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Vineyards, Violence, and Verbatim

Confession time:  I don’t like commentaries.

I like them fine for bible studies, and leading discussions.  I find them edifying when doing close readings.  But commentaries for preaching do not help me in my ‘process’ (imagine me wearing a beret, flipping my hair, and saying this with an overly dramatic flourish as befits an artiste.)

So, there are very few resources I lean on week in and week out when I’m writing a sermon.  However, this week I really leaned on ‘Left Behind and Loving It‘– a blog that offers a word-for-word literal dissection of the Koine Greek gospel text, along with some basic historical perspective.  There has not been a week that I’ve read his blog that it has not helped me in some way, so my sincerest thanks–especially for the inspiration for this sermon, in the wake of Las Vegas.

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

October 6, 2017

Ordinary Time, Proper  http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2014/09/resurrection-return-of-rejected.html

Matthew 21:33-46

 

Today is all about vineyards.  Isaiah and Jesus both tell us entertaining stories about vineyards that go bad, which sounds like an entertaining reality show on Bravo, that probably features catfights or something similar.

Isaiah’s vineyard has a loving owner–who comes to the land, plants it, tends it, builds a wall, and cares for it, only to have the vines spoil for an unknown reason, and the grapes turn sour.  

Jesus, in turn, reinterprets the parable in his conversation with the Pharisees and religious leaders, but changes a couple of important things.  In Jesus’s telling, the landowner–which is a Greek word that is literally ‘house despot’, and we should pull that back into circulation–the landowner gives the tending of the vineyard to some…odd people.

This band of tenant farmers tend the land, and succeed in farming it, but when the landowner sends servants to collect the grapes, the tenants decide to run them off with violence.  Ok, thinks the landowner, I’ll send my son.  They’ll have to respect him.  That also doesn’t work.  The tenants take the son and kill him.  So Jesus asks the leaders what the landowner should do about the tenant farmers?

They get right into the spirit of the thing–HE SHOULD KILL THEM.  KILL THEM ALL.  The evil ones should die evilly.  In the greek.  They proclaim.  But that doesn’t seem to be the right answer.

We should perhaps stop here and point out that this, like all parables, is weird.  And unlike most parables, it’s violent and bloody,  No nice farmers or happy widows to be found in here.  So it’s not really what we’re used to.  But for the Pharisees and leaders, they would be somewhat familiar with this story–after all, they knew Isaiah’s story well.  They knew the idea of Israel’s sinfulness being punished, and eventually being restored to wholeness and fruitfulness.  

One of the persistent ideas throughout the prophets, including Isaiah, is that whenever Israel messed up, God would send an invading empire to take over for a bit, until Israel got back on track.  Once that happened, the empire, in turn, would overstep in some way, and God would rescue Israel and all would be well again.  It was the circle of life, Ancient Israel style.  

Think of Egypt:  initially, the way the Israelites come to Egypt is through Joseph, when his brothers mess up, and sell him into slavery.  Whoops.  That leads to a famine, and Joseph, now the Pharoah’s number 2, is able to keep his family safe in Egypt.  It’s great.  However, years pass, and eventually a Pharoah comes to power who becomes afraid of all the Israelites in Egypt, and enslaves them.  This sets into motion God’s salvation through Moses and the Exodus.  It’s the cycle:  Israel messes up: empire steps in: empire oversteps: God rescues.  

So it’s logical to think that when they heard the story, the religious leaders assumed that they were safe in assuming that God was about to step in again and toss out the evil tenants.  Clearly the evil tenants were Rome!  Rome had overstepped!  God was coming to save them! This story was great!  

But no.  

And the way you know this isn’t right is the tenants’ thinking when the son shows up.  “We can kill him and keep his inheritance for ourselves.”  That doesn’t make sense.  Inheritance doesn’t work like that.  The tenants are wrong; but by then, they’re in a cycle of violence that they can’t break out of, and it’s easier to kill the son than to do anything else.

That sort of thinking isn’t God’s way of doing things.  

That sort of thinking is an empire’s way of doing things.  Specifically, that’s Rome’s way of doing things.  

