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Bad at Math, Good at Rapping

Over Thanksgiving, Ben and I went to visit his family. I had introduced my nephew and nieces to the wonder that is Hamilton over the summer, so we were listening and singing along as we cooked the meal. When I broke into “Guns and Ships”** my niece stopped and stared at me, open-mouthed. “I told you, ” I said, “I have a very particular skill set. I am bad at math, but I am good at fast talking.”

The idea that if a person is super-good at one thing, then they’ll be super-good at all things….is not a thing. Just because Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook, does not mean his opinions on, say, fashion, are to be trusted. Likewise, just because the scientific method yields excellent results when answering one set of questions does not mean it will work when answering all questions. Hence, this sermon.

(Which is in notes form, because it was the week after diocesan convention, and I was in recovery mode.)

–If you heard the gospel and thought, “That sounds like a math problem,” you’re not wrong!

–It sounds like one of those word problems from elementary school where one train leaves Chicago at 6pm traveling east, and one train leaves NYC at 6:30pm traveling west, and if Jimmy eats 2 apples on train A, will he finish before he arrives home?

–this style of figuring out problems was, and is, a popular style of disputation among scholars of the scriptures in Jesus’ time. And it’s still used if you are devoutly Jewish and want to study. (Or if you are in a college philosophy seminar.) The Talmud is basically volume after volume of smart guys proposing hypothetical scenarios and then arguing it out. It’s great.

–You propose the most extreme scenario you can imagine, and figure out how the law would apply. It tests the boundaries of any proposed idea. This is great for legal discourse, and if you’re arguing over the laws of the universe in Star Wars. But in terms of faith, it falls short.

–Apologetics (the art of arguing that faith is rational through logic) has a long and storied history, there is a point at which logic and reason stop, and you either have to make a choice to trust, or not.

–Kierkegaard calls this the “leap of faith” or if you’re a fan of the Good Place, the “leap into faith.”

–our relationship with God rests, fundamentally, on something we cannot fully explain, science, or logic out, but that we trust.

–And that is ok!

–Part of what Jesus is trying to tell the Saduccees here is that while we do our best to logic our way out of the problem of what, exactly, the afterlife looks like–the reality is so far greater, so unexpected, and so entirely other that we only get there with God.

–Because we see such a little bit of God’s action in this world, and experience such a little bit of God’s presence, because God works all around us–we often forget that our logicking and best reasoning can only take into account a fraction of God’s existence. So we’re hardly playing with a full deck, ever.

–Our sight, our perspective is necessarily limited. Faith frequently means being humble enough to admit that, and to dwell in that place of not knowing.

–For example, as all these learned men are puzzling over this logic problem proposed in the gospel today, isn’t it fascinating that not a one of them–not the Sadducees, not the bystanders, no one–thinks that the solution might be to ask the WIDOW who she wants to be married to?

–That would solve it right fast, but strangely, no one suggests it. (I like to imagine Martha, standing to the side, pulling Jesus aside afterwards, and pointing this out to him, with no small amount of bemusement)

–Faith is often recognizing what we cannot see, and in being willing to allow God to operate in those blind spots.

–Because if there is one thing we can fully trust, it is that God loves us and wills our good. So even when we cannot see a logical way out, or forward, we can trust that God is still doing God’s thing in the unseen places. God is still going to show up from some far off, distant corner, and gently smack us upside the head, in ways we never saw coming.

And when we put our trust in God, when we acknowledge that God is God, and we aren’t, that God loves us and that love is real and powerful, then we begin to see the unexpected showing up in our lives. We feel the Spirit dancing in new and different ways, once we learn to look for it. And we find that God’s love compels us farther than our logic or reason alone could ever go.

Amen.

** LAFAYETTE!! That’s it. That’s the footnote.

All the saints means all the saints

All Saints is the freaking best. I had come down with a sinus infection, but no illness nor fever on earth was going to prevent me from singing “For All The Saints” as if I could raise Vaughn Williams from the grave myself.** All Saints is when we throw down our level Episcopal best and go nuts in a frenzy of liturgical finery.

Preaching on feasts I like is as difficult as preaching on texts I like. Because it is frowned upon to bounce up and down excitedly in the pulpit and repeat “BUT THIS IS THE BEST. I MEAN, ITS JUST THE BEST!!” and wave your hands around, I generally find myself scrounging pretty hard for actual words to explain the beauty of something.

