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Who do you think you are?

Given the number of times I’ve said it lately, on my tombstone, it will say, “Do. The. Power. Analysis.” ***
Generally, one of the thing we privileged-types are loath to do is to consider who holds power in any given situation, and how that dynamic affects the results. And yet, power: who holds it, who appears to have it, and who we attribute it to, affects all aspects of our lives.

Like in the Lent 1 gospel, where Jesus goes out in the wilderness and Satan comes to irritate him. You can read this as Jesus using his Power for Good, like Superman (and I preached that once–it’s in the archives.) But this year, I approached it as a power question of a different sort: who do we give power to tell us who we are, and what we are worth?

Here’s what I said. Also, do the power analysis, please and thank you.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

March 10, 2019

Lent 1, Year C

Luke 4

If you are…If God loves you….If you are that powerful, prove it!  Prove yourself!

When I was a kid, for a period of time in elementary school, I recall that it was very important to boast about how many Big Macs you could eat in one sitting.  That was the status measure in the cafeteria.  Not how rich you were, or how tall, or how many cool stickers you had—how many Big Macs you could eat.  

No idea why this was.  Proximity?  Their stability as a measure of currency?  I just knew that if I wanted to have ANY FRIENDS AT ALL, I needed to figure out a way to eat at least one whole Big Mac.  Which was, for me, a tall order.

My whole identity rested on this.  Whatever childhood status I could muster.

Of course, that’s a ridiculous way to measure yourself.  For starters, it’s a good way to end up in cardiac arrest.  Also, there is no way those kids were all telling the truth.

Also, that’s a really faulty frame for identity.  None of us can be measured in something so trivial as fast-food.  And yet, so much of what we consume tries to tell us that indeed, our worth, our identity is measured by things like this.  

Watch any ad anywhere, and you will get the message that unless you purchase this product/experience, you are not this particular type of person.  Buy this shampoo and you will be beautiful!  Buy this soda, and you will be cool!  Buy this pair of jeans, and you will be young again!  Buy this car, and you will be…a mysterious person who can wax philosophical about creativity and freedom while appearing rich and unburdened!  (Car commercials are confusing.) 

There is a lot in the world that challenges our sense of identity, especially as we live in a world that persists in ranking those identities based on these arbitrary things.  And that’s where the gospel this week fits in.  Because this story of the Temptation in the Wilderness is all about identity.

For context, it’s important to remember that immediately before Jesus goes into the wilderness, he was baptized in the Jordan River.  John the Baptist, under protest, baptizes him, and everyone sees the Spirit descend, and the voice from heaven proclaim him to be God’s Beloved Son.  

The next thing that happens is that Jesus heads out into the desert to fast and pray.  Geographically, this makes sense—the Jordan River runs to the east of Judea and Galilee, and is bordered in the south by the desert, before the elevation rises and you approach Jerusalem.  So, there’s desert all over—anywhere Jesus went after the Jordan was going to be desert.  In a way, he didn’t have a choice.  But also, this stretch of praying and fasting was a time-honored way to communicate with God, after such a powerful experience.  

And after we are told that 40 days (or Bible-speak for “A long time that I am not willing to count, because Math Is Difficult”) has passed, the devil appears, and starts to bother him.

Like I’ve said before, we hear mentions of Satan with 21st century ears, primed with images of the red guy with the pitchfork and the pointy ears.  But the culture of Jesus’ day didn’t have that dualistic of an understanding of good and evil.  Ha-Satan was essentially a generic adversary—rather than a supernatural Sum of Evil that rivals God in power.  (In their interaction here, Satan is a sly talker, but you don’t get the sense that he really poses a threat to Jesus.  He’s just obnoxious.) 

Anyway.  Three times, the devil tries to mess with Jesus, saying “IF you are the Son of God, turn this stone into bread!  Throw yourself off the Temple!  Worship me and take all the power for yourself!”

What’s striking is that, aside from the “Worship me!” request—what the devil is suggesting is on fairly solid ground, scripturally.  Of COURSE Jesus can turn stones into bread!  He’s going to multiply loaves and fishes later on!  Of course he could fly from the Temple tower—he magically got himself out of an angry crowd in this same chapter!  Even seizing all the power for himself—he definitely shouldn’t worship the devil.  That’s clear.  But…isn’t he the King of Kings and God incarnate?  Maybe there’s a workaround here?