Empires, after all, come in and kill people.  They reward violence with more violence.  If you rise up against an empire, then you receive violence in return.  That’s the way they work.  

In general, that’s the way the systems, the powers and principalities of the world work.  It’s the rationale of an eye for an eye, writ large.  How do we deal with violence?  More violence.  What happens if someone attacks us?  We hit back.  How should we solve the problem of mass shootings? More guns on the streets.  In this vineyard, power is only displayed and known through might.  It is the world of the tenants.

But Jesus points out the problem with that–it never stops.  There’s no end.  While the leaders might be excited to see another overthrow of an empire, it will only usher in another one down the line.  Ultimately, the cycle of violence does not solve the problem.  It feels good in the moment; it always appears like the right side has triumphed.  But all it does is delay the next step.  

What stops the cycle is not further violence; is not the landowner coming in to kill all the tenants.  What stops the cycle is resurrection.  It is when we trust God enough to give up violence, and believe that God can save us from the ways of empire, that God can give us a new way.  When we give up our need to avenge ourselves, and put our faith in God’s ability to resurrect even the worst and most violent of circumstances and people.  

Jesus points out that the only thing that breaks open the cycle of violence that the world is trapped in is the resurrection of God–God’s ability to recreate the world and the creatures within it.  And that requires immense trust on our part.  

Because for us, nothing feels as secure as violence.  Nothing feels as steady as returning tit for tat.  It is literally the only way we know.  But Jesus reminds us that it is a false idol.  It never gets us the peace we long for.  The tenants, no matter who they killed, no matter how much blood they shed, would never inherit the land.  Nothing would get them that.  No violence ever gets us what it promises.  No violence ever gets us safety.  Not forever.  Violence can’t deliver that–it lies.

The only safety to be found is through faith in God.  Not in might, not in strength, and not in accruing more weapons.  Safety can only be found through trusting in God’s power to work resurrection in our violent places, and getting out of the way of that work.  

Peace which passes all understanding is the final thing we say every Sunday in this liturgy.  We commit ourselves to this peace of God which goes beyond our abilities to harness, beyond our knowledge and our capacity to achieve.  This peace that we cannot reach with weapons or might–this is what we ask God for in a final act each week, and what we vow to live in.  Peace that requires such faith that it passes understanding in such a violent world.  

It requires a lot to turn away from the violence of the tenants–this way of life that the world promises will yield safety. It requires a leap of faith that feels terrifying.  But Christ has gone this way before us.  God waits ahead to guide us.  And the peace that passes understanding is ours as we go.  

Amen.

 

 

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Fairness, Justice, and all that.

I think I have mentioned on this here blog that I serve on the churchwide Standing Commission for Structure, Governance, Constitution, and Canons.  (Previously, I served on the group when we were just dedicated to the Constitution and Canons, but this is also fun.)  While it may not sound like a lot of fun, let me assure you that it is one of the most enjoyable church meetings I go to each year.  It’s a group of thoughtful, funny, and dedicated people, who all really want to get things done–a rarity in any institution, and therefore a delight to be around.  Also, many of them are lawyers, or otherwise lawyerly-minded, so they indulge my proclivity for rules and good order. (Also my proclivity to crack jokes, so a blessing be upon all their heads.)

So this sermon, given right before our final in-person meeting, is quietly dedicated to the good people like my Canon Comrades, who pursue justice in all its forms.

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

September 24, 2017

Ordinary Time, Proper 20

Matthew 20:1-6

 

When I was a small child, and my mother was still a fundamentalist, and my brother would be given a better seat in the car, or an adult’s menu at a restaurant, or a bigger slice of cake, I would complain that it wasn’t fair.  It wasn’t fair that I got a smaller piece of cake, or the kids menu at Red Robin when I was 13.  It wasn’t fair.

My mother would always respond the same way: Life isn’t fair.  If life were fair, Jesus wouldn’t have died on the cross.

That….is technically accurate.  But it is also a heck of a thing to say to a small kid.  I did not want to meditate on salvation or the atonement right then–I wanted more cake.  

