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No gods that we know

We have now entered the one-month period wherein I will be installed officially as the rector of St. John’s (hooray!) and then get married (also hooray!).  I figured out today that this series of events is the equivalent to an out-of-season Christmas/Holy Week scenario–copiers will run out of ink, computers will die, the building will slowly collapse, and people will people, in recognition of profound oncoming liturgical events.  I warned the staff to be on their guard.  Be very nice to everyone.  Stockpile the office paper.  Winter is coming.

This means that I have noticed the occasional vestry member looking at me worriedly when I say (without thinking) “Well, we can start that project in October!  No problem!” or the parish administrator saying gleefully, “GOOD FOR YOU!” when I say I’m taking off a few minutes early.

Rest assured, that beginning next week, I will have two other preachers at my disposal at St. John’s, and they will be pitching in ably.  So in the event that a sermon doesn’t make it up here, there’s a good chance that someone else has just preached.

In the meantime, here’s what I said on the 16th.

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

September 16, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 19

Mark 

The gods we are used to

There’s a scene in that Anglican classic of modern spirituality, The Life gf Brian, where the People’s Liberation Front of Judea is having a meeting.  And someone rightly questions the continuing Roman imperial rule over Palestine, asking, “Well, what did Rome ever do for us?”

The answer immediately comes back: “Well, running water.  And plumbing.  And roads.  And transportation.  And cities, really.  And trade.  And security.  And…and…and…”  Point well made.  (Like the rest of their canon, Life of Brian is remarkably well researched regarding life in first century Palestine.)  And it does nail the socio-political milieu pretty well:  Rome did A LOT in Palestine during their rule, which is why there are several Caesarea’s all over the place.  Entire cities built by one Caesar or another.  The one we’re interested in today is up at the headwaters of the Jordan, up in the Golan Heights, where the freshwater springs are.  Caesarea Philippi.  

Traditionally—an ancient center of Roman/Greek worship.  For thousands of years, because of the continual supply of fresh water, people had gone there to worship the god of the moment.  First the gods of the Canaanities, then the God of the Israelites, then the Babylonian and Assyrian gods, then the Greek and Roman gods—Caesarea Phillippi was one of those places in the ancient world that just attracted worship.  So the springs were littered with temples to one god or another—Tons of various temples to all the gods at the springs. So when Jesus asks this question, they’re literally standing surrounded by other gods.  The location of this conversation is not coincidental at all. 

Who do you say that I am?  One like these?  

No—We say you are the Messiah, the Christ!  Hooray—50 points to Gryffindor.  Everyone is very excited—the disciples finally got one right!!! 

Then Jesus explains what that means.  (Notable, in each gospel, as soon as a disciple figures out who Jesus is, Jesus announces he will be crucified.  Crucifixion and Messiahship are inexorably intertwined.) 

Peter reacts badly.  NO.  Messiahs don’t do that.  Messiahs are big and strong and fix things.  Messiahs can be described in easily systematized theological statements, and hypotheticals, and are not confusing.  Look at all these marble statutes!!!  Aren’t they nice!  Don’t you want to be respectable like them?!  The point, the whole point, in Peter’s mind, of Jesus being the Messiah is that Jesus, his friend, is a god just as big and as imposing as these statutes that surround them.

It never fails to be surprising and upsetting, this Messiahship of Jesus.  It is the constant tension that runs through the gospels.  

Because Jesus is unlike any god we are used to.  He is not like those statutes at Caesarea Phillippi.  Jesus is not like Zeus, not like Mercury.  He is not like those ancient Canaanite or Babylonian gods. Jesus is not like any other god we know. 

And we know that, of course we do—which is why, when Jesus forcibly reminds Peter that his job as Messiah, is not to get his face carved into marble, but to climb upon a cross to die, we nod, because we know this story.  And after all, there aren’t many temples to Ba’al left in our world.  (Outside New Jersey, because there is literally every religion current and ancient in New Jersey.) 

Though, I daresay, there is some perverse way in which it’s a lot easier having a god like those nice marble statues, whose heads crown the rocks around the springs at Caesarea Philippi.  They were predictable—you knew what to do with them.  You didn’t have to worry that they would up and die one day.  You didn’t have to worry that they would abandon you; if they proved faithless, well then make a better sacrifice the next time.  Easy.

But what does one do with this suffering God?  How does a human cope with a loving, suffering Messiah?  It’s a bit much, isn’t it?  It gives us no room to hide.  We can’t stick our own less-than-great behavior under any divine cloud, because there’s Jesus, always showing us something better. 

Jesus, sheerly by being who and what he is, draws us to something better, shows us that life can be lived better, more fully than this. 

Frustratingly, Jesus refuses to play by the same rules as the old gods—he won’t hate the people we do, or be as emotionally petty as we are, so that we can have an excuse, and feel justified.  He irritatingly will not succumb to our attempts at bribery and bargaining, much as we would want.  He doesn’t produce magic, and cannot be manipulated to our own ends—despite our best efforts, he remains just out of our reach.