Here’s what I ended up saying.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

November 3, 2019

All Saints, Year C

Lukan Beatitudes

When I was very little, I remember when the Little Mermaid came out in theaters.  If you were not around a small child at that moment in time, Little Mermaid—the animated Disney film, was roughly comparable in cultural scale to Frozen was a few years ago.  It was HUGE.  It was life changing to small children of all ages.  All you had to do was look sideways at a child of a certain age, and they would burst into “Part of your World”.  

And I….I took it as somewhat of a personal insult.

I liked the movie.  The singing was fun.  But I took it as somewhat of a personal insult that the villainous character became a black-haired woman when she wanted to be particularly sneaky and destroy the heroine.  This was just one more in a long line of injustices that I felt Disney was responsible for: the parade of blonde heroines stretching back decades.  (Snow White, I felt didn’t count since that movie was too terrifying for me to sit through.) Even as a child, I was the movies I watched, the dolls I played with, I wanted those characters to look like me, and I noticed when they didn’t.  I wanted to see myself reflected around me, so I could have an idea of what my life could be.  (Clearly, singing mermaid princess was not in the cards.)

Representation—who we see reflected and celebrated—matters.  It matters to children who are trying to figure out what and who to be, and it matters to adults who sometimes need affirmation that their choices make sense.  The more variety of people we see celebrated around us, the more readily we can embrace the variety of different ways God works in our lives.

And on All Saint’s Day, it is maybe most important to talk about this, because saints have been the way that the church holds up models of what a well-lived human life can be.  The saints are those people who show us what a human life lived in dedicated faith looks like, and they are as widely diverse as humanity itself.  Because sainthood was something conferred by the institutional church, but also a status that responded to popular demand, even during the earliest times, expressing devotion to a saint was one of the very few ways the average churchgoer in the Middle Ages had of expressing their own opinions—out of the control of either the secular or sacred authorities.  

So, in some way, the saints and their popularity through the ages give us a glimpse of the Spirit working in people’s lives in a fairly unfiltered way.

For example: In Italy, a girl named Margaret was born to a noble family.  She was born with a severely curved spine, blind, and with dwarfism.  Her parents, thinking that they had suffered a curse, disowned her and consigned her to a walled-off room in the castle.  When she was 13, they heard of a visiting Franciscan monk who could accomplish healings.  So they wrapped Margaret up and took her to Castello, in the hopes of a cure.  However, by the time they got there, the priest was gone—so they abandoned her there to wander the streets.  

Margaret, however, found her way.  She learned to beg from some local nuns.  She started a small school for the street children and she became well known in the town as a holy person.  And when she died, and the parish priest followed the custom of not burying a disabled person on consecrated ground—the town’s population became so indignant that they basically rioted at her funeral, until the priest relented.

Dedication to Margaret grew from that day, most ardently among people who were physically disabled themselves, who saw themselves in her.  Margaret, and her life, were held up and honored as a clear example of how God works through all of us—every one of us, even when church doctrine itself argued against her—the devotion to St. Margaret of Castello still pushed the institution to reconsider, and provided a mirror for many of God’s children to see themselves as gifted and special.

In the diversity of the saints, we see the diversity of God’s work in the world.  We see God’s call to people who were old, and who were young.  People who were rich and people who were poor.  People who were powerful and people who were not.  People who loved crowds and people who walled themselves up in tiny rooms.  People who were black and white and gay and straight and everyone everywhere.  In all times and places.  And so they present for us images of what God’s call can look like for us when it comes.  Because when we look at the saints, we can see that everyone—absolutely everyone!  gets tapped on the shoulder by God at some point.  

We see the journey of faithfulness to God in this world is not just one we get to make if we are willing to do amazing, incredible things—it can mean all sorts of different things.  We might be called to head for the stake for our faith like Polycarp.  Or give away all our money like Francis.  But we also might be called to be a rich and powerful queen so that the poor might have a protector, like Margaret of Scotland.  Or we might be called to teach the poorest of the poor in Georgia, like Anna Alexander.  Or become a politician and fight for the sick and the left behind, like Frances Perkins.  Or we might be called to be an academic, and awaken the world to injustice, like Pauli Murray. 

