RSS Feed

Category Archives: Sermons

Getting what you ask for

(With apologies to Proverbs.)

Three things are feared by preachers,

Four topics make them all afraid:

Stewardship, Doubting Thomas, and the Trinity.

 

On Wednesday, the Vestry requested that I preach on Stewardship.  For various reasons, this had not been done at St. Paul’s for a good long while, but being an odd duck, I really like preaching about stewardship.  I have been known to break into stewardship sermons in the middle of August.  So I said I would give it a shot.

Here’s what I said.  People liked it, which I think might be a Thanksgiving miracle.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

November 19, 2017

Ordinary Time, Proper 28

Parable of the Talents/Absentee Landowner

 

It may or may not surprise you, but when I took the theologically risky path of googling this parable, a lot of sermons came back extolling the virtues of capitalism.  (You find strange interpretations of the Bible when you google without knowledge–if you google the story of Esther, for example, you find a lot of Sunday School lessons on how important it is for girls to be obedient to adult authority.  Which is 9 kinds of toxic, in light of the news of the past few weeks.)

 

The parable of the talents, these random Internet sages argue, is principally about how God, in the figure of the absentee landowner, gives us gifts, or resources, and then expects us to make them as profitable as we can while we have them, before he returns.  If we fail to do that, then woe betide us.  

And the VERY BEST way to do that, many of them argue, is lending money at high rates of interest in a capitalist system which is clearly what those slaves were doing!

 

I got a new book by the Conservative Jewish writer and New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine on the parables last month, and so she and I are here to tell you that there is a lot wrong with that proposition.  For one, there really wasn’t any sort of market system that we would recognize going on at the time of Jesus.  There’s no way Christ was advocating an early Adam Smith philosophy here.  

 

But more importantly, let’s consider the personality of the landowner here.  He’s…sort of a mean dude.  He randomly gives money (a lot of money, actually) to his slaves, and then leaves.  We aren’t told why.  And when he returns, he demands it back, and not only that, he demands that the slaves should have made him a hefty profit through what appear to be really risky means.  And he gets EXTREMELY ANGRY AND VIOLENT with the slave who didn’t do that–even though these were never explicit instructions.

Is this a good parallel for God?  Really?  Does this sound like the God that Jesus has described up until now?  The God who asks us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to turn the other cheek, and not chuck them into the outer darkness, the God who constantly reminds us that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, and as Professor Levine pointed out–has a special concern that fields and vineyards not be over harvested, so that the poor may eat for free.  The idea that God would be represented in this parable of Jesus’ as an absent, greedy landowner who deprives his slaves of even the little they possess is confusing at best, when you stop to consider it.  Nothing Jesus has told us about God up until now fits with the landowner.

 

Indeed, Jesus tells us that God doesn’t leave us.  God isn’t absentee at all.  Jesus’s constant refrain throughout the gospel is “The Kingdom of God has come near”.  God never leaves us.  A more consonant way to read this parable might be as a diptych with what comes next–that famous story about the sheep and the goats.  So we have this rather awful story about the World as it is–where an absentee landowner expects his slaves to make tons of money for him alone, and when that isn’t done, he reacts violently.  But you turn the page, and hear “But when the Son of Man comes, with his angels around him, he will separate the sheep from the goats”.  

And in this “judgement” scene, the flock will learn that, contrary to what they had believed, contrary to the images of an Absentee Landlord in the sky, He hadn’t left them at all–he had been with them all the time!  

And, when he divides them, one from another, it won’t be based on who made the most money–rather it will be on who used what they had to care for the most suffering people.  An entire reversal of what came before.  

In Jesus’ kingdom, what is important is not how much money you make.  How much profit you can accrue for Some Scary Man in the Sky who Will Punish You.  It’s how much you used what you had to care for others–how much you gave your talents to the care of others, and not to accruing more and more money.  THAT’s what counts.

 

At St. Paul’s, we dedicate a full 14% of our budget to our food ministries and to our school in Haiti.  That’s over $112,000 a year.  Compared to other churches, that’s an enormous percentage, and does not include the amount of money we give to the diocese.  

 

That money goes to the work you see around you all the time.  The food pantry, which gives away so much food, three times a week, no questions asked, to our neighbors in need.  The various food programs that we also keep running here: Meals on Wheels, Senior Commodities, TEFAP and Backsnacks, meet the needs of various communities who also rely on the food we give out, but for one reason or another, can’t make it to the pantry as often as they need to.

 

We also, through your generosity, run a school and church in Haiti, in a very remote part of the country, and have for over 30 years.  The children who come to our school receive a hot meal every day, and a quality education which prepares them to enter the workforce and change their country for the better.  

But not just that.  Because, let’s face it.  If you wanted to feed the hungry, or help children in Haiti, you could do that by giving your money to Harvesters, or the Red Cross.  But when you give your money to St. Paul’s, what you are also doing is keeping this place alive.  A place that not only provides food and shelter to those who need it, but a spiritual home and haven to generations who have come through those doors.  You keep the lights and heat on so that people can stop and rest here and find a moment of peace.  You keep your preachers supplied so we can give a word of wisdom each Sunday to someone, maybe who has never heard it.  When you give your money to St. Paul’s each year, quite frankly, you change lives.  You change lives in Westport, in Haiti, and right here in these pews.  

