RSS Feed

Category Archives: Uncategorized

Epiphany Evangelism

Call me a liturgical geek, but I was VERY EXCITED that Epiphany landed smack dab on a Sunday this year.

I love Epiphany, and so often we have to blow right past it for Jesus’ Baptism, or something not-nearly-as-fun. But this year, we got everything! Magi! Camels! Fleeing in the Night! Narcissistic tyrants oddly and specifically threatened by foreign children!***

My point is, the story of Epiphany is incredibly important, and I’m thrilled to talk about it this year. And also to deconstruct the entirety of We Three Kings, because I love that song, but the deifying of medieval traditions is not my favorite.

::prepares for Anglo-Catholic Twitter to storm the gates::

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

January 6, 2019

Epiphany, Year C

Matthew 2

The Epiphany story is as notable for what is not there, as for what is there.  Nearly everything we expect to hear in the story of the Wise Ones going to find Jesus is not actually in the story.

Think of the carol—We Three Kings.  For starters, were there three?  Don’t know!  We don’t have a number.  The number three seems to have been settled on because you need one Wise Man to carry each gift, and you have three gifts, and who would be so cheap to show up to a new baby’s house without a gift in tow?

And men?  That’s not clear either.  The word in the text is magi—which means wise person, or sage of some kind.  Depending on the culture, it could even mean a magician.  Basically, we’re talking about someone who spent their life studying wisdom—whether that was scripture, tradition, or rudimentary science.  

And that’s just the layer of tradition we have for a starter.  Have you heard names for the Wise Men?  Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior—those start appearing around the Middle Ages.   along with the idea that one Wise Man was black, one was Asian, one was European. 

This is around the same time that Western Europe, which had been mired in the collapse of Rome, and the isolation of the Dark Ages, was just establishing trade with other parts of the world—Africa, the Middle East, Asia.  Western European artists were just figuring out that non-white people existed, and so this was an easy way to announce that these Wise Men—they were Very Different People!  Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar take on unique personalities.  

Despite the layers of tradition that has been heaped on this story, inside its core, the story is pretty straightforward in Matthew’s Gospel.  Magi from the East notice something strange in the sky.  They travel a long, long way to figure out what is going on, and when they arrive in the foreign (to them) land of Judea, they try to investigate, which prompts much consternation.

That sounds basic, but what it signifies is really not.  There was a common perception that the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, really didn’t pay much attention to Gentiles, and they didn’t pay much attention to him.  There were several occasions in the Hebrew scriptures where God himself begs to differ on this point, but generally, popular religion of the time held that God ignored the Gentiles, because they were not Jewish, and also, since Gentiles were over there eating pork, and sacrificing to idols, they were not great for dinner parties either.  

The idea of some Gentile sages—bigwigs in their own religious tradition—knowing enough about Hebrew messianic prophecy, and trekking hundreds of miles to seek out the new king of Israel—is somewhat mindblowing.  And yet, this is the closest thing to a Christmas story Matthew tells.  This is the first thing that happens in the gospel once Jesus is born—foreign, non-Jewish people show up and want to know more.  God’s light goes out literally to the ends of the known world, and starts bringing together all these different people.  

They saw something, that drove those first Wise Ones to travel away from everything they had ever known, and seek after something new.  And they asked and asked, everyone along the way, where they could find this wondrous new birth they sought.

And no one really knew!

In a way, this is a pretty good example of the first evangelism.  

Now—I realize as soon as I use that word, for some of us, the hair on the back of your neck is standing up, and you have visions of bible-thumping preachers on streetcorners, and tracts promising hellfire dancing through your heads.  But that’s not evangelism, that’s bullying people, and that’s not what Christ calls us to do.  

Evangelism—what I mean by that word— is sharing the good news of what God is up to in the world.  And that’s it.  To be able to say, when people ask “Hey look at this amazing thing happening over here that God is doing!” That’s it.

When the Magi started out for Judea, first of all, no one told them to go.  They decided themselves.  Or rather, God moved them to go. It is God who brings people in our doors, and into our path.  All people—everyone we meet—is a gift from God.  Every person that comes through those doors is a gift from God.  An opportunity to glimpse the Spirit at work in someone’s life, in every person we meet. 

When the Magi got to Mary and Joseph’s house, and presented the new parents with some pretty impractical gifts—I imagine that Mary and Joseph were fairly perplexed.  Surely, they would have had no occasion to meet people from so far away before—much less people who didn’t speak the same language.  We aren’t told what their reaction was.  We are told that due to the Magi’s warning, and his own dream, Joseph decides to take his family and flee to Egypt, and thereby saves his son from Herod, so it seems likely that the family offer the Magi hospitality of some kind for a period of time.  