The point is—there’s no one way to live a faithful life.  There’s no one way to follow the call of God.  The saints are living proof that when God’s spirit shines through humanity, we diffract it like light through a prism.  We, each of it, respond to God’s call to us in our own way, and building on those who have led the way before us.

And so, today we remember and celebrate the whole array of the communion of saints.  Those who stand in God’s presence and cheer us on as we walk our own path in this life.  Those who give us models to look to, those who provide us companionship along the way, and the comfort of knowing that others have walked this path before us.  We are encouraged and surrounded by so great a cloud of varied, diverse, complicated, and wonderful witnesses as we do Christ’s work in the world.  And no matter how we live that out, we have a saint to walk with us.
Amen.

**We sing all the verses as the good Lord intended. And if you do not well up with emotion during the “But yet there glows a yet more glorious day…”, when the harmony moves back to unison– then I don’t even know what you’re doing. That right there is the Finale of Les Miz in hymn form. It’s glorious.

Stewardship Roundup

I like talking about stewardship. This is not because of my childhood experiences of money in church. (Protip: don’t put the 15 year old who keeps showing up to church on the Stewardship Committee. This will frustrate and confuse them.)

It’s more because when we talk about stewardship well, it becomes a way to live incarnationally, which is not something we get to do most days. But framing our lives as an exercise in caring for what God has entrusted to us is a powerful way to take the heady ideas we discuss in church out the door into our lives during the week.

So here’s my Stewardship Roundup sermon from Oct 20.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

October 20, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 24,  Year C

Luke, Stewardship, Baptism 

When I was confirmed, in 8th grade, my godmother drove down to our house in Pennsylvania.  And the morning of the service, she pulled me aside and handed me a new purificator—fresh from Almy, the church supply company.  “Now that you’re officially an adult in the church” she said, “you need to know that you give a part of yourself to every parish you attend.  That’s part of adulthood—you leave your mark on the church and hopefully make it better.  So I got you this to give to this parish in order to get you started in that discipline.” 

Over the past 18 months, as I’ve been familiarizing myself with this parish’s story, I find myself constantly amazed by the great cloud of witnesses who came before us in this place.  Unlike many parishes in the first colonies, we have never been rich.  That wasn’t in the cards for us.  We started out small and poor, and mostly continued that way for one reason or another.  The parish took 3 steps forward, and then two steps back.  No sooner did the vestry would celebrate finally building a new addition, then struggle to retire the associated debt for years. We never had the deep, deep pockets of other churches, and at times, you can tell that caused stress. 

However, what you can also see from reading the history, is the ways in which this parish always did what it felt called to do.  Whereas the other parishes grew used to having one person foot most of the bills, then had to regroup when that funding source dried up—St. John’s always made its way through the dedication and generosity of a lot of stubborn, slightly rebellious, yet eminently faithful congregants who worked hard and made sure the parish could follow Jesus in this world.  Through their contributions, this parish has lasted and endured and flourished through the years.  People like Jennie McGraw Fiske, who gave generously to furnish the expanded church in the 1860s.  The Ogdens, who sat right there, beneath where the plaque now is, and all served faithfully, giving of their time and energy.  Connie Cook, who gave of her expertise as a lawyer, keeping care of our financial and legal affairs, and who sued the bishop and diocese of Central New York to make sure that the bishop recognized women priests on time.  So that generations of girls to come would know that they, too, were welcome at the altar of this place.

We have always had people here who gave of themselves to ensure we could build the Kingdom here, and we are blessed to steward their legacy for a while, while we are here.  

These past few weeks, I’ve been talking a lot about faith and generosity.  Faith, I said about a month ago—isn’t quite blind trust, or naive denial of what’s going on.  Faith means beginning to see what God is calling into shape, and putting our resources towards making that happen, even as the world is spinning chaotically around us. As people of faith, we’re called to invest in God’s dream of what the redeemed world will be, and use what we’ve been given to create it now.  And that requires, as we talked about last week, coming to recognize the gifts that God has given us.  Coming to name and utilize all the blessings God has given to us to use, even those aspects of ourselves we might not be used to seeing as blessings.  

All of which leads to this one question, which is: how will you use what you have been given to help St. John’s live into God’s dream for us?  How will you shape this place through your gifts, your talents, your work?  

