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In which we discuss idolatry

I had already pondered doing a deep dive into idolatry at some point, because I had mentioned it in passing last week. I don’t like leaving the idea in people’s minds that some issue or another is a problem just for the ancient Israelites–the whole point of the Hebrew Bible is that all their issues are really ours, too. (except perhaps for the constant worry about leprosy.) So, idolatry it would be!

Then, America did what America does best–let violent young white men kill a whole bunch of people all at once with military weapons in a civilian setting. Not once, but twice in a 13 hour period. Because America can do almost anything, but one thing we can never seem to manage is how to limit access to guns.

I walked into church on Sunday morning, feeling somewhere between “Burn it all down” and “I will turn this car around RIGHT NOW”. Had I been at all convinced the parish would have gone for it, I would have just yelled in inarticulate rage and frustration for 10 minutes, rather than actually preach. But, my people are demanding, and ask for things like subject-verb agreement, and actual words.

And looking out at them, right before I preach, I found my sense of hope, yet again. All these different faces, from all over the world, wrestling with so many different things, sitting together doing something rather subversive. Listening and longing for a better way, a better world. Pledging loyalty to a God who came to be the least of these, in order to subvert the power of death forever.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

August 4, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 13

Luke

[Joke about the kid in Sunday School—the answer is always Jesus.  Actually—it’s always idolatry. ]

Of course, the REASON prophets were always complaining about idolatry is that it’s commonplace.  The Israelites were constantly falling back into idolatry.  It was basically a national pastime.

Part of what was happening was context.  The Israelites were always a religious minority.  Monotheism (or, various variations on it) was never dominant, so the Israelites were always living among Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, all of whom who worshipped many gods.  So, for many many people, it periodically seems like a great way to get along with your Assyrian boss to make a nice sacrifice to the high place while you’re en route to the Temple, or to cover your bases while you’re waiting for the harvest, to pour out some nice oil at the sacred trees.  It just was a thing and everyone was doing it.

The OTHER reason idolatry was so common is because it’s a human impulse.  Idolatry isn’t just worshipping a statue instead of God—it’s placing any created thing in place of God.  Whether that be a government, a system of belief, a particular thing, or ourselves.  Human beings really enjoy idolatry.  We do it all the time.  It is basically our favorite hobby.

In the gospel story, Jesus is telling this story about a rich man, who dies, and has to leave all his worldly goods to someone else.  That, in and of itself, probably doesn’t seem odd to us.  But to Jesus’ first audience, there are a few things that would have sounded odd.  

For starters, no trustworthy person in the gospels talks to themselves.  That’s not a thing people did.  Interiority, having an interior monologue,  wasn’t really a concept that takes off until the Enlightenment.  If you wanted to talk, you did it with other people, because there were always other people.   When all you had to talk to was yourself, the understanding was that you were doing something wrong, because to be a good person, you maintained right relationships with other people, and God.  To be cut off from both, such that you didn’t consult them, was problematic.

So, when the rich man consults only himself about what to do with his excess, that’s a big signal that something is really wrong.  Why doesn’t he ask his neighbors, his family?  Why does he only ask himself what to do?

It shouldn’t perhaps be surprising then that his self then recommends he stockpile his goods rather than any other option.  We don’t hear about what else he could do—raise the wages of his workers, leave more to be gleaned by the poor, be more generous to the town’s impoverished.  Because he hasn’t thought about the community around him, he doesn’t think of them now.  He consults himself, and decides to keep his new wealth for himself.  But, of course, this situation can’t last forever, and indeed, God intervenes, and reminds him that whether or not he wishes it, he cannot stand alone as the center of the universe.

The rich man seems to be trying hard to idolize himself.  To live in such a way as to keep himself, and his needs at the absolute center of the universe.  He doesn’t speak as if he is thankful to anyone for his windfall, he doesn’t act as if he wants to repay anyone or if he might want to bless anyone with his resources.  To hear him tell it, no one else really exists.

The continual challenge of the life of faith is to keep God at the center of our lives, and not give into the temptation to put other things there.  Other things that offer us what we want, and promise that it will be quicker, easier, cheaper, this way.  Because it is so easy, and it is so tempting—and it also becomes difficult to find the line sometimes.  it’s all a matter of degrees.

See, it is perfectly fine for that rich man to say “You know, I am so thankful I have enough to get through winter this year.  And I have had my eye on a new front door—so let me get one of those.  But I am also aware that my workers contributed to this bounty for me, so let me reward them accordingly.”

What idolatry does not allow for is competing interests.  What makes something cross over into idolatry is when we can no longer allow that other things might also be good; other claims, even when they compete, might also be valuable and true—because THIS ONE THING must not be questioned or taken away from.  And that is dangerous.  It is that sort of blinded vision that gets us as humans into trouble.

