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Just World Heresy

So here was my conundrum, coming into this Sunday.  The “Get behind me, Satan” story is only half of a story–the other half is Peter figuring out that Jesus is the Messiah, and to my mind, you actually need both for it to make sense.  Also, I felt like most of the national conversation had been taken up by two things: the awesome high school students in Florida who are pushing for gun control in the wake of surviving another shooting, and the nearly-daily march of indictments coming from the Special Counsel.  Neither one jumped out and suggested itself to me as a good match for Peter’s flub here–though, in a way, they both seemed to fit.

So I decided to go slightly meta, and talk about the just-world fallacy.  Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

February 25, 2018

Lent 2, Year B

Mark 8:31-38


I was listening to NPR a few months ago, as is required of all Episcopal clergy.  In a story about the rapid growth of the #MeToo movement, the reporter mentioned something called the Just World Fallacy.  

The Just World Fallacy is an idea from psychology.  Basically, it’s the persistent belief shared by nearly all humans to some degree that the world is a just place, and people fundamentally get what they deserve.  Good people are rewarded  with good things, and bad people are punished.  We hear echoes of it all the time.  So, when someone says, “What goes around, comes around” they’re echoing this idea.  When Job’s friends tell him he must have done something to provoke God’s wrath and judgment, they’re tapping into this.  All of us do it, to some extent.

The problem is–it’s not true.  Good people suffer irrational tragedies all the time, and people who lie, cheat, and steal get away with stuff.  And when we hold onto the fallacy too tightly, we end up denigrating people who suffer, by insinuating that they might have done something to deserve it.  Sometimes, the just world fallacy comes out as victim-blaming.  Or victim-silencing.  If I cannot believe in a world where harassment and assault are so widespread, because the world is just, so what you say happened to you cannot possibly be true.  

The just-world fallacy is hard to kill, and it creeps in to every crack and crevice of our brains.  Because it’s comforting, to think that the world is understandable, and somewhat controllable.  If I believe there are rules the world runs by, then I can avoid suffering, and if not, then at least know why it happened. 

So think of that, as we read this gospel passage.  Peter is the patron saint of speaking his mind, as we’ve established.  And so he says what everyone is thinking–Lord, this awful death can never happen to you.  You can’t be powerless, you can’t be hurt, you can’t be weak.  That’s not the way the Messiah behaves.  The world is just, so the Messiah cannot die.


Jesus rebukes him.  Get behind me, Satan.  Your mind is on the things of earth, and not the things of heaven.  


Because sure, that isn’t what would happen in a just world.  A just and fair world doesn’t kill the Son of God at the hands of the empire.  A righteous world doesn’t let the innocent suffer, the poor be oppressed and the weak starve.  But then again, a just world doesn’t need a Messiah.  And this isn’t a just world.   


But what’s fascinating about this interchange is the lengths Peter is willing to go to to hold onto his vision of the world as a whole place.  He’s working so hard to still believe in the world as essentially fair, that he ends up calling Jesus–Jesus! Whom he just proclaimed as God Incarnate–wrong, and incorrect.  Peter so wants his world to stay right, that he calls Jesus wrong.


We want, so badly, to be comfortable and at home in this world that we bend what we know God wants from us to fit what the world wants of us.  Less discomfort that way.  Less upset.  Less confrontation with the world’s brokenness.  We bend God to fit into the world as it is, because that feels easier in the moment than the alternative.


Peter is angry because he doesn’t want to confront the sorrow and pain of losing his friend.  We don’t want to believe that the world is so broken, so out of step with what God wants, because that is a hard thing to face  Who can live in a world so unjust?  So full of chaos?


And so, he tells Jesus that, no, the Messiah can’t die.  He wants Jesus to fit into the way the world works.  


So often, we want Jesus to conform to the routine of the world that we know.  The power structures we are familiar with.  The Messiah that wields power like an earthly king–because that’s easier to deal with than rather than the suffering savior who dies in an unjust system to call out the injustice.  