 

We at St. Paul’s know that God is not that absentee landlord, who abandons us to make our way as best we can, alone in the world.  We at this church know that God is always with us, and that God gives us Christ, and gives us each other to care for.  We know that our job here is to care for those least able to care for themselves, and to tell the world this story we know about the God who loves them, and who is here with them.  

But crucially, it is only with your support that we are able to do these things.  It is up to you, and how you spend your talents, that determine whether we can keep doing the work we have been doing together.  

We’re entering stewardship season (as you might have guessed.) And that’s a word that mostly scares the pants off of good Episcopalians.  But stewardship is just about how you decide where to put your resources–that question of the slaves.  Do you put them to the goal of earning more and more money, like those first servants, whether you just stick them in the ground, or whether you dedicate them to the material and spiritual care of others.  This is what we have to decide, because it is part of the spiritual life.  This is part of following Christ.  

At St. Paul’s, over the years, we have done our best to put our resources towards keeping the light of God’s love shining in this corner of the city.  That is what we will keep doing.  And with your help, that is what we will always do for generations to come.

 

Amen.

 

Advertisements

Assigned Sermons

So last week, the rector and I were discussing the parable in Matthew he was going to preach on.  It was that tricky one about the king throwing a party that no one comes to, so he burns down a city in retribution, and kidnaps a whole second city into coming to his party.

It is tricky for some (hopefully) obvious reasons.

I suppose it was those discussions that led the rector to announce, in the course of HIS sermon, that I would be unpacking the ensuing pericope in Matthew, so everyone should show up next week to see how I did it.  At the time, I had not planned on doing that, but I am loathe to disappoint an entire church-ful of people, or to so publicly flout a reasonable request from my rector.  So I duly took on the famous “Render unto Caesar” passage.

I really dislike this passage–not for what it actually says, but for the ways in which it has been applied over the years.  The neat division between secular and sacred by people who claim the Incarnation has troubled me for years–ever since my professor in college went on a tangent one day and exegeted this passage.

We were supposed to be discussing the history and development of human rights in Islamic law that day, but one of the articles we had read cited the oft-made argument that Western Christianity alone was responsible for the development of freedom of religion, because of this ‘render unto Caesar’ passage.  Prof Sonn could not even with this historical and exegetical blunder, and took a time out to explain how that was NOT AT ALL what Jesus was doing, and NO ONE thought about distinct religious and political spheres until modernism, and also, the concept of dhimmi was ample evidence of an Islamic concern for the religious rights of minorities, and it’s not like medieval Europe did so great in that regard either, because what was that Hundred Years’ War about again?  She had some strong feelings on this, as she did on most things.

But it was the first time that I had heard an alternate interpretation to the traditional Two Kingdoms line, and it stuck with me.  (Also, the proclivity to fly into tangents about academic ridiculousness complete with handwaving and sarcasm.)

Here’s what I said, with a hat-tip to Prof Sonn.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

October 22, 2017

Ordinary Time, Proper 24

Matthew 22:15-22

 