And it is that hospitality that is evangelism.  God sends people to us, God puts curiosity in people’s minds, and when we can greet their questions with hospitality, then that is sharing the good news.  And make no mistake—at no point in the story of the Magi is it clear that ANYONE understands entirely what’s going on.  NO one has all the answers.  When the Magi are trotting around Jerusalem asking “Where is the new king and why is there a new star in the sky?” Mary and Joseph didn’t know how to explain that—but they did give them a place to sleep, something to eat, and let them meet the baby.

This is basic evangelism.  When someone asks the deep questions of their hearts, the ones that God has placed there, and when we greet those questions with hospitality.  That can sound intimidating, but all that’s required of us is the love of neighbor Christ asks of us, and a readiness to be present.  You don’t need an advanced degree, or a knowledge of complicated theology, or all the nice pat answers.  You just have to be honest and present.  You have to let your light shine.  When someone asks “Why do you go to church?” and you reply, “Because it makes me feel connected to something. Want to come sometime?”  or someone asks “Why do you believe in that God stuff?” and you say “Because I just think there’s something bigger out there.  Want to come to church with me sometime?”  

When we do this, when we unapologetically follow the way of Christ in the world and let our light shine, people become curious, and amazing things happen.  Really, they do.  The Ethiopian Orthodox church traces its roots to Balthazar’s journey back to Africa, after seeing the Christ child.  The first Christians in Mongolia claim that they were established by Caspar on his journey back.  (Melchior appears to have slacked off.)  One Christmas Eve, as we were cleaning up after the late service, the South Sudanese priest slung his arm around the figure of Balthazar in the life-size creche and said “Oh my brother!  You and I have both come such a long way to be here!”

God’s spirit moves over the whole world, and God’s light shines over all of creation.  When people notice that light shining in our lives, they are bound to get curious, and when we learn to show hospitality to that?  Then the light spreads even farther. 

***Look, that’s not me being inappropriately political. That’s just the gospel. YOU try to read the story of Herod reacting to the baby Jesus and tell me it doesn’t sound eerily like CNN right now.

Crusty Christian History

In the adult forum, we are reading Tom Ferguson (AKA Crusty Old Dean)’s overview of Episcopal Church History. I have really enjoyed this, and I believe the congregation has as well. In my experience, learning about Church History is both comforting (see? All these current fights are nothing new!) and upsetting (OMG! The Church has always been fighting and political!). But in all cases, learning our history helps us to make fuller sense of where we are now.

A reoccurring topic of discussion has been how to locate God in what feels like a series of bad decisions made throughout history. When religious wars began to be fought in the name of the Prince of Peace–where was God in that? When we discussed the Crusades, several people remarked that they had never heard of the sacking of Constantinople, or the Children’s Crusade, or how badly awry the whole endeavor had gone, and they were (rightly and justly) appalled that such things were perpetrated in the name of Jesus Christ. How can we make sense of such atrocities within our history?

I tried to address that partially on the First Sunday after Christmas. This is another sermon in note-form, but it is more coherent than Christmas morning’s notes were, so I’m posting it. Enjoy!

Christian History: the good, the bad, the confusing. 

How do we find God in this mess?

How do we decide? 

Jesus, according to John 1, is the window through which we see God— the yardstick by which we measure God. 

God, after all, is immense! Impossible to know, or define, or even to experience. 

But we have seen Jesus. Jesus we know. And what we claim is that Jesus is the best and truest interpretation of God’s nature we have. 

This is how we evaluate whether a claim is true or not, is godly or not. Does it sound like Jesus? 

Jesus, who lived a life among the poor and outcast, who gathered the lost, and wept with his grieving friends. Who raged against hypocrisy, and critiqued his own faith, and taught his disciples to hold themselves to

a higher standard.  That’s what we know of Jesus so that’s what we know of God.

Molly Tibbets’ mom who took in an undocumented Mexican kid, after his parents fled the blacklash her murder had caused. 

That is of God. That’s how Christ calls us. This small miracle in Iowa. Sparks like this shining in the darkness through all of history, even when louder voices claim to be speaking for God, leading to powerful astray–Christ’s light still shines in the darkness .

Voices like this all through out history. We just have to listen. For the light in the darkness which is not overcome.  For the Word made flesh among us. 

Christmas trifecta

My first Christmas as a solo rector has come and gone. I thought to myself, whilst collapsed on the sofa after the Christmas morning service was over, and I was safely ensconced in flannel PJs, wrapped in a wooly blanket, “Wow. Why I am so tired?” It’s because Christmas is a forking lot of work.

Not only for us clergy are there services, pageants, where-is-that-creche? and why-does-the-Baby-Jesus-appear-to-have-a-broken-arm? issues to deal with, there are also all the usual stresses that everyone else has around the holidays: shopping, cooking, cleaning, families people-ing, and the looming knowledge that if this is not the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, You are Doing It Wrong. Compared to all this, Holy Week and Easter’s daily march of intense liturgies feel like a cakewalk.***

I should add quickly that I love being a priest at Christmas. It means I get to talk about the Incarnation a whole lot, which is one of my very favorite things.