What I wanted was the same slice of cake as my brother’s.  I wanted the same seat as he had, the same menu.  I saw what he had, and I wanted the same.  My brother has always, since the age of about 6, been much taller and bigger than me, which led to a lot of these situations.  When I didn’t get it, I got mad.  I wanted fairness.  ***

Fairness is this concept wherein we compare what we have to what someone else has, and we think we should have either less or more, depending.  The workers, in today’s parable, are upset, because their sense of fairness was upset.  They had worked so hard, for so long.  Some since the start of the day, others for a solid half the day, and they believed that based on the fact that they had worked longer, they should be paid more than the people who showed up and only did one hour of work.  Fair is fair!  And comparatively, sure. That makes sense.

Jonah, likewise, is irked because Nineveh has been horrible up until now; invading other places, ignoring justice, oppressing the poor, slaughtering the innocent, and now, at the 11th hour, they repent.  You could at least punish them a LITTLE, he argues at God.  Israel, for context, had just suffered through a massive invasion again, and they had ALWAYS followed God.  But here Nineveh was getting off scot free.  No fair.  And again, he’s right.  It’s not fair.

Fairness, by the by, is different from justice.  Fairness is judged when we measure what we have vs what someone else has.  Justice, on the other hand, doesn’t require another person.  Justice is about when we get what we need.  So the workers on that farm got justice–they got the wage they needed, the wage they were promised.  Even the workers who had been standing around waiting all day, sure that they wouldn’t be able to work enough to earn enough for their families–they ended up with enough too.  They got justice.  

Nineveh got justice too.  God interceded for them, and they were spared because of their repentance.  They got another chance to grow and flourish and do the right thing.  Even the cattle, as God points out.

God, as it turns out, doesn’t give us fairness; God gives us justice.  God doesn’t give us all the same thing–God gives us each what we need.  God gives each what will help us grow into the creatures God made us to be.  Gifts and resources intended for us to use on our individual journeys.

 

The workers didn’t get the same; but they got enough to make ends meet for each of their families

Nineveh didn’t get the same as Israel, but they got what they needed to become a city of justice and peace.

The problem we have is that we confuse justice for fairness.  We don’t keep our eyes on our own work, so to speak.  We look at what someone else has, and want THE SAME THING.  Or we want more or less depending on how we’ve judged them.  The problem is, that actually doesn’t work out so well.  

No one else is on the same journey as you.  No one else has the same circumstances; the same gifts and talents and strengths, weaknesses as you.  And God is just as invested in everyone else’s flourishing and abundant life as God is ours.  Christ came for their life abundant as he came for ours.  So, harsh as it may sound, God is less interested in making sure everyone has the same, as God is making sure everyone has life abundant.  God is about justice.

So then, what would it look like if we also pursued justice?  What would our world look like if we also held justice to be a higher virtue than fairness?  If we paid more attention to what each person needed, rather than how what they got compared with what we got? If we strove to treat each person as a beloved Child of God with specific needs, context, and a right to a life just as fulfilling and abundant as ours.  

How would the world change?  

Because, at no point in our baptismal covenant do we promise to promote fairness in the world.  We do, however, promise to pursue justice.  We follow in the footsteps of a God and a Christ who was most unfair, loving humanity when we least deserved it.  So we, too, are called to be gloriously unfair, spreading the justice of a generous love far and wide.

So go forth this week, and be unfair.  Be just.  And be abundantly loving.

 

***A dear friend pointed out that this sermon read to him like I was defending unjust treatment in my childhood.  I can see that; I don’t think I worded this section quite well enough.  What I wanted to communicate was the childhood sense of unfairness that is nearly universal–whether or not it is justified by a sense of injustice behind it.  If I ever revisit this topic, I promise to choose a different anecdote!

 

Divisive gospel

The downside of this #sermondump is that the summer was so filled with news events that influenced the sermons, that a few of them make less sense when lifted out of context.

Take, for example, this sermon.  I wrote it in the midst of the healthcare debate, as the Senate had just voted to open debate on repealing the Affordable Healthcare Act, and it looked like the uninsured rate would again skyrocket, along with premium costs.  (This didn’t end up happening, praise God.  Though it looks like they’re about to try again and 2017 has been crazy, so who even knows?  Perhaps we’ll all end up going to specialist zombie doctors before the reconciliation period ends on September 30.)