  • Here is my long awaited sermon on the puzzling Caesar vs God parable in Matthew, that Fr. Stan so generously previewed last week.  As was promised, I will preach on the Gospel.  I had thought about preaching on Isaiah, because Cyrus the Persian is the DREAMIEST OF ALL BIBLICAL CHARACTERS, but alas, no.  
  • As Fr. Stan said, this is indeed a tricky passage.  We know this in part from the Pharisees and Herodians saying to each other, “we’re going to be tricky”.  It’s a bit of a giveaway.  But also from the way this passage has been treated over time.  
  • Because part of the challenge of the Bible is that we read–not just the words on the page–but also the history of how those words have been interpreted and used.  How these passages have been understood by people before us through time.  For better and for worse.  
  • So this passage, for example, from the time of Martin Luther, helped give rise to something called the Two Kingdoms doctrine.  
  • The idea was that God ruled over history in two distinct ways:  God ruled over secular affairs through secular or civil authority, and over spiritual affairs through religious authority.  
    • It was a variation on Luther’s ideas about law and gospel–the law being the civil authority, and the gospel being religious.  Which was helpful, because it would be tough to run a kingdom if the king cheerfully forgave all murderers and let them run freely around as an act of grace.  
    • But Luther was clear that civil leaders got to govern in their own way, and should have NOTHING TO DO WITH RELIGION.  Religious leaders, on the other hand, shouldn’t meddle in the affairs of the state, because their ‘kingdom’ was separate.  
    • The reason being, Luther reasoned, was that Civil authority existed to curb the worst impulses of non-believers.  Religion, on the other hand, was effective for believers.
    • This gave rise to some really GOOD effects on the government side–John Locke cited Luther when he wrote the philosophy which led to our First Amendment.  Governments realised that their role was not to dictate religion.  Good idea.  Solid.
    • On the flip side, however, churches started to pick up the idea that their job was not to meddle in the affairs of governments, or even, in extreme cases, to have opinions about them.  Instead, their job was to keep rendering unto Caesar.  That’s….not as great.  
    • The Roman Catholic church sort of picked up this theory too, eventually, but called it the two swords theory, where one was temporal, and was much lower than the spiritual sword. But still!  Separate things!
  • So when we read this, that’s frequently the background music we hear playing.  Give to Caesar what is Caesar; give to God what is God’s.  Of course! We think!  They’re two separate realms!  
  • And yet, if that were true?  This would not be a trap.  
  • This is a hard question for Jesus precisely because THERE IS NO SEPARATION.
  • This is a trap because there is no clear answer–least of all a clear division.  
  • This conversation is happening as the Leaders are standing in the Temple–an edifice built by a Roman-Jewish Client king, in order to curry favor with the locals, first of all.  
  • That also meant that the Roman coin couldn’t even come inside the gates.  Caesar’s image was breaking the 1st commandment against graven images.  
  • The crowd is not a fan of Rome, so signing off on Roman taxes will make Jesus unpopular.  
  • HOWEVER, saying people should NOT pay taxes makes him a traitor to Rome.  It’s a trap.
  • But either way you go–you see how religion and the secular world are intertwined.  
  • To be Jewish is to take a certain position with regards to Rome.  To be Roman is to have another position with regards to Judaism.  The entire question posed by the leaders here rests on the idea that THERE IS NO SEPARATION between these ‘two kingdoms’–rather, there’s one kingdom.
  • And Jesus has to pick one.
  • He goes with “Give to Caesar’s what is Caesar’s–i.e. The coin” and “give to God’s what is God’s.”
  • Here’s the catch:
  • To an observant Jew, or even a non-observant one, ALL THE WORLD was the Lord’s.  There’s no part that isn’t God’s, where Caesar would reign.  That’s axiomatic.  Part of the reason people didn’t want to pay taxes to Caesar was that taxes were a symbolic acknowledgement of Caesar’s rule over them.  
  • What Jesus is doing is carefully threading a needle here.  He’s caught between empire and the demands of faith.  And while the empire has daily demands that ask for compliance, God has larger commands that call upon our lives.  How we negotiate that is a test of faith.
  • Ultimately, when the Empire demands coins, that’s not a big deal; coins are essentially worthless.  When the Empire demands supreme allegiance, loyalty, to the exclusion of what God asks of you–that’s a problem.
  • So the task for us is not to divide the world up into neat spheres of influence.  
  • The earth is the Lord’s and all that is therein, after all.
  • God actually gets a say in all that we do–we have to carry Christ’s call to us to be unconditionally loving, generous and merciful into ALL aspects of our lives.  
  • But we do have to decide what in our lives belongs to the Empire, so that we can give it back.
  • What rightly belongs to God?  What rightly belongs to the Empire?
  • There will always be the claims of Empire in our lives–whether we are on the victorious, Roman side or not.
  • The risk for us is to confuse our loyalties.
  • God still controls the world, not the Empire.  And while we still need to contend with the earthly reality of these powers which rise and fall, we cannot escape that our primary responsibility is to God.  Period.  
  • Whether we are subjects of Rome, of the United States, of Capitalism, or the most sacred of Empires, that of Major League Baseball–that doesn’t let us avoid the call of God.  God still asks us to live our faith.  Even as Uncle Sam asks us to pony it up.
  • We get to decide what that negotiation looks like.  I’m sure those disciples argued about it–chances are good they disagreed strenously.  
  • But the two kingdoms still pull us.  Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away.  Complying with their every whim doesn’t make them go away.
  • We have to carry our discipleship into the midst of Rome, in order to change them.  We have to transform the empire from within, by staying true to the primary call of Christ to us.
  • Only then will the world be transformed into the reign of God we wish to see.

 

Paul’s Reckoning

Look, can we just agree that St. Paul is The Worst?  I realize he has his good points (Romans 8, FTW, as well as Galatians 3:28) but on the whole, Paul does not come off like a great dude.  In Acts, he appears to swagger in and immediately throw his privilege around.  In his own letters, it’s even worse.  He takes pains to point out how awesome he is at everything, including being humble, so you should probably be taking notes.  And his writing is confusing, to put it mildly.  After we struggled with a single line from Romans for about 45 minutes one day in Greek, our professor told the class, “Look, there are times when it is you, and there are times when it is Paul.  This time, it’s Paul.”  For our graduation, we got it engraved on a bookmark as the class gift.

And, of course, Paul also takes credit for the sexism and homophobia that crops up in the NT.  His shadow is indeed long and dark.

However, Paul casts too big a shadow to entirely ignore, and from time to time, I do try to work with the guy.  He will never be my best friend, but he has graduated into something of a neighborhood crank that I lovingly indulge.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

August 27, 2017

Ordinary Time, Proper 16

Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20

I know he’s our parish namesake, but I must be honest with you all and confess that the Apostle Paul is not my favorite.  

While he has good moments in his letters, he also is prone to unfortunate statements about women remaining silent in church, and women should cover their heads, and the like–so I am convinced we probably wouldn’t get along well.

Nevertheless, I am going to do something different today, and preach on Romans.  So buckle up.

Romans is Paul’s longest letter, and also one of the letters ascribed to Paul that we know he wrote.   (Timothy, Titus, and Hebrews, not so much.)  From what we can tell, it was written to the Christians at Rome sometime during the rule of Emperor Nero, so sometime between 54-68 CE.  

Several things were happening at this time: There were significant crackdowns on the Jewish community, because we’re almost to the Jewish Revolt of 70.  And Nero, in reaction to problems with his own floundering rule, also clamps down on Christians, and anyone who isn’t prepared to worship the Emperor as divine.   However, while you’d expect that these persecutions would drive the communities closer together, quite the reverse was happening.  Reading between the lines of Paul’s letter, it would appear that the Christians who kept Jewish law did not get along with Gentile converts.  And so there was also a lot of infighting to contend with.

