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You, Me, and CAMEL! makes three

I realize that I have again fallen behind in the sermon-posting.  However, this time I swear I have a good excuse!

I got engaged last weekend to my boyfriend-though-we-both-agree-that’s-a-rather-silly-name-for-an-adult, Ben.  Hooray!  We are both very excited about getting married, which will happen in October, God willing and the wedding industrial complex consenting.

However, it does turn out that getting engaged takes up some of your time and energy?  Who knew.  So I hereby apologize for my tardiness in posting last Sunday’s sermon, but here you go.  (It does not mention my romantic life,  but it does mention a camel.  Because camels are cool.)

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 28, 2018

Easter 5, Year B

Acts 8!

I took a group of young adults to the Holy Land over the summer on pilgrimage.  I’ve been there several times, but one of the things that hits me every time I go is how very wild the wilderness is.  On this trip, we went out to the desert outside of Jerusalem, early one morning before the sun came up.  We went only a few miles outside the city to the southwest, and soon were in the heart of the desert, with nothing around us except the barren hills.  

We celebrated the eucharist as the sun came up over the hills—with nothing as far as the eye could see—only hills upon hills, and the glimpse of a road in the distance heading back to Jerusalem.

But as I was praying over the bread and wine, suddenly, I noticed a Bedouin family appear over the crest of the hill, riding a camel.  I don’t have any clue where they came from; but they appeared from seeming nowhere in the middle of nowhere.  They quietly waiting, the older man and the young child, until we finished praying, then they offered us rides on the camel and beaded bracelets.  It was them and us, alone in the wilderness.  No buildings, no roads, really, no nothing.  Just a group of wayward Americans, and some friendly Bedouin.  And a camel.  Quite the odd gathering that morning.

I was sitting with that image as I read Acts 8, because it seems like a similarly disparate gathering is occurring in that desert.  To set the scene, things are not going well for the disciples.  Stephen has just been killed in Jerusalem, at the urging of Saul.  So the pressure on the brand-new church is fiercer than it ever has been, and as usually, they do not have a plan.  So Philip is traveling down to Gaza through the desert, partially to get out of dodge again. 

And on the way, in the desert, he encounters a fellow traveler who is also lost—a government official from Ethiopia.  And he’s lost in several important ways: The text says this guy is the treasurer for the Candace—the Ethiopian queen, so he’s clearly important.  Some of the other context would indicate that he is interested in the Jewish faith and has been up to the Temple to worship, but the Temple rules were really against him.  For starters, he’s not an Israelite—he’s Ethiopian, so that’s the first issue.  Second issue is that unless he is willing to fully convert, and be circumcised, he would not be allowed to enter the Temple, and this was generally not a popular idea among adult male converts.  Third, as a high-ranking court official of the queen, chances were good he was a eunuch—which also meant he couldn’t enter the Temple.  Basically, despite his expressed desire to encounter the God of Israel, he has several major strikes against him.  

So here he is, in the desert, in the middle of nowhere, reading Isaiah by himself, when he chances across Philip.  Philip hops in the carriage with him, and reads the scriptures along side him.  And it is this interaction that leads the official to ask to be baptized.  

It’s interesting to note that Philip doesn’t appear to notice the barriers that restricted the official’s access to worship in the Temple.  They don’t register to him.  Also, it’s not clear that Philip has all the answers that the official seeks, or that Philip figures out how to solve the oncoming persecution of the church in Jerusalem.  

But somehow, these two people struggling with their own immense questions manage to find each other in the wilderness and aid each other in a powerful way.  

This event marks a turning point in the life of the baby church—it is the first time that a Gentile converts to Christianity, and it is the first time that the growing Jesus Movement heads outside Jerusalem to discover what other plans God might have in store for it.  To be clear, the church did this the same way it undergoes all change: under protest.  Philip didn’t decide the best strategy for growth was to head out towards the desert and preach to people there; he panicked and tried to flee, but God still pointed him towards the right decision.

Despite their common lostness, both Philip and the Ethiopian official manage to be icons of the divine for each other in this encounter.  Philip guides the official to a new acceptance and faith home, and the official begins Philip on a new journey for the church.  But that common sense of not having all the answers, I think, is part of what brings them together in the first place.