The larger point, however, still stands.  The idea that you can absent yourself from ‘politics’ or ‘divisiveness’ is, to a very large extent, a function of privilege and power.  When you aren’t ‘divisive’, that doesn’t imply you aren’t taking a stance; it just means you’re taking a silent stance in support of the status-quo.  That, too, is political.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 25, 2017

Ordinary Time, Proper 7

Matthew 10:24-39

 

So, WHY does the gospel produce such division?

 

There are readings after which it is difficult, if not impossible, to respond with “Thanks be to God!”  Usually, they are the ones where a prophet is pronouncing imminent doom on the chosen people, or something horrible has happened, or Jesus has just told that one parable about the dishonest steward who comes out ahead.  These aren’t really stories we feel like affirming in the moment with much gratitude, you know?  

And depending on how you feel this week has gone in the world, this might not be a gospel reading you want to affirm either.  Families being torn apart, communities turning on one another, Jesus’ message producing division and not harmony–none of this is particularly comforting, and at the close of a week where comfort has been hard to come by, expressing gratitude for this particular reading might be a tad difficult.  

Jesus is telling his disciples that life isn’t going to be easy–that the good news they have to deliver to the world will not produce the rapturous applause they expect, but will produce divisions, betrayal and hardship.  If they’ve called him the devil, then they’re going to call you the same.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth–I have not come to bring peace but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and on and on.”  

This isn’t the sort of thing you can inscribe in a Hallmark card.  “Deepest sympathies on your tough time. Sorry you lost your family member.  Remember, Jesus they were probably going to turn on you anyway.”

The pressing question this raises is why?  Why would all this be happening?  Why should the gospel–which, is literally good news–be greeted with anything other than joy?  Why, instead, is Jesus giving out dire warnings about what’s going to happen?

And to be clear, I don’t think that this passage is some sort of apocalyptic prophecy of some specific round of Christian persecution.  Matthew’s community was undergoing several rounds of Roman oppression, so this was, in a sense, more of a description of current events than a proscription of what was to come.  So that would partially answer the ‘why?’ question–The Romans don’t like Christians because they seem disloyal to Rome, which placed a lot of stock on people seeing Caesar as a god.  Because Christians (also Jews) didn’t, they were tantamount to traitors.  And presto–lots of bad stuff ends up happening.

So while there’s a level of specificity to its context here, there’s also a timeless element.  Because there is also a sense in which the gospel of Christ is also not popular now.  There is a sense in which it again causes divisions.  Remember what Jesus told the disciples to do last Sunday, as he sent them out:  When you go, take nothing with you, rely on the kindness of strangers.  In every town that welcomes you, feed the hungry, heal the sick, and announce that the kingdom of God has come near.  You received without payment, so give without payment.

That sounds awesome–very exciting, everyone on board, right?  But transpose this to America.  What do you think would happen if the disciples were to wander into St. Luke’s hospital, and announce that those doctors need to start healing the sick without payment, because this was the Kingdom of God, and God wanted everyone to have life and life abundant?  

What do you think would happen if they were to wander into the Senate and say that same thing as this healthcare bill is on the floor?  What do you think would happen?

Here’s the thing–it’s not that these hypothetical doctors at St. Luke’s are evil, and I don’t even think the Senate is evil (though I would have told you differently on Thursday.).  We know they’re not.  But we have a system, we have a way of life, that we really can’t exempt ourselves from. And here comes Jesus, with his demands and pie in the sky thinking, and Jesus asks us to do radical things that threaten our system.  And whenever you question a system, that’s how you get those divisions.

The problem we struggle with is that we have no perfect choices when we follow Christ, and we never do.  There is no choice that we can make, when we follow Christ that will deliver us to a life free of struggle and pain, a life free of trying to find the least-bad compromise.  As humans, this is what we have.  

We err, though, when we pretend that by not making a choice, we can avoid the struggle.  That by ignoring the dilemma we can avoid all the mess.  Christ calls us to follow him, and part of that means making choices, even if both options are less than great.

