face of bleakness.  

This joy isn’t denial, by the way, and it isn’t emotional manipulation.  I don’t think Jesus wants us to deny or manufacture emotions—the sort of joy I speak of cannot be conjured up through force of will, really, or a key change in emotional music.  It’s born of being rooted deeply and surely in the love of God for all creation, and knowing that God’s love will have the last word, no matter what.  And feeling the delight of that knowledge set you free.  

Oddly, this joy is not always what we associate with church—love and joy and good news.  Church is frequently talked of as a somber, stale thing, filled with frozen people who must assent to a lengthy list of do’s and don’ts, and who probably don’t understand science.

 

But that popular conception hardly seems like the sort of thing that Jesus is talking about here.  Or the sort of thing that would be lifegiving at all.  Faith, he tells the disciples, is meant to be joyful.  Our relationship with God is meant to be a source of freedom and joy.  It is supposed to connect us to that sense of joy.  By this the world will know that you are my disciples—that your joy may be complete.  That you abide in my love. 

How strange is it, then, that in so many places, what passes for Christianity does the exact opposite.  How odd that what is called the gospel by many is such a soulless, hard thing—that so often what we hear shouted from rooftops and quoted by politicians is not the joy and love of Christ, but something else.    After all, the gospel is called good news, and so good is what it should be.  

And not just good news for the person proclaiming it—not just good news for the rich, the privileged, the fully-able, those of white privilege, those society already favors.   but good news for everyone.  

Good news for the poor, the sick, the politically oppressed, the disabled, the struggling, people of color, LGBTQ, the marginalized—if what we say is not good news for these, then it is not the gospel.  If what we proclaim does not bring the life-giving love of God into the world, then it is not abiding in Christ.  if It does not speak of that joy that laughs in the face of evil because it forces its coming downfall—it is not the gospel.  

Because if we let it—our faith is joyful.  That was the secret those college kids had discovered years ago.  What could be dour or dull about what we do here?  THIS IS FUN.  THIS IS HAPPY.  Celebrating God come among us, and the eternal triumph of love incarnate—that is incredibly joyful.  

This is the joy we need to share with the world; this is the joy we need to celebrate, especially in a world so often dismal and sad.

Amen