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Plowing for Justice

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

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

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

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 17, 2018

Proper 6, Year B

Mark 4:26-34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


King of Pogs

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

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

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

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 10, 2018

Proper 5, Ordinary Time, Year B

1 Samuel 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the cool kids quote Hafiz

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

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

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

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 3, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 4

Mark 2:23—3:6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



And then THAT happened…

Part of coming to a new church is learning all the new stories of “How THAT happened.”  I unabashedly love this part of the job.  Church stories are generally bananas, and wholly unbelievable to anyone who has not spent much time around churches.

Take, for example, the local legend of the Little Old Lady who had passed into blessed memory prior to my arrival at my first parish.  One Sunday, she came upon an unfamiliar family seated in Her Pew.  The regular parishioners knew not to cross her, for LOL was known for being of a cantankerous disposition.  But these newcomers knew not Joseph, as it were.  She took one look at them and proceeded to beat them about the face and head with her pocketbook until they beat a hasty retreat.  Thus victorious, she reclaimed her seat.  And so it was that the congregants never changed pews again.

To date, I have not heard any similar tales of sanctuary fisticuffs from St. John’s.  (Y’all will tell me if there were any, right?  Because, now that I think about it, I can recall some story of a physical altercation in at least three of the churches where I’ve served. I don’t know if that says more about me, or them.)   I did, however, spend several hours pouring through assorted historical documents, pamphlets of history, and “Important Sermons” to get a sense of how the parish sees itself, and what has shaped it over the years.  This sermon was partially inspired by that.

Rev. Megan L Castellan

April 15, 2018

Easter 3

Luke 24

We have now reached that part of the Easter season when we get to experience the slightly odder Resurrection stories, having exhausted the initial appearances of Jesus to his disciples, and to Mary Magdalene and the other women.

Most of these second-order appearances include eating something.  Jesus, it would seem, returns from the dead quite hungry.  He eats dinner with the disciples traveling to Emmaus.  He cooks and eats breakfast with Peter and the others on the beach by the Sea of Galilee.  And here, he shows up to the disciples, and asks for some fish.

This is all happening, mind, as the disciples are all in a tizzy because Cleopas and Unnamed Disciple have run back from Emmaus to inform the others of their Resurrection sighting.

Sidenote: Luke doesn’t tell us who is with Cleopas on the road to Emmaus.  Either the person was not considered important enough to have a name, or they were considered so famous that a name was beside the point.  Christian tradition in Palestine says that the unnamed disciple was Mary, Cleopas’ wife (who is named in several other gospel accounts as following Jesus).

For context—Cleopas and Mary decided to Get Out of Dodge, and head out of town but on the road, they encounter Jesus, who asks why they were bickering (told you they were married).  They explain what they’ve been through, and why they’re disappointed.  Then he explains back to them what their experience means in the context of the scriptures, and they’re so entranced, they ask him to stay with them for the evening meal.  And just as they finally recognize him, he vanishes.  

It is at this point, after they’ve run back to Jerusalem to tell the others, that Jesus shows up again, and asks for fish.  Apparently, dinner with Mary and Cleopas wasn’t filling.

Everyone goes nuts.  Cleopas and Mary are excited because their story is now proven right.  The disciples are excited because they get to see Jesus again.  Party all around.

But once Jesus gets them to quiet down,  he does the same sort of thing he did earlier with Mary and Cleopas on the road:  he “opens their minds to understand the scriptures.” 

Like the focus on food, the focus on the scriptures is a reoccurring theme in these second round resurrection appearances.  Because once people got over the initial shock that Jesus was alive again, then they needed to understand What This Meant.  How did this strange event fit into everything that had come before?

And like any life changing event, you can’t do much in-depth analysis in the moment, when you’re first getting used to something.  It takes a while for the shock to wear off.  So Jesus doesn’t really make the disciples do theology until he shows up for Round 2.

That’s actually where the all the food comes in, too.

Bear with me, now.  

Scholars think that the reason Jesus keeps asking for food, post-Easter, is because the gospel writers want to disprove the theory that the resurrection of Jesus is incorporeal.  That is, they want to dispel the idea that Jesus is showing up as just a ghost or something.  Because surely, there can be no more human, flesh-and-blood task than eating breakfast.  So, at every turn, Jesus is handling physical objects and proving he has a physical form.