Stan and I were talking about his trip to Greece, and he was telling me about this game the Roman soldiers used to play as recruits.  It was called the Basilisk game, and the winner would get everything he wanted for 3-4 days: food, better bedding, anything.  On the third day, he was killed in front of his regiment.  The idea was to illustrate to the soldiers that they had no purpose but to kill, no worth outside of fighting.  

This is part of the context that Matthew writes his gospel–to a group of Gentile converts some of whom would have been former soldiers.  They didn’t have many good choices either–they too were products of a really awful system.  Maybe they didn’t try to profit off the sick and the poor, but they definitely had death panels.  Christ still called them to pick up their cross and follow.

We don’t get a perfect world–we get this one.  We make choices to follow Christ in this world, and we have to decide what that means in this broken, mixed up, traumatized world.  In our world, in our place, when we proclaim the gospel, even with our imperfect choices, it will cause turmoil.  It will cause struggle.  Other Christians may make different imperfect choices–so we talk about that.  But we still have to choose.  

What is clear is that we have to figure out what the gospel means for us, for our time and place, and we have to act on it.  Even in a broken world, with bad choices, Christ still calls us to take up our cross and follow, in the hopes that together, we can mend it all into wholeness.

In which Megan indulges in some shameless self-promotion

So, I have written this here blog for a few years now.  (That’s really crazy when you consider that I started it so that I would no longer torture my college students by ranting to them about things in the church over which they had no control.)

I really love this blog!  And when I began it, I had the idea in my head that no one would actually WANT to read it, because what sort of odd human would want to read my scribblings–alternating as they did between dry wit and barely-contained fury?

It would appear that many of you are, in fact, that odd.  You adorable people, you.

And so, I would like to tell you, who might be interested, that I have helped write a book!   Yes, an actual book which is printed on paper, with ink and a cover, and whatnot.  Like we used in the Olden Days of the 1990s.

This book is available here, from Church Publishing.  (You can also get it in Kindle form from Amazon.  I won’t judge you.)

It’s by Bp. Michael Curry, and others.  I’m one of “the others”, a designation I am delighted with, especially since it includes Very Smart People like Bp. Rob Wright, Broderick Greer, Nora Gallagher, Anthony Guillen, and Kellan Day.

I encourage you to check it out.  And stay odd out there, y’all.  The world has need of us.

On telling the truth

The Samaritan Woman at the well is one of my favorite stories.  There’s the foreign woman, who talks to Jesus, and is welcomed, and runs and tells the good news–in one little story, you get a blue print of most of the great gospel stories.

In 2017, however, there’s this one lines that juts out.  “It’s not because of what you say that we believe, but because we have seen for ourselves!”

Ugh.  Come on, villagers.  Is that even necessary?  Must you take away from this lovely moment by taking away any sense of accomplishment or joy the Samaritan woman might have felt?  That line is at once so cutting and so human, and you can’t help but feel echoes of it in our current climate.

The seed of this sermon was a Facebook conversation with two seminarian friends, as we lamented the revelations coming out of the White House, as aide after aide described having to monitor the president’s every mood swing and temper, lest he become bored and tweet something inflammatory.  Meanwhile, an ongoing talking point during the recent campaign had been whether Hillary Clinton was emotionally stable enough for high office.

Part of being inspired is that the Scriptures reflect to us the consistent frailties of what it means to be human–along with apparently the prejudices we still haven’t shaken after 2,000 years.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

March 18, 2017

Lent 3

John 4: 5-42

 

From time to time, there are these social media experiments.  Have you heard of these?  The most recent was last week.  Two coworkers, a man and a woman, who run a small consulting firm, decided to run a test.  The woman had been telling her male colleague for months about the sort of angry emails she was accustomed to receiving, and he didn’t believe her.  So they agreed: they would switch names for a week.  He would sign her name on emails; she would sign his.  And they would see what happened.

The result is in a way predictable:  the man discovered that he became the target of a lot of abuse when he signed a female name.  He discovered, to his shock, that most clients suddenly became unreasonably difficult to work with.  They questioned his competency, his judgment, and the way he did everything, when he signed emails with his coworker’s name.  One asked him if he was single.  When he switched the names back, suddenly the clients were fawning all over him–complimenting his questions, his wisdom, and his job performance.  