We often confuse him with the other gods—not so often ones made of marble now, but fancier ones.  Ones made of ideas like the market and security, and ideology.  We, like Peter, still want to conflate the Christ standing before us with all the various gods that cry for our attention.  We project all of our own stuff onto Christ, then blame him for it.  

One of the miracles of God that I can never quite get over, is how God never allows us to get away with that entirely.  I heard Bishop Mark MacDonald compare it to growing cranberries—you have do to all this work to grow cranberries; prepare the soil just right, water them just right, plant them, tend them, do all this impossible work, still it only works half the time—-but then occasionally, you look across the road and darn it if cranberries aren’t growing wild in the forest just because.  

There are voices in our world that would tell us that really, God hates quite a lot of people.  That everything is hopeless, so we best just buckle down and hope we make it into heaven.  Or at least the Rapture.  And we have places in the institutional church that are so broken and diseased that they have been hurting and abusing vulnerable people for decades—if not longer.  

And yet.  In spite of all that—in spite of all the voices of our world that would encourage us to see Jesus as just another fallible marble figurehead—petty and changeable—somehow I meet people day after day who know—who just know—in spite of all this—that God is real, that God loves them beyond knowing, and that Jesus is different, somehow.  Somehow, despite the world’s best efforts—those cranberry seeds are still growing.  Somehow, despite all that would trick us into thinking otherwise, Jesus persists in being himself.  Persists in being Unlike all our other Gods.  

but still, quietly, consistently, and subtly, Until such time as we notice.

Funny story…

Hey Megan, why isn’t last week’s sermon up on the website yet?

Oooooh, funny story.  

See, last week, I made it back to Ithaca around 11:30pm on Saturday night.  I had been in Kansas City, finishing up wedding planning (pies ordered, BBQ selected, all set!) and I wrote my sermon on the plane.  I was so proud of myself, you see.  And that was my downfall.

I forgot to reconnect my computer to the interwebz, so my sermon didn’t upload itself to the Magic GlowCloud.  So when I arrived at church Sunday morning, all bright-eyed and full of caffeine, I discovered that Magic GlowCloud on my work computer held no sermon of any kind.  There was no sermon to print.

“No matter,” I thought to myself. “I shall reconstruct it from memory!”  And so, did I scribble the main points on a piece of paper, and scamper off to the sanctuary for the 8am service.

But then, dear reader, did disaster again strike.  For during the readings of 8am, did I then discover that I had written a sermon for the next week’s readings.  And not these.  I had a full sermon on James 2 and the Syrophonecian woman, and not James 1 or whatever Proverbs was on about.  

This could be a problem.  People tend to notice when you start harping on about a story they haven’t heard.  

So I readjusted again, and basically said some things about faith and praying and the creeds and I’m not entirely sure what else, but it seemed to work.  It ended up being a mix of half of my written sermon, and half of Things in My Head.  It is possible that at one point I compared Paul to Chidi in The Good Place.  (Because he is, and like Chidi, and moral philosophy professors in general, Paul is also generally uncomfortable to hang around.)

That’s a long explanation of why last week’s sermon never ended up on the blog; which is to say, it never quite existed at all.  THIS WEEK’s sermon, now–that both exists, and is here!  For your reading pleasure.  

Here’s what I said:

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

September 9, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 18

Mark 7

About a day’s walk away from Nazareth—less, actually, if you don’t follow the modern highways—is Mount Carmel, near today’s Haifa.  It’s lovely, relatively green, and picturesque.  It is also the site where, according to tradition, Elijah got into trouble with the court prophets of Queen Jezebel, and proposed a test.  Both he and they would pray to their respective gods to send down fire from the sky to consume an offering, and whoever succeeded—well, that was the true god of Israel.  

Elijah is a bit of a smartaleck, so he taunts the prophets of Ba’al as they pray.  He asks if their god has maybe fallen asleep.  Is he tired?  Maybe he’s too tired to send down the fire?  Does he need a nap?  Should they be praying louder?  Finally, the Ba’al priests give up, after quite a lot of ceremony.

Elijah steps up, douses his offering with water several times, and calmly proceeds to summon fire from the sky in the name of God to flambé not only the sacrifice…but also all the priests of Ba’al, and those Ba’al worshippers who were standing around, watching.  It’s a gruesome moment, one of the major events of the prophet Elijah’s life.  And one of the major events in the religious history of Israel—a history that had really ambivalent feelings about its relationships to people who weren’t Jewish.  

On the one hand, you have stories like this graphic one about Elijah—getting rid of the evil foreign queen’s evil foreign priests, with fire and lots of drama.  On the other, you also have stories like Abraham being friendly with the foreign residents of Hebron, and asking for a place to bury his wife, when she dies.  Or the story of Ruth the faithful Moabite, who becomes King David’s grandmother.  

Essentially, at the time of Jesus, the Jewish culture had a lot of different, and strong, ideas about how you were supposed to deal with people who were unlike you, religiously.  And Jesus, having grown up in Nazareth, in a Jewish town, in a Jewish family, as a Jewish person, would have heard and received all of those ideas.  Would have been raised in that culture and context.  Would have been raised an easy day’s walk away from the place where tradition says the greatest prophet in Israel’s history defeated the unclean ones for God!