But the food does something else, too.  Every time Jesus shares a meal with his friends after he returns from the dead, he incorporates this resurrection life into their daily experience.  Because, again, what could be more perfectly human than sitting down to breakfast together?  

So now, the resurrection is not something inapproachable, concerned only with the Very Holy and the Very Pure.  

Now the resurrection makes you breakfast, sits you down, and insists that you really should have a second helping because you’ve been looking tired lately.  The resurrection is as normal as daily bread.  

So closely woven into the daily lives of the disciples, then, does Jesus weave his resurrected presence, that it actually might become difficult to follow his final line in the gospel.  You are witnesses of these things.  Because it is tempting, for us, at least, to say, “Really?  What things?  The breakfast?  The fish?  The community?”

Over the years, Christ has so intricately woven resurrection into the life of the Church that we have almost become accustomed to seeing it, the way we are used to eating a meal with friends.  It’s all around us, wrapped around the daily rhythm moments of our lives.  But Christ reminds us that not only is resurrection familiar, but resurrection must be witnessed.  

So we who follow in the footsteps of Christ and his disciples must learn to recognize the resurrection around us.  We must learn to witness to its presence, to tell these stories when we see them.  New life springs up all around us, and all of us have experienced it.  But we must take note, and we must honor that new life by witnessing it.

Because when the world seems lost and bleak, it is our witness to the Risen Christ that reminds us not to give up.  When the news seems all bad, and chaos seems more persistent than ever, our testimony to the daily resurrections that surround us are more needed than ever. They are a reminder that though the world is still broken, it will not stay that way forever, and God is still at work.  So these stories are vitally important.

I’ve been reading the history of the parish this week, including two pamphlets written for the purpose.  I commend them to you—both are delightful in different ways, if both clearly of their respective times.  But one of the things I was most struck by, aside from the colorful characters that built this parish, that sustained it, and that kept it running through the years, 

Is its persistence.  

If you read all of the parish history, it’s been a series of ups and downs.  There were wars, divisions, population surges.  There were good priests, and not as good priests.  There were budget concerns, and budget surpluses.  There were liturgical changes and staunchly-resisted liturgical changes.  But time and again, this parish stayed faithful to its mission, and kept on.  It was reborn countless times out of who knows how many crises and conflicts.  St. John’s, is, in itself, a testimony of resurrection—just a normal-seeming church, and yet a miracle in its own right.   

What is your own story of resurrection?  How have you seen resurrection in your own life?  What is your own story to tell of the Risen Christ, active and present in your life?  Think of these stories, cultivate and care for them.   

See These Bones

Last Sunday was pretty much my first Real Day at work.  My first two Sundays with St. John’s were spent in the whirl of Palm Sunday and Easter, so Easter 2 was my first Normal, Regular opportunity to see how everything functioned when we weren’t concerned with either Welcoming Our New Rector or Celebrating Our Lord’s Victory over Death.

Spoiler alert:  everything was terrific.  I finally got a handle on how not to consecrate all the wine in the Finger Lakes region.  I got a laugh out of the early service crowd with my sermon.  And the little girl I had convinced to help me do the dismissal on Easter had written down her line in preparation for this week’s attempt, which was flat-out awesome.

Normal Church contains its own joys.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 8, 2018

Easter 2, Year B

John 20:19-31

Do you remember last week?  Remember Easter Sunday?

Think past all the people—the pretty flowers, the chocolate, the jubilant hymns, and the great meal.  Remember the story of Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus in the garden, and thinking he was a random gardener?

Did that strike you as strange?

Because here’s the thing.  Presumably, Mary has been with Jesus for YEARS now.  She knew full well what he looked like. She knew what his voice sounded like.  He was a dearly-loved friend.

But suddenly, she mistakes him for a gardener?

The mystery of why, post-resurrection, Jesus’ friends don’t recognize him is one of those mysteries that theologians and biblical scholars like to write books about, and discuss at parties.  “Maybe he could only be seen through the eyes of faith!” “Maybe the resurrection reflects both profound continuity and discontinuity with the previous reality, such that the common laws of time, space, and matter were affected!” 