(Also, please note the devil is quoting scripture to back up his points.  Which is why PROOFTEXTING IS BAD DONT DO IT.)

The sticking point here is the IF.  If you are the Son of God, prove yourself!  If you are who you say you are, prove yourself to ME!  The devil wants Jesus to question who he is, God’s love for him, so that the devil can see proof of his identity.  

And each time, Jesus says no.  No, he doesn’t need to do that.  No, he knows exactly who he is, and doesn’t need anyone else’s validation.  He was there when John poured the water.  He was there when the dove came down.  He heard the voice from the sky.  He knows exactly who he is.  He doesn’t need the devil to comment on that.  

Jesus’ strength here is rooted in his faith in his baptismal identity.  He knows he is the Beloved Son of God, and nothing the devil can throw at him can change that—no magic trick, no sly questioning, nothing.    The same is true for us—who we are, fundamentally, is children of God.  Beloved, cherished, unique children of God, made in the image of our Creator.  And nothing: absolutely nothing can take away from that core identity.  

Over our lives, we face various temptations that would tell us that we need to prove ourselves.  Prove ourselves worthy of respect, prove ourselves worthy of forgiveness, worthy of dignity, worthy of love.  We hear the various voices of temptation in our ears from our world, telling us that really, if we just worked a little harder, bent a little more, then the world would validate us enough, and we could derive our identity from that instead.  But this is the devil whispering sly lies into our ears again.

Our worth, our dignity, our loveableness rests entirely, and only in our identity as Children of God.  We don’t ever have to do anything else.  We don’t ever have to be anything else.  We don’t ever have to buy anything else or achieve anything else.  All the forces of the world that ask us again and again to prove ourselves worthy of love and dignity cannot take away the essential truth spoken by God at our baptism:  we are God’s beloved, and with us God is deeply pleased.  

Lent is a chance for us to rest soundly in that core identity, to let the world’s temptations to be something newer, better, shiner, go, and to relax into the knowledge that God has assured us that we, and the rest of humanity, are already cherished and precious.  


***In toto, it will read, “Here lies Megan Castellan, beloved human, viewer of original Hamilton cast on Broadway, wearer of red shoes, first of her name, righter of wrongs. Do. The. Power. Analysis.” My descendants will have to shell out for this tombstone.

Happy Lent!

When I finally allowed my then-boyfriend, now-husband to come to church with me for a regularly-scheduled service, it was Ash Wednesday. I believe I let him come because there was to be good BBQ afterwards, as was our Kansas City tradition.***

To my surprise, he informed me afterwards that he really enjoyed the liturgy. “You get to apologize for all this stuff that’s wrong!” he told his mother, later “And it feels really nice!”

Til then, I hadn’t contemplated the idea that repenting corporately could be experienced as a positive. The conventional wisdom I had inherited taught that we should probably steer clear of sin and repentance, because it bummed folks out.

Yet, the truth is, we know things are wrong, in the world. We see people make bad choices. We see those choices cause suffering. We even see people justify their hatred and violence in the name of God. And when the church refuses to name that reality, I don’t think it helps any; rather I think that it feeds into a culture of denial and hypocrisy.

Lent, for one, helps us name the reality that Everything Is Not Ok, and also reassures us that even though Things Are Not Ok, that doesn’t mean this is permanent, or that we are powerless in the face of it.

Hence, my Happy Lent! sermon.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

March 6, 2019

Ash Wednesday 

Isaiah

In my varied career, I’ve been a school chaplain for preschoolers several times on Ash Wednesday.  Each time, there has been dire concern expressed over how such young children will react to this particular holy day in our calendar.  “Isn’t it a bit much for them?,” well meaning adults ask.  “All the sin and death.  Can’t you save this for when they’re older?” 

The same sorts of concerns arise around Holy Week (once I was explicitly told not to tell small children that Jesus died “because they’d be sad”.  Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure they figured that one out anyway.) 

Ash Wednesday has that reputation—actually, all of Lent has that reputation.  This is the time of the church year when we are to be properly sad about ourselves, right? When we are to recall with guilt and shame that we are dust, and we should feel bad about it.  The music is sad, the colors are sad, the weather, too, is mostly sad.