So when you hear this week’s troubling gospel—and it is troubling—keep all that in the back of your mind.  Keep that landscape in your mind.  

Because in this moment of whatever, when confronted by this Syro-phonecian woman when she asked for help for her daughter, Jesus unthinkingly falls back into this pattern handed to him by his culture and his country.

Jesus has ventured outside of Israelite territory, we are told to get a break from the ceaseless crowds, and then that doesn’t work, and a woman of Syro-phonecian origin accosts him and asks for his help.  And he says something pretty mean to her.  It is not fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs. 

Ok.  Now.  I should say that there are scholars who try to soften or explain what Jesus does.  There are scholars who say that comparing someone to a dog back then wasn’t as bad as it sounds, because the word used is the diminutive form, so he’s really comparing her to a puppy.  Which is sort of cute, I guess.  

There are scholars who argue that what he was doing was using the woman as an object lesson: that he was trying to illustrate all that stuff about nothing on the outside defiling us, but only stuff from the inside he had just said for the disciples, and prompt a reaction out of them—so they would correct him.  It was all a plan, you see! 

Honestly I don’t care for those explanations; because I don’t find Jesus to be someone who would verbally abuse a woman in crisis, just to prove a point to someone else.  She does not appear to be in on the lesson.  And what kind of person mocks and slanders someone else, in order to teach?  We know from other sources that to be called a dog was just as much of a slur back then as it is now—it had similar (though not identical) ethnic overtones. 

And we can spend a lot of time twisting the text around to make Jesus’ words less troubling, but the truth is, I think Jesus just didn’t think.  And I think he echoed his uncles, his grandparents, his parents, when they were tired, and griping around the table late at night.  I think he just spoke out of what he learned as a kid, from his culture, from the people around him—he gave voice to that free-floating something, and there it was.  

But two things happen—One, the woman gets sassy.  She will not take this.  This is NOT what she came for, gosh darn it.  “Yes my lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table.” Mic drop.   She will MAKE Jesus deal with her humanity, dammit. She is not content to go quietly away—she argues back.

And remarkably, Jesus changes.  His brain kicks back in.  He thinks, and plugs into all that good stuff he was just saying, and he decides to heal her daughter.

Now, maybe he was just demonstrating something for the disciples.  Maybe she was in on it and the two of them had worked it out beforehand.  But this is the one time in the gospels that Jesus appears to reverse course, and so it’s notable.   

The humanity of this woman breaks through the knee-jerk rhetoric.  Having to see her as an individual, and not a category, not a stereotype, not a cutout for a larger problem—that changed the conversation.  It is in that moment when the woman speaks for herself, pushes back against the weird aphorism that Jesus dismisses her with, that he changes his mind.

It is easy to be dismissive of others when we keep them as others.  When we keep them firmly categorized in our minds in the boxes we create for them:  “Different” “Other” “Bad” “Entirely unlike Me,  Who Is A Good Person”.  Sorting people, things, and experiences into one-dimensional categories is a safety mechanism, right?  It’s how we move through the world without our brains exploding, Malcom Gladwell tells us.  And that’s fine, insofar as it goes.

But people aren’t actually one dimensional.  People are images of God, unique and individual, and beautiful in diversity.  And the foundation of our faith is to love God, and love our neighbor—which is in fact difficult to do without knowing our neighbor, recognizing our neighbor as unique, and human and beloved.  God requires not that we sort people easily, but that we know one another.  That we meet one another as unique human beings—with our variety of experiences, histories, stories, and wisdom.  

The risk in that, of course, is that we also have to be willing to be humans ourselves.  We have to be willing to be honest about our own frailties and failings.  Which can be pretty darn uncomfortable!  I imagine Jesus didn’t feel great when he realized what he had said to the woman.  But if he was going to meet her in her full humanity, that required him to acknowledge that he had been raised in a culture that had been cruel to her.  

Dr. Catherine Meeks, a professor in Atlanta, says that in the end, the only way to truly overcome prejudice is love.  When we love ourselves with compassion for every part of our humanity, we will be able to love each other in another’s full humanity.  It is only through this sort of humble love for self and one another that the barriers between us crumble.

It is this sort of love that Christ gives to us, that he models for us, the sort of love that reaches out, that cherishes each beloved child of God, and assures us that there are shall be no outcasts in God’s kingdom.


New Hobby

One of the reporters at the Hutto prayer service asked me, as serious as could be, “So, these large outdoor prayer meetings–I assume this is a weekly tradition for Episcopals?”

Oh my sweet, summer child.

“No,” I replied, quite emphatically. “We are an indoor people.  My people do not venture forth out of doors.  Do you know the Royal Wedding?  The queen, the hats, the tea?  We are the people who brought you THAT.  Today is VERY UNUSUAL.  Please consider how bad things have to be in order to force Episcopalians to go OUTSIDE.

WHERE THE SUN IS.”

However, God is quite the joker, because no sooner did I arrive back in Ithaca, then Mass on the Grass rolled around.  This is an annual tradition of St. John’s, which used to be termed “Rally Day” but because no one quite knew what a rally day was, we decided to change the name this year.  We go out to a local park, rent a big pavilion, and have one big service and picnic to celebrate summer, and to have fun.