It is not always a helpful conversation for those of us who are neither biblical scholars, nor theologians.  Which may be why those folks don’t have a great party reputation.

However, looking at the gospel today, you can see some of the same confusion that Mary experienced.

When the disciples are holed up together, in that upper room, convinced they’re about to raided and arrested—remember, it’s only really been a few days since Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, and the practice of Rome was to go after everyone associated with a traitor: family, friends, everyone—to make a public example.  Jesus just appears to them.  In a locked room.  Walks right through a locked door, and tells them to not be afraid.

THAT’s easier said than done—because not only are they convinced they’re about to be arrested, but their good friend Jesus just ghosted through a wall.  EVERYTHING seems frightening! 

Then, Jesus breathes on them (also, let’s face it—strange) and tells them to receive the holy spirit.  Should they retain the sin of any, it is retained.  If they loose the sin of any, it is loosed.  

Thomas, it should be noted, isn’t here at this point.  We don’t know why; maybe it was momentary—he stepped out to get lunch.  Maybe he gave up and went home.  Maybe he was having a real crisis of faith.

We know from earlier in the gospel that Thomas was pretty committed—when Jesus was talking about going back to Jerusalem to see Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and there was a risk of arrest already, Thomas solemnly proposed going along so as to die with him.  Thomas was not a flakey disciple—we don’t have evidence that he fled like Peter at the crucifixion.  

But for whatever reason, he is absent on this occasion.

So when he turns back up, he is skeptical about the story the others tell him.  It doesn’t sound right to him.  I was reading a commentary this week that posited that the language around Thomas’s exit and return sounds like a person who had left permanently and then is sought after—a nuance of verb tense that doesn’t quite come through in English.  So this commentator imagined that Thomas had suffered a crisis of faith—a betrayal of sorts, and had left the community for a time to sort it out.

For a person like Thomas who had so much invested in Jesus, and what he represented, that he was willing to die for him, it would follow that to witness a passive Jesus be crucified at the hands of Rome would be a real blow to his faith.  And he might need time to discern what this meant for him.

Yet the other disciples, having seen the risen Lord, go and track him down.  They tell him the story.  They try to get him back in their community.  

But Thomas isn’t having it.  Because, again—the story sounds ludicrous.  Jesus walks through walls?  Jesus breathing on them?  Jesus being alive after he was most certainly dead?  No.

Also, consider that if Thomas is having a crisis of faith, then it’s not so easy to just return.  He feels betrayed, and guilty for having left, and is probably unsure of his reception.

Crises of faith are not so easy to bounce back from.  Traumas are not so easily healed.  Even after we experience new life, the suffering we endure leaves its mark.  So when Thomas returns   to the fold, and he encounters the risen Christ for himself, is it any wonder that what he asks for is to see the wounds of Christ?  Not proof of life, per se, but proof of suffering. Proof that somehow, Christ too knows what Thomas and the others went through, scared and alone locked in that upper room.

What brings Thomas back into community is Jesus’ scars, more than Jesus’ new life.  Yes, Jesus is alive again, and he is risen, and that is glorious, but Jesus still bears the wounds of a person who was crucified—of a person who went through the experiences that he went through.  The resurrection, as it turns out, does not erase or undo the past week—it transforms it into something new.  Something more powerful.  Something that can reach out and speak to Thomas.

It is tempting to think of our faith in the resurrection as a ‘get out of death’ free card.  As a sort of magic trick that will save us from having to endure anything scary or difficult for long.  Jesus, after all, didn’t stay dead, so why should we get too upset about it?  Why should we fear or grieve death, if we know its not the end?  

But Thomas has a point in his dramatic faith crisis this week. Easter does not wash away the memory of what has happened.  Resurrection does not erase the crucifixion, or the misery of Holy Week.  Those things still happen; we still endure death, and loss and grief.  But God in his wisdom and mercy refuses to let the story end there.  God participates in our suffering, to be with us, and to transform it into something redeemed.  

For Thomas, it was the sight of Christ’s wounds—the knowledge that Christ had suffered in some sense as he had—that affirmed for him his place in this community again.  The wounds of Christ had been transformed into instruments of healing for Thomas and the disciples.   Instead of being mere reminders of a painful experience, now they were a bridge to bring Thomas back to his friends.