Part of the experience of being in the desert, in the wilderness, is how vast and isolating it can be.  When you encounter another person out there, no matter who it is, you rely on them because there is literally no one else for miles and miles.  We, as travelers in the journey of faith, each have times when we feel more in the wilderness than others.  When we feel more adrift in an ocean of sand and lost.  But the struggle for us in these moments is to recall that the people we encounter are also traveling like us.  Everyone we encounter in this walk of faith is also lost, to some degree or another.  No one, despite their claims to the contrary, has all the answers.  Not me, not you, not Philip, and not the court official.   We share a common experience of trying to put the pieces together.

And this common experience should gift us with humility towards others and towards ourselves.  For even as neither Philip nor the official really knew much about what they were doing, that did not stop them from being a great comfort to each other.  Even as we struggle along, if we are open to the Spirit, and open to each other, we can shed light upon the path for one another.  The action of the Spirit does not depend on our understanding or comprehension, only our openness to it.  

But this reliance on the Spirit and on each other, ultimately, brings us closer to God, and closer to each other.

 

Amen. 

Sheep!

It was hard, I tell you, not to spend this whole sermon talking about how lovely sheep are.  As a knitter, this was a real danger for me, and I feel you should count yourselves lucky that I didn’t just devote 10 minutes of homiletical time to describing various sheep breeds and the characteristics of their wool.  (TARGHEE!!!  BFL!!!!). I realize that so-called “Good Shepherd Sunday” is right up there on the Unpopular Sermon list with Trinity Sunday and Low Sunday, but guys.  Sheep are actually awesome.  And so shepherds must also be.  And why wouldn’t we all be really psyched to be compared to an animal that is pretty intelligent, and can produce milk, meat, and wool?***  Move over, cows.

In view of my sheep-fixation, I decided to go basic with the sermon.  So here’s what I said.

(And no, I don’t explain the various types of wool.  Though, if you’d like me to offer an opinion, I can do that.)

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 22, 2018

Easter 4/ Good Shepherd

1 John/ I am the shepherd

I had a professor in college who taught a whole semester on the Gospel of John.  The thing he most appreciated about it, he said once, was that it was confusing.  I can attest that he was correct.  Jesus uses several metaphors to explain who and what he is in the Gospel of John.  Each of them could fill a book, if you unpacked it all the way, and none of them are what you would call clear.  The gospel of John as a whole doesn’t seem to be intended for people just entering the Christian life; it’s Christianity 2.0—the why of things are rather than the who and the what.  Not the facts, but the reasons behind it all, the grand theology uniting it.

Which is lovely, but also confusing.  So buckle up, because we’re going to be spending a few weeks here in the post-Easter lectionary.  

One of the last metaphors Jesus uses for himself as he’s talking is “I am the good shepherd.”  Now, this one is unlike the other metaphors he’s been using.  For one, it is a person metaphor:  he’s not becoming a plant, a gate, or a food item.  For another, his Jewish audience would have had an immediate context for what he was saying.

Not only were shepherds pretty familiar images in the hills of Palestine, as they still are today, they were also a common metaphor for leadership.  Israel’s prophets would talk about the king as the shepherd of the people, in either positive or negative terms.  Usually negative.  Usually VERY negative. 

  Jeremiah, for example, laments that his people have only had bad shepherds to care for them, shepherds who let all the sheep scatter and be lost.  Ezekiel, too, has a long metaphor of bad shepherds neglecting the sheep of Israel, and letting injustice and corruption reign in the country.  “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed a flock? ‘You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly, you have not strengthened, the diseased, you have not healed, the broken, you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought in, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and severity you have dominated them.”  

So, it’s bad.  And what will God do?  “Thus says the Lord God—I am against the shepherds.  And I will demand my sheep from them and make them cease from feeding sheep.  So the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore, but I will deliver my flock from their mouth, so they will not be food for them.”  God is not messing around.