My response to that reporter was slightly tongue-in-cheek, but mostly honest.  Because the heart of our tradition is liturgy, when we move where it happens, it feels radically destabilizing.  Sometimes, that’s healthy, and sometimes, that’s just chaotic without purpose.  But in all cases, it’s deeply felt.  So we don’t tend to just “go outside.” Outside is chaotic.  Outside there is wind and water, and whatnot.  You can’t always control things outside.

However, more and more it would seem that outside is just where Christ is calling us.  Regardless of the geese that honk while we pray, and the wind that threatens our nicely-lit candles–Christ seems to be calling us outside into this creation, so go there, we shall.

Here’s what I said.  (It’s in bullet points because I was trying to be ‘looser’ and more ‘free.’  This sort of worked?

Bread vs bread 

CAT FOOD EXPERIMENT in 4th grade 

Moral: don’t be a cat. Hold out for the good stuff. 

  • Recall now that we’ve switched from Mark to John’s gospel
  • Mark was “Just the facts” 
  • John wants to also tell you the Why. The theological background. 
  • John is Gospel 2.0 
  • Which is why he spends 3 chapters ranting about bread 
  • Bread here isn’t just bread. 
  • (as you might suspect from Jesus chiding them for wanting a snack.)
  • As usual, John is operating on several levels 
  • For one thing, John would like us to notice that Jesus is being super-Moses like here. Which is why he has told us that it is Passover. 
  • Remember how Moses, among his many accomplishments, fed a huge crowd of people? 
  • He prayed, and God gave the Israelites manna in the wilderness. 
  • Here, Jesus prays, and God feeds a crowd again.
  • But! Jesus’ bread is not like the manna, which turned bad after a day. Jesus’ bread is 1. for everyone and 2. everlasting. 
  • So Jesus is both in the footsteps of Moses, and building upon Moses. 
  • Don’t settle just for manna, John’s Jesus tells us. There’s more out there, and God wants to give it to you. 
  • Don’t just settle for surviving, Jesus tells us. Reach for an abundant life. 
  • The crowd seems to want the basics—bread! Magic! Miracles at their beck and call! And it makes sense—free bread sounds pretty great. 
  • But Jesus wants to give them something more complicated, more risky and more real. 
  • Following the way of Christ is not just survival.
  • In fact, loving God and your neighbor as yourself does not necessarily make for survival. 
  • Following Christ opens us up to a life beyond surviving— it opens us up to a life of vulnerability, and richness, and joy, and sorrow, and hope.  
  • There are times, certainly, when it seems safer to settle for bread.  We know bread! And we also don’t want to get our hearts broken. 
  • But the life that Christ offers us beckons with so much beyond our imagining—it makes the occasional heartbreak worth it. 
  • We’re here today in this park to celebrate. But not the survival of St. John’s. We are here to celebrate our thriving. Our abundant life we are finding together. 
  • Time and again, this parish has chosen to reach for an abundant life, rather than the safe one. We have chosen to follow Jesus when he led us onto the water rather than to stay on the shore. And recently, I followed Jesus and got to join you on this path. 
  • so here we are, rejoicing in the abundant life this parish has found together. And in the adventures that Christ has in store for us just over the horizon. 

 

What Happened

I am well and truly back from General Convention now.

I have taken enough naps, petted my cats enough, knit enough, and reflected enough to be back from the headspace of 10 frantic days in Austin.

I always approach General Convention with the same sense of creeping dread.  “Oh dear God, this will be awful.  It will be an unending slog of horrible and fighting and why do I do this to myself?”  This year was the same.  This year, for the first time, I had directly contributed to many of the 517 (!) resolutions, so I felt personally invested in a new way.***

I have said several times that ordination’s closest comparison is marriage.  You have to be willing, if you want to be a priest, to fall in love with an institution, while knowing full well that this institution is fallible and broken, and prone to bad decision-making.  You have to be vulnerable to a system, while knowing that the system does not always come through.  The flip side of that, however, is that you’re bound to this erstwhile institution in love, so every time it falls short, you are able to confront it and shake the gates, and tell it to step up.

This convention, if you boiled it down, was a lot of faithful women doing a lot of gate-shaking.  Over and over again, we texted each other encouragement, we met in hallways, and over hurried lunches, and consoled each other when the path looked rockier than it did before.  We sat in committees, stood at the microphone, calmly told our stories, and outlined the change we wanted to see; we, who have been in love with this Church that at times hasn’t known how to love us back, have now started demanding better from this branch of the Body of Christ.

In the end, I think we managed to do a fair amount.  The systemic problems remain, as they do in the rest of society.  There’s still a lot of work to do.  But gone forever, I hope, is the notion that the Church can take women’s participation and presence for granted, without ensuring that we are also cherished and loved as equal members in this body.