To this end, I give you the sermon from Christmas Eve. Christmas Morning’s sermon is currently in note form. I will (possibly) work on getting it into actual sentences, but that may take a while.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 24, 2018

Vigil of Christmas Year B

Luke 3

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is a tiny little book—only about 100 pages, max. It was written way back in the early 1970s, so it’s fairly dated, and was even when I first read it.  It tells the story of a family of troublemakers—your basic town outcasts—the Herdmans, who lived in some nondescript, Midwestern town.  Not for any sobering reason, but because the kids were chronically unsupervised, stole, swore, and were generally badly behaved. No one liked being around them, until one year, at Christmas, due to a perfect storm of small town catastrophes, the Herdmans end up involved in the local church pageant.  Hijinks ensue.

I ADORED this book when I was a kid—it was funny, the stakes were pretty low, and the mental image of the very proper church ladies being continually scandalized by the Herdman kids’ honest confusion over the basics of theology was a delight.  (The Herdmans first show up to church because they were promised crackers and grape juice. They stuck around because they discovered coffee hour.  As an 8 yr old, this was reasoning I could get behind.)

But what I most remember is what happens during the pageant itself.  As the Herdmans step into all the parts, the church congregation begins to see the story anew.  Mary and Joseph become scared kids, wondering how they will survive and care for a baby on their own, instead of two shining saintly figures.  The shepherds become the unkempt, unwashed guys you see around town, who nevertheless come to help out when you need it.  Jesus’ birth in a manger becomes—not a lovely image straight from a gauzy Hallmark movie—but a slice of life, set in the middle of human existence.

It becomes easy, after these 2,000 years, and countless church polishings of this story, to forget that at its base, the story of Christmas is somewhat dirty and messy.  Mary and Joseph aren’t even married yet, when they’re ordered by a distant bureaucrat to go to a far-off town and file some forms.  The town’s overcrowded, and small, so there’s no where to stay, and they end up bedding down with the animals for the night, in a cave.  (In that region, houses and other buildings were built out of caves, for warmth and security, with the living quarters at the front, and the animals sleeping at the rear.)  Mary gives birth to her child surrounded by animals, strangers, and darkness.  The only excited visitors are some wandering shepherds.

We make it pretty over the years—we tell stories about sweet-smelling hay, and kindly beasts, and softly falling snow, perhaps to cover up the starkness of the essential story—a couple left homeless give birth to a baby.  There had to have been halos, angels, kindly midwives, we reassure ourselves.

And yet, perhaps the glory of Christmas is that there wasn’t.  The glory of Christmas is precisely in the mess and the dirt of that first night, when God Incarnate came squalling into a world so broken.  Perhaps the truth we witness to this evening is that God came to be among us exactly in the dirt, in the noise, in the confusion, of our lives.  

Had the stable been a lovely, pristine place, and Mary and Joseph had everything figured out—had the townsfolk of Bethlehem known what was coming their way, and opened their arms with joy, had Herod realized his responsibility, and conceded his throne to this tiny infant—what would the story have been then?  What work of redemption would even have been left?  

No, God comes to us not in our perfection, not in the shining, splendid places in our lives, or in the world, but in the broken, lacking places, because God wants to transform them.  God wants to bind up the broken hearted, to set the captives free, to bring the poor good news, to shine light into all our dimly-lit corners.  And that can only happen if God is present, right in the middle of our mess.  Right where it hurts the most. 

On this night, we remember how God came among us, promising us for all time that no matter what happens, no matter what we face, or what comes our way, there is nothing that can separate us from God and God’s love.  Not poverty, not stables, not emperors, not even death.   God’s love endures through all these things, and transforms all these things until the world begins to reflect the shining glory God intends.  

This baby grows up, becomes an adult who shows us how to live in the Love God has for each of us.  Shows us what the way of sacrificial love looks like, even as that way challenges the powers of the world—he continues in that Love to death, to show us that God’s love is stronger than anything we have known before, stronger even than hatred, violence, even death.  

Tonight is where it starts.  Tonight is where God’s love is made more real than ever before.

Tonight, in the back of a cave, with a poor helpless baby, born into a mess, come to bring us out of one.

Amen.

***Remind me I said that in May, please.

Knitting Prophets

The Christmas Sermon Sprint in 2018 is by no means as arduous as it was last year, when Christmas had the nerve to fall on a Monday. (Really, WHO ALLOWS THESE THINGS.) The near-universal panic among ChurchEmployed Folk last year, trying to figure out what to do with Advent IV, plus Christmas Eve services was a sight, I tell you.

This year, we just have to do 3 feasts in 3 days, which seems tame, really. But it did result in me having a brain blockage for most of the last week, trying to figure out what a good example of an ‘unlikely prophet’ was.