Here’s what’s odd to me about this story–not that the emails changed based on who the clients thought was writing them.  What’s odd to me is that the male colleague didn’t believe his female colleague.  Why didn’t he just believe her?  Wouldn’t she know if she was encountering this sort of thing?  Wouldn’t she be the expert in it?  

Why didn’t he just believe her?  Why did he only believe when he saw it for himself?

 

There is, for whatever reason, a disinclination to believe those without power–even when they speak from their experience.  A base assumption that they must not know what they’re talking about, because only the powerful know how the world really works.  We see this crop up in a lot of places–studies show that women who report pain to a doctor are less likely to be taken seriously, and their pain is less likely to be treated.  Likewise, black people who report pain or discomfort in a medical situation encounter a similar problem.  Their pain is discounted or explained away by the medical professionals.  Even though they are the ones experiencing it first hand.

 We ascribe authority to those to whom we are used to having it.  Y’know–experts.  Doctors, professors, learned people.  And quite frankly, people who overwhelmingly tend to be older white men–as for such a long time, doctors, professors, and all learned people just were.  Those are the people we are used to seeing in positions of authority, and so when someone else tries to speak, even when they speak from their own knowledge–we look askance at them.   That’s not the authority we’re used to.

So let’s turn to the woman at the well.

Now, she’s not anyone’s idea of authority.  She’s not anyone’s idea of an expert.  She’s an outcast in her community, for one reason or another.  She’s a Samaritan, so the nice Jewish boys who hung around Jesus really thought she was off.  And also, of course,–she has the girl cooties, which were a bigger deal back then than they are now, if you can believe it.  But there’s something strange that happens when she talks to Jesus.

She meets Jesus at the well, and they strike up this conversation; he asks her for water, and she asks him for the living water he talks about.  Then, they move onto what seem to be more salacious topics–how many husbands she has.  But notice, when Jesus tells her that ‘the one she has now is not her husband’, she replies by declaring him a prophet, and asking him where the proper place to worship is.  That’s not normally how you respond if a stranger is accusing you of having some loose morals.

The Israelite prophets–Isaiah, Hosea, Ezekiel, etc– all used marriage as the metaphor for Israel’s relationship to God.  God was the faithful husband–Israel was the wife who kept wandering around to different partners.  So given the Samaritan woman’s response–they are not actually talking about her own love life–they’re talking about the theology of the Samaritans as a whole.  

Basically, Jesus is hanging out at a well, chatting theology with a foreign woman.  This is a big deal.  

And when they show up again, the disciples realize this, because they apparently freak out, but internally!  All inside!  Meanwhile, the woman runs back to her village, and tells her neighbors all about Jesus.  They don’t believe her–instead they go to investigate.  And when they discover Jesus is as she says, they tell her that it’s not that they believe because of what she said, but because they have seen for themselves.  

Elsewhere in this same gospel, Jesus tells Thomas that the truly blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.  How different would this story be if the villagers had just believed the Samaritan woman’s testimony of her own experience?  Here is a woman savvy enough to discuss comparative religion with Jesus.  She knows what she’s talking about–yet she goes unlistened to.  Only Jesus cares enough to listen to her story, her authority.

Often, in the gospel, the good news rests solely on the authority of the most unlikely person.  The Samaritan Woman telling her village about Jesus is almost a test-run of the women at the tomb, running back to tell the disciples about the risen Christ.  In each case, those seemingly without authority are called on to speak to what they know and what they have seen.  And others decide whether to listen.

Jesus models for us a way of listening to the experiences around us, when he struck up that conversation at the well.  He listened to her story, to her thoughts and her experience, and by doing that, gave her the confidence to tell others what she had found in Jesus.  It was through her voice, that the village came to know something new of God.

We miss so much when we discount the authority around us.  Scripture teaches us that God most often uses those who go unheard to do his loudest speaking.  So it is on us to learn to listen.  Listen to those who speak from what they know.  What they have seen.  The pain and the joy.  The struggle and the triumph.  Because Jesus sends Samaritan women into our midst all the time, telling us some great news.