So much of what is plaguing us right now can be traced back to creating idols of one type or another.  The human rights crisis on the southern border, can be called instead idolatry of a common notion of America. Rampant inequality can be called idolatry of money.  

But where we see it most clearly, I think, with yet another mass shooting, we have to face again our country’s idolatry of guns.  Here is this thing—made of metal, of human hands, from a factory, that symbolizes so much in our culture.  For many it promises safety, and freedom from fear, and freedom from tyranny, and independence.  For so long, so much meaning has been poured into this object, that even though we are watching a staggering death toll every year, even though children go to school and practice hiding from gunmen, even though I receive emails about once a month asking what I will do in case a shooter ever enters my sanctuary during service, which I know is a real threat—even as we watch the death toll rise—we do nothing that would compromise the power of this one object.   We are in its thrall, for all that it promises.  

But all idols lie.  All idols lie.  Guns cannot provide what they promise.  They cannot provide us perfect security.  They cannot provide us freedom from the fear of death.  They cannot provide us a life without worry.  Only God can do that.  And God asks us to put God first—and not to kill.  

Because when the living God is at the center of our lives—then everything changes, because we are forced to contend with the One who is continually out of reach of all of our images and idols.  God will always force us to confront our ideas about God, and reckon with how they fall short.  When we keep God at the center, it allows us to extend generosity and love to all the other competing claims in our lives, because God reminds us that with God, we prioritize not a thing. not an idea, and not an image, but a being that surpasses all our human minds can fathom.  Prioritizing God causes us to always expand our vision, and our sense of what is possible, good, true and holy—not to narrow it.  Prioritizing God causes us to embrace the rest of creation, as we flourish too. 

God asks us to open up our vision, to let go our grasp on the idols that we’ve been clutching closely.  The ideas and the images and the things that do not allow us to let in all God has in store for us.  Open up your grasp, and let God shake things up a bit.  

Amen.

“It’s always whoredom.”

The EFM class at my parish has a running joke about this passage. It’s one of those readings that makes parents silently wish that they had NOT taken their children to get a nice dose of religion this morning. And it’s one of those that makes me squirm when I read it, because the patriarchy is particularly strong with most readings of the text.

But this time, I read it and thought “This sounds like a job for Dr. Wil Gafney–she must have written on this.” And lo, it was so. Her sermon on Gomer is a big influence on what I said, and if you haven’t read it, you should.

I’ll wait.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

July 28, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 12

Hosea and Luke

At my last parish, we had a fervent lay reader with an extremely thick Mississippi accent.  And on the day that this OT lesson was assigned, she had volunteered to sub for the assigned reader, and I thought it best to give her a heads-up, lest she be taken by surprise by the contents of what she was about to read.  No worries, she assured me—these were her favorites!  

And sure enough, she imbued the reading with enough enthusiasm and emphasis as to make one think that Foghorn Leghorn had found religion, and also to provoke many awkward questions in Sunday School. 

So, in the interests of forestalling whatever awkward questions you might face later, let’s discuss old Hosea.  

WHAT.  ON.  EARTH.

Let’s start with some context, because there’s a LOT going on here.  Hosea, so far as well can tell, is one of the 8th century BCE prophets, (there were a whole group of them.)  He, in particular, was preaching in the Northern Kingdom, after Elijah and Elisha had sauntered off to glory, and the united Kingdom had split.

Israel (up north, recall), was on the verge of being conquered by the Assyrian Empire.  It’s looking bad.  Hosea, personally, is concerned that the leaders of the kingdom are not faithfully adhering to God’s law and ways of justice, which will lead to the collapse of the kingdom.  As per usual, the Israelites had wandered off again from worshipping God alone, and had started setting up shrines to other gods, and getting away with the low-level idolatry that other people did—the same sorts of things that everyone back to the time of Abraham had been concerned about.  

So, this is where we pick up.

Now:  the metaphor of marital infidelity being used for religious infidelity was extremely common. It is found all through the prophets and the rest of the Hebrew Bible.  Because Judaism understood God to have created a legal covenant with Israel, the nearest analogy for people to grasp was generally a marriage covenant—also legal, also a contract, also (in those times) an unequal balance of power.

Hence, the descriptors of Israel being the unfaithful woman, and God being the cheated on spouse with the sole discretion to divorce her would have made sense.

Also, one of the ways prophets sometimes made their point was by engaging in symbolic acts.  Ezekiel, later on, will do the same thing.  He wanders about wearing dirty clothes, and eating bread cooked over a fire made of human dung. (Which, he argues down to cow dung, because ew.)   Hosea, though, goes to a new level in roping other people into this.  We are not told what, exactly Gomer and the kids thought of this extended modern art performance, (a point we will return to) but I can’t think they were thrilled.