I was saved when I wandered into our local used bookstore (Autumn Leaves, looking at you) and discovered a rare-to-me copy of Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Knitting Around–a combo autobiography and knitting instruction book. But in the knitting world, Elizabeth Zimmerman is basically the godmother of all things. She is the great encourager, the great un-venter–the woman who, in the mid 20th century, transformed knitting from “look at the adorable woman wasting her time” to “look what I can do with my brain and some yarn; I am a genius and nothing can stop me; also I can poke you with these sharp sticks here.” She is also a fantastic writer to boot, and her voice is one I envy a great deal.

Admittedly, when I cited her in the sermon, I hadn’t yet finished the book, which was not my best idea ever. What if she turned out to rhapsodize at length about gender roles, or go on at length about something awful? Nope, turns out she closes the book with a lengthy musing about how ironic it was that the children of American immigrants can become so xenophobic in their turn, and how, perhaps the greatest folly in the world is that of believing that your own country contains the most superior people of the world, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

I am confirmed in my adoration of Elizabeth Zimmerman.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 23, 2018

Advent 4, Year C

Luke 3

The other day, I wandered into our local used bookstore and happened upon a book that I’ve long searched for by Elizabeth Zimmerman.  Now, if you don’t know who that is, don’t feel bad—she’s not at all famous, but she’s basically the Godmother of Modern knitting.  In the mid 20th century, through her several books, and her typewritten newsletters (!) She is singlehandedly responsible from transforming knitting into something a few women did, while following a pattern, to something women could do, while trusting their brains, and their skills.  Her motto was “YOU ARE THE BOSS OF THIS.” If you made a mistake, go with it!  It was probably a new invention!  Now it was a design feature!  She spent her career angry at the knitting magazines who would publish her designs, only to completely butcher them, so she took matters into her own hands, and change the culture of knitting entirely.  Whenever I feel overwhelmed or discouraged, I pick up one of her books, and hear again her words to “Knit on through all adversity”, and “you are the boss of your knitting, and you can do this.”  Her trust and confidence in the abilities of ordinary women was literally revolutionary, and when she died, she even got a NYT obituary.  One might even say she was a bit of a prophet, of the knitting resurgence that came after she died.  

A prophet, after all, is one who tells the truth in a profound manner, and brings the light of day to something that the rest of the world has a hard time seeing.  Prophets don’t predict the future, so much as they cast light on what is happening in the here and now; they interpret the present for us and help us understand where God is in the present moment, and what we are called to do.  (This is why they have been historically unpopular—you don’t get irritated with someone who tells you that you will lose the lottery drawing next month.  You DO dislike the person who points out that spending all your food money on lottery tickets is not the wisest choice.  Prophets!)

The story of God is the story of unlikely prophets, in many ways.  The prophets we meet in the Hebrew Bible were a motley crew.  Isaiah doesn’t have a claim to fame before we meet him.  Amos points out that he is “neither a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but is a dresser of sycamore trees” which is such an obscure job we still don’t know what he was up to.  Jeremiah was a kid.  Micah was a lawyer of some kind.  John the Baptist went wandering out in the desert eating bugs and wearing inappropriate clothing.

And today, we meet Mary.  Now, I want to say first that there is a tradition of female prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. Miriam, Moses’ sister, is called a prophet in Exodus.  Deborah sent Barack into battle for Israel.  The Israelite midwives heard and obeyed God during the time of Pharoah—the difference for most of them is that while the male prophets had access to the king, so could speak directly to power, and then have their words recorded, the female prophets mostly did not have that access.  

Anyway, Mary arrives on the scene, another in a long line of these unlikely prophets.  She’s not a gardener, either, she’s not anyone—she’s a young woman in Roman-occupied Palestine, engaged to be married. And Gabriel shows up, and informs her that she is going to have a baby, and the baby will be very important, so really, how does she feel about that?

This is a pretty big ask.  Aside from the usual elements of the unknown (which Mary pounces on when she asks just HOW this is going to happen) there is a real element of danger in what Gabriel is telling her. Unmarried women didn’t get pregnant.  That was a great way to get killed in those days—the penalty for this under the law technically was being stoned.  At the very least, you would be shunned by your family, village, and friends—which could also be a death sentence.   It’s very possible part of the reason Mary immediately goes to visit Elizabeth out of town is to hide what’s happening to her from her neighbors, and to avoid attracting attention.

But once Gabriel gives her some more information, she says yes.  “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.” She says.  “Let it be to me according to your word.”  “Here I am” is translated from a specific Hebrew word that is the response given by all the prophets to their call from God.  That word can mean a whole host of things—everything from “Behold!” To “Here I am” to “Peek a boo” in modern Hebrew.  (Not kidding—In modern Hebrew, this is the word for Peek a boo.). But generally, the word signifies declaration of presence and acceptance.  Look!  I am here!  In an affirmative and positive way!