Lent is sad, Repentance is sad, sin is sad.  So we should avoid it at all costs, and focus on the nice, happy things, and avoid all this sad stuff.

Here’s the problem: the theological constructs of sin and repentance actually get at something very important to the human condition.  They describe something fundamental that exists.

Sin is fundamentally the notion that the world we know has missed the mark that God has set for us.  That the world we inhabit, the choices we make, does not live up to all that God intends for us.  That basically, this world—the way things are— is broken.  

And there is a deep truth to that fact that we innately recognize because it is possible to see in this world both the potential it holds, and how we squander it.  We can see institutions and systems that increase inequality and oppression between people.  We can see injustice occurring around us.  We can see poverty, hatred, and violence, and the innocent suffering.  We can see things that we know are unfair, that should not be present in the good God’s good creation.  And so, the language our tradition gives us for that wrongness, both on a macro level and when we individually contribute to that brokenness, is sin.

Sin—it’s when things go wrong.

And it is hard, I believe, at this point in our history, to look around and not recognize the presence of things going wrong.  Not recognize the presence of sin.  The front page of the newspaper is testimony enough to the idea that everything isn’t going great.  Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, to quote Yeats.

And so, our tradition gives us the idea of repentance.  Because left unto itself, the reality of the broken world is sad.  Goodness knows, listening to the news too much will make a person lose it.  But we are called, over and over, in a multitude of different ways, that when we fall short, when we discover that things are broken, the proper response is to turn back, and try again.  Repent means to literally turn around, so when we repent, as we do today, we are turning back from the brokenness, and promising to try something different.  

In this reading from Isaiah, the prophet reminds the people that repentance isn’t just about wailing, and weeping and gnashing of teeth.  It’s not about feeling guilty and sorry for yourself and saying the right series of prayers.  The repentance God wants is a renewed pursuit of justice.  A renewed dedication to equality, to truth, to doing the right thing for all people.  That when we discover that our lives, or the world as a whole, has gone wrong, we stop, turn around, and try something different.  The point of sin is not to make us sad, and it’s not to impress upon us how horrible we are.  The point is to urge us to turn around and try again.

Because Isaiah makes very clear—when we try again, when we figure out we’re going wrong and turn around, God is immediately at hand, to answer our call, to show us the way, and to lighten our footsteps.  God’s role is not to shame us or guilt us—instead God encourages us to get it right, to try one more time, to pick up, and take one more shot, till we set this world aright.

Ash Wednesday is not about how wretched and sinful we are.  Or rather, it sort of is, but along with that comes the rather good news that none of our sins, none of our mistakes are the end of the story.  For as dire as our mistakes seem, as in deep trouble as this world is, God is right there, hands outstretched, ready and waiting for us to turn around, and try a different way.  Sin is no barrier to God’s love, and neither is our mortal frailty.  For as often as we fall short, for as frequently as we mess up, God is just as ready to pick us up, to steer us the right way, until we figure this out.  We may be fallible dust, but God transforms even our ashes and dust into a profound, splendid creation.  And that is good news indeed.

Amen.



***The first time a priest brings a new romantic partner to their church is a BIG DEAL. It’s like introducing a new partner to your children, if you were a single parent, and if your children are 3 years old, and you have 60 of them. They are all adorable, you love them dearly, but you are also aware that they will get attached Very Fast, and have Many Feelings about the situation that you will then need to manage. It’s fraught, is my point.

Safety on the Plain

This was a bit of a week. Ben and I went to NYC (delayed wedding present of Hamilton tickets 🙂 ) and then it was straight home for me to go to Hamilton, The Town-Not-Show (much less hip hop, much more white) and join in the diocesan visioning retreat.

So, by the time I got to Sunday morning, my brain was all mushy. So there was that.

I wrote the sermon half in sentences, half in notes in my notebook, and managed (I think) to sound coherent and thoughtful, and not just say “There was a plain? And also security isn’t safety? And walls are bad.” which was my basic hope.

I went back and typed it all up, because several folks asked for a copy. What is here isn’t exactly what I said, but it should be a fair representation of what I preached.

Also, the fruit/vegetable story is entirely accurate and is A Thing That Happened in 2004. I have witnesses.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

February 17, 2019

Epiphany 6

Luke 5

One time, quite soon after 9/11, I went to a government function with a lot of security.  As I was passing through the checkpoint, I noticed the posted sign: No weapons, No Metal, No bags, no signs….no fruit.  