If you want a practical list, here’s what the Special Taskforce got done:

  • asked for any prayer book revision to include expansive language for God
  • established a Truth and Reconciliation taskforce to deal with issues around gender, racial inequality
  • made discrimination in hiring forbidden under canon
  • defined and forbade retaliation under canon
  • provide confidentiality for whistleblowers in Title IV
  • create a database for Title IV matters, and resolutions
  • asked the Standing Commission for Structure, Governance, Constitution, and Canons to create a plan for a churchwide disciplinary process, including a churchwide intake officer position
  • lifted the statute of limitations on all sexual misconduct claims, beginning Jan 1, 2019 and ending Dec 31, 2021

 

***Let’s be clear:  I always feel invested in SOME way.  I am nothing if not opinionated.  But this time felt different.

Plowing for Justice

Beginning a new job carries with it many firsts:  first paycheck, first vestry meeting to lead, first major decision, etc.   Most of these get covered in seminary, or at least a nice pamphlet from Forward Movement or the Alban Institute.  (Tips: only change things you really have to at first.  This should never include the early service.  Befriend your office staff and Altar Guild.).

What they don’t cover is the first time you get up in the pulpit and preach a “our government is doing something awful, and we should do something about it” sermon in a new place.  These sermons are never the easiest to preach in general, but they become far easier, and indeed—are impossible to give without– a solid pastoral relationship with your congregation.  When you can look out over your people, and consider how what you’re about to say will hit each person, preaching tends to go better all the way around. (This person has members of their family serving in law enforcement; this person lost a parent recently; this person has adopted kids, etc.)

But, sometimes things happen.  Sometimes the Attorney General stands up and says something insane, like invoking a Bible verse last used by slaveholders in the South to justify his new policy of family separation at the border.  And, you have to jump in and hope that you’ve learned your people well enough over the few short weeks you’ve been there to talk to them about this.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 17, 2018

Proper 6, Year B

Mark 4:26-34

Earlier this week, if you were on social media, you might have noticed a lot of hubbub about a raccoon.  All of a sudden, Twitter started to get very excited about a raccoon that found itself scaling a 35 floor office building in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota.  It’s the sort of thing that happens more often in the internet age; something odd starts to happen, someone shares it, and now the whole world is watching a raccoon sit on a window ledge 25 floors above the street, and suggesting ways to help the little guy.  It was pretty strange: social media has gotten noticably grimmer since the 2016 election, but here were avowed conservatives and hardened progressives, talking to each other, expressing concern about some random raccoon, who—as several people pointed out—was probably rabid, since raccoons don’t come out in the daytime, much less try to climb a building for 2 days straight.  But here we were—people from all over the world, watching this raccoon climb with bated breath, hoping against hope.  Til finally it was over, at 3am on Monday morning, when the raccoon had finally made it to the roof, and was promptly fed some wet cat food by the fire department, and carted away by the relieved wildlife department.  We all breathed a huge sigh of relief.  HE MADE IT!  (Though, it turned out to be a girl.  SHE MADE IT!  SHE WASNT RABID!) And if she could make it, then gosh darn it, we could survive this year, too.

This brief flash of global togetherness felt a lot like the kingdom of God.  Here we all were, brought together in this unexpected way, from all these diverse backgrounds and experiences and places, but together in solidarity for another living creature, in a way no one could have foreseen.  (Really, if you called the whole “raccoon climbs up an office building” then you need to go to Vegas.)  And that happens so rarely these days.  

When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he says that it comes suddenly, and unexpectedly—like a farmer who does the planting, sowing, weeding—then one day, when he’s not paying attention—bam!  It’s harvest time.  Or a mustard seed, that in some mysterious way grows from a tiny thing, into an enormous thing to shelter all the birds of the air.  He’s using a lot of metaphors, but there’s definitely some way in which we can prepare for the kingdom, and some way in which it is entirely beyond us.  That seems to be where he’s going with this.  We can do all the work in the world, but that will only get us partially there.  The rest is God’s doing, and that is up to God.  

What struck me as I was thinking on this sermon earlier this week is that there’s no announcement when the Kingdom arrives.  In both of these images Jesus presents to us, the final product grows organically from what has come before.  At no point is there a trumpet fanfare, and a voice from on high proclaiming, BEHOLD.  IT IS HERE NOW.  But in both examples, the growth is so incremental that you can really only see it in retrospect.  It arrives before you know it. So there is also a way in which the Kingdom sneaks up on us as well, perhaps.

In case you’re wondering, or trying hard not to wonder, the phrase Kingdom of God gets a TON of play in the gospels, but it’s a term of art—it means something very specific, which we don’t often actually define.  The kingdom of God was a phrase used in Judaism to mean when God decisively acted to rule events on earth.  It was a state of being—a thing that happened on and off, but also an occurrence that was understood to happen definitively once and for all at the end of time when the dead all arose, and God perfected the world, and all that.  So the kingdom of God both exists all the time—anytime God acts to rule events on earth, and exists in fullness at the end.  (This is not to say that in the meantime God is not entirely in charge, but the in the meantime, the human proclivity for sin keeps mucking things up.  Another sermon.) 

So, Jesus spends a lot of time, trying to explain this to disciples, so they know what it looks like when God is fully in charge of events on earth, because they have gotten used to other ways of being.  But if they know to recognize the kingdom, then they’ll know how to welcome it.  How to cooperate with it when it emerges.  