Mary is saying “Here I am, a creature of God—signing up to be a part of God’s mission in the world.”  What every prophet has done before her.

Then, as soon as she gets to Elizabeth’s house, she explains what precisely God’s mission looks like to her in the Magnificat. The poor are comforted, the mighty are cast down, the rich are sent away empty, the hungry are fed.  The lowly are remembered.  

Now, there are layers here.  Mary’s song seems to be a sibling of the poetry of Hannah, Samuel’s mother, from earlier in Hebrew scripture, as she rejoices that God has given her a son.  And it was also customary at that time, in that culture, to greet your hosts by reciting their names in a song or poem, as a gesture of respect, which would explain why Mary greets Elizabeth this verbose way.

But if we want to imagine that what Mary says here is anything other than revolutionary, we should also remember its more recent history.  During British colonial rule in India, the Magnificat was not allowed to be sung or read publicly.  In 1980s Guatemala, it was banned as well.  And in under the military junta of Argentina in the 1970s, after the Mothers of the Disappeared wrote its words on their protest signs, the government forbade its public use there as well.  

We’re used to seeing Mary portrayed as a quiet and obedient pale girl, thinking only of abstract heavenly matters.  She’s there on the cover of Christmas cards, wrapped in pink and pale blue, gazing passively into space.  Yet her words have stirred humanity time and again to seek God’s reign in the world, to look for the dawn of justice and mercy, and to courageously love God and neighbor, even in the face of the world’s empires.  Generations of people have found hope and courage in the words of a teenaged girl from Nazareth, who declared that God saw even her, and counted her as blessed. 

After all, if God saw Mary, then surely God sees us.  If Mary could survey her life as it was about to be turned inside out and upside down, and proclaim that God still cared for the least of these, then surely we who know how the story ends, can gaze at our own lives and our own turbulent world and proclaim the same.  For it is the most unlikely prophets who bring us the purest truth.  

Amen.

Who’s who in the Ancient World

I am well aware that Advent stirs up (ha!) in me the same passion that is sparked by the sports ball, or cute animals. in other people.  When Family Feud asks what the top ten things that provoke emotional tears are, “struggling mightily for justice and right relationship despite great odds!” is not usually up there; a heartwarming puppy greeting his absent kid owner is.  

So it is that with each Advent sermon, I run the risk of getting VERY EXCITED about parts of the story that befuddle and confuse everyone else, and such is the case with the introductory parts of Luke.  Luke, like Matthew, would like you as reader to always understand the history that the story is embedded in, and so the writer is always citing either genealogy, or a list of governmental officials.  I myself find this deeply moving–the thought of these pretty broken, messed-up folks, many of whom left tangible footprints on the landscape, still being witnesses to God’s coming into the world!  But I do realize that my immediate emotional response is prompted by a good seven-plus years of studying this stuff.  So it can be hard to translate.  (Your average person in a pew will not get teary at “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius….” ). 

This sermon was an attempt to change that.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 9, 2018

Advent 2

Luke 1

I was trying to decide this week which opening of the gospels I prefer—like a Buzzfeed list.  Matthew’s is boring—the genealogy is theologically rich, but that’s just a ton of names.  John’s sounds like a digression into poetry, so we can’t really compare it to the others.  Mark outright cheats, and does what your English teacher told you never to do by baldly stating his thesis right off the bat: THE BEGINNING OF THE GOOD NEWS OF JESUS CHRIST.  

But this is what happens when you have to be written first.

Luke’s however—Luke’s is right up there. It sets up everything Luke is going to be. 

He writes:  Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first,[a] to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

In other words, I have read all the other gospels, and they are awful, so I AM GOING TO DO THIS RIGHT.  WITH DETAILS.

And so, we know right from the get-go that Luke’s gospel will give us details—details such that a Greek guy like this Theophilus would understand.

 Luke actually starts each scene with a list of government figures—it’s how he locates something in space and time.  In the time of King Herod, Zachariah was told about the birth of John the Baptist.  (He was a priest according to the order of Abijah, and his wife was descended of Aaron, which is handy, because in that story, she comes off looking way better.)  

Luke then explains how the temple priesthood handled their duties at the holy of holies—because a Greek guy wouldn’t be familiar with those customs.  

At each turn, this writer wants the audience to know where and when they are.  And today, Luke wants us to be very aware that as his story is taking off, the following people are in charge.  

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip was ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Caiaphas and Annas, the word of God came to John, son of Zachariah in the wilderness.

As a set up, I realize this sounds incredibly boring—mostly we don’t know who these people are.  and some of these names are unpronounceable.  As a transition from the last scene (where Mary is singing the Magnificat) however, it is basically a title card, which tells the reader, SOME YEARS LATER—-in over-detailed Lukan fashion.  