We want the Christian life to respond to those same rhythms, to confirm our just world beliefs–sometimes so much so that we occasionally just stamp a cross on the status quo and call it good.  In ancient times, we’d say: Is one guy in power?  God must have done it, because this is a just world!  And now the emperor is an instrument of God, and we had the divine right of kings.  Later on in history, we’d ask: Did we win that war?  God must have wanted to give us that land.  And now God is tasked with distributing land to victorious armies–and a whole lot of suffering to the losers.  

And nowadays, there are people asking: Are there more guns in America than any country outside of a warzone?  Then owning a gun must be a person’s God-given right.  And now we have saddled God with unspeakable tragedies.  


The problem is–none of these things actually have much to do with God–they have to do with us–and when we lean too far into the just world theory, it leads us into some frightening and deadly places.  


When you go back and read scripture, you discover that God doesn’t install kings.  (God was pretty against Saul, if you recall in the Old Testament.) God doesn’t distribute land (again, private ownership of land is not a concept God is a fan of in Leviticus and Deuteronomy–land is supposed to revert back to the original owner after 7 years.) And God really doesn’t distribute weapons of war.  Jesus had some hard words for Peter once he starts waving a sword around in Gethsemane.  


That is not a thing God does.  Once God creates the world, calls it good, and sets us loose in it, God really doesn’t spend much time congratulating us for what we’ve done, so much as God keeps trying to get us to do things better, and differently.  The constant theme through Scripture is that the world is not, in fact, as it should be.  Lots of things are going wrong, and God wants us to fix it with God’s help.  God wants us to try again.  


But before we can do that, we first have to recognize that the way things are is not the way things should be.  This is not a just world.  This is not the world as God intended.  God did not intend for parents to send their children off to school and never see them again.  God did not intend for children to beg politicians for their right to live without fear.  God did not want for teachers to have to worry about somehow teaching students and also keeping them alive.  God did not intend for us to live like this–because God did not intend for anyone to live like this.  


The task before us is to recognize that this is not the world God wants, and work with God to transform it.  When Jesus asks us to pick up our cross, he is asking us to acknowledge the current brokenness of the world and not turn away.  But the good news here is that Christ has already begun carrying this cross.  Christ has already begun to set the world aright. And all we have to do is join in.  Christ stands right beside us, asking for our help, asking for our hands, in the effort to fix a broken world and we just have to acknowledge the problem in the first place. 

So the question before us is:  will we help?




Gospel Motto

See, what had happened was that I was sick all week.

I was fine at the beginning of the week.  Perky and chipper even.  And then, I made the worst of wintertime mistakes–I got on a plane.  And by the time I got off, my sinuses had built a pillow fort inside my head, and had decided to wreak havoc on my poor immune system.

So I was sick the rest of the week.

This put a crimp in my sermon writing, because cold medicine is not conducive to logical or thoughtful sermons.  It gives rise to wacky and disconnected sermons that sound like you have recently woken up from a nap.  (I don’t respond great to cold meds.)

All this is to say that I arrived at Saturday evening with a mostly-formed idea for a sermon, a clearer head, and not a whole lot written down.

Then, sitting in my chair, listening to the opening prayers, I decided to shred the whole thing.  It wasn’t good enough, I decided, and I had Another Thought which might work better.  And if not, the 5pm crowd is friendly enough that they would probably forgive me.

Thus it came to pass that I delivered, not the sermon I wrote, but a different sermon all together.  And lo, that sermon was better than the one I had written.  So I took the hint, and wrote down the second one instead.

Sometimes, the Holy Spirit just sneaks up on you.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 10, 2017

Advent 2, Year B

Mark 1

We got all of Part 1 of Handel’s Messiah in that Isaiah reading.  The annual test to see whether the layreader is good enough to avoid falling into the rhythm of the music when they read.

I went to the Messiah on Friday, and was struck by how often we’re told to proclaim good news.  Nearly constantly!  

Lift up your voice and shout oh daughters of Jerusalem.  Rejoice greatly!  Cry out!  