So Paul has a lot of ground to cover in his letter.  A lot of things are going very wrong.  

 

He starts out by describing the righteousness of God–or faithful justice of God.  God, Paul says, has been kind and merciful to everyone alike–Jew and Gentile, because all of us have fallen short of what God wants of us.  All of us struggle to do what God would require, and none of us is better than another of us.  It was through Judaism that the world first figured out what it was that God wanted, Paul reasons.  God gave Moses the law, and so taught humanity what justice was, and so we knew where we were going, sort of where to aim.  But that doesn’t mean that we succeeded in achieving it.  

Instead, as Paul says, “Since we are justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”  

In other words, knowing what it was God wanted of humanity wasn’t enough.  Christ had to come and live as human, and die at our human hands in order to reconcile us to God.  THAT was what brought us grace.  And that sacrifice also equalized the playing field between both Jews and Gentiles.  “Just as one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”  

We now, all of us, Jew and Gentile, can live vicariously through Christ and be righteous to God.  

Whew.  That’s just the first six chapters.  Paul crams a lot in there.

And it’s important to understand what we mean when we say things like “justification” and “righteousness” because those are some very churchy words that tend to get tossed around, til we just assume everyone knows what we’re talking about.

To justify someone was a legal term–it meant to prove them worthy, or to prove them to be in right relationship.  The general idea in those times was that each person owed things.  You owed things to society, you owed things to your family and you owed things to God.  You owed your parents material support, you owed your civil authorities loyalty and respect.  You owed God worship and obedience.  You owed the poor care and compassion.  Basically, there were expectations laid on each person.  To be justified, then, meant that you had met your expectations well.  You were justified.  You had done what was expected of you.  The state of being justified is being righteous.  You lived with justice towards all.

I’m saying all this because frequently, when Paul gets preached on (and, not in Episcopal churches) or we talk about justification, it tends to sound like an internal thing.  Are you justified?  Are you righteous?  But Paul is not actually concerned about your internal state.  Paul is worried about how you treat other people, when he talks about being justified.   He’s talking about justice, not about purity.  

So all of that is to say, when Paul starts talking about being conformed to Christ, and not to this world–he is reminding us that this world works differently than God does–the world has a different expectation of justice than God does.  What may be acceptable and legal in the world is not what God would consider to be just and righteous, and our job is not to worry about what the world says, but the justice of God.  

Don’t worry about the world’s standards; worry about God’s.  What does God say is just?  What does God say is right? The world asks us to be nice, to be polite.  God asks of us something higher, something greater. God’s justice is bigger than the world’s. Paul is writing to a group of people who were being hunted down and killed, and he is reminding them not to worry about it, but to keep their eyes on the prize.  God’s justice was on their side, so keep your focus doing God’s work in the world.

Perhaps it’s easier now, in the new world in which we live, here in 2017, to feel ourselves closer to the Christians of Rome, under Nero.  Perhaps we feel ourselves closer to their state of fear and anxiety as we watch the news and wonder who, exactly, our government is representing these days.  But Christ asks us the same thing he asked his disciples: not who does the world say that I am, but who do you say that I am? God isn’t concerned about the world’s standard’s. And we shouldn’t be either. Lest we forget–when the disciples answered Jesus’ question that day, they didn’t become nicer people. They became outlaws. They literally became criminals in the eyes of Rome. And they were standing in a city named for the empire. Christianity isn’t meant to make us nice. It is meant to make us faithful. Loving. Just.

I had the privilege of worshipping with a Palestinian Anglican community this summer in Zababyeh, in the West Bank. The church was packed on Sunday morning, and the priest had generously preparered us an English bulletin so we could follow the Arabic service. As we began the Eucharistic Prayer, and the priest prayed over the bread and wine, several Israeli fighter jets buzzed the building, low enough that the windows shook. My American friends visibly quaked in their seats. The Christians of Palestine went right on praying, that they, along with the gifts, would be acceptable to God as a living sacrifice.  

We don’t get buzzed by weapons of war here. But we are posed with the same question: shall we be nice, or shall we be faithful? Shall we be conformed to the world, it’s forces of empire, or shall we follow Christ, and his justice and love for all people?

To seek out those places of injustice in the world and set them right, because any system that abuses the children of God, allows hatred to fester, or encourages division, racism and bigotry is not worthy of our Creator.  

God calls us as his children to something better than the world does. God promises us we are more, we are greater than the world does. .  God asks us to be worthy of the justification he gave all of us in Christ. The world asks us to be nice to one another, but God asks us to regard one another as images of God himself.  THAT is God’s justice.  That is a reflection of the infite worth we have been given.

Today, we are asked the same question as those disciples at Caesarea Phillipi and those Christians at Rome. It is up to us how we answer.

Amen.

 

Wheat and Tares

This time I firmly recall why I used bullet points for this sermon.  I had just gotten off a plane from Jerusalem and my brain was jetlagged, emotional, and mushy.  I couldn’t sentence at all.

(Why haven’t I written about my Holy Land pilgrimage?  Perhaps I still will.  There’s a saying that if you spend a day in Jerusalem, you can write a book.  Three days, and you can write a paragraph.  A week, and you can’t write a sentence.  I have always found that amazingly accurate to my experiences there each time.)