For all of us, the resurrection of Christ is not just a one time event.  For us it offers a chance not to erase our pain but to redeem it, to transform it into something new.  To change it from open wounds into scars that can work creative good in the world.  

As we journey farther into Easter, let us always remember that the glory of Easter is with us, reaching out to transform the wounded heart of the world into something new, something holy.  


Easter Morning: Faith in the Garden

I got to have Easter dinner with a seminary classmate that I haven’t seen since graduation (hooray!  Hi, Ann!) Not only did Ann recommend an AMAZING documentary about people who raise and show chickens (Chicken People on Amazon Prime–go watch it. I’ll wait.) our host also borrowed for our viewing, an 18th century engraving of Mary Magdalene conversing with Jesus-as-gardener in this passage from John.  Unusually, Jesus is actually dressed as a gardener, with hat and shovel, and Mary has a look of shocked grief on her face.  I don’t know who did the engraving, but it was really fantastic.

May your Easter be also full of such joy!


Here’s what I said.

Easter Morning:

Welcome, again, happy morning!  Welcome to Easter—the feast of the Resurrection, the celebration of the empty tomb and all the promise it holds for us.

It’s a joyful day—all our hymns say so, all our dresses say so.  All those commercials with the Easter bunny hopping around say so.  This is a happy holiday—families, chocolate, dyed eggs—the works.

Weird, then, how there’s so much crying in the gospel.  Think about it.  The gospel story is not precisely full of joy.  Mary Magdalene rises at daybreak to go to the tomb, to anoint the body of Jesus.  She’s certainly not happy; she’s grieving, and anointing his body is the traditional ritual of grief performed as a last act for loved ones.  So she goes to the tomb, but she finds the stone rolled away, and the body missing.

And she’s even more upset.  She is convinced this is a catastrophe.  Not only has her teacher and Lord been put to death at the hands of the Roman Empire, not only was he crucified as a traitor, but now, the final humiliation—she cannot even mourn at his gravesite.  So she runs to find the disciples.

And, true to their nature, Peter and John (let’s go with John) show up, and investigate.  They are not so grief-stricken as to not compete with each other on the way to the tomb, but they discern that indeed!  It’s empty.

So they leave.  They go home.  They give up.

And so it is Mary Magdalene, alone, who hears the message of the angel.  Mary alone who meets the risen Christ.  And Mary, alone, who is the first to recognize the joy of the Resurrection.  Because everyone else left.

And not because they were so distraught—clearly, Mary is beside herself—and not because they are going to Do Something Important.  I think they leave because they think they know how this story ends.  I think Peter and John leave because they have decided that they know what happens next.

Because it would be so easy to look at this story and think to yourself “Of course!” “Of course our teacher and beloved friend was killed by the powers that be.  Of course!  That’s how the world works—nothing that good can last for long.  Of course the good and the peaceful are trampled down into the dirt.  Of course the powerful and the violent triumph.  Isn’t that what always happens? And now this, the final degradation—we can’t even bury him properly.  Of course.  We should have known.  The world will never change.”  It would be so easy to have seen all this, and think you know how the story goes.  To fully expect the powers of death and destruction to win, because for all intents and purposes, they had.  And Peter and John had been around long enough to feel the weight of their reign.  They knew better than to hope for more.

But somehow, Mary held on to something.  Mary remained, clinging onto hope—though it probably felt more in the moment like a broken heart.  But Mary, in that moment, had enough hope and faith in the God of justice to believe that this couldn’t possibly how the story ended, and so she stayed, crying in grief and frustration, and pestering every random stranger who might help her.

And that hope-against-hope is how Mary catches sight of the miraculous resurrection.  Of life where it has no reason to be, of God changing the story on us.

It takes faith, after all, to remain in our gardens.  It takes faith in the ability of God to somehow, some way, bring new life from certain death.  It takes a whole lot of faith to keep us going, to keep on fighting what is wrong in the world when it seems like we don’t make any progress.  And there are times when it surely would be easier on our hearts to give into cyncism and just go home.  Consign ourselves to the same old story of a world lost to the darkness.