The question is whether we are prepared to hear her.

 

 

Redeeming the Pharisees

One of my pet peeves in preaching is Straw Man Pharisee Syndrome.  You are, no doubt, familiar with this–the preacher describes, in great detail, how the Pharisees were legalistic moralists, who didn’t really care about spirituality, liked to exclude people, hated women, and were the sort of rigid rule-followers who liked to yell at those who differed from them.  We, however, were not like the Pharisees, unless we messed up.  But generally speaking, they were everything Jesus hated.

End of sermon.

This is one of my pet peeves because it tends to be a homiletic crutch.  It lets the preacher off the hook of having to do any self-examination, because the categories of good and evil are a given:  Pharisees=bad, Jesus and disciples=good.

It also has the problem that most dualisms and strawmen have:  it’s wrong.  It leaves out Pharisees who liked Jesus, like Nicodemus, or Joseph of Arimathea.  It skips over the debates that we know even from the gospels (which have their own agenda) were happening within the Pharisaic community.  And it lets the disciples off the hook, who more often than not, have no idea what they’re supposed to be doing, and act accordingly dim.

(And, ceaselessly attacking the Pharisees is kinda antisemitic.  The Pharisees invented modern rabbinic Judaism.  If you stand up in a pulpit and describe them as intolerant, unloving, and devoid of spiritual worth, what, exactly, are you saying about modern Judaism?)

So, from time to time, I like to preach in defense of those guys.  They don’t really deserve their reputation from history, and I would hope, in 2,000 years, someone would take the time to explain how awesome I secretly was, as well.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

February 12, 2017

Epiphany 6

Matthew

 

So there’s a Darth Vader gargoyle on the National Cathedral.  I’m not kidding–back in the 1980s, they were finishing up the cathedral’s edifice, and decided to hold a contest for what the scariest image was.  A schoolkid submitted Darth Vader and won.  So, behold.  There is now the head of Darth Vader on the side of the National Cathedral.

This really amuses me, not only because it confirms the role of Star Wars as our national mythology.   But because it points to the important role that villains play in those stories.  Whom we pick as villains usually say as much about us as they do about any inherent evil on their part.  So, Darth Vader stomping around, but then being redeemed at the end of Return of the Jedi says a lot about Han, Luke and Leia  in general.

If there are villains in the gospels, then they’re probably the pharisees.  And they work really well as villains.  

They’re the sticklers, they’re the rule followers.  They believe in rules over love.  They’re bringing everyone down all the time–you can imagine them just being huge buzzkills all over ancient Palestine.  Possibly with light sabers in ominous colors. Pharisees would sell great as action figures, and you could really scare small kids with them.   Don’t be a Pharisee!

Couple of issues with that, though.  

For starters, in history, the Pharisees were GREAT.  They were a grassroots political movement aimed at spreading religious power to the average person.  See, at the time, if you were, say, a nice farming family up in the Galilee, you didn’t really have much to do with your Judaism, because it was hard and expensive.  The laws you knew about mainly told you to hike all the way down to the Temple in Jerusalem and that was cost-prohibitive.  So, most people who didn’t live in Jerusalem also figured that God really didn’t care what they did.  

Enter the Pharisees.  Who insisted that religion was for everyone.  God actually did care about the farmer in the Galilee!  So much so that God really wanted him to pray, just where he was!  And read the scriptures, just where he was!  

The Pharisee movement was actually about democratizing religion and making it more inclusive.  Not exclusive.  And when the Temple falls in 70, it is the Pharisees who manage to pull Judaism up from the ashes and resurrect it into the form we know today, complete with synagogues and rabbis.  So part of the reason we need to be careful about slagging on the Pharisees too much is that they invented modern Judaism.

Here’s the other reason we need to be careful about the Pharisees:  Jesus was basically one of them.  Look at this gospel reading!  JUST LOOK AT IT.  Because for every section of the gospels wherein Jesus is all ‘love is all you need” and “there are no rules, I’m James Dean”, there are sections like this, where he gets very intense about the intricacies of the Law.  This is one of several places where Jesus basically recites, verbatim, arguments that we know Pharisees had themselves at that time.  If villains tell us about ourselves, then part of what the Villainous Pharisees tell us about the gospel writers is that they were part of the same group, and they were anxious about the same things.  Which is why they go after each other the way they do.  It follows the logic of “no one gets to hit my brother except for me.”  We save the hardest and most specific criticism for those within our own group.  