This confused me, so I struck up a conversation with the Marine who was inspecting me.  “No fruit?” 

“No, ma’am.”

“How about vegetables?”

“No fruit, ma’am.”

“Ok, I get that, but I could conceivably do some damage with a carrot, like if I threw it.  Or an eggplant.”

He looked at me for a second, stone-faced.  “Ma’am, do you have a carrot?”

“Oh no, I would never! This is hypothetical situation. Like, how would you count a tomato…”

He cut me off. “No fruit, ma’am. No weapons.”

“No, sir!  No, of course not.”

He did not have a demonstrable sense of humor about the situation.

I got to thinking this week about emergencies.  About crises.  And how we handle them.  All the readings today reflect on where we put our trust, when danger looms, and the world warns us that safety is at a premium.  What do we do?  Where do we turn?  What do we trust to keep us safe?

In today’s gospel, Jesus essentially outlines two basic approaches to this conundrum.  He lays out the Beatitudes—those pronouncements we are all pretty familiar with, hopefully.  Blessed are the poor, blessed are the peacemakers, things like that.  

Now, importantly, these Beatitudes are not Matthew’s Beatitudes.  Gordon Lathrop, a renowned liturgist, said once that meaning derives from one thing set next to another, and so we need to consider the context of these particular Beatitudes.  Notably, Jesus is standing in a whole different place than in Matthew.  Literally.

In Matthew’s gospel, this is the sermon on the mount.  So, the first thing he does is go up on a mountain, and gather the crowd below him, at his feet, and talk to them from high above, making sweeping pronouncements.  Blessed are the meek!  For they shall inherit the earth!

But catch what happens in Luke!  Right at the start, Jesus goes the other way! He goes DOWN the mountain, to the plain, and starts addressing the disciples and the crowd from BELOW.  And whereas in Matthew, he addresses the entire crowd, here he singles out the disciples specifically.  “Blessed are YOU POOR. For you shall be rich.  Blessed are YOU HUNGRY.” etc. These aren’t sweeping pronouncements we might write off to being about a future state; these are instructions for specific people, in a specific place and time.  Hey you!  Blessed are you!  You, right there!  This is much more pointed.

And then Jesus goes a step further.  Not only does he lay out what is Blessed—he also lists out what brings woe.  Woe to you rich, for you will be poor.  Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will be weeping.  Woe when everyone speaks well of you, for such their ancestors did to the false prophets.  These things may seem great now, but they will not end well for you.

Ironically, the list of woes that Jesus illumines is precisely where we so often put our trust.  Riches, and status, and power, and strength, are precisely the things that promise us security over and over again in this world.  In moments of crisis, it is precisely these things Jesus warns about that the world tells us will deliver us safety.

In reality, Jesus tells us, these things do not protect us.  They do not save us.  Security which the world promises is not safety.  

Counter-intuitively, Jesus tells us that the very things that promise us security over and over will, in fact, doom us.  

It is only through vulnerability, only through solidarity with the other creatures of God, only through mercy, peace, justice—only through opening ourselves up to the reign of God will bring us true safety.  Everything else just takes us farther away.  

But ooooh, how we’d like it to be so much easier.  How much we’d like it if safety could be conjured up through a simple ban on all fruit!  Or in building a bigger tank!  Or in a larger stockpile of weapons, or in one more massive fortress.  

The problem with these solutions, however, and the reason they bring us so much woe is the disconnection.  They isolate us.  Were we to spend our lives building walls and fortresses and stockpiling more and more food in search of security, we would never have to contend with the humanity in each other.  We would never have to realize how indebted we are to each other, how much we depend on each other.  We would never have to recognize how much God loves each and every one of us, and how much each and every one of us reflects God’s image.

When we put our faith in the idols of security, in the things that bring woe, we never have to grapple with ourselves or with God.  We remain utterly alone.

But God loves us little dust-creatures so much that God calls us to something greater.  Impossibly, God loves us fallible, desperately mortal humans so much that God graciously hands out eternal abundant life in our very mortal-ness.  God gives us total safety, total life and freedom right when we are at our most vulnerable—as if we are standing undefended on a plain.  The more connected we are to God and to one another, the safer we are and the more life we find.  Even as the world chants in our ears that danger is all around—we find our life and help in God and these connections.  No idol gives us that.