The idea of a shepherd-king being invoked as the person who rules was really familiar, then. Here, though, Jesus is picking up shepherd part, but more on the ‘good.’ The prophets used it all the time, but usually to make the point that SOMEONE had messed up, and now here the people were, wandering around lost, like errant sheep.  But Jesus is doing something different.  He’s making the point that yes, he’s definitely been given some sort of power, but more than that, that the way in which he uses his power marks him as trustworthy and good. 

Those other shepherds us sheep had no choice but to follow, but this shepherd we do.  

 He’s not just the shepherd we have to follow, because we’re sheep.  He’s the shepherd who is good, so we want to follow. 

Jesus says “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  His sheep know his voice.”  He draws a clear distinction between a leader who is good, who cares deeply and intimately about the creatures they care for, and someone who is just in it for the money, who abuses the trust given to them.  Look, he says, I am the good one.  I am the one you can trust because I care so much. I even sacrifice myself for those I care for!  I am the good shepherd. 

I know we know that God loves us.  Or at least, I hope you know that.  But how often do we sit with that knowledge for a bit?  How often do we recall that Jesus really does love us?  In a wonderfully-specific and life-giving way, born of knowing us intimately, and still just relishing the fact that we exist.  I had a friend in college who was particularly skilled in finding what was lovable in others.  One day we were discussing Shakespeare, and she commented that she would love Hamlet for his puns alone, and I thought that this must be how God sees us—utterly delightful in our uniqueness and complexity.  God must love us for our puns alone.

So often, maybe, we skip to all the other truths about our faith—forgiveness, grace, salvation, our call to justice, and all that, that it’s possible that we can gloss over the foundation of the whole thing—that peculiar delightful love that Christ has for each one of us that keeps drawing us in.  Calling us to follow.  That we are loved in spite of, and even because of, our quirks and oddities, and our failures, and broken places, and that somehow, Christ loves us into something more whole, more holy each day.  

The work of our lives in faith, perhaps, is to learn to love the whole world with this sort of love.  The epistle has talked a lot about living in love, and this, really, is what it’s talking about.  Gradually, we are meant to mirror outwards the love Christ shows us, so the whole world can bask in its warmth.  But this is a challenge for two reasons:  First, because other people are often irritating, and it is hard to love them, and frankly, it would be easier not to.  Other People frequently live on the other side of the world, where we forget about them.  Or they have different loyalties to ours, which makes it hard to agree with them, and sometimes we confuse that with love.  And sometimes, other people hurt us badly.  And it can be difficult to continue to wish the best for someone after they have clearly not wished the best for you. 

But secondly, this can be a challenge to mirror this sort of love because it is sometimes hard to remember that we are loved.  We live in a world that confuses so many things with love: agreement, conformity, even abuse, at times.  And so to hold on to the idea proclaimed to us at baptism that we are God’s beloved, sealed as Christ’s own forever, can be hard, in the face of all that.  That Christ loves us with a non-coercive, enveloping and freeing sort of love.

But the more we hold onto this as our birthright as humans, this inner knowledge of God’s love for us, the more we can show this same lifegiving love to the world around us.  

Because it is this love that builds a better world, when we accept and cherish others.  It is this love that urges us on to be better people, when others can see in us better than we believe ourselves to be, and it is this love that draws the lost and the lingering sheep back home.

***I know–Jesus isn’t using this metaphor to compare his followers to sheep, as much as he is comparing himself to a leader, like the ancient kings of Israel.  The metaphor is about the shepherd, not the sheep.  But, still.  Sheep are cool, is my point.  They don’t get enough credit in this bovine-centric world.

Peter’s Super Power

In case you haven’t seen it elsewhere on this here Series of Tubes, I will be moving to Ithaca, New York in a few weeks to become the rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

I am really excited and happy about this–St. John’s is amazing and I’m so thrilled to be able to work with them.  But this also means leaving KCMO, and St.Paul’s–and that is hard.  I love this place and this parish so much, and I am so proud of the ministry we have done together.  God is doing such amazing things here, and I have been lucky to participate.

But that departure is not today, and never fear–this blog will continue as it has before.  And this blog knows I owe you at least 2 sermons.  So here’s one of them–from the Last Sunday after Epiphany, in which we discuss Peter’s super power.