At every turn, we’re bid by the prophets to shout out some good news–and here again–Comfort, comfort ye my people.  Tell my people news of comfort.


That’s cool, but what is this good news we have to tell people?


Especially because more often than not, what we see around us is bad.  All kinds of bad.  A friend and I were comparing when it was, exactly, when we purged all news from our FB feeds during the past year.  Did you make it to October?  Good for you–I made it through three weeks ago, and had to stop again.  Bad news, everywhere you look.


And even the Church seems guilty of spreading bad news.  This past week, we saw our government make the decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel–throwing the international community and nearly everyone, except a small segment of evangelical Christians into panic.  To nearly the whole world, this looks a lot like a great way to violate international law and start World War 3.  To this small but vocal group of Christians, it looks like a way to ensure a Jewish state in Israel, and the second coming of Jesus, which to them will necessarily involve the destruction and death of all the Jews in Israel.

But either way this works out–it is bad news.


And so what is, again, this good news we have to proclaim?  It had to be something, because whatever John was telling people was so compelling, people were showing up in droves out in the Judean desert.  Which is not a friendly American southwest desert with your cacti and your roadrunners.  The Judean desert is a desolate landscape of rock and sand.  That’s it.  No one wants to go there–but John was giving the people something good.  Something they needed to hear.


We get a glimpse of how Mark puts it n the first line:  The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Bam.  There you go.  Mark has a thesis statement. A little later, he will describe Jesus emerging fully adult, and the first thing he says is “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”


Between those two lines, is the sum of Mark’s good news.  Here is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  So the kingdom of God is at hand.  


The whole of the gospel will keep coming back to this point.  The whole of the story revolves around this idea.  That in this regular guy from nowheres-ville, Galilee, God had started to put right the things that have gone wrong in the world.  God has started to mend, once and for all, the brokenness of creation, all the things that pain us, that cause us to hurt each other, that cause suffering.  God is starting to bring this world back into alignment with how God wanted things in the first place, and Jesus shows us what it looks like when that happens.  Jesus shows us what it looks like when we participate in that process.  How we can help make things whole.  

And so, EVERYTHING that Mark describes Jesus as doing will reflect this idea– his teaching, his healing, his parables, his living and his dying.  

And Christ lives this out–as he brings recognition and dignity to outcasts and tax collectors, as he heals the sick, as he tells stories about who God is and how God works in the world.  

Christ’s whole life and ministry revolves around illustrating what it looks like when God fixes the world, and what it looks like when we pitch in.  


Repent, he tells us, for the kingdom of God has come near.  Then he lives it.


This is the gospel that Mark writes.  This is the way he presents the good news, the way he shouts it, the way he comforts the people.  Don’t worry, he tells them.  God is coming to fix this mess.  


So then what is the good news that we tell?  What do we lift up our voices and shout?

The first question is the simpler, I think–how would we explain the gospel, as we experience it in our own lives?  What is the good news of God in Christ that propels us forward?  What is our story to sing out, to comfort Jerusalem in her time of anguish?  


But the more subtle question is what story do our lives tell?  What good news do our lives bear out, if they were examined?  What story about God and faith do our lives tell, our choices?  Do our lives speak of a loving God, a God who loved this world so much he wanted to be one of us?  Or do our lives describe a God more dour, more stingy than that?


Part of the task of preparation, this Advent, is to figure out what our good news is.  What is the news we have been specifically gifted to tell–through our lives and through our words?  It is through all of our news together, woven together like a tapestry, that the world can receive the news of what God is doing.  So all our voices are needed in this great task.

So this week, as you finish the baking, as you’re stuck in traffic, take a moment and reflect–what good news do you know?  What song does your life sing? Because the world needs this comfort now badly.  So find your song, get up to those heights and sing it.


Sheep and Goats

There are a few good standbys for progressive Christians when it comes to Scripture:  Micah’s answer to what the Lord requires of us, Paul’s assertion in 1 Corinthians about the nature of love, and Matthew’s description of the Last Judgment with the sheep and the goats.