How will it look when God is fully in charge?  The last shall be first and the first, last.  How will it look when we’re all living under God’s reign?  The poor will be fed, the widow and orphan protected.  How will it look?  The meek will inherit the earth, the peacemakers will be blessed, the mournful will be joyful—the children will be cared for.  And love will be the order of the day.

Now—that’s all really great to say.  But as I stand here this morning, you and I both know that the world is a long way from this kingdom of God.  The world does not appear to be bringing forth any great harvest of righteousness—rather we appear to be salting our fields and burning whatever crops we had. 

This week, we didn’t only witness the exploits of a brave raccoon.  News also broke that between April 16 and May 31, nearly 2,000 children have been taken away from their parents, upon entry into the United States as a result of a new policy—this is all from the Associated Press, mind you.    These include children who fled here with their parents to seek asylum—which is perfectly legal—and those who were just caught at the border. 

Now–I am not so worried about which party came up with this policy.  I am not worried about whose fault this is.  I am not worried about who you voted for in the last election–this isn’t about that.  What I am worried about is that there are currently so many children in detention that a new tent city is being planned in Texas.  And what I am worried about is that on Thursday, the Attorney General defended the new policy, by saying that it was very Christian, indeed, biblical to do so.  He pointed to Romans 13:1 as justification.  

Setting aside for a moment that the Attorney General charged with safeguarding our justice system, and not our religious traditions, and so his biblical scholarship is perhaps not the strongest, a public figure did claim to be practicing a policy in the name of Christianity—and that’s us.  That’s you and me.  So no matter how you voted, no matter what you think of this present government, whether you like it or not, we, as Christians, better decide what we think about that.  Because now our name is in play.  

So how does Christianity feel about this?  Is what’s happening Christian?

There are people who take children away from their parents in the Bible—there are people who do nearly everything in the Bible, but there are definitely people who do this.  Namely, Pharaoh who ordered the death of the Hebrew boys, and Herod who ordered the death of the Jewish boys.  So this is quite biblical—but not in a positive way.

But more to the point: to be Christian is to seek the Kingdom of God on earth, to try to emulate the path of Christ in our lives and to prepare the way for God’s reign to break out among us.  

THERE. IS. NO. PART. of Christ’s life that suggests that he condoned hurting children.  None.  There is no part that suggests Christ sought draconian punishments for the law-breakers either.  

Instead, what we get is a Jesus who became a refugee himself fleeing one of those draconian leaders into a foreign land!  What we get is Jesus treated as a criminal, shamed, beaten, and killed by a law-following governor!  What we see in Jesus is someone who tells us, through his words and through his actions, and through his very being, that God is with the marginalized.  God is with the poor, the imprisoned, the scared child, the refugee, the person wanting a better life for their children—and if we want to find God, then that is where we need to be too.  

So if we want to find the Kingdom of God here on earth, if we want to prepare the way, and do our work and prepare for it to appear—if we want to plow the ground and till the soil and fertilize it and water it—then we need to be very clear about where God is.  We can’t expect God’s reign to be springing up in the courts of the powerful—if we spend our time preparing that ground, we’re bound for disappointment.  The kingdom will not burst forth in the halls of the rich and powerful.

No, our work here is to heed the cry of the suffering.  That is the ground we are called to.  And while we can’t eliminate injustice, and we can’t right all wrongs, and it isn’t our job to write government policy—but we can try.  We can do something.  We can pray, we can protest, we can call the powerful and pester them, we can send money and legal aid, we can vote—and we can keep our gaze fixed on where we know God will show up as we do our kingdom preparation.  

Because I don’t know how to solve all our immigration problems–I don’t know how to fix our laws, or write public policy, but what I do know?  I do know this: God is going to show up.  Sooner or later, when we least expect it, God is going to show up, and in that moment, the work we have done will make sense, and the God who cherishes the little children, and who makes the last, first, will bring the harvest of justice.  But until that day comes in its glory—it’s up to us to get plowing. 

Amen.

King of Pogs

I made a joke the other week that the only thing that has changed for my preaching during the Trump Administration has been that I can no longer write sermons prior to Fridays.  Nowadays, enough horror will occur later in the week that people need to hear it addressed.

This week, with the several high-profile suicides, was no different.  I wasn’t sure, however, how to talk about them in the sermon.  I found the advice for how to talk about this somewhat contradictory, and couldn’t quite see a clear way to discuss it.  And yet, in the process of writing the sermon, there it appeared anyway.

Sometimes life creeps in around the edges in spite of ourselves.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 10, 2018

Proper 5, Ordinary Time, Year B

1 Samuel 8

Do you remember Pogs?  They were a really big deal for about a split second in the mid 1990s.  I am not even sure what exactly they started out as, but when they were hitting their stride, they were little circles of cardboard, about the size of a large silver dollar, with different logos printed on them.  You played a game with them, the rules of which I don’t quite remember—I think the goal was to flip them over, then trade them?

But what I DO remember was that it was VERY Important in my childhood mind to own Pogs.  It was SO VITAL.  In the small economy of late elementary school, you were pressing your luck not to come equipped with a Trapper Keeper, or a 5 Star binder, but really, to not have Pogs was to court social disaster.  The thought of not having a plentiful supply of these cardboard discs to carry around (again—not clear on what you were supposed to do with them) was ALARMING.  Other kids had them, so I needed them—otherwise, how would I even talk to them????