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

February 11, 2018

Transfiguration, Last Sunday of Epiphany

Year B

 

–I have a tradition of watching the Opening Ceremony of each Olympics.  And livetweeting them.  A group of us have formed over the years–I think the first time I did this was 2012 or so.  

–It’s the only rational response, I feel, to watching such a momentous occasion under the circumstances NBC gives us, which are less than ideal,  At least for me–it’s frustrating to have parts of the show edited out, random trivia spouted by talking heads, and so much attention placed on the American athletes, when maybe this is a great time to pay attention to people who exist outside this country?  And often, as it was this year, the whole thing is time-delayed with plenty of commercials.

-So, loving mockery it is.  Because how else can one digest the dichotomy that occurs onscreen?  The designers of the Opening Ceremony were tasked with a near-impossible task:  tell the story of Korean life and culture over thousands of years through a show–use everything at your disposal.  So, they have 5 children ‘wandering’ through the history of Korea, meeting with mythical creatures, giant puppets, dancers, war torn refugees, drumming choirs, mountains made of calligraphy, and a technological future.  It’s all pretty great, actually.  And it’s all hard to explain in mere words.  

–So, perhaps that’s why the commentators ended up offering tidbits like “Asians are not afraid of tigers!” and “Korea has more tech rehab centers than any place except China!” ….Ok.  

 

–the need to explain is not always helpful.  And often counterproductive.  In fact, NBC had to offer an apology to South Korea just this morning for some of their commentary, when one of the on-air folks said that Korea had always looked to post-war Japan as their economic ideal.  If you know your history, you know that NO.  Koreans definitely did NOT have those warm feelings for post-war Japan.  

 

So, when looking at the gospel for today, maybe sub in Katie Couric for Peter?  Because really, it’s the same problem.  

 

Jesus, after a year or so of teaching, preaching, miracle-working, takes a few of the disciples up a mountain by themselves.  These are his inner circle, his most trusted friends.  And the disciples, Peter, James, and John, have a mystical experience.  There’s no other name for it.  Before their eyes, the truth of Jesus is revealed.  

 

Now, the text gives an image of what this is, but it’s important to keep in mind that the specifics are less important than the thing to which they point.  So Jesus suddenly becomes transfigured, his clothing whiter than the sun, shining with light.  For Mark’s readers, this would have sounded to them like the divine Son of Man figure in Ezekiel, who seems to be made of shining light, all shimmering and brilliant.  So they would have gotten the notion that Jesus is being revealed to be like that figure–divine!  Otherworldly!  Mystical!  

And then Elijah and Moses appear and talk with Jesus.  Mark doesn’t tell us what they talked about because that’s not what he wants the audience to get here.  The audience would have grasped that Elijah was the sum of the prophets, and Moses was the carrier of the Law.  Their friendliness with Jesus indicate that he is literally conversant with the Law and the Prophets, he’s on their side, they approve–and Jesus, as established by the shining,  is clearly divine.  And then, if that weren’t enough, God speaks, and reminds the disciples to LISTEN TO HIM.  

There’s also thunder, and mist, and sleepiness

There’s a lot happening here.  Whatever exactly happened, it must have been overwhelming.  

 

Because the first thing Peter does is open his mouth and panic.  “IT IS GOOD FOR US TO BE HERE.  LET’S BUILD BOOTHS.  OR SOMETHING.”  I have decided that Peter’s chief spiritual gift is being the first person to open his mouth, and utter what everyone else is thinking.  He’s basically biblical cannon fodder, who takes the rebuke when Jesus explains why that, too, is wrong.  But someone has to do it, and Peter cheerfully takes the set down time after time.  

 

Here is no exception.  Peter says this truly dumb thing about booths, made all the more inane by the beatific vision unfolding before them, and I’m sure Jesus just sort of looks at him.  And everything disappears, and Jesus tells them not to talk about it.  

 

One of the commentaries I read this week pointed out that literally everything Peter does is undone by God in this story.  He talks, Jesus tells him not to.  He wants to build booths, Jesus has them leave.  He wants to tell people, God reminds him to listen.  

 

It would seem that there’s an impulse for Peter, perhaps for all of us, in the face of what we cannot understand to shrink it into digestible parts as fast as we can.  Especially when it comes to God.  We take these experiences of transcendence in our lives, and rather than letting them exist in their complexity, to slowly unfold and reveal themselves, we sometimes try to jump to explain them–or worse, we try to explain them away.  