And the thing Jesus is fired up about here is the same thing the Pharisees were:  he wanted everyone–not just the special people– to keep the law. The whole law.  And not just part of it. But, Jesus points out that there is a difference between keeping the law in order to keep the law, and keeping the law in order to fulfill the spirit of it.  

Because the law, in and of itself isn’t bad.  We really shouldn’t murder.  We really shouldn’t commit adultery.  We really shouldn’t steal.  Those are, you know, good ideas for life, in that they help us better love one another.  

The problem arises when you try to legalistically split hairs, and ignore the spirit of those rules in order to get away with not loving one another.  When the aim of God’s law is to get us to love God and love one another, then there’s a problem when we use the same law to act unlovingly.  That’s hypocrisy.

So it’s really not ok to say “Well, sure, I bully people online for fun, but I never stole anything.” or “Well, sure, I make jokes about people who look differently than me, but I’m no murderer.”  or “Yes, I closed the borders to people who believe differently than me, but ancient Israel had a wall once,  so God’s fine with this.”  By the letter of the law, you might be ok.  But if you’re not being loving, then you aren’t following the law.  You aren’t doing your job.

To claim to follow God’s law means to be committed to loving God and loving neighbor as the goal  It means that all our actions, all our words must be aimed at loving God and loving our neighbor, and spreading that love in the world.  We don’t get to pick and choose to what degree we do this–that’s what Jesus is arguing.  We have to be whole-hearted.  We have to follow the whole law.  Not just part.  Not just the part that works best for us right then.

As is usually the case with villains, the thing we dislike the most about them is the thing we dislike the most in ourselves.  The Pharisees get such a bad rap in the gospels not because they were actually such legalistic nitpickers….but because we tend to be. We always have been.

 Jesus and the Pharisees were the one who actually would like us to knock that off.  Don’t carve up the law like that.  Keep the whole thing.  Love everyone.  Serve everyone.  Persist in that loving even when it’s difficult and unpopular.  Persist even when you’ve been warned.  Persist nevertheless.  Because it’s only through that wholehearted loving of everyone–the Pharisees, our neighbors, ourselves…even Darth Vader, that the world changes.

Amen.

 

In which I advise my teenage self

Yesterday, I had an unexpected treat.

Thanks to this very blog, I was invited to go and talk with the students at one of our local Catholic girls’ high schools about women in ministry.  I didn’t know anyone there–apparently one of the theology teachers uses Lent Madness in class and discovered my blog thusly.  (Ah, the wonders of the intertubez!)

I was so psyched.  No kidding–talking to young women about my job is one of my all-time favorite things, because it always feels like I am disclosing one of the secrets of the universe.  Yes, you, too, can do this job!  And wear these shoes at the same time!

I sat at a small table and girls came up to sit with me to eat lunch if they wanted.  Other tables were staffed by nuns, in a variety of habits, another Episcopal priest and a local Muslim activist.

I don’t think I said anything profound.  I talked a lot about how the Episcopal Church differed from the Catholic Church (same service, different emphasis in theology, and we really like elections.)  I talked about how I had decided to become a priest. (God called me, I pouted, then gave in.)  And I talked about why I loved my job (I get to talk about the most important stuff, and I get to bless wine and bread, and then hand people a piece of God.)

But I absolutely loved it, because I know how desperate I was in high school for any glimpse of an adult who was living a life that I wanted.  I was lucky–I had known female priests all my life–but at that critical moment, I didn’t have anyone around that made the life I thought I was called to seem within grasp.

The students were delightful and engaged, asking good questions.  We cheerfully ate Skittles and cookies all through lunch.  And then I headed on back to my normal life with a lovely swag bag. (It’s like I’m famous!!!)

Probably, no one had a conversion moment. But hopefully, the girls saw another option of what adult life could be for them.