But my friends, to choose the easy path would be to miss the joy of the resurrection.  Resurrection is never easy—the resurrection sneaks up on us when we don’t expect it—it comes up behind us when the story seems over, and when all seems lost.  Resurrection comes to us when all we have left is that thin shred of hope that God will somehow bring life out of death.

But if we learn one thing from the glory of Easter morning, it is that this is precisely what God does.  God transforms the way the world has always been, the way we expect and know the world to be.  God transforms our injustices, our hatreds, our suffering and, in the brilliance of the Easter dawn, shows us what a world would be like with these things removed.

The resurrection is when God imposes God’s logic upon our logic, that has long since ceased working, and reminds us that this world is not yet perfected—but God is getting there.

And in the meantime, hope is what we cling to.  Until that blessed day when Christ has finally redeemed all creation, and all the whole universe has been transformed by resurrection light, we struggle on with God, holding to hope.  That even when things look their bleakest, even when the story seems over, even when the mighty seem to have won, and the powerful seem to be trampling the weak, and evil again seems to be in charge—despite EVERYTHING—God will still have the last word.

Because there is nothing—no power in this creation—greater than God’s love for us, and every creature under heaven.  So our hope, our Easter hope, rests in that love.  That love that moves mountains, shakes the earth, and conquered death.



Easter Vigil: Time Traveling and Tessering

People become priests for different reasons.  Some people crave the power (that is a big let down, let me tell you), some people want to take care of other people.  Me, I wanted to rebuke Jerry Falwell, and also to sing the Exsultet so I could travel through time.

It’s always nice to achieve your childhood dreams.


Here’s what I said at the Easter Vigil.

Easter Vigil—Exsultet

When I was a kid, my greatest wish was to be able to tesser.  I had read, and adored the book by Madeleine L’engle, A Wrinkle in Time, and my greatest wish was to be Meg Murray, a stubborn and feisty preteen girl who travels through time and space to save her father from the creeping forces of evil.  She also has the power to ‘wrinkle time’—Madeleine’s way to describe the 5th dimension, or how a person would create a wormhole to instantaneously move through time and space.  (this is an actual quantum physics thing— which is even better.)

THIS BOGGLED MY MIND and I spent hours in my backyard, in vain, focussing all my mental energy, trying to pull off a tesseract.  I didn’t really want to go anywhere in particular, or any time in particular—I just wanted to no longer be limited by time or space—both of which, I was aware, worked to separate me from people and places I loved.  Wouldn’t it be lovely, I thought, if neither of those things limited me?

Of course, my hours in the backyard staring at that one pine tree came to nought.  I cannot, I confess to you, move through the 5th dimension.

But I do have the Easter Vigil.

For those of us non-time travellers, this Vigil is probably as close as we come to moving through time and space.  This is the night, after all, when we sit in the darkness and recount God’s saving deeds throughout history, and then witness again, how God still redeems and saves us today.  This is the night when the light breaks forth from the utter void once again, and we get to see it.

The Exsultet is the ancient prayer sung at the beginning of this service.  It’s the long chant I sang to the Paschal candle about how great it was, and how brightly it shone, and all that.  This is one of the oldest prayers we have, if not THE oldest.  It was written around the 5th century, with major parts coming from even earlier.  St. Augustine makes reference to it in his writings from the early 4th century.  It’s old.

And, quite frankly, it’s odd.  Aside from the oddness of singing to a candle (which….a bit ago we were conjuring a fire and praying over it so it’s relative) listen to the words we’re saying.  “This is the night, when wickedness is put to flight.”  “this is the night when Christ overcame sin and death, and washed away Adam’s sin.”  “This is the night when you led the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.” “How holy is this night! When to redeem a slave, you gave a son!”

According to the Exsultet, everything is somehow happening at once:  the deliverance of Israel at Passover, the resurrection of Christ, the defeat of death, and the ultimate triumph of God over the forces of evil and sin which continue to hinder us.  In the context of this unusual prayer, all of time, all of space, is condensed into one, glorious, shining night, as God blazes into the darkness, and saves us.

In this glorious night, God defeats the barriers of time and space, as Christ defeats the barrier of death, and we witness again our redemption.  It’s a reminder that God is not limited by anything—not history, not the ravages of time, not distance, and not even death.  God is god of all of it, and overcomes all of it to be present with us.