The solution, then, to any human emergency is found only in each other.  Is found only in God.  The way out of our mortal peril, in any turn of circumstance, is in being Christlike with each other, and with the world God has given to us.  And in this way, we bless the world.

Amen.

Tea Cozies Save the World

I promised myself in seminary that I would never preach about my family members (my future kids, really) without their full consent, and would definitely, never, ever, ever, EVER preach about my dog. Or cat. But certainly not my dog.

This is not meant as shade towards those who do preach about their pets; I just have experienced some highly painful sermons that centered around pets, and went full moral therapeutic deism about it. I have post-pet-sermon-syndrome. So, no dog sermons for me.

Knitting sermons, on the other hand, I have no apparent problem with. To my shock, I have talked about knitting, or knitting related things at least three times (that I can recall) in my preaching career. Which is more than any other subject.

Also, the link to the woman I’m referencing and her amazing books is here.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

February 10,2019

Epiphany 5, Year C

Luke 5

Failure of Imagination.  What could we even possibly do?  

There’s a woman in New Zealand, a textile artist, really, who knits insane things into tea cozies.  (You know what tea cozies are, right?  They’re fabric covers that go over your tea pot in order to keep your tea warm.)  Now, tea cozies, if you’ve seen one, are generally boring.  They’re half-moon shaped, they go over the teapot, sometimes they have things written on them.  But this lady contemplated tea cozies, and decided to just go nuts.  She made tea cozies to resemble a bowl of fruit.  A 3-D bowl of fruit.  A tea cozy to look like a rooster.  One to look like a vase of flowers, and one to look like the several hats that Princess Beatrice wore to Will and Kate’s wedding.  And—here’s the kicker—all of these are knitted.  She knit these amazing sculptural things.  There are entire books of her knitting patterns, so you, too, can make a delightful, bananas, tea cozy out of yarn, so that your teapot resembles a tower of colorful fez hats.  If you wanted.

What really delights me (aside from the idea of making my teapot into a work of art) is why she says she does this.  Early on in her book, she comments that she realizes that this is an absurd thing to do, in the face of so much wrong in the world.  But, she says, it takes imagination to engage fruitfully with the world, and these works of art are primarily about imagination.  

Now, I do not have the sort of imagination that lends itself to looking at a Van Gogh painting and wondering how I could turn it into a nice knitted hat.  However, I do agree that engaging with the world, especially as people of faith, requires a certain type of imagination—which we need to cultivate, because it goes missing on us at times.

Imagination, after all, is the ability to envision what is not, but what might be—and that is not so far off from the work of faith, which asks us to practice engaging with things unseen, but that are.  As followers of Christ, and as people who work to usher in the reign of God, one of our primary tasks as disciples is to cultivate a sort of double vision—to see things as they are in the world, but also see things as God would have them be.  And that takes the imagination of faith.  It takes learning to see things that are not there, and yet getting ready for them anyway. 

In this gospel story, this morning, Jesus has given his first sermon, gotten run out of his hometown, and now he’s enjoying the morning sunshine on the banks of the Sea of Galilee.  He runs into some fishermen, who have spent the whole night fishing—because that’s when fishermen went out on the sea.  So now, their workday is over, they’re coming home, and they’ve caught nothing.  Nada.  Zip.

And Jesus says, Hey, why don’t you try the other side?  Peter is not a huge fan of this idea, and points out that they ARE professional fishermen, they did try that already, but fine, whatever.  And sure enough, their nets nearly break with all the fish that immediately fill them.

They had to ask James and John for help, because their boat almost sank.  They were not prepared for all these fish.  Totally unprepared.

“Don’t worry,” says Jesus—“From now on you will be fishing for people.”

Peter and Andrew were entirely unprepared for all those fish.  Now—they were fishermen, they had nets, they had a boat, they were prepared for some fish—Not all the fish.  They weren’t ready.  They hadn’t imagined that.  And so when it happened, they were flummoxed, and nearly capsized.  

They were, I imagine (hah) used to the world as they knew it, a world where they were moderately successful fisherman, caught some fish and then went back out the next day, and did it again.  That was their life, and it was fine. 