Anyway, I landed at Kansas City around 12:30am on Saturday morning, and preached this sermon at 5pm on Saturday evening.  At least, I think I did.  I was pretty tired.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

July 23, 2017

Ordinary Time, Proper 11

Matthew

 

  • –Holy Sepulchre is disappointing for many people.
  • –They go, expecting a beautiful, transcendent experience of universal Christianity, and instead
    • It is an exploded furniture warehouse run by rival mafia families.  Basically.
  • First off, the building is weirdly ugly.  It was built in stages over centuries, all ramshackle and whatnot.
  • Then its pretty run down.  Black smoke tar all over every thing.  Icons faded, disappeared over time.  The Assyrian altar looks like four pieces of wood held together with prayer and duct tape.
    • Know when it was last renovated?  5 years ago, and it was paid for by the King of Jordan.
  • And it’s loud.  Thousands of pilgrims taking selfies, pushing and shoving, not understanding how lines work.  Crotchety priests telling tourists that they can’t come in because they’re wearing shorts.  Rival processions of monks trying to out-pray the others.
  • And it’s disconcerting.  6 different churches control areas of the church, and they do not get along.  Armenians, Roman Catholics, Coptics, Assyrians, Ethiopians, Greek Orthodox.  And they fight.  Example: Greek Orthodox control the tomb where Jesus was buried…but the Copts control where his head was laid.  Periodically, one will stage a small incursion into another’s territory and a literal fistfight breaks out.  It’s so bad that since the 1850s, two Muslim families have been charged with being the caretakers of the church, since they don’t have skin in the game.  
    • My favorite story is that of the Immovable Ladder:  a 6 step ladder up the edifice of the church, which has been there since the 1840s.  It is now against the law to move the ladder now, because of the Status Quo agreement–the top of it is on Armenian territory, the bottom is in Greek Orthodox territory, so periodically, the ladder has to be replaced.  Once, the ladder was replaced with a DIFFERENT ladder, and great controversy ensued.  
  • All of which is to say–for many pilgrims, the holiest site in all of Christianity ends up feeling like less of a holy experience.  
  • They walk out into what they expect will be a field full of lovely wheat and WTH–it’s all tares.  Not cool.  
  • (This is sort of the crowd reaction I think Jesus expects from his parable.  IT IS NOT OK TO MESS WITH SOMEONE ELSE’S CROPS.  DUDE.  MAJOR PARTY FOUL.)  
  • Additionally, the word used here for ‘weeds’ is a specific one.  The weeds are a specific plant that cannot be torn out because their roots are intertwined with other plants.  So to weed your field would also mean destroying your good crops.  Someone’s getting punked pretty good.  
  • Again, parables were meant to shock and slightly discomfit the hearers.  We, on the other hand, have gotten so used to the shock we no longer hear it.  But the crowd would have been very upset at the prospect of having dumb weeds all in your nice field.  
  • So, too, with having dumb tourists all in your lovely shrine.  On a visceral level, it doesn’t seem right.  Aren’t we supposed to be holy and silent and contemplative over here?  
  • Why do we feel the need to have what feels and occasionally looks like the Worst Shopping Mall Ever built over our holiest spot on earth?
  • When what we want is a glorious, calm, neo-platonic vision of beauty to carry us to God?
  • The truth is, we would prefer not to have any messiness in our religion.  No corruption, no confusion, no crossed signals….and, I daresay, if we could get away with it, no humans at all.  They only muddy things up.
  • Better to just have me and God, calm and quiet, forever.  A perfect field of wheat, ripe for the picking.
  • Instead, we walk out into Christ’s promised field and there are all these weeds we have to get through.  What the heck!
  • But here’s the thing.  It’s easy to get angry at the weeds when they aren’t what we expected.
    • But In the midst of that chaos and confusion of the Holy Sepuchre, there are moments of beauty.  The Muslim family ahead of me in line to pray at Golgatha.  The hungry cat who snuck into Mary Magdalene’s Chapel and was finally fed by a Catholic priest.  The hundreds of thousands of tiny crosses carved into the stone walls, left by medieval pilgrims who travelled across the known world.  
    • God, after all, doesn’t deliver us from the chaos of humanity in Christianity.  God comes to dwell in the midst of it.  God doesn’t clear out the weeds–God instead plants wheat down here with us.  It is therefore fitting that the holiest place in creation to us would be the place where all of humanity’s foibles are on unique display, and God shows up anyway.  
    • The weeds don’t disguise or prevent the wheat from flourishing.  Indeed, the weeds display the hardiness and strength of the wheat.  
    • Our God doesn’t allow any weeds to prevent the goodness of creation from shining through at last.  
    • So we have no need to fear or disdain the weeds of the world–God has planted wheat in the midst of them for us to discover.  

Power of the Trinity

Preaching on Trinity Sunday is the domain of all unseasoned preachers.  It is the ultimate hazing rituals; the job each preacher with any seniority whatsoever wriggles out of as best they can, because who wants the job of having to explain the mystery of the Trinity?

Me, that’s who.  I’ve preached on Trinity Sunday since I was 21 years old.  It’s grown on me these many years.  I cannot lie and tell you that I’ve figured out the nature of the Trinity, or how to explain it to anyone, but I do like explaining why this is important.