The parable of the unjust judge that we heard today (and you possibly wondered if I had forgotten) is another tricky one that confounds our expectations.  Widows are generally thought to be meek, mild, and charming—this one is apparently out threatening officers of the court.  The Greek used for what the judge fears from her is apparently a boxing term—he’s worried she will blacken his eye.  Which…is an image.  And judges are supposed to be fair, righteous, impartial.  This is a vision of a world turned upside down and inside out.  And yet, Jesus tells us, when that happens, because it will—your job is to take what you have and keep at it.  Keep going.  With whatever you have, even if it’s just your sheer persistence and your presence.  Keep going.  And somehow, in God’s view of things, that will yield a difference.

But whatever we have, even if all we have is our presence and our persistence, if we use it for the glory of God, then the reign of God comes closer.  You’ve been given a estimate of giving card in your bulletin today.  And I invite you to prayerfully consider how you will give from what you have been given to enable God’s reign to take shape over this coming year here at St. John’s.  Maybe you’re being called to commit to giving financially, consistently for the first time.  Maybe you’re called to taking on a new ministry within the church.  Maybe you’re being called to a greater faithfulness in prayer, in presence here.  Maybe you’re being called to a greater financial commitment than in the past, or some combination of the above.  

However God is calling you, listen to that call.  Show up for that call.  

Because this community has been indelibly shaped by the faithfulness of those who have come before us.  Those who worked tirelessly, those who gave generously, and those who shaped us by their very presence.  You, just through your presence here this morning, have already shaped the story of this place.  God has brought you here, and so I believe God is calling you to something.  When we go, our legacy will be the ways in which we gave  of what we had to shape this place.  This new soul we welcome into the church this morning will know of us through our ability to be faithful to God’s call to us to be good stewards. One day, he will look around at these walls and know us, not by how smart we were, or how brave, or how wise, but how faithful we were with what God has entrusted to us. How well we cared for the legacy that we have in this place.

And one day, he too can care for it for those who come after him.

Amen

Gratitude

There was a recent thread on a FB colleague group about sharing sermons. The consensus among this particular group was that SERMONS SHOULD NEVER BE SHARED, which….surprised me.

I’ve known clergy who didn’t make public their manuscripts because they either didn’t have them (which is a feat I cannot pull off) or because they strongly believed that a sermon is a unique oral event that paired the Spirit’s inspiration with what the hearer takes in, and thus cannot, nor should not be replicated.

I’ve also heard about the concern over plagarism, and also had my own sermons stolen a time or two***. But not sharing the sermon text at all? That seems….like a definite choice.

There’s the accessibility thing, for one. A fair number of the folks listening to me over the years have been hard of hearing. And wireless microphones detest high pitched voices. So making a full text available is a good option for when people cannot hear you the first time.****. Or when they’re distracted by small kids. Or when they can’t make it that Sunday. Or for whatever reason.

Also? It’s a good idea for when people aren’t sure about what they will get at your church, and they want to do some scouting. It’s 2019, and lots of scary stuff gets passed off in the name of Christianity these days. Going blind into a church service is a terrifying thing to do. Give people the reassurance of having an idea of what they will hear from the pulpit.

Every time I walk up into the pulpit, I pause for a moment, and look out at the people sitting in the pews. I always say a silent prayer of thanks for the people God has brought to church this morning, and gratitude for having the honor of speaking to them about such holy and important things.

To preach is a privilege. We get to talk about the most important things in the world. That shouldn’t be kept quiet, but shared abundantly. At least I think so.

***Please don’t. Come on, y’all are smart people who can write your own sermons. I believe in you! And if you are using something I write here, then it’s not hard to cite me. And great shall be your reward in heaven, etc.
****Until such time as we destroy the patriarchal hold on the A/V Industry, which WE WILL.