Previously, Herod 1 had ruled all of Judea and Samaria, and now he had died, and his son and Philip were ruling two parts of it, with Pilate, the Roman Governor controlling the region of Judea.  So there had been a bit of a power shift, with Rome taking a firmer hand in governing their teeny Palestinian outpost.

And this is something Luke will do over, and over again.  Here is who is in power.  Here is exactly what was happening in our world when this miraculous thing occurred.

The point here is not whether this checks out—it mostly does, but you have to squint.  The point here is why Luke would take pains to set up such an out of this world tale in the midst of the details of this world in the first place.  Because that’s what he does—this gospel is not set up as a “once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away”  it is not situated everywhere, and therefore nowhere.  It is definitively located in a time-certain when, in a place-certain where.  

All of which suggests that the gospel writer finds those details important to the meaning of the story he’s telling.  That somehow, knowing the landscape of context and power is vital to understand the meaning of the story that will unfold.  

But, notice that just after we get this list of high-powered officials, the word of God comes to John, son of Zachariah, in the wilderness.  Not any of those people we were just told about.

Our story kicks off with God’s message being given again not to anyone in power, not to anyone with authority, or anyone who history would remember, but a young man seeking reform in the desert.  That’s where God shows up.  So right from the start, this gospel is going to upend the powers of this earth.  When God wants to send a message, God works decidedly outside the system.  The wild man in the desert receives the word of repentance, and echoes the words of Isaiah—warning everyone that God’s salvation is on the way to redeem creation, and make the kingdom accessible to all.  

So one of the themes we are set up for is where God appears—God appears on the edges, in the wild places, on the margins.  God, in the gospel, does not appear on that list of historical figures.  

And yet—the specificity of that list is consequential too.  Sure, God’s message comes to a wandering desert prophet, but that wandering desert prophet is responding to Pilate, to Herod, and to Philip.  For Luke’s early hearers, hearing that list of governors would have felt like reading the CNN headline crawl for us:  a similar sort of constant bad news, and constant disappointment in the state of things.  Recall that these weren’t popular leaders: Herod was known to be paranoid, violent, and prone to narcissistic rages.  Pilate was fond of violent crackdowns on the local populace. The temple leaders were fine, maybe, but you couldn’t expect much from them.  There was a reason people felt hopeless.  There was a reason fleeing to the desert to follow a guy proclaiming a new baptism of forgiveness was popular.  

And it’s here that God comes.  It’s in this specifically hopeless situation that God comes, and says “prepare the way.”  Not once upon a time—not in a vague way, not in a spiritual sense, but into this definite place, populated with these specific broken people, and their problems.  When everything seemed hopeless.  When there was no justice, and God’s people were definitely not free.  That’s right where God came.  In that place and time.  In the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius.

This, then, is the power of the Incarnation—the daring and earth-shattering idea that God can enter the human experience in the hopeless experience of the Palestinian Jews in the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius, That when God chose to enter the human world, God did it as one of the powerless, and one of the marginalized.  And if God did that, then God must be present in a fundamental way, in each human experience of hopelessness, of powerlessness. God must be there with those who are cast out, with those who are hated, with those who suffer.  Even in the third year of the reign of President Trump.  

Luke lays out for us, his audience, right at the start the choice we will have to make over and over throughout the gospel.  Where will we look for the experience of God? Where will we go, as followers of Jesus?  Will we seek out the powerful, and the powers of this world, to lead us to Jesus?  Or will we head with John to the desert, to be joined by the lost and the left out?  Will we rely only on our own strength, our own riches, or will we trust that God is with us especially in our weakness, in our vulnerability?  

Will we stay safe, or will we venture out to find God in the wilderness, trusting that God is already preparing a new revelation of divine love for us to discover?  

Amen

How I learned to stop worrying and love the apocalypse

There are a few points I feel honor-bound to hit on a few times each year, from the pulpit.  These include: the Pharisees are actually cool, the BVM is kind of a badass, the Passion narratives carry lots of antisemitic baggage, and chiefly, for our Advent purposes, apocalyptic literature is profoundly liberating.

For those of us (read: most of us) who were conscious during the 1980s–the present, anything that smells remotely Rapture-adjacent can trigger scary memories of being yelled at in public, handed a Chick tract, and being told that unless you said a specific prayer, you would die in a rain of fire.  At the hands of a loving God, OF COURSE.  It’s hard to overstate the damage done by preachers as they threw around these texts like mini grenades.  

So, I take particular and deep delight each Advent, in ascending the pulpit and announcing how and why apocalyptic texts are good news.  To quote a wise bishop–The judgment of God is always good news for the oppressed and the suffering.  When we can’t see that, we need to reconsider where we stand.