I love this story, but like most time-worn Biblical stories that we know inside and out, it is hard to preach on because it is so familiar.  Many of us, in Episco-world, can recite the end of Matthew 25 in our sleep.  We know who “the least of these” really refers to, and we know our job, and we know to develop a healthy suspicion of goats.  What more can be said?

So this year, I took a tack that several other of my colleagues are taking–the idea that Jesus’ final speech in Matthew is all of a piece, and so the sheep and the goats image is an answer to the stories that have come before.  In a sense, the image of the sheep and the goats is a response to the truth of the current garbage fire the world finds itself in.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

November 26, 2017

Last Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

Matthew 25: 25:31


We’ve reached the end of the liturgical year.  We’ve been hearing about the endtimes, and being watchful, and next Sunday, we will turn the page and start Year B, where Mark takes up similar themes.  

So the gospel today picks up where we’ve been the past few weeks–Jesus is discussing what will happen in time to come.  In Matthew’s gospel, this story, the slaves hiding money story from last week, and the ten bridesmaids story all come in a row, and all occur in the middle of Holy Week as Jesus is teaching in Jerusalem.  As he is days away from crucifixion, he’s telling the disciples what to expect coming down the road, so to speak.

And here’s the story this all wraps up with.  Like I said last week, the story of the sheep and the goats is the capper.  It sums everything up in these stories that have come before it.  

Arguably, the bridesmaids started it off, and it’s all of a piece.  Here are these bridesmaids who weren’t prepared, and so they were left behind.  Here is this horrible landowner who abused his servants, and that was also Very Bad.  But when the Son of Man comes, then things will be different!  Then things will change!  The three stories, told together, are a sort of mini-Revelations.  A microcosm of an apocalypse.

And remember, an Apocalypse, in the biblical sense, is not the world ending.  It is a prolonged allegory that explains both how bad things currently are in the world, and reassures the oppressed that even though all hope seems lost, God will step in and flip things around.  That’s what we have here.  In the story from last week, we have a picture of just how bad Things Currently Are.  The people in power–here, the landowner–are absent, are greedy, and clearly don’t care about the welfare of those under them.  They take what little the poor has and give it to the already-rich.  Please apply that to whatever current situation you would like.

So, it’s clear Things Are Bad.  People are suffering.  God is not pleased with this state of affairs–another major theme of apocalyptic literature.  But we are also told that 1. Things won’t always be like this and 2. We need to Stay Alert.

In our story for today, Jesus reassures his flock that yes, things are bad and unfair now, but they won’t always be this way.  Change is coming, and coming soon.  Part of the power of apocalyptic literature is the validation that comes with someone affirming your sense of suffering.  Indeed!  You are suffering, the world is unfair, and God sees it.  So to be told in this parable that not only does God see your suffering, but God participates in it is amazing.

That’s the further step that Jesus takes here.  Normally, God just validates the suffering of the faithful.  Here, it is revealed that God IS suffering with the afflicted.  When the rulers of the world act unjustly, when they cause anguish and pain, when they oppress and divide, that doesn’t just hurt humans–that hurts God too.  That causes the heart of God to break.

Occasionally, in the church, when we talk about outreach or doing good works, we fall into the trap of speaking like the poor or the oppressed are somewhere outside our doors, and so our job is to first find some poor people and then to sort of charity at them.  To serve AT them.  Regardless of their feelings on the matter.  This comes from a very well-intentioned excitement from reading this sheep and goats passage and wanting to be a sheep.  So, quick, let’s find a suffering person and help them.  Maybe the lure of this comes from believing that we, ourselves, could never be as vulnerable as Those People, right?

But really, the power of this story is that we are told to help the sick and suffering, the poor and the oppressed, NOT so we will be rewarded.  And not so we will feel good.  We are told to do so because that is where God is.  God is always with those who are vulnerable, who are afflicted, and who are left behind.  