 

But the reality is, that while words can do a lot to convey what we know of God, they cannot do everything.  Much of the divine remains beyond us.  Part of what makes God divine is that inability to be fully comprehended.

 

Our instinct to shrink those experiences that challenge us comes from fear, that most primal of failings.  Our fear that God is, in fact, beyond us.  Our fear that God might want us to change.  Our fear that the great unknowable Divine is uncontrollable, and therefore will wreck us.  

 

Yet, in the face of that primal fear, is it not striking that the one thing God says on that mountain, in the middle of all that shining light, all that mist, and fog, and appearing prophets, in the middle of all that theophany—is “Here is my Son.  My Beloved.”?  The one thing God says is an assurance of love.  In fact, if you look through the gospels, everytime there’s a terrifying voice from heaven, the ONE THING God always says is that affirmation of Love.  That’s it.  

 

Not “I’m coming for you!” or “Pray hard and beat the flu” or “Here are the lotto numbers”.  Each and every time, God says My Beloved.  Each and every time, God speaks of love for us.  And love, as scripture tells us, casts out fear.  

 

If we hold on to one thing, let us hold on to that perfect love of God, and not be too anxious to shrink all of God down to easy words.  The main thing God reveals of Godself is this love–this love for us throughout history, and in the person of Jesus.  

Old and New, Light and Dark.

Poking around on the interwebs today, I came across a blog I kept during seminary.  It was quite the reading experience.  Apparently editing was not my strong suit 10 years ago.  I also had many thoughts about church politics and events in the Middle East, so solidly on brand there.  It included the text of the sermon I gave in the chapel senior year.

I was surprised at how well the sermon held up.  There were definitely things I would change–stylistic tweaks I would make.  Things I would add for clarity’s sake, and adjustments if I weren’t preaching in an academic community who all knew who Cyrus the Persian was***.  But for the most part, the faith I talked about in that sermon is the faith I talk about today.  I want to go back in time and high-five my younger self, and tell her “That’s it!  Don’t be so nervous! You got this!”

On that note, here is my sermon from this Sunday.  It’s less of a sermon, more of a very thorough outline, but the ideas are there.  I wanted to talk about light and dark, and the limits of dichotomies in our dealings with God.  So I talked about neurological things!  As one does.

December 31, 2017

Christmas 1

John 1:1-18

Fun story:  For a few years in college, I saw things.  Not interesting things, like visions of God or angels, or apparitions of the future.  I saw flashing lights, floating dots, and ghost images around lights.  All those symptoms that doctors tell you are Very Bad, and you should immediately go to a doctor should you experience.

Tests were all negative–they couldn’t find anything wrong with me, even after all the doctors had stared at me, and med students had looked worried at me.   But the flashing lights, and weird floaty things persisted.  And thus did begin my fascination with light–since suddenly, everyone else could see something clearly that I could not.  This phenomenon I had taken for granted was now very apparent in my life.  

(Fast forward a couple years, and doctors would conclude that nothing WAS wrong with me–that what I was seeing was the result of a fried cranial nerve during a bad migraine, and could mostly be fixed with surgery and good glasses.  So please don’t worry about me–I am FINE.  But my fascination persisted.  Light, it seemed, wasn’t just light for everyone.)

 

Light/dark is a familiar dualism.  Light= good!  Dark=bad!  Light makes us happy, and dark makes us sad. Light is the thing we want, darkness is the thing that scares us.  This dichotomy is so familiar to us that we assume that this is apparent to everyone and we use that turn of phrase all the time.  It’s everywhere.  It’s in the gospels–and not just in the Johaninne prologue. 

 

Recently, this turn of phrase has become controversial, because it has been used throughout history to tell people of darker skin that they are less than.  Even so far as Joseph Smith telling Mormons that Indians and black people had darker skin because it was an outward sign of their sin.  Now that’s horrific, and so equating light with goodness has become a problem not just for those of us with visual impairments, but also for the reason that it can hearken back to this really troubling history.  