Here’s what I said:

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 2, 2018

Advent 1

Luke 

Otto’s idea of the numinous + apocalypse = courage required for God’s inbreaking kingdom. 

Welcome to Advent!  The start of a new liturgical year, and the beginning of preparation for the birth of Christ!  While the world outside our doors has been joyously hanging greens and singing Christmas carols, we in church get more of that fun dualism stuff we started with two weeks ago.  WARS AND RUMORS OF WARS.  FAMINES.  DISASTERS.  DISTRESS AMONG THE NATIONS.  SIGNS IN THE SUN, MOON AND STARS. 

As much as it discomfits us, Advent is as much about looking towards the end of time as it is about looking towards the Incarnation.  It’s like wearing 3D glasses, where each eye is seeing a slightly different image, but you only get the whole effect by seeing them together.  God broke into time with Jesus, and we know that God will again break into time at the end.  And both inbreakings are coming.  

Advent reminds us that this world, as it stands, is not all there is, is not all there is intended to be, and that God is moving creation towards something better…

Granted, the language used to talk about the Second Coming is….graphic?  Sort of over the top?  (DISTRESS AMONG THE NATIONS.). And especially if you have been alive through the second half of the twentieth century, it is hard, if not impossible, to hear verses like these, and not have visions of a bloody Rapture, and war with the anti-Christ dancing in your head.  Other strains of Christianity have made much of these passages, and used them to frighten people into compliance.  

But (and you knew there was a but) that’s never what they were intended to do.  First off, like I said last time, these sections were written largely by people who were living through a war.  So they are essentially recapping their daily lives, in all its horror. Everyone WAS panicking—Palestine was rebelling against Rome, and it was rather awful.

But also, ‘apocalypse’ was a well-known and well-respected genre of writing.  Sort of like a romantic comedy movie is today.  In apocalypses, certain things happen, because that’s just what you get when you read one.  (Like, in a romantic comedy, you need to have a meet-cute, a sassy best friend, and several relatively-easily solved misunderstandings before the happy ending.)  In apocalypses, it is understood that 1. Everything is awful, but in an allegorical way. 2.  Events in heaven parallel events on earth.  3.  God wins.  God always wins.

The third one is most important—in apocalypses, the victor is never the most powerful.  You dont’ write one if you have the biggest army, and the most guns.  You write one if you are currently huddled in a cave, after your family has been arrested, and you are rationing out your last meal.  The premise of the genre is that there is utterly no hope left, but SOMEHOW, God will intervene to save God’s people.  You don’t know how, you don’t know when, and you won’t—but God will save God’s people, and restore justice to the universe, because that’s just what God does.  

It won’t be fun, it won’t be pleasant, but God is coming to set things right.  

Rudolf Otto was a smart German dude from the early twentieth century.  The reason we remember him today is because he articulated a concept of the numinous in religious expression.  Up until that point, religious practice had largely been seen by the academy in the West as functional, or a psychological manifestation.  Otto, along with folks like William James, thought that it also had to be understood as an encounter with something “wholly other”—and that this common element could be described.  

Otto called this common element the numinous—a thread that appears in all human religious expressions, and noted that this encounter with the transcendent, with the Divine—however humans term it, appears to have three common elements:  1. it is awe-inspiring.  Generally, the experience creates unease, or fear.  Think of Isaiah the prophet being called early in his book.  He has a vision of God seated on the throne as smoke fills the temple, seraphim and cherubim flying every which way, and he panics.  Think of literally everyone in the Bible to whom an angel appears.  The first words are always “Fear not.”  

Otto also says the numinous always makes a person feel small, in the scope of things.  Like Job, when God shows up in the whirlwind.  Where you there when I created the Leviathan?  Or how you feel when you can see all the stars at once in the sky, and you suddenly remember how tiny you are.

Any time we encounter God, it takes courage.  This is not a task for the complacent.  When we allow God to break into our ordered worlds, that requires us to be brave, because it’s not very comfortable.  Chances are, a lot will change.  A lot will be exposed, and made clear, in the light of God’s in-breaking.  When Jesus came to earth, it did not go the way anyone expected, really.  Instead of the devoutly religious folks, the pious and the wealthy being the ones who were the first to get it, it was the marginalized, the poor, and the outcasts.  The whole order of things got flipped around, and everyone had to readjust, but that’s what happens when you start to watch for the Spirit—when God breaks in.  God requires us to be vulnerable, flexible, and ready to change when he appears—however and whenever that might be.  Advent is all about making those preparations—about finding our courage, so we are ready for God, ready for Christ when he comes.  These images of a world thrown into chaos—part of the reason they speak so well to us is because every time God calls us, it feels again like the world just got tilted upside down.  Whether the world is actually literally ending or not.  