And so hadn’t imagined that a new way of being might break in, until one morning Jesus arrives and does just that.  Suddenly, more fish than they EVER BELIEVED dove into their nets.  Such prosperity, such generosity.  And now they are no longer fishermen, now they were something altogether different— fishers of people—a role that requires an even bigger step outside their ordinary worlds.

Following Jesus requires quite a big leap of imagination.  It requires us to see things not as they are, but as God would have them be, as Jesus has been telling us they could be. And that requires of us a vision based on hope, alongside our clearsighted view of what actually is.  It is imagination that allows us to live as Christ calls us to live, because to seek the kingdom, to follow Jesus, is to begin to live in the world as Jesus describes it even as we still live in the current world.  We have to live now as if the reign of God has already begun.  

So we imagine ourselves there.  Small kids do this all the time—it’s that game of make believe, only this time we do it with higher stakes.  We imagine a world into being where all people do matter, as children of God, and so we act like everyone we meet is of infinite value.  We imagine a world where the most important priority is the welfare of all people, and so we ourselves try to prioritize human flourishing, even in a society that seems to value profit over all else.  We imagine a world where the earth is seen as a gift for us to care for, and so we take pains to preserve and celebrate God’s creation, instead of just exploiting it for our own ends.

It takes imagination to follow Jesus in our broken world, because when all we have ever known is this world as it is, anything else takes a leap into faith, as Kierkegaard would say.  Like Peter and Andrew, we just have small boats, because who could imagine such a world as Jesus brings about?  So as people of faith, we have to use our imaginative powers.  We have to dream a little, and we have to live with a foot both in that imaginary, not-yet world of the reign of God, and in this world. We need to imagine up some big boats for this task. 

What would our city look like, for instance, if the reign of God has come, fully?  What would your life look like, if everything Jesus talked about in his sermon in Nazareth were now true—the poor brought good news, the blind given sight, the prisoner freed, the captive released, the Year of Jubilee proclaimed, all that? 

Think of what you have on your schedule tomorrow, when you go to school, or go to work, or run errands.  What would be different tomorrow?  Just Imagine what that world would be like.  What would be the same?  What would be different? If everyone was valued and loved, and had what they needed, and the earth was safe and cherished and full with the glory of God. 

Now, is there one thing, just one thing, you can do already to make that world a little closer?  

Can you do one thing tomorrow that would make the world you imagine a little closer?  Donate money to a non-profit, help someone that needs help, decide to do something good, or just do something anonymous and kind.  What can you do tomorrow to bring the world Jesus describes, the world we imagine with God, a little closer?

We talk sometimes in church about being co-creators with God, and our presiding Bishop talks a lot about God’s dream for the world, but what I sometimes think that means is imagining with God.  When God created the world, he spoke the world into being, and imagined something out of the chaos and waste that there had been.  Our faithful imagining of a new world along with God is how we join with Christ in making that new world a reality.  And when we step out in faith and slowly act on our imaginings, step into that bigger boat, then surely Christ meets us along the shore.  

Amen.

Hometown Kid

I realize I have been remiss in updating Ye Olde Blogge here. Truthfully, St. John’s is blessed to have two licensed lay preachers, and they ably preach from time to time, so there are times I don’t actually have a sermon to post.

Other times, the week has been so busy that I don’t have an actual manuscript, so much as a bullet list of thoughts that hopefully sound coherent from the pulpit. (My sermon on the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism was this last one.)

In the Good News category, the wonderful folks of my parish are working out a way to record my sermons, and then podcast them. So whether or not I think my notes make sense outside my head, you’ll be able to hear my sermon. We’re in the testing phase now, but it should launch soon.

Meanwhile, here’s what I said that time Jesus goes to his hometown and gets nearly thrown off a cliff.

Rev Megan L Castellan

February 3, 2019

Epiphany 4, Year C 

Luke 4

Did you have particular movies that you loved as a kid? Or music? Or TV shows? I loved Miss Piggy, for a variety of reasons, and I was delighted this past week to watch a Muppet movie and discover that it really held up pretty well.   My childhood recollection of the joy to be found there matched what I found as an adult.  Not everything holds up that well, as I’m sure you know.  Most 1980s kid pop culture loses its shine once you reach a certain age.  It joins things like snow days, summer vacations, and junk food in the category of Things that Were Awesome as A Kid, But as An Adult You Realize Will be Complicated and A Hassle. 