Kids in my day loved cardboard circles.  I understand kids these days love….No, actually I don’t know what silly fad kids these days love.  Kids these days are probably over silly fads, and just want a sensible policy to combat climate change, and the hope of a job when they graduate.

But the human impulse to get the newest, shinest, toy just because someone else has it—that’s pretty ancient.  Our first reading this morning is one of my favorites because it is so very human.  The Israelites are pestering Samuel, the prophet, who in between last week’s reading and this week’s reading is all grown up and in charge of things.  And the Israelites really, REALLY, have decided they want a king.

Now, up until now, the Israelites have not had a king at all.  And this was sort of a big deal.  The understanding was that God alone was in charge of Israel, and there was a series of judges and prophets, who listened to God, and then interpreted that for the people.  But there was no king, per se, because in the ancient world of the time, kings were seen to hold absolute, and somewhat god-like power, and that would get in the way of God.  This was one of the important ways that Israel is different from the other nations—God rules Israel, while other gods didn’t care enough about their people to rule them—they sent humans to do it, and humans were constantly screwing things up.

The judges of Israel—like Deborah, and Gideon, and Barak, actually did pretty well. It was an unorthodox system, which relied heavily on whoever the high priest was at the time (which is why Samuel’s mentor got in trouble last week—he had not been holding up his end of the deal adequately.) But Israel was motoring along mostly fine—no major invasions, and no massive wars.  

Then, it somehow occurs to the gathered people of Israel in today’s periscope that you know what their problem is?  They don’t have a king,  And everyone else does.  

From then on, it really sounds like the sort of argument a tween would have with their exasperated parent.  “WE NEED A KING.  ALL THE COOL KIDS HAVE ONE.”  Ok, but you don’t really want a king.  Kings are bad news.  “NO, WE DO WANT ONE.” But a king is just going to enslave everyone, and take all your money in taxes and start a silly war.  Is that really what you want? “YES.  WE WANT A KING NOW PLEASE.” 

It’s evident that their argument to Samuel is based not on politics, or on how awesome Saul is, but on their growing consciousness that the other nations have something that they lack.  And this really bothers them.  If their God provides for them, as he keeps saying then why don’t they have this major thing everyone else does?

What we see at work here—not for the first time, and certainly not for the last time—is a growing insecurity among the people of God.  Those people over there have something and we want the Same Thing—regardless of whether the Different Thing God has provided for us is better, or more appropriate.  Because suddenly, what’s important is whether we can keep up with those other people, and less our relationship with God.  

Insecurity, this inner fear, is a driver of so much of human behavior.  We work harder because our neighbors do, we compete for the better job because we see others have it.  We want more and more money because we’re convinced that’s what we need to do.  And we do it all because somehow, we’re convinced that we are incomplete if we don’t have this one more thing.  This one new toy, this one bigger piece of the pie, this one larger mountain scaled.

It’s not that ambition is bad—ambition, when it’s aimed at serving the human race better and truer is good.  But when we allow that inner voice of fear drive us, then that’s a problem,.  Because insecurity also says “You can’t possibly have enough—so you can’t possibly share.” “Those people can’t possibly really love you if they knew you, so you can’t possibly help them.”  “Those people are probably all crooks and liars anyway, so you can’t possibly be kind to them.”  And most pernicious of all—“You cannot ever be enough as you are, so why be kind to yourself?” 

It is that root insecurity that drives so much of what we do, and often in really sad and tragic ways, as we saw this week. The thing was—Samuel was right!  Saul was a HORRIBLE king, and it basically took all of two seconds for Israel to figure that out, and to come back and complain about how horrible this king idea had been.  

Insecurity doesn’t tell the truth.  It lies.  That voice of fear?  Lies to us.  

The truth is we were created by a God who loves us entirely as we are, and roots us on everyday.  The truth is that this God has given us everything we need—if we have eyes to see it, and to share it appropriately.  The truth is that this God calls us and equips us to build a world where the voice of fear has no place.  

The church patriarchs liked to say that the original sin was pride—the pride of Adam caused him to eat the apple in the garden.  I’m inclined to think it was this insecurity and fear that has dogged us from the start.  But God, in Christ, has come to reassure us that we have enough, we are enough, and that there is nothing in the world, not even death, to be afraid of.  And in a world like that—so open, so abundant, and so full of love—who cares what other countries are doing?

All the cool kids quote Hafiz

I went to clergy conference this week, where my former liturgics professor was the keynote speaker.  There were two of his former students present, and we took joy in sharing with him the numerous times he lapsed into his trademark phrases: citing the pitfalls of the Enlightenment, name-dropping Lathrop, Kirsteva, and Kavenaugh, and warning us that any change to a prayer book rubric should come after, AT MINIMUM, a week of sleepless nights, as you pondered whether you, fallible human creature that you were, really knew better than the collected two millennia of Christian wisdom distilled in liturgical practice.  I was reminded of the joys of seminary (and despite the turmoil that has befallen that institution in recent years, I did enjoy seminary.)