 

But  if we listen, what the prologue tells us is that, in fact, the dualism we assume is not apparent.  And it isn’t self-evident.  When the light comes, John writes, the world doesn’t even notice.  Even as the light illuminates the darkness, and even as the light has been present for all time, and lightens all creation.  Such a powerful presence, and somehow we just don’t notice it.  He came to his own, and his own did not receive him.

 

In retrospect, we sit here, comfortable in the 21st century, and it is hard to see how Jesus’ contemporaries didn’t realize who he was.  He was doing miracles!  He was preaching such amazing things!  How could people not stop what they were doing and noice?

Yet what’s fascinating throughout the gospels is how mundane the reasons people give for avoiding following Christ are.  It’s rarely that they don’t believe, per se-more often it’s something more pedestrian.  The rich young man really likes Jesus, but Jesus tells him to sell all he has, and well, his house is so comfortable!  Business leaders in Jerusalem acknowledge the truth of what the apostles are preaching in Acts, they believe in the risen Christ, but they’re worried about their income.  Pilate and Herod know who and what Jesus is–Herod asks for a miracle–but they have other, pressing political concerns.  

 

Rather than a simple dichotomy, what pulls us away from the light of God seems not to be darkness–it seems to be apathy.  We seem to be numb  to the light, and to what it’s doing.  It is all around us, and somehow, we just ignore it, or we don’t see it, because we’re so focused on other things.  It’s not that we dwell in darkness–a big, bad, foe out to snatch us up–we just become immune.  

 

It’s here that John’s prologue is at its most wise.  John, in his poetry, reminds us that the light is deeper and more profound than a simple enemy to the darkness.  But the Word, which is the Light, was in all things, and gave birth to all things, so when we stop and look around–it is in the light in which we live and move and have our being.  There is nothing we can think, say, or do that is apart from the Light.  And there is no darkness that can overcome or destroy the light. The light of God is what enlivens all life.  

 

But our constant task is to realize it.  To see the light as it shines around us, because while God never is apart from us, often we are so used to God’s presence that we begin to take it for granted.  Our task is to notice.  To recognize.  To be aware of the light shining around us.   To recognize the divine presence suffusing our existence, and not to be distracted by other concerns or worries.  Not money, not politics, not family–not even the darkness.  Because as John reminds us today, there is nothing in all creation that can snuff out God’s presence in this world.  Thanks to the Incarnation, we are inextricably intertwined in the life of God from now on.  The Light is here, and cannot be removed.  Our job is to recognize it and mirror it back.

Amen

 

 

 

***Cyrus the Persian was the Persian emperor who conquered the Babylonian Empire, and allowed the exiled Israelites to return and rebuild Jerusalem.  Despite not being Jewish, Isaiah LUUUUUVES Cyrus because of this–which is why I refer to Cyrus as the McDreamy of the OT.  (Because he is.) (Prove me wrong.) (You can’t.)

Mary Rides Again

I very much like preaching about Mary.

There is a dearth of good Anglican mariology, in my opinion.  Generally, we fall into one of two camps:  either we go full hyper-dulia and Romish about the Mother of God, with rosaries and novenas aplenty, or we go full Baptist, and ignore her.  I don’t think either are helpful.  Mary has a unique role in the Gospels and in the life of the church.   So it’s important for a theoretical, textual reason.

But it’s also important because of actual, human people.  This year, I was tempted to talk about something other than Mary, and her kick-ass self.  But then I came across a published sermon, given by a mainline Protestant minister, in which he claimed Mary was unimportant because she merely was a pawn in God’s larger plan of grace.  In fact, he argued, she had no choice at all–and emphasized that several times.

Nope–I decided right then and there I had to talk about Mary again.  It was either that or be kept awake for the next year with nightmares of that horrifying sermon playing in my head.

As I was giving the sermon, I watched the congregation.  They were on the smaller side–it was the morning of Christmas Eve, after all.  But when I got to the part about Mary being her own person, a teenaged girl in the pews shot her head up, and started grinning.  Afterwards, she told me delightedly that she loved my sermon.

That’s why I do this.