There is one last way that Otto described the numinous experience.  Lest you wonder that Advent sounds entirely like a weird sort of boot camp for the soul, Otto felt that the final common thread was something like kindness.  (The German is complicated.)  In essence, he thought that despite the fear inherent in such encounters, there was also something about the Divine that kept drawing humanity, and reassuring us—mercy, compassion, love, kindness—something.  So no matter how overwhelmed humans might get, we kept heading back for more, always searching for God.

Yes, encountering God can be scary.  But not encountering God?  Having things remain the way they are?  That’s scarier.  Our world cries out in a thousand ways for God’s redeeming, chaotic presence, and never more so than today, when hope can be difficult to locate.  But when we courageously invite God’s coming into the world, when we bravely embrace the child lying in the Manger, it is in that strange, upended moment that we can begin to see God bringing hope out of our world too.  

The Rt. Rev. Meryl Streep, and other thoughts

Caitlin Moran said once that the problem with sexism now was that it resembled Meryl Streep.  In much the same way that Meryl Streep so effectively melts into her roles, such that hours after you’ve watched a movie starring her, you bolt upright from a dead sleep and exclaim “OH MY GOD.  THAT’S WHO THAT WAS.” in sudden recognition; so too sexism has become skilled at melting into the backdrop.  We don’t really have to overcome outright barriers like prohibitions against female ordination (in most places.). What we have instead are barriers so subtle, that you have a vague feeling of something being…wrong.  And then, hours later, you awake as if from a nightmare and yell, “OH MY GOD.  IT WAS SEXISM THE WHOLE TIME.”  

Frankly, dealing with the outright barriers was often easier.  Or at least, more clear-cut.  

At the moment, much virtual ink is being spilled over several recent dioceses offering all-female slates for episcopal elections.  The Living Church has run several articles: the first of which was ably deconstructed on a factual basis by Crusty Old Dean.  (Go read what he wrote, if you haven’t yet.)

I don’t know that I have much by way of additional facts to add to this discussion.  That ground seems to be well-covered.  Indeed, as COD says, all female slates are not new at all.  If any of the diocesan slates had been for a suffragan post, no one would have noticed that the slate was all-female.  Lest we forget our (recent) history, the reason we have suffragan bishops at all in this church is so that white diocesan bishops did not have to cross lines of segregation.  One of the saints from my ordaining diocese, James Solomon Russell, was approached numerous times to accept a job as suffragan bishop, to oversee the black churches in Arkansas and North Carolina, but refused.  He thought he could do more good for his fellow former slaves, running a college and planting churches.  (He planted thirty seven, by the way, all over south-central Virginia.  Dude was a rockstar.)

In more modern times, we’ve changed that somewhat.  Now, if you take a good look at suffragan slates, the church still tends to replicate that pattern, but with all “minority” groups.  The diocesan bishop will be a straight white man, and the various suffragans will be a woman!  A person of color!  Just so you can mix it up.  (This also has been happening with multi-staff clergy churches.  Even when the rector is a woman, there is frequently someone, somewhere, at some point, in the process who discourages the rector from hiring “another” woman, because how will the men feel?)

My point is not that diversity is bad, but that diversity, replicated without paying attention to power dynamics, is hollow, fruitless, and ultimately unworthy of the Kingdom.

What we are seeing, in these new slates, and why, I think they are now troubling some folks, is that women are actually in positions of power.  Not token power, and not isolated power–actual, normalized power.  And whoo boy, is that a big shift.  It’s one thing when you have one or two women in the House of Bishops–even when you elect one of them to be the Presiding Bishop.  If you only have one or two, then they’re easily outnumbered!  They are easy to dismiss–their opinions not those of a part of the church, but just “the woman bishop.” Nothing has to change, not really.  They’re still a novelty– and so much so that a major publication in the church can still call the primate of the church ugly names, and not suffer for it.

Start adding to that number, though…and the church might actually have to change.  The system might actually have to shift.  And that is a deeply startling thought.

Remember Pentecost?  There is so much beauty in that image, of a bustling cosmopolitan Jerusalem, with pilgrims from every corner of the earth, all talking past each other in their variety of languages, as the Spirit slowly brings them together.  But what strikes me about that story is that the descent of the Holy Spirit doesn’t change the foreigners–the pilgrims, the visitors don’t change language.  The disciples do.  The disciples are changed by the working of the Spirit so that they can spread the Gospel in an understandable way.  They give up their power of being understood even to themselves.  They even give up the power of being dignified!  (“You must be drunk.”  “Absolutely not!  It’s only 9am!”)

The Spirit always, always asks the church to forsake power in order to include those whom God calls.  The onus isn’t on those coming in; it’s on us.  And, let us recall that God has been calling women and people of color, and literally everyone to spread the gospel since this whole church adventure started.  Until our leadership looks like the ranks of humanity, we haven’t followed adequately where God is calling us as an institution.  And until THAT happens, we need to open our gates, hand over our power, and get ready for some change.