Because when we are sick, when we are suffering, God is with us.  God is not out there, apart. God does not just view our suffering with compassion–God is present with us in our pain.  And so, the pain of the afflicted is and must be present within the Church.  If we want to call ourselves Christians, and believers in God, then we cannot hold ourselves apart from where God is.  But also, we can be assured in the knowledge that when we suffer, and feel abandoned, God is right there with us.

And in those moments, God waits, with us, for the rest of the world to show up and care, because that is how, in God’s redeemed creation, things will work.  


Yet here we are, in the middle.  Stuck between the World of the Landowner and the World of the Sheep and the Goats.  The world as it currently is, and the world as Jesus promises us it will be one day.  


Our job, in the here and now, is to pay attention, to stay alert to those glimpses of that redeemed creation and the way we can help it inch along.  We are called to be bridesmaids–waiting for the wedding party to arrive so the feast can begin, and making all the final preparations.  To watch for God, where ever God might be in our midst.  Anxiously preparing the way for God, and looking for the divine presence everywhere we go, and ready to assist in bringing forth renewed creation.  

We enter Advent next week, but really, we live in an eternal active Advent.  We wait and watch.  Watch for all signs of the Divine among us.  Wait for all tiny growth of the kingdom in our midst, secure in the knowledge that one day soon, there will be a huge party breaking out, and when it comes, we’ll be ready.  

So get ready.  Trim those lamps, and start searching.  

Further Biblical Living Ideas *Satire*

This week, Washington Post revealed that Judge Roy Moore, currently running for Senate in Alabama, allegedly had several sexual encounters with underage girls when he was in his thirties. Rather than denounce him, the Alabama state auditor chose to defend his actions by citing the biblical story of Mary and Joseph. 

In the interest of keeping my nausea at bay, and putting my 7 years of Biblical study, and nearly 10 years of professional ministry to good use, I have the following suggestions of Biblical practices that Judge Moore should investigate, instead of a Senate campaign.  Since this seems to be a new area of interest. 

1. Pretend your wife is your sister, in order to sell her to foreign government officials 

2.Drive a spike through the head of disagreeable generals after you seduce them 

3. Send bears after small children who insult your male-pattern baldness

4. Burn your house, your clothes, your books after you find a spot on them, for fear they have contracted leprosy. 

5. Throw passive-aggressive dinner parties for genocidal government officials 

6. Circumcise all men, including the adult ones, and carry around the evidence as a talisman to be produced on demand. 

7. Love your neighbor as yourself. For crying out loud. 

Full Disclosure

This weekend was the diocesan convention.  On Friday and Saturday, I trooped over to Blue Springs with the rest of the clergy and lay delegates, sat in a overchilled ballroom, and took counsel together for the future of our diocese.

In West Missouri, it can now be said publicly that one thing our diocesan future will include is mediation between the diocese and bishop.  For roughly 18 months, the Standing Committee and the bishop have been in a mediation process to address several longstanding issues in our common life.  This weekend, it was announced that this process has resulted in an agreement on how to move forward for the next six months.  Said agreement was announced to the diocese both at convention and in each parish through a pastoral letter read on Sunday morning.

That part was tense, and painful.  No one, and I mean no one, likes conflict–though I retain my firm belief that this pain will yet result in new growth and life for us all.  But at the same time, convention included the long-awaited reception of one of my parishioners whose call to ordination found a home in The Episcopal Church.  We authorized the start of a taskforce to start a new diocesan curacy program.  And I got to see friends I only see at convention.

The institutional church can be a frustrating morass of “people people-ing” as my parish admin terms it.  People just doing their level best to be their worst and pettiest selves.  And yet, at the same time, there’s always enough of the Holy Spirit mixed in there that it always seems worth sticking with it.

So here’s what I said on Sunday.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

November 4, 2017

Ordinary Time, Proper 26

Matthew 23:1-12


Well, yikes.  This was clearly not one of Jesus’s happy days.  This was clearly one of his grumpier days.  

And I realize this might seem like an odd reading for All Saints’ Sunday, when we have baptisms and Jonathan is celebrating mass with us for the first time, and we have all these joyous things happening–but bear with me.  