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 24, 2017 (Morning)

Advent IV, Year B

Luke 2

 

The week before Christmas is a fascinating time for clergy, and other workers within the church.  Traditionally, it is the time when the copier breaks, when the plumbing declines to further plumb, and when all manner of small inconvenience suddenly appears, such that you cannot deal with the mounting pile of insanity that needs to be dealt with.  It breaks the weak, let me tell you.  And it’s why I’ve been bringing chocolate into work all week.

 

Of course, that’s what it’s like for most of us in these last pre-holiday days:  lots of rushing, lots of worrying about whether the family will make their flights, or whether Atlanta will have another blackout.  Whether that last side dish will get done, whether everything will be read or not.  For many of us, clergy or not, Christmas is an exercise in anxiety.

 

Contrast this, then, with the images on our Christmas cards of the Holy Family:  figures serene and formal, spotless and pale–looking like they never had a day of worry in their lives.  

Most of the images of Mary and Joseph that we see around this time of year do not reflect what we know their reality must have been:  harried, frantic, dirty, and terrified.  I did a Google search this week, when I was trying to avoid writing this sermon, and by a large margin, most of the images you find of Mary, especially, show her emotionless, and with her gaze off in the middle distance.  She’s distant and otherworldly–too pure and holy for whatever fears and concerns we struggle with.

 

But we know, of course, that this isn’t present in the narrative.  To read Luke’s account of the Annunciation is to encounter a young girl who has a lot of emotions.  

 

When Gabriel shows up to Mary (according to tradition in Nazareth, he shows up while she’s getting water from a local well), she very clearly has some concerns.  If you read the text closely, you can track the changes as the conversation happens.  Gabriel gives her the good news, and Mary is quite explicitly not on board.  She is worried, she is frightened, she has some questions, gosh darn it.  So she asks them.  “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  Mary is trying to figure this out.

 

Gabriel gives further information, and it is only when he does, that Mary responds to the initial announcement.  “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.”  Mary’s affirmative response is predicated on this give-and-take with the angel, and we know this in part because Luke describes Mary’s interior life–the only person really besides Jesus who is described as having interiority at all in the gospels.  

 

It never fails to amaze me, how many sermons and articles I come across which try to overlook or dismiss Mary’s arguing with the angel, and try to make the case that she either had no hesitations (flimsy) or she had no choice (horrifying.)  Each year, when I read about the Annunciation, these depictions of Mary as an emotionless pawn again flood my vision–the verbal equivalent of those pictures of the otherworldly, distant white girl on the Christmas cards.  

 

For one thing, the girl who doesn’t care doesn’t appear in Scripture, so there’s that.  For another, any assertion that Mary is anything other than a fully embodied agent of her own authority helps prop up some really disturbing ideas about women as a whole, and their ability to make their own decisions.  Because Mary is so often held up as What All Faithful Women Should Be, when she is reduced to a quiet pawn in the hands of God, that similarly tells women that the ideal to emulate is quiet, subservient, and without a will of her own

 

But finally, and perhaps most vitally, when we do actually stick to Scripture, and the depictions of women shown there, instead of our invented nonsense, we see that Christianity is resting on the foundation of the (still-controversial idea) that it is vital to believe women.  Both the malaligned women at the empty tomb, and the frightened, excited girl who spoke to an angel.  Without the believed testimony of women, we would have no church.  We would have no faith.

 

And just as vitally, when we bear witness to the fullness of this tradition, then we also see that it is as fully formed human beings that God encounters us.  God encounters Mary in her complete humanity–in all of her confusion, in all her doubt and fear, in all her questioning.  God does not shy away from any part of her or declare her questions out of bounds–God declares her as Blessed among women before a single word leaves her mouth. Indeed, she is blessed just as she is.  She does not have to do or change a thing.  

 

So then, Mary serves as a reminder that God takes us, each as we are.  Each one of us, regardless of our doubts and our hesitations has been declared beloved and blessed by the Most High.  Each one of us is needed in this recreation of the world.  And for each one of us, regardless of how well the cookies turned out, regardless of whether the dog eats the turkey, regardless of whether the children fight, regardless of whether we can muster up enough cheerfulness or not–Christ will be born on Christmas.  