Anyone will tell you, if you show up at school with a name like “Not My People” or “Unloved”, the kids are going to pick on you.  Also, your priest is going to have a tough conversation with you about working out your issues on your kids.  

Nevertheless, Hosea proceeds.  He marries Gomer, and has three children, all with increasingly dire sounding names.  And we are told, prophetically, that this is to symbolize the breakdown of God’s relationship with Israel.  

And that may be hard to square with the God that Jesus is on about in the gospel.  The God that runs to open the door at 3am when we pound on it, asking for something again.  The God that never hesitates to listen when we pray.  That God.

Where is THAT GOD in the world of Hosea?  Because Hosea’s God just seems to have some really harsh words to say about women, and some really odd ideas about how to get a point across.

Dr. WIl Gafney, Episcopal priest, biblical scholar, and general genius human, argues that part of the issue in reading this text is a problem of translation.  Gomer, she points out, is described as  (just) promiscuous, which is a different Hebrew word than prostitute—we know because Israel is described that way.  Gomer herself is never called that.  Gomer, she points out, is described merely as proliferate prior to her marriage—abundant with love, and she points out that even the daughter named Unloved is unique in that we are told Gomer nurses her.  Her, the daughter named Unloved.  

Here, Dr. Gafney argues, is where we find the reflection of God.  In the actions of Gomer, who loves fervently and without boundaries.  In the love of a mother who loves even the children that others call worthless.  In the dedication to each other of two partners, despite some questionable choices.  That widespread, unstinting love of God that is so prodigal that it becomes scandalous.  That love that dares to love the people of Israel, even when they consistently make horrible choices.  

It is that love that Jesus describes when he teaches his disciples to pray, when he reassures them and us that God loves us enough to hear whatever we want to say.  That God loves us enough to want us to love the other people that God loves.  That God loves us enough to want other people to love and care for us too.

It’s an odd thing, but I’ve found that we need frequent reminders that God loves us.  And not just in a vast, theological-clockmaker of the universe-way, but that God actually loves us and likes us.  When we live in a world that is filled with stingy neighbors, who don’t want to open their doors to each other, it can be hard to remember that there exists a God that pours that unbounded love into all of us, and yet, it is so.  Our job, is to reflect that sort of Gomer-ish love in the world so that it becomes easier to remember.  Easier to believe in.  To love one another so much and so well that it becomes easier to remember just how much and how well God loves us too.

Amen.

Sermon for a Slave Girl

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

July 7, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 9

1 Samuel 

The story of Naaman’s healing is one of those Biblical stories that is internally famous in scripture.  Jesus mentions it in his first sermon in a synagogue in Nazareth, and it’s part of what gets him in trouble.  (We will see why in a minute.)

This story gets cited a few times within the canon itself.  

But it might strike our ears as a bit odd this morning.  Because there is nothing about Naaman that seems like he’s a sympathetic character in any way.  We’re told he’s an Aramean general. Arameans, during this time, had a group of small kingdoms that were constantly scuffling with King Saul and then King David, pushing the boundaries a few inches back and forth every so often.  They were the eternal, annoying enemy.  And evidently Naaman is so good at his job that he has even taken a child captive to give to his wife as a servant.  Awesome.  Great.  Upstanding guy, this Naaman.  Why does he get a story?

And then Naaman gets leprosy.

Leprosy, in the biblical world, was a pretty vague diagnosis.  It wasn’t exactly the dire disease we know today.  Leprosy was a general category for “Something That Is Suddenly There, That Should Not Be There.”  Any time some spot, rash, or blemish appeared, it was leprosy, and had to be dealt with—you called the priests, spent a while in time out, kept a watch on it, and most times, it went away on its own. Because so little was understood about how the world works, leprosy was understood as Something Very Bad, which needed Divine Intervention. 

 Freckles could be leprosy.  A mosquito bite was leprosy.  Baldness, also leprosy.   Houses could get leprosy—though we would call this mold, or mildew.  Books, clothing, scrolls—all could come down with leprosy, which would require the person to immediately get right with God.  It wasn’t necessarily that the person had sinned; but if leprosy appeared, something had gone awry in God’s order of things, and needed tending to.  

So, the fact that Naaman gets leprosy after he’s won a battle against the Israelites, and carried off their children as slaves——would not have been surprising to the earliest audiences.  OF COURSE he should get leprosy.  Good grief, of all people, he should get so much leprosy!  

What IS shocking is what happens next.

It is arguable that Naaman is actually not the protagonist of this particular story, given his clear misdeeds, and now his problems with leprosy.  It is arguable that, actually, the captured slave girl is our protagonist, and here she finally takes a bow.  She sizes up the situation, and suggests that Naaman ask Elisha, the new prophet in Israel (you know, the guys he just defeated) for help.  