As opposed to when to properly celebrate Ascension during the week before Pentecost, this IS a ditch I will die in.

Bad theology kills people.  It literally kills people.  The words we use about God matter immensely, and in a world where dangerously misguided people dare to think God condones the sort of hate and violence we’re seeing, I can’t imagine what could be more important.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 11, 2017

Trinity Sunday, Year A

John something or other

 

My liturgics professor in seminary had an expression.  Whenever we were asked to discuss some vast theological concept in class, like the ontological change at ordination, or the nature of transubstantiation, or something like that, and a student would try to get out of it, he called it ‘hitting the mystery button’.  Inevitably, the student would try to dodge giving a straight answer to a straightforward question like “What happens to consecrated bread and wine at the Eucharist?” by saying “I don’t know; it’s a mystery.”

Professor Farwell maintained that this was a dodge, and beneath us.  If, he said, we wanted to be taken seriously as clergy, we needed to be able to say something substantive about our faith; the way it fit into the world, the way it fit with other aspects of life and belief, and not just wave off questions by claiming that EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE WAS SO MYSTERIOUS, OMG WHAT.

So, please keep that in mind as I tell you that today is that most special of days, that feast most cherished by all preachers: Trinity Sunday.  The one day we set aside to again attempt to understand the Trinity.

To recap: the Trinity is that confusing idea that God is three-in-one, and also one-in-three.  That God is simultaneously God the Father, creator of all that is, also God the Son, Jesus the Christ, and also God the Holy Spirit, who animates and flows through creation working to redeem it.  That these three persons are neither separate, nor overlapping, in any way.  

We’ve had this general idea about God for a long time, since about 350 CE.  And it has been super-confusing from the get go.  It was this doctrine that sprouted most of the early heresies, as people tried to figure out how to explain it.

Well, some said, God was like an apple: there were different parts, skin, seeds, core, but one whole.  Nope! Said the church–that’s partialism.  That’s not quite right.

Well, ok.  Maybe it’s that God is experienced in different ways at different times.  Like someone can be a mother, a sister, a wife but still the same person.  Also, nope, said the church.  That’s modalism.  That’s also not quite it.  

Well, fine.  So maybe it’s that God functions in different ways at different times?  Like water, ice, and steam?  Also, sort of no.  Said the church.  Still modalism.  And still no.  

Part of the problem is that it’s not like Jesus ever held lectures on systemic theology while he was on earth.  And even if he had, it’s highly doubtful that the disciples would have managed to retain much of it either.  Jesus and the disciples, instead, focused on the experience of God, rather than the rules of God.  Jesus focused on showing, who God was, and how God was–and that was how we learned instead.

Jesus healed the sick, and so we learned that God wants us to be whole and healthy.  Jesus cared for the poor and the outcast, and so we learned that God cares for the lost and the least.  Jesus loved and forgave and showed mercy, even when it seemed impossible, and so we learned that God did the same.  

Theology for Christians is less about coming up with rules, and more about describing this experience.  We try to work backwards from our experience of God, and our experience of Jesus, and put words to that experience.  We try to find words to tell that story.  

This means two things:

–Both that words matter

To choose the wrong words leads to wrong actions and harmful assumptions.  Even though what we are ultimately doing is describing an experience, the words we choose matter, because other people hear our stories. For people who don’t have direct experience of God, our stories, and the stories of the disciples, these words matter, because they’re largely how people learn about God. And we want them to know the same loving God we know, and not a cheap imitation.

— But it is also true that words ultimately fall short.  As in the case of the Trinity.  We have words, we have stories, but all words ultimately pale before the experience of God.  All the stories all the words in the world can’t fully explain or capture God. So even we find our best words, and all of us bring our stories, our different stories, and we tell them together like a crystal scattering sunlight, but it still cannot fully describe the reality of God.  And that keeps us humble. Because there’s always more for God to do. God meets people in our stories, but God is never confined to our stories alone. God will always flood out of our mere words to Greet his creation. So while we try our best to find the right words, we can also trust God not to be limited by our mistaken words.

Wind, fire, and all that jazz

There are times when I don’t write out a whole manuscript.  Those times are rare–I think better through writing, and the act of writing helps me remember better, so by the time it comes to preach, I am less tied to my paper than I would be with just notes.

But there are times when the week is too busy or when I don’t have the brain power to organize sentences, paragraphs and an organized rhythm to the sermon.  So this usually results in bullet points, as in the Pentecost sermon.

I should note, that my bullet points do not always directly translate to what I say.  Sometimes I have put things in much looser language than I deliver from the pulpit.  Sometimes I have a coherent sentence in mind, and then I expound on it.  All of which is to say that you should not take the below document as an indication of the quality of my Pentecost sermon.  At least, I am 100% sure I didn’t actually say “Ye Olden Times”.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 4, 2017

Pentecost

Acts 2

 

Tower of Babel reversal idea undone. Holy Spirit unites us in diversity

 