 

 

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 24, 2017 (Morning)

Advent IV, Year B

Luke 2

 

The week before Christmas is a fascinating time for clergy, and other workers within the church.  Traditionally, it is the time when the copier breaks, when the plumbing declines to further plumb, and when all manner of small inconvenience suddenly appears, such that you cannot deal with the mounting pile of insanity that needs to be dealt with.  It breaks the weak, let me tell you.  And it’s why I’ve been bringing chocolate into work all week.

 

Of course, that’s what it’s like for most of us in these last pre-holiday days:  lots of rushing, lots of worrying about whether the family will make their flights, or whether Atlanta will have another blackout.  Whether that last side dish will get done, whether everything will be read or not.  For many of us, clergy or not, Christmas is an exercise in anxiety.

 

Contrast this, then, with the images on our Christmas cards of the Holy Family:  figures serene and formal, spotless and pale–looking like they never had a day of worry in their lives.  

Most of the images of Mary and Joseph that we see around this time of year do not reflect what we know their reality must have been:  harried, frantic, dirty, and terrified.  I did a Google search this week, when I was trying to avoid writing this sermon, and by a large margin, most of the images you find of Mary, especially, show her emotionless, and with her gaze off in the middle distance.  She’s distant and otherworldly–too pure and holy for whatever fears and concerns we struggle with.

 

But we know, of course, that this isn’t present in the narrative.  To read Luke’s account of the Annunciation is to encounter a young girl who has a lot of emotions.  

 

When Gabriel shows up to Mary (according to tradition in Nazareth, he shows up while she’s getting water from a local well), she very clearly has some concerns.  If you read the text closely, you can track the changes as the conversation happens.  Gabriel gives her the good news, and Mary is quite explicitly not on board.  She is worried, she is frightened, she has some questions, gosh darn it.  So she asks them.  “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  Mary is trying to figure this out.

 

Gabriel gives further information, and it is only when he does, that Mary responds to the initial announcement.  “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.”  Mary’s affirmative response is predicated on this give-and-take with the angel, and we know this in part because Luke describes Mary’s interior life–the only person really besides Jesus who is described as having interiority at all in the gospels.  

 

It never fails to amaze me, how many sermons and articles I come across which try to overlook or dismiss Mary’s arguing with the angel, and try to make the case that she either had no hesitations (flimsy) or she had no choice (horrifying.)  Each year, when I read about the Annunciation, these depictions of Mary as an emotionless pawn again flood my vision–the verbal equivalent of those pictures of the otherworldly, distant white girl on the Christmas cards.  

 

For one thing, the girl who doesn’t care doesn’t appear in Scripture, so there’s that.  For another, any assertion that Mary is anything other than a fully embodied agent of her own authority helps prop up some really disturbing ideas about women as a whole, and their ability to make their own decisions.  Because Mary is so often held up as What All Faithful Women Should Be, when she is reduced to a quiet pawn in the hands of God, that similarly tells women that the ideal to emulate is quiet, subservient, and without a will of her own

 

But finally, and perhaps most vitally, when we do actually stick to Scripture, and the depictions of women shown there, instead of our invented nonsense, we see that Christianity is resting on the foundation of the (still-controversial idea) that it is vital to believe women.  Both the malaligned women at the empty tomb, and the frightened, excited girl who spoke to an angel.  Without the believed testimony of women, we would have no church.  We would have no faith.

 

And just as vitally, when we bear witness to the fullness of this tradition, then we also see that it is as fully formed human beings that God encounters us.  God encounters Mary in her complete humanity–in all of her confusion, in all her doubt and fear, in all her questioning.  God does not shy away from any part of her or declare her questions out of bounds–God declares her as Blessed among women before a single word leaves her mouth. Indeed, she is blessed just as she is.  She does not have to do or change a thing.  

 

So then, Mary serves as a reminder that God takes us, each as we are.  Each one of us, regardless of our doubts and our hesitations has been declared beloved and blessed by the Most High.  Each one of us is needed in this recreation of the world.  And for each one of us, regardless of how well the cookies turned out, regardless of whether the dog eats the turkey, regardless of whether the children fight, regardless of whether we can muster up enough cheerfulness or not–Christ will be born on Christmas.  

 

 

 

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.

 

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.