Anyway, somewhat related, here’s what I said on Sunday.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

October 13, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 23

  • Gratitude can be a tricky thing.
  • When I worked at the day school—elite, private school for the privileged young children of Kansas City, there was a big cultural emphasis on gratitude. It was understood that we had to teach gratitude, so that the kids would grow up to be good, ethical people.  So we sang a lot of songs about being thankful, and being grateful.
  • But I don’t know that this was enough?  For myself, when I was a chlid, and I was of a rebellious nature—when a parent would instruct me to “be grateful”…often I would just dig in harder. How?  What did that look like?  Can an emotional state be conjured that way?
  • In today’s gospel, we often read it as being about gratitude:  there are ten lepers, and Jesus heals them.  Then, only one returns to offer thanks—a Samaritan.
  • Now—there is a lot we don’t know here.  First—Jesus told them to go show themselves to the priests, and …they do.  The Samaritan, on the flip side, doesn’t have easy access to his religious hierarchy.  In a sense, when he comes to JESUS to give thanks, what he’s doing is implicitly recognizing Jesus as his religious authority.  
  • Also, gratitude is a demonstrated activity, but it is also an emotional state. While Jesus faults people for actions all the time, he usually doesn’t fault people for strictly internal emotional states. 
  •   So perhaps the better question for us here is not why don’t the others feel appropriately grateful—but in what ways can we cultivate gratitude?
  • Gratitude—to be clear—is a wonderful thing.  It keeps us humble, it makes us cognizant of what we have, and how we might share.  It is a wonderful way to live.
  • And yet, it is not really an emotional state that can be magicked up through command.  Like love—you can’t turn to someone and tell them “Feel grateful!” and expect it to happen.  You have to cultivate it.
  • Gratitude starts, I think, when we can be very clear about the things we have been given.
  • To some extent—this is something all of us know how to do:  the old make a list of your blessings.  I thank God for my pets, for my house, for my TV.  Kids are taught to do this early.
  • It’s not difficult to see things we like as blessings from God.  But what about other things?  Our likes, our dislikes?  Our preferences, our identity?  Our experiences, our perspective, our uniqueness?
  • When Ben and I hosted our nieces and nephew over the summer, they were surprised to discover that at our house, Ben does the cleaning and the dishwashing, while I do the cooking.  This wasn’t something they had seen before. We didn’t set out to teach them a lesson about the limitation of gender roles—it just sort of came up, because Ben really likes and is good at! cleaning and organizing.  (He has decided opinions on dishwashers.)  I, on the other hand….do not.  This is not my skill set.  But I am fond of cooking.  And I am grateful every day that I found a partner that both enjoys eating what I cook, and cleaning up afterwards.  
  • Part of how I learned gratitude here was recognizing what I didn’t have.  It’s very easy to feel grateful for someone’s gift that I lack.  And when I can recognize that I can help others with my own gifts, then I can begin to grow gratitude for that as well.
  • Beginning to notice is the way to build gratitude. This concentrated, defined attention—the sort that Simone Weil calls the most basic sort of prayer.  Noticing what I have that is unique, and also what others have—even in those moments when it seems like the uniqueness is somewhat pointless.  
  • I mentioned unique perspectives earlier.  That, too, is a place to build gratitude.  There are times when someone needs to hear exactly what we have been through and what our experience is.  And there are times when we need to hear from others.  This focused attention that builds gratitude needs to go both ways.  
  • After all, God has provided us with all that we need to follow God’s call.  Everything we need is right here.  When we approach what we have in a spirit of attention, and curiosity, when we cultivate the sort of gratitude that sees God as the source of all our life, then we will inevitably be astounded at all that God has gifted us with.

Better vision

My brother got me hooked on a podcast recently called Behind the Bastards. (It uses, uh, not always suitable for work language. Clearly.). The premise of the podcast is one journalist who thoroughly researches various figures and ideas that contribute to our current morass of suffering, then tells that story to a Los Angeles comedian. Of course, the heavy hitters are covered–Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, but also more esoteric figures like the Guy who First Made a Multi-Level Marketing Scheme, and the origins of the John Birch Society.

What gets emphasized over and over is that human suffering is caused not by outlandishly evil people, but by a few average people making unethical choices, and a whole lot of other people not knowing quite how to stop them while remaining polite.

A reoccurring theme in the show is the idea of the power of positive thinking. This is a uniquely American heresy that reappears in a lot of places, from pyramid schemes to questionable wellness gurus, to the current Orange Individual in the White House. We’re a country founded by people who believed in the possibility of something better, so we really like the notion that believing is the key to success.