We’ve been reading through this part of Matthew where Jesus has been fighting with the various parts of religious leadership in his time–Sadducees, temple authorities, Pharisees.  Different folks in different places of power.  And finally, we arrive to today’s reading where he rounds things off by basically insulting them for a good 12 verses.  And not in a subtle way, either.

He says that they’re puffed up and proud, that they posture and preen and act like pious people but only so others will think well of them, but actually, it’s all an act.  They aren’t really good people–it’s all for show.  They aren’t concerned with love of God or love of humanity; they are concerned with keeping up appearances and maintaining power over others.  

That is very harsh.  To put this in context, of course, Jesus has been arguing with these guys for a while now, and he’s gotten fed up.  He’s frustrated because they aren’t really having a discussion about faith with him, as they are trying to one-up him in front of the crowd.  

Again, it bears repeating that Jesus, though he sounds infuriated, actually had a lot in common with the Pharisees.  They both thought that religious observance was for everyone–not just the rich, not just the educated, and not just the people lucky enough to live close enough to the Temple to go worship.  They thought everyone should have the opportunity to be in relationship with God, and to walk in the way God teaches us to walk–not just some of the people.

However, religious leaders then, as now, ran into the temptation that all leaders do.  Leaders hold so much power as they teach, as they mold what someone believes, as they persuade–which is great if they use that to good effect in the world, but Frequently, leadership can become a power trip–and that can become an end unto itself.  So what you start to focus on is not leading people to a better life, constructing the reign of God on earth, but feeling superior to others.  Less good.  Not good.

It is easy here, as it is through all of Matthew really, to demonize the Pharisees, but Jesus turns it around pretty fast to the disciples–who, let’s remember, were leaders too.  They were headed out, preaching and teaching and healing, right?  They were spreading the gospel too.  They were leading.  And so he tells them to remember not to call anyone father.  And not to call anyone teacher–and by extension, to not let anyone call them father, or teacher–because those titles can involve an element of domination, and the role of a Christian is to always be a servant.

There is, perhaps, an element of leadership in the walk with Christ.  There is an element of leadership in the baptized life, in the sense that we become salt and light for the earth, and so are set apart from the crowd–given a special calling.  We are the ones, after all, who have made these promises, to follow the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.  Others have not made those promises.  We promised to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to work for justice, freedom and peace.  Others did not.

That does not mean we are better than other people.  It does not–any more than people who all can recite Monty Python quotes about the Spanish Inquisition are better than other people.  It just means we’re different.  Different, not better.  Not, praise God, worse, though, either.  (Maybe it’s a human thing, to equate difference with a value judgement.)

Our baptism doesn’t make us better than the rest of the world, but it does give us a job to do in the world–a job to serve the rest of the world, but in so doing, we have to resist the temptation to confuse our difference with betterness.  Because Lord knows, there are a lot of screwy Episcopalians.   And Lord knows, there are also a lot of people of other creeds who work for the same things we do, just in a different way.  Christ calls us out to be different, in order not to be better, or to be special, but in order to serve the rest of the world.  

We see it, of course, clearly in ordination, where some of us odd souls are singled out to be set aside for the task of cheering on and empowering the rest of the church.  Again, it would be laughable to claim that the ordained clergy are better than those who actually do the work of the church–the daily going out into the world, the daily praying and working and reconciling that you do.  We’re not better; we’re just different.  This week, we get to rejoice as another one is added to our company.

It is actually our differences that bring forth the reign of God.  Our differences, our different callings do not make us better or worse than each other–rather they equip us to serve the world.

When we baptize these three little babies in a few minutes, we rejoice that they will grow in this community of Christ’s love, that they will have the chance to learn your own blessed differences.  Babies, you will have the chance to discover your own callings, and how God is shaping you to serve the world you’re now just discovering.  Today, we celebrate as you join our number of cheerfully different servants, because we know that this is what you were made for–a life to serve the world, in all your wonderful blessed uniqueness, alongside all the other saints. 





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

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.  




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!