  • Let’s pause for a moment and recall a story from Genesis: the tower of Babel! People in Ye Olden Days were one language, one culture. Then, they got bored, maybe, and decided to build a tower up to heaven to reach God. This doesn’t thrill God, who likes being up there on his own, so he strikes down the tower, scatters the people and then everyone speaks their own language in their own place. Boom–cultural differences are created!
  • So story of Pentecost, wherein disciples are again hiding
    • Which they’ve been doing ever since the crucifixion, with momentary breaks whenever Jesus has shown up. But remember, he ascended, so now they’re back to the hiding thing.  Because he told them to stay put in Jerusalem
  • There’s the sound of a great rushing wind, and descending fire
    • Both pretty scary images, actually
  • And the Holy Spirit shows up
  • The traditional understanding of the Pentecost story is that it is a reversal of Babel
    • Babel was a sin against God, and caused division.  Everyone worked together to build a tower to ascend to heaven, but this was pride and God put a stop to it.  
    • People were then divided by language, culture, creed, etc.
    • So the old understanding of the Babel story was that this diversity was basically, if not a mistake, then something reversible.
  • Pentecost, then, was an event in which the sin of Babel was undone.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the divisions which were in place were erased, and God united everyone in a common belief.  Yay.
  • I’m going to argue that this is not exactly correct.  
  • For one thing, the sin at Babel was pride.  It’s another Genesis story where we conveniently get the sin wrong, not unlike Sodom and Gomorrah, where the sin was rape and a failure to welcome the stranger.  Not, you know, anything else.
  • People divide into different languages and cultures and fail to communicate….but you can also argue that this division also stems from pride  
    • What, after all, keeps us from trying to understand someone else’s point of view, but a deep-seated conviction that we have the answer and they do not possibly have anything to add? It’s a tower of a different sort.
  • At Pentecost, pride isn’t erased.  Language, culture, context still are different.  The descending Spirit doesn’t erase the differences between people.  Everyone doesn’t suddenly start speaking Esperanto, or King James’ English.
    • Instead, suddenly people can understand one another.  People who grew up only understanding Aramaic now can make sense of Greek.  People who spoke only Latin now can comprehend Arabic.  The spirit doesn’t erase the differences; it bridges them.
    • As the church grows, too, it actually will rely on the differences to survive.  Diversity will become its strength.  In 6 chapters, the church will get booted from Jerusalem. In 7, it will be booted from synagogues. So it had better figure out how to rely on diversity or it will not survive.
    • So perhaps the miracle of Pentecost is a reversal of Babel, in that the pride that keeps us from each other is removed, if only for a time.
  • How easy it is, though, to forgo the gift of the spirit in this regard!  How easy it becomes to shun the gifts that God’s diverse creation offers us, because it’s too hard, or too much work, or seems too confusing.
  • The world encourages us to build walls. If not towers, to wall us off from people who look different, who sound different. Who live different. Telling us that the Spirit of God we know COULD NOT POSSIBLY be speaking to them as well.
  • Last night I went to an iftar–a breaking of the Ramadan fast–with the  Crescent Peace Society. Group whose sole purpose is to make Muslims known to non-Muslims in KC area, so they’re more than scary names on the news.
  • We sat there discussing Boy Scouts, and annoying the sound of water bottle flipping was, and how to make really good hummus, which Girl Scout cookie bakery was better, and how scary the world is right now and how hard it is to get up each morning and do one small thing to make the world a better place, as we all agreed God called us to.
  • We sat there as the news from the latest London attacks rolled in, and I thought, driving home, how blessed moments like that are. How important it is to sit with people you wouldn’t normally know, and listen for the work of the Spirit in their lives. Move outside our towers, and witness to the blessings they bring to the world.
  • We may not get fire, and we may not hear wind, but we still do get the Spirit in this world. We just have to move out and look for it.

Ezekiel the Crazy Prophet

I returned to work on Sunday from a lovely two week stay-cation.  It was lovely.  I spent the two weeks knitting, watching Netflix, and going to protests, because this is the Year of Our Lord 2017 and the world doesn’t improve because I’ve decided to take time off of work.

It was quite a Megan vacation.

I also spent a fair amount of time up in St. Joseph, where I went to the Glore Psychiatric Museum (which I highly recommend.  If you’ve never seen Barbie and Ken act out a medieval witch burning, have you ever even been alive?***)

I forget how helpful vacations are until I take one, and then I recall that irritation is, in fact, not my natural state, and motivation does, in fact, return with the proper amount of rest.

Oh, that everyone were afforded vacations in this world.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

September 9,10, 2017

Ordinary Time, Proper

Ezekiel 33:7-11

 

Of the Hebrew prophets, you can construct a sort of scale of social acceptability.  On one end, you have the nice guys:  your Micahs, your Isaiahs, even your Amoses.  Amos was a dresser of sycamore trees–and while no one knows exactly what that entails, you’d probably be safe inviting him to dinner.  In the middle, you’ve got people like Jonah, Jeremiah–folks inclined to do some inappropriate yelling at some awkward times, at People who Should Not be Yelled At, but they didn’t DO anything horribly embarrassing.

Then, on the far end, you have Ezekiel.  Ezekiel belongs on the ‘special’ end of that prophet spectrum.  He is one of those prophets who wasn’t just concerned with preaching the word of God; he also undertook specific actions that were symbolic of what God was doing in the world.  So his prophetic work was two-fold.  (Hosea was another one of these, and it’s how he ended up married to a lady of questionable morals, and saddled his children with long and unfortunate names.)  