Naaman suspects a trap, but he is also out of options.  So Naaman sends a whole ton of stuff to Israel, hoping to make nice.  Gold!  Silver!  Horses! Rhinos! Monkeys!  That whole Prince Ali parade from Aladdin!  Remember, he KNOWS they don’t like him, and now he sort of needs their help.

The King of Israel sees all this coming and also thinks it’s a trap. He thinks the Aramean general is basically back for more, since they did so well in the first battle.  Elisha finally steps in, tells everyone to simmer down, and tells Naaman what to do: go wash in the River Jordan.  Boom.  Problem solved.

Naaman is now CONVINCED this is a trap.  Sort of hilariously.  The back and forth between Naaman, and the King of Israel, and his servants is pretty great.  Naaman is NOT going to wash in that dumb river, because that’s way too easy.  Shouldn’t he have to do something hard?  What was all the gold and silver sent over here for? 

It’s worth noting that so far in this story, only the slave girl, Elisha, and now the other servants of Naaman, have showed much common sense.  The people of high status are having a hard time trusting anything anyone else does.  Naaman, in particular, is beside himself—he both knows he needs help desperately, but cannot bring himself to accept it, because the source of that help is historically suspect to him.  

It may be that what Naaman expected was something along the lines of what the King of Israel expected: a tit for tat retaliation, a continuation of the cycle of vengeance that they had been waging.  Israel strikes Aram, Aram strikes back.  On and on and on.  Naaman doesn’t expect the slave girl or Elisha to actually direct him to healing—why would they?  He enslaved a child!  He was an enemy of Israel!  Naaman is pretty in touch with who he is and what he has done, and it is that consciousness that tells him to expect some harsh treatment from his servant girl.  After all, that’s what Naaman would do.  That’s what makes him a great general.

But that’s not what the slave girl does.  She alone stands up, and breaks the cycle.  She could, of course, go a different way—the way Naaman expects.  But she doesn’t.  She sends him to healing, because she knows that the God of Israel is a God who heals everyone.  The God of Israel is a God who extends mercy to everyone.  It is only Naaman’s shame, and inability to think differently that stands in his way.

Naaman has trouble moving outside of the cycle of violence, but God is already there.

Sometimes, what prevents us from being made whole is not our lack of faith, it’s not our ignorance—it’s our suspicion.  It’s when we are clinging so closely to our own sense of our own unworthiness that we cannot let God do anything with us, because SURELY there would have to be more, right?  SURELY God would require much more from us than just this?  SURELY we have to be over here wallowing a bit more in our own guilt a bit longer, right?  

But as Naaman learned, guilt is not always a helpful emotion.   So long as Naaman was parading around with all his wealth, feeling bad about himself, he also was managing to avoid rectifying what he had actually done wrong.   So long as he was worrying over whether he had cleansed himself enough in the right river, or paid enough money to the right king, he also wasn’t setting the slave girl free.  He wasn’t taking care of the soldiers’ families in his army.  And he also wasn’t getting any better himself.  There was a lot he could be doing that he wasn’t to actually bring about healing.  But he was stuck on his own sense of importance, which blocked his ability to heal.  

I found it hard this week, to read about the slave girl in this story, and not think about the children at the border of our own country.  The thousands of young people separated from their families and held in brutal conditions by our own government.  It is easier than ever, I think, to become overwhelmed, guilt-ridden and paralyzed when we hear about the horrible things taking place in our world, many of them on our own doorstep.  It can be easy to sink into a quagmire of despair, and convince ourselves that, like Naaman, only a huge enormous effort far beyond any of us can possibly make any difference.  It’s too awful for us to fix or contemplate.

But God isn’t interested in our beating ourselves up.  God doesn’t need our outsized offerings of guilt.  God asks of us only that we do what we can, whatever we can, to make this better.  That we do our little bit, all together.  That we pray, we call, we march, we donate, we pray some more—we each figure out what we’re called to do to push this world into the dream God has for all God’s children.  Guilt doesn’t save us; God alone saves us, through following Jesus.  And all Jesus asks of us is that we try our best, in all the ways we can.  For that slave-girl’s sake, and for Naaman’s sake, and for all our sakes.

Amen. 

Trinity Baptism: Let’s just do everyone

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 16, 2019

Trinity Sunday, Year C

So, one of the classics, in the genre of Arguments Protestants Have, is who should get baptized?  

Protestantism has lots of classic arguments like this: things like how much water should you use for a baptism, and whether wine is allowable at communion, and how often you should have communion?

For the most part, Episcopalians, because we are really neither partisan Catholics nor partisan Protestants, sit these debates out, but from time to time, we do enter in the debate over Who Should Be Baptized?

The argument goes as follows: there are some, mostly of a Protestant-y bent, who argue that only those who can adequately profess faith in Jesus Christ should be baptized—the doctrine called Believer’s Baptism.  So, children should wait until they hit the age of being able to decide for themselves before they get baptized.  

It’s not a half-bad idea—it’s good for people to choose for themselves something this important.  That adds weight to it.  

And, this also moves baptism towards being an affirmative choice.  Baptism, when its chosen by the person themselves, becomes something they want to do, a sort of life they want to lead, and less about fire insurance. 

So, believer’s baptism is great!  Fine idea. 

Though, it is worth saying that confining baptism to JUST people who can make that choice for themselves leads you to some odd places.  For one thing, it’s not always as easy as you would think to figure out who can make a profession of faith that “counts.” My best friend, growing up, was Southern Baptist, and her little sister has Down’s Syndrome.  The church they went to had a hard time figuring out if Kara, the sister, could be baptized—even though Kara was a dedicated Sunday School attendee, and proficient in every Bible song they taught. 

  And what counts as an adequate confession?  There are parts of the faith that I, after years of dedicated study, cannot explain to you with full confidence.  I don’t have the 39 Articles memorized, nor the Athenasian Creed.  And while I do delight in explicating the conflicts of the Nicene Councils, it is quite possible that I get it wrong.  So does that invalidate my baptism?

All of which is to say, infant baptism remains in vogue  (and a good thing as we’re going to be baptizing a baby here in a few hours/moments.)

The thing about infant baptism is that it has nothing to do with the baby.  The baby, delightful as they are, are not expected to do or say anything, and is not even expected to even refrain from crying.  There is absolutely nothing the baby can do to either encourage or discourage the process.  The baby just has to be.

Meanwhile, the community of faith comes together and does this immense thing on the child’s behalf—the parents and godparents make huge promises, the gathered Body of Christ promises to help too, and all of us know that these are promises we can’t possibly keep all the time, so we ask God to help us, and the newly-baptized to do our best.  And somehow, the mystery of new birth is given to another human being.  

Baptizing a new baby, especially a tiny infant, is a good reminder that after all that, there’s really nothing we can do to make God love us.  There’s nothing we can do to make God think we’re important.  We receive baptism, and the miracle of our life of faith, just because God does love us, but that gift comes just because we are.  And not through anything we had to accomplish on our own.  God already loves us.  God already thinks we’re incredibly important; each one of us.  Just because we are.  And nothing we do, say, think, or try, will ever change that.

Trinity Sunday is when we remember anew the central mystery of our faith—that the God we worship is Three-in-One and One-In-Three. The central diversity-in-unity in the midst of what we proclaim is vital for any number of reasons: the complexity that reveals God to us affects a lot of what we profess. 

The Trinity gives us an example of complexity in the heart of our faith, it grounds us in the multiple ways God has acted in the world, and the unifying ways that action points back to God.  

But it’s also important to remember that even in our struggles to get it right, we won’t get it perfectly correct.  And God still loves us.  Because God has come to us before we could even say the words, and God has proclaimed us as God’s own forever.  And when we fumble our way along, and feel lost and confused, God is already with us.  Because there is nothing we have to figure out, or get right to win God’s approval.  Not even the doctrine of the Trinity.  (It HELPS if we get it mildly correct, but God still loves us no matter what.)  

God has come to us before we could shape words, or raise our heads.  When we were still afar off, God ran to us to welcome us home.

And now, we get to welcome another child of God into our midst, as Christ has already welcomed us.

Amen. 

Pentecost, postmodernism and language

One of the things they warn you about in seminary is How to Do Liturgical Change. There are lots of dire stories about parishes who moved their altar back against the east wall in the dead of night, parishes that to this day refuse to use the 79 BCP, Altar Guilds that went rogue and used flowers that the clergy was deathly allergic to. (Ok, that last one isn’t real, but SOUNDS like a great murder mystery, right? Get on that, Midsomer Murders.)

At my parish, I have wanted to try to experiment with the approved trial use liturgies that were approved at GC2018, and see what people thought. So I wrote this sermon to sloooooowwwwly roll out that change, and explain why, and how, we were doing this.

Stay tuned for what the parish says at our Fall check-in.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 9, 2019

Pentecost, Year C

Acts 2

—I think I’ve told you this, but I promised my godmother when I was ordained, never to alter the 8am Rite 1 service, no matter where I was.  

—And so, wherever I have served, the 8am service (or the 7:30am service in one benighted place) has been Rite 1.  

—But there was one exception—in my Kansas City church, at the Rite 1 service, when I got there, we said the old form of the Nicene Creed, which includes the line “I believe in Jesus Christ, who died for us men, and for our salvation.”  

—Now, I know intellectually what “for us men” means.  It means for all humanity.  I know that.  And I also know that the reason we were still saying the old form of the Creed was because there was one particular individual who really found great meaning in it, and would have it no other way.  It was a pastoral concession to her.  

But I also know, that at 8 o clock in the morning, before I’ve had a chance to have my coffee, that my smart, intellectual brain has a hard time catching up with the rest of me.  And the rest of me does not realize that “Jesus Christ came for us men, and for our salvation” includes me too.  And it’s a really jarring feeling to feel yourself outside of salvation that early in the day.

And so, in that one spot, every week, I would skip the line.  Because I couldn’t bring myself to do it.  

Language is a funny thing, in that it allows us to communicate with each other. And yet, the vast constellations of connections and connotations we attach to words are entirely our own, and that can never fully be explicated—so, language is at once common, and entirely opaque. And the line between the two shifts, and changes over time.

Here’s an example: I was talking to some friends, a number of years ago—perhaps 7 years ago, and they asked me, quite seriously, why a person would be on the internet.  What could one do there?  I had a hard time answering.  Because again, intellectually, I know what I do on the internet: I watch movies, I procrastinate, I save my sermons in several places in case I lose a copy, I communicate with friends and family, I read things, I learn things, I…live my life?  The problem was, I wasn’t just trying to explain tasks to them—-I was trying to explain a whole new world.  A new way of being almost.  And I was having trouble finding language that worked for that.

This is one of the reasons that language shifts and changes over time.  Words that meant one thing at one time, come to mean something else, as a critical mass of people’s connections and connotations change to mean something else.  “Nice” used to mean correct.  Now, it means something like polite, kind, sweet.  And, “men” used to mean “all people” and then….it doesn’t quite.  Because we have other, better words for that purpose.

You may be wondering why I am devoting an entire sermon to language, and how it changes.  “Why is she dissecting the minute of words and what they mean?”  For one thing, I’m a writer; and I write sermons each week.  So choosing good words is a hobby of mine.  But for another—given how big the challenge is of communication, given how meanings change, and when we speak, we are evoking meanings that we might not even guess at, it’s really miraculous that we manage to communicate with one another at all.

And yet, on Pentecost, this is the miracle that the Spirit gives the disciples to announce her arrival:  a rush of wind, a burst of flame, and language.  Suddenly, all the pilgrims from all over the world could hear and understand the wondrous news of Jesus in their own language.  Suddenly, the disciples were communicating across culture, across class, across every divide that existed.  The Spirit, in a moment, gave them the words to blow past all of that.  

With the right words.

I imagine it was incredibly uncomfortable.  We know from the text, that not a few of the passers-by assumed that they were all drunk (and, you have to love Peter’s rebuttal:  No!  For it is only 9am!  BUT ALSO!!!  Peter never fails to be Peter.)

And yet, here we are.  When the Spirit shows up, the disciples are given words so that the Good News can be understood.  Even across all the incomprehensibility of the world.  

It is like the Spirit would like us to work hard at this task of communicating.  To really apply ourselves to examining our language, and to re-interpreting our words to make sure we are getting across what we want to.  From the Pentecost story, we learn just what a miracle it is when we communicate, and how much God would like us to do it, and to do it well.

In celebration of Pentecost, for the next season of church, that’s what we’re going to try to do here.  I wrote a bit about this in the Fledgling, but starting today, at the 10:30 service, we will be using a new version of the Eucharistic Prayer.  This version is official—General Convention passed it, the bishop approved it—I promise I haven’t broken any rules or invented any thing bonkers.

But it has become evident, for a while now, that our language may not be communicating the fullness of the Good news as we would wish.  The Eucharistic Prayers we use now were written almost 40 years ago.  Not to make you feel old, but that is before I was born.  

More to the point, that was before our language practice took into account the fullness of humanity.  

When the Prayer Book was written and approved, we were just starting to talk about what it meant that God was beyond, and unconfined by, gender.  Women’s ordination had not happened yet.  The civil rights movement was in process.  There was a lot we, as a church hadn’t yet lived through and processed.  

What we now know is that using masculine pronouns for God exclusively, like the BCP does, limits our vision of who God is and how God acts in the world.  It also can limit who we expect to represent God in the world.  It essentially puts God in a particular box, and while it’s not that any of the writers of the 1979 BCP had a limited understanding of God, or a faulty theology—it’s that our ways of hearing language and of talking about things has changed, in light of where we stand.  So our words about and to God need to change too.

We’re going to try this for a while, and see how it works.  This was approved for trial use at Convention, so it’s meant to be experimented with, tried out.  You may find that you hate the changes.  You may find you want more changes.  You may find you don’t recognize that they’re there at all.  

I encourage you to try it—take stock of how you feel right away saying the words, and hearing them.  What do you think of?  Does it make you think of something different?  As the weeks go on, do the prayers grow on you? Do you find yourself growing deeper into the words, praying deeper into them?  

Whatever you think and feel, the goal here is to talk about it.  Talk to me, talk to each other.  We will discuss how this feels in the fall, as we approach the end of our experiment.  

Pentecost is about the Holy Spirit being among us still, prompting us to find new words, to speak in new ways, to bridge the divides of time, culture and place, because the gospel of Christ cannot be limited even by our poor grasp of language.  With bravery, let us follow where the Spirit is leading us.

Holding up our words

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

May 11, 2019

Easter 4, Year C

Acts

In my first call, the rector decided that we needed a new photo director of all 2,000 members, and also that the new curate (me!) should take this on as my first task.  I studied our old one, and asked him if we could possibly make sure to publish all names in the new directory.  The one published two years before listed families only under the man’s name:  Mr and Mrs. John Smith, so it was hard to figure out women’s names.  

The rector was hesitant, and told me that this idea would no doubt sink the project.  It was a conservative church, he told me.  No one would like this.  Too much change!  People didn’t want to volunteer for this anyway, and with this sort of innovation?  Heavens, no.

With the hubris born of not knowing any better, I approached the two stately ladies who between them ran the ECW, the Annual Plant Sale, the Annual Peanut Sale, and the Altar Guild.  I explained the predicament to them, and my idea.  Would they like it to be easier to figure out names and faces of women in the church?  Within two days, those women had organized a rota, a schedule of volunteers to man the picture signups, and a group of women to call people to remind them of their appointments.  and lo, we had a new, all-names-listed directory inside of six months.

All of which is to say that there are a lot of different types of power, and the rector is only one type. When we only see that sort of explicit power, we miss a whole lot.

Tabitha, who makes her only appearance in Scripture in Acts today, is one such powerful person.  We don’t quite know who she is.  She sewed, clearly.  She made clothes.  But she wasn’t one of the apostles, Paul doesn’t list her as a church leader.  She doesn’t bankroll a ministry like Lydia will, she doesn’t go out and preach, she doesn’t write letters that become scriptures.  She….makes clothes?  That’s all we have.

And it’s not a lot, but the other intriguing clue we have is that she is described as a disciple in the Greek—the only time this word is applied to a woman in the NT.  (Note:  this is NOT the only time women acted like disciples, or went out to preach, or were demonstrably faithful.  We have the witness of Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha of Bethany, Lydia, Phoebe, Junia, and others.  But this is the one woman who is given the Title of Disciple—which is significant.)  There is something about her which indicates the community hearing Acts would have known her as a remarkable follower of Jesus.  And that suspicion is confirmed when Peter races down to Joppa to resurrect her.—surely not a usual occurrence.  

Whatever she did, whoever she was, even though we don’t see her work, clearly she was very important.  Clearly, though unseen, she had a great influence.  And the Christian community valued her.

Now, we shouldn’t get overly starry-eyed about the early Christian community; they were better than the highly sexist Roman world, they were making progress, but they had a ways to go.  (I had a professor once that said depending on the gospel writers for feminism is somewhat like depending on Margaret Thatcher for advancing women’s rights—it kinda works, but as a strategy, it has some limitations.) 

 They still lived in a class- stratified world.  And goodness knows, they just argued with each other from jump.  However—what we see here is perhaps a moment of grace.  Where one who went unrecognized in the wider world is held up as worthy by the Christian community.  Someone who did quiet, largely unrecognized, yet faithful work is just as important as the ones who spoke in public all day long.  

It’s hard not to read this story this week and think of Rachel Held Evans.  The unassuming words of a young woman that she didn’t expect to amount to much, first posted on her blog, but ten years later, when she died, thousands upon thousands of us held them up to each other to mourn what we’d lost.  Politicians and presiding bishops wrote eulogies.  Think pieces appeared in the news to analyze her impact.  So many of my fellow female clergy gave Rachel credit for sending us to seminary in the first place.  All from her words, humble as they were, about what she thought about God and life.  

God wants us to use our words, our voices, however small we assume they are, because God needs all of us, sees all of us.  The parts of ourselves we assume to be insignificant, or broken, or even damaging, God needs because it fills in the wider picture of creation–and may be someone else’s connection to God.

So long, and thanks for all the fish

This sermon was given in the immediate proximity of the San Diego synagogue shooting. One of the aspects of that horror that didn’t get covered much was the religious affiliation of the perpetrator. He was a young, white Presbyterian. He was a devout attender of the Presbyterian Church of America–a breakaway group of the PC(USA), and in his writings, used what he had heard in that church to justify his murders.

So.

Here’s what I said (in notes form)

Intro?  Douglas Adams? So long, and thanks for all the fish.

I feel it appropriate today to call upon the little-known theologian, Douglas Adams.  Douglas Adams, you are probably familiar with from his great masterpiece, Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, wherein he ruminates on the chaotic nature of existence, the necessity of humor, and the importance of towels.  You may not, however, be aware of the theological nature of this work.  WELL.

You may recall that the story begins with the demolition of the earth, to make way for a bypass through the galaxy—and that immediately prior to this demolition, scientists notice that all dolphins on earth suddenly rise up, make some squeaky sounds, and fly off into the air.  Adams explains that the squeaks, properly translated, mean “So long, and thanks for all the fish”, as dolphins are the smartest creatures in existence, and long knew the bypass had been planned, so were making their escape.  

They take leave of their trainers and scientists with this friendly goodbye—so long!  And thanks for all the fish!

Now, I know, it may not seem like it has anything to do with the gospel, but here you would be wrong.  So long, and thanks for all the fish basically sums up what we are called to in the resurrection life of the Body of Christ.  

For one thing, nearly every time the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples, he eats with them.  At Emmaus, he breaks bread with them, and that’s when the disciples finally recognize him.  In the locked room, the disciples are hiding, and Jesus enters, and asks for something to eat.  And here, Jesus spies the disciples fishing, and cooks them breakfast.  A breakfast of fish.  on the beach.  And he feeds them.  There is a lot of feeding happening in these resurrection appearances.  Both to make the narrative point that the newly-alive Jesus is physically alive, and not a ghost, and because it’s a form of caretaking.  Jesus is caring for his disciples.  They’re eating together. Here, Jesus is doing a very strange thing, in that everywhere else in the gospel of John, Jesus is preaching, and teaching, or doing some specific sign.  Here, Jesus just feeds them.  Here guys!  You’re hungry!  Have some breakfast!

But the crux of this story is the conversation over breakfast.  Jesus, as everyone has helped themselves, turns to Peter, and asks him “Simon, do you love me?”  Peter is thrown but says “Yes!”  Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”  Three times this gets repeated, til Peter gets downright offended and hurt, with Jesus emphasizing, if you love me, feed my sheep.  

There’s a take on this that it may be a way to ritually undo Peter’s denial of Jesus.  He denied him three times; now he affirms him three times.  But it also goes deeper than that; Jesus, in the last story we have in John’s gospel, is reminding Peter of the commandment he laid down back on Maundy Thursday:  love one another as I have loved you.  If you love me, you will go and do likewise.  You love me, Peter?  Then you will do as I have done.  Then you will love and care for other people.  

Peter is recognized as a leader in the church as early as Acts—and these are his marching orders.  Do you love Jesus?  Then love people.  Care for them.  IF you want to claim to love Jesus, then you have to love those he loved, and care for those he cared for. 

These are the marching orders Jesus gives his disciples:  so long—go and feed each other.  That’s your job now.  And these are the marching orders he gives us too.  

If you think back to the services of Holy Week, they were literally when we were passed the torch.  On Maundy Thursday, we heard Jesus tell the disciples, go and wash feet!  Go and love one another as I have loved you!  We washed each other’s feet….but if you noticed, the liturgy…didn’t really end.  There’s no dismissal at the end of Maundy Thursday—the liturgy is basically interrupted by the stripping of the altar and we leave in silence.  Then, on Good Friday, there’s no opening, no acclamation.  We immediately start with the collect of the day, with a bare altar, and tell the Passion story.  Because the liturgy never really stopped.

Then, right after we hear the story of the crucifixion—we pray.  We pray for everyone and everything—we pray for the world, and the church, and for people who are mad at the world and the church, and for suffering people, and for literally everything. In liturgical time, as we recall the death of Jesus, we also take up the task that Jesus left to us.  We begin to care for the world he died for, as we recall his death.

So this is our task, as followers of Christ.  A task so important that we rehearse its beginning every Holy Week, as we try to carry it out in the world.  God gives into our hands the job of caring for the world as God redeems it.  That’s how we show our love for Christ.  We care for those around us.

There is no way to extricate those two.  

Everything we do, say, are in the world.

It’s our lens in the world.  It’s our motto.  

theology that harms, that damages God’s creation cannot be of Christ, because Christ sends us out—so long, and thanks for all the fish!  Go forth, and feed the world!  Go out, and care for everyone!  You love me? Go care for those in this world I love. That’s your job. Go out, and care for all these. Peter, you love me, do you? Take care of these people. You all claim to love and follow me? Then love and care for those around you. Even the ones you dislike. Even the ones who worry you. Even the ones you’d rather not sit next to. Take care of them, if you love me.

There is no way to separate love of God from love of neighbor. You cannot love God while hurting your neighbor. If we love Jesus, we have to feed his sheep.