So, I wrote a sermon about that. And Key and Peele. As one does.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

October 6, 2019

Proper 22, Year C

Luke 17:5-10

There is a great comedy sketch from the tv show Key and Peele that comes to mind in light of today’s gospel.***  An NBA player has just made the tournament-winning shot across the court to win the title.  He’s beside himself with jubilation, and he is interviewed by the sportscaster in the locker room, post-game.  “How are you feeling? Must be feeling pretty great after that shot.  HOw’d you do it?” the sportscaster asks.  “OH!  I just believed in myself!  Just goes to show!  If you have faith and believe, you can do anything!”  Sports caster smiles, and encourages him. Player continues “You can do ANYTHING.  You just have to BELIEVE.  You can run faster than a train!  You can jump off buildings! You can fly!  Gravity will not affect you!” Sportscaster now looks a bit concerned—“well, but that’s a metaphor, and …”  Player chimes back in, still very pumped up: “NO!  It’s not a metaphor!  Literally!  You can do anything you believe in! Kids, ages 8 to 12!  You can run across busy highways!  You can turn yourself into a car with the power of YOUR MIND because you have not lost your childlike innocence!  (Sportscaster now looks positively panicked) Follow the sound of my voice, head for the nearest freeway and BELIEVE!!!”  

The screen then smash cuts to a very sober NBA player at a press conference “I would like to first apologize to all the families that lost children, because of my badly considered remarks.  I have done some research, and “literally” and metaphorically” did not mean what I thought they meant.  I apologize and will do better in future.”

Anyway.  The idea that you can do whatever you set your mind to, provided you believe in it hard enough.  Even if you don’t take it so far as deciding to flout gravity and leap off your roof—that’s a pretty prevalent idea in our world.  The power of positive thinking!  Think positive and good things will happen!  The law of attraction and that whole line of thought.  Marianne Williamson made a whole career for herself out of this idea—that faith and the power of thought can manifest our reality.  

The basic concept is that when we think positive thoughts, and control our minds enough, then we can more or less control what happens in our lives.  Happy people create happy things that happen to them.  And vice versa. 

The big draw of this is that it gives us an easy way to control the world.  I’m in control of what happens to me!  I just have to think the Right Things!  I can avoid loss and sorrow and pain if I just do all of this right—it’s all in my hands!  It’s a very reassuring thought.  The connection between the mind, spirit and body is real, and we can often see the effects, so believing that we can control the whole thing makes some sense.  

But, as with almost everything—it’s really way more complicated.  There are some ethical problems with this—namely that it obliquely implies that if something bad has happened to you, then you weren’t being positive enough.  And if you are sad, or struggling, then you should work harder to turn that around.  For people with mental illness, or who face tragedies outside of their control, encouragement to stay positive can feel like one more thing that they’re failing at.  

There are times when the way we talk about faith in God can sort of merge into this, too.  Think of the healing stories, where Jesus asks the person if they want to be healed, then says, “Your faith has made you well.”  Because of the proliferation of this mantra of positive thinking in our own culture, because of how prevalent it is to assume that if we just believe hard enough, we can do anything—it can be easy to hear Jesus saying “well, you believed hard enough, so I HAD to fix you!”  

But faith, as we talked about last week, is again, more complicated that that.  Think again of Jeremiah buying that field as he’s about to be carried into exile.  Our faith in God isn’t a mechanism of control, and it isn’t a way we can always get what we want.  In fact, it is mostly a way we learn to lean into not having control.  

We said last week that faith was holding onto God’s vision of the world as it is meant to be, even as we grapple with the world in all its current brokenness. But the emphasis in that is on God’s vision.  In our faith, we are meant to grow daily to see the world as God sees it, not so much as we see it.  So, our growing faith is basically a constant exercise in handing over control of our wants and needs to God, because God has wrapped up all we could ever want in God’s dream of the world.  

Our call to faith, then, is not a mechanism of control—it’s not a way to get God to perform miracles for us or manifest tricks on demand.  Rather, it’s a gradual learning to recognize that we are actually not in control of anything at all—instead, God is in control of everything, and with God, all things are possible—even our abundant life.  When we have faith, we can see mountains—but only because we finally recognize that it’s not our command doing it—it’s God, and God can routinely bring about those things that seem entirely improbable to us.  

When we grow in faith, when we learn to see our lives and all of creation as God sees it, with the same boundless love and care, then we will see mountains move and impossible things come to pass.  When we learn to trust the almighty care of God working through our lives to make the world whole again, then we will see things happen we never could have imagined—but not because we believed hard enough or thought hard enough or prayed well enough—just because that is