It got me thinking about whatever tropes I have as a preacher (and I’m sure I have plenty.). One that I am aware of is that I preach a sermon on why We Should Be Nicer to Pharisees at least once a year.  This happens both because of my concern for decent scholarship in homiletics, and a reluctance to allow a vibrant religious movement within Second-Temple Judaism be the straw man for everything, and the nagging thought that beating up on the historic Pharisees is about two steps removed from beating up on actual Jewish people, if you know the history.

Anyway, herein is my now annual Be Nice To Pharisees Sermon.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 3, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 4

Mark 2:23—3:6

The 5th century Persian poet Hafiz has a poem wherein a stranger comes to him, asking for confirmation of these marvelous visions that he’s been having.  Are they true?  Are they really from God?  Hafiz asks him how many goats he has—the man is offended, but Hafiz insists.  62, replies the man.  Fine, and how many children?  Do you love your wife?  Are your parents still alive?  Do you feed the birds in winter?  The man answered all these questions, growing ever more frustrated, until finally Hafiz says “You asked me if your visions were true, and I would say that they were if they make you become more human, more kind to every creature and plant that you know.”

That’s a more poetic version of the gospel—straight from 5th century Persia!  Theres not much new under the sun, after all.  Because in the gospel, we see the same tension—Jesus’ disciples are being scolded for breaking off heads of grain, growing in a field, on the Sabbath—presumably because they’re hungry and haven’t eaten, and look—there’s a snack.  And this irks the Pharisees, who want to know why Jesus, a famous religious teacher, is allowing his disciples to be so neglectful as to ignore the basic laws of Sabbath observance.  Doesn’t he know any better?

The Pharisees are so easy to beat up on.  For centuries, they have made the perfect punching bag for preachers, and their name has come to be synonymous with uptight religious hypocrites everywhere.  They really don’t come off well in the gospels—especially here, where they greet Jesus’ healing by deciding he really had to die.  

But (and you knew there was a but coming, right?) as with all things, the Pharisees are more complicated.  They were something like a reform-minded political party in the Jewish landscape of the day.  Their central idea was that Jewish religious observance had become too centered around the Temple, its economy, and the priestly class that it supported…and whom, in turn, mostly supported Roman occupation.  If you were poor, or lived far away, there was almost no feasible way for you to participate in Jewish life, and the Pharisees thought this was unfair to you—God’s ways should be open to everyone.  Wasn’t that what the prophets said?  So they began emphasizing the rules of Jewish life that everyone could follow, so that everyone, no matter how rich, how poor, how young, or how old, could be included in the worship of God.  Washing hands, saying the daily prayers, observing the Sabbath rest, cleansing yourself after you touched something unclean (which in the country happened about every twenty minutes).  All of this wasn’t really a way to be obsessive—it was a way to allow everyone—no matter who you were—to find God.   There are so many similarities between what Jesus was preaching and what some of the other Pharasitical rabbis taught that some scholars think Jesus was an erstwhile Pharisee as well—which would explain the heated animosity on the few points where they disagreed.  Because no one punches my brother except for me.

When the Temple fell, in 70 CE—the center of Jewish life fell with it.  But it was the Pharisees who picked up the pieces, met together and rebuild Judaism into the rabbinic tradition that we see today.  Today’s rabbis are descendents of this movement that insisted that God’s laws needed to be open to everyone, not just the most special.  (which is ANOTHER reason the church needs to not slam the Pharisees too much.) 

All of this to say: The Pharisees aren’t wrong necessarily—the rules and guidelines they follow are, for them, a way to find God, and a way to show devotion to the Power that ordered the universe.  WHERE IT BECOMES A PROBLEM is when the means interfere with the end.

Those rules are intended to point humanity towards a Loving God.  To the extent that they do that, fantastic!  But to the extent that they are followed just to make the rule-follower feel more special than other people, that is no longer helpful.  To return to Hafiz—visions are meant to bring us closer to God.  If they make the receiver more humble, more connected, more loving and more devoted to the Ground of all Being, fantastic!  But if they only serve to make the receiver feel better than everyone else, then something has gone awry.

There’s a constant push-pull dynamic in the walk with faith, to make sure that the trappings of faith do not become our end, but faith itself.  That we don’t get caught up in the turns and twists in the path, but keep our gaze focussed on God alone.  It’s a delicate dance, because so often the things that attract us to the faith journey can later distract us if we let them.  it’s all a matter of balance.  The liturgy is beautiful, gives order and meaning to our prayers, connects us to generations that have gone before us.  The symbols we use speak volumes time and time again.  The very sense of calling to be a people of service, set apart from the world in order to serve it—all these things frequently draw us farther into our walk with Christ, and are good things.  And yet, if we let them fill our vision entirely, then they outgrow their purpose.

Because the purpose of all of this religious observance is to grow us into the creatures God intended us to be, and enable us to live in a reconciled creation with God.  Faith is meant to direct our focus away from itself, away from ourselves, towards God and God’s creation.  It is always outward facing—faith always points away from self–toward God and what God would have us care about.