The downside of engaging in lofty symbolic acts all the time is that they make a person look insane.  Ezekiel lived and worked at the same time as Jeremiah, so clearly a lot was going on, and his acts had a flair for the…shall we say, desperate?  He ate a chunk of the scripture parchment, to illustrate that the word of God was sweeter than honey.  He lay for 390 days before a brick to reenact the siege of Jerusalem. He cut off his hair with a sword and burned a third of it in the city center.  

Basically, he was the town weirdo.  If you saw him pacing down the street, you crossed to the other side.  In life, he was probaby a fairly offputting dude.  

But I tell you what–he lived in some anxious and troubling times.  Ezekiel was one of the first wave of exiles from Jerusalem to be carried off in the Babylonian invasion.  He, and the rest of his comrades, had been rounded up and dumped in a foreign land with no language skills, no friends, no rights–cut off from their family and friends.  Meanwhile, the Babylonian army was destroying the homes they had been snatched from.  The prevailing sense was that God had abandoned his people for their sins, or–that somehow the gods of Babylon had proven stronger than the God of Israel.  And there didn’t seem to be much evidence to the contrary, because all the exiles could see was one disaster unfolding on top of another.  Stacking up like firewood.

That sort of dire situation can make people do some pretty unlikely things.  When people are surrounded by disaster like that–unrelenting, unending bad news on all sides, with seemingly no hope of an end–it becomes hard to hold on to ‘normal’ behavior or beliefs.  

Our tendency, in such situations, is to fall back into fear, and into the most knee-jerk patterns of belief.  God has abandoned us!  Evil has overtaken us!  God is punishing us! The most primal, the oldest thought patterns we have tend to surface around great and implacable disasters, and it’s because of this sort of base level fear that rises up when we feel overwhelmed and under siege.

For Ezekiel’s society, it comes out in the form of an old belief that God was smiting them for their sins.  (Thankfully, this is a belief that no one ever mentions during natural disasters nowadays…..)  The exiles, in their exhaustion and in their panic, believed that they must have done SOMETHING to bring this upon themselves, and so God was now going to destroy them in their wickedness.  The whole people were convinced.  Even though–nothing they knew of God to this point would suggest that God worked that way.  

{This happens on an individual level too.  I have chronic migraines, and in college I had a particularly nasty one, which lasted for a few weeks with no relief.  By the third week, I had come to think of the pain in my head, that pulsing, throbbing thing as a demon–as I prayed for relief.  The whole time, mind you, I KNEW that this was ridiculous.  I knew that the world didn’t work that way, and that what was happening was a neuro-biological process.  But in those moments, I was tired, and I was in pain, and I just wanted it to stop.  }

So up steps Ezekiel, who informs the people that while they, like everyone else, have gone astray–it is not the will of God that they perish.  “As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways.  For why will you die, O house of Israel?”  

God never wants the destruction of anyone.  God wants to give us a second chance so we can do better and learn.  God does not send disasters upon us to teach us “lessons”, or to punish us.  God does not do that, God does not work like that–it is our own fear and human nature that makes us think that in these times of peril.  

Because, after all, wouldn’t it feel slightly better if we could blame disasters on God?  That way, we could take comfort, cold though it might be, that we were morally superior to those afflicted.  And we could promise ourselves that if we just prayed hard enough, if we just did X, Y, and Z, then we wouldn’t be the next to suffer.  And if we are the ones afflicted, then that same fear can turn us inwards, make us blame ourselves for our own evil–robbing us of the chance to reach out for help.  

In times like these, when we have deadly hurricanes stacking up along the coast like planes around O’Hare, and threats of war coming from overseas, and upsetting decisions coming from our leaders, people are doing some odd things.  There are religious leaders out there announcing God’s wrath is upon us for various reasons.  There are other people trying to deny that anything at all unusual is occurring.  

Overall, the anxiety in our world is reaching a fever pitch.  And that tone of fear can be seen and felt in so many aspects of life right now.  The same old fear-based beliefs that rose to the surface during Ezekiel’s time are coming up again now.  What if God has abandoned us?  What if we are being punished?  What if evil has overtaken us?  

When you are tired, and when there is so much anxiety in the air, those thoughts are harder to push back against, because they can be so easy to believe.  So, when you feel those thoughts crowding into your head, remember Ezekiel, and his crazy antics.  Remember the lengths he went to to convince the despondent exiles of God’s undying love and presence with them.  

Here was a man who threw away dignity and common sense to illustrate in word and deed just how much God loved and stood by his people–even in the darkest and most anxious of times.  

Maybe we are called, in our own anxious times, to be Ezekiels for this time and place.  Maybe we are called to act extravagantly to illustrate just how committed God is to our human flourishing, in defiance of those voices who would doubt it.  Maybe we have been sent to throw caution to the wind and stretch out our hands and live largely so that all can see and believe, through us, that God loves all people, and does not abandon us to anything–not even fear.  

 

Amen.  

***Half the museum is the preserved psychiatric state hospital as it was in the mid 1960s, with the practices and equipment explained.  The other half are recreations built by patients from the 1960s to explain mental illness treatments through time.  One such recreation is something entitled the “Bath of Surprise”, in which the medieval person would be lured up onto a platform, then SURPRISE! dumped through a trapdoor into a pool of water.  The plaque noted that the treatment had a low success rate, but patients did seem to be calmer.  This display is helpfully illustrated by a department store mannequin seated in a wooden tub, covered in blue paint.   NOT TO BE MISSED.