But that’s the way of things. We grow up, our worldview changes, and what seemed amazing and exciting to us as younger people no longer seems that way.  And this dynamic is not caused by some specific naïveté of childhood either.  All of us discover as we move through life that certain things we liked at one point, no longer quite fit.  As we grow and change, our outlook changes too.  The conception of the world we had at age 10 is not the one we had at age 20 and is not the one we have at age 30. Nor should it be.  We grow and change, and our faith needs to grow and change with us.  As we mature and deepen, our faith needs to as well.

Therein lies the rub.  This week’s gospel is the action-packed sequel to last week’s gospel, where Jesus is preaching his very first sermon!  In his hometown of Nazareth.  And if you recall, last week, everything was going great.  Jesus stood up, found Isaiah in the scroll, and read that great stuff about proclaiming the good news to the poor, sight to the blind, release to the captives, and announcing the year of the Lord’s favor.  Solid material.

Then, he tells everyone “and this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Everyone is so excited!  Look at little Jesus, all grown up! He’s doing so well! Not a single stumble! 

Then, it might be hard to tell what happens next.  Jesus says some things that sound innocuous enough, and then the crowd tries to throw him off a cliff.  which seems very strange since everything had been going so well!  

But when Jesus hears how happy they are with him, and how they are saying “Can this be Joseph’s son?” He reminds them that they probably won’t always be happy with him.  Doubtless you’ll say to me, prophet, heal yourself! And you will say Do also here in your hometown the things we have heard you did in Capernaum.”

Ok, so far so good.  But, then he continues.  But the truth is, he tells them, God always sends prophets out and away, not back.  When God sent Elijah he sent him to Sidon, not to anyone in Israel.  And when God sent Elisha, he sent him to help a Syrian, not an Israelite.  

This is what flips the crowd.  For one thing, they don’t like the implication that they won’t get miracles and that it’s greedy to ask.  For another, for the devoutly Jewish folk of Nazareth who had just been believing that God had sent Jesus to proclaim the day of jubilee to them, they are not pleased at all when Jesus reminds them that the greatest prophets in history did the greatest miracles for non-Jews. They want the miracles, darn it.  Non-believers don’t deserve them!  So they get angry.

Aside from their homicidal moment, it’s not hard to see the hometown crowd’s point.  They feel possessive of Jesus; he’s theirs! They watched him grow up, and they rightly feel proud of who he’s become.  But as Jesus points out, the problem is that the crowd would have him stay there forever.  They want him in a sense to stay that young man forever, within their control, within their reach.  

Jesus’ call, meanwhile, is to the whole world.  To the whole of humanity.  He cannot stay in his hometown just doing miracles for his neighbors-his call is much bigger and wider than that. 

But to embrace that call requires change, and leaving home.  His walk with God means going forward and not back.

Over our lives, God constantly calls us into deeper relationship.  If we follow faithfully, our faith grows and deepens.  And frequently, that can frighten us.  It’s not always comfortable to begin to question the easy answers we were handed as small children.  That the Bible stories are all literally true, that praying correctly wins you rewards, like asking nicely from a genie.  That good people receive good things, and bad people are punished.  That everything happens for a reason, and the way things are is the way they were meant to be.  The answers we get as kids aren’t always satisfying, but they are comforting for a while. 

As we grow, the Spirit slowly leads us into more and more complexity.  Our walk in faith takes us deeper and deeper.  It’s like learning a new language— first you learn the basics of communication. Then you learn the nuances of verb tenses, and then you learn the connotations of words that don’t exist in English, and communication becomes at once something more complex and infinitely richer and more rewarding.  

And we might miss that clarity we had as children, the easy sense of surety, but our faith doesn’t allow us to go back.  We don’t get to go back to our childhood Nazareths .  Instead, we move forward, knowing that the God who brought us this far will lead us further still, into a richer experience of God’s truth.  We need never fear our struggles or questioning in our walk with Christ. to quote the French philosopher Simone Weil, “It seemed to me certain, and I still think so today, that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”

Let us all be bold enough to walk and even struggle, with Christ, and not be confined to Nazareth. 

Epiphany Evangelism

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

January 6, 2019

Epiphany, Year C

Matthew 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And no one really knew!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crusty Christian History

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

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

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

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

How do we find God in this mess?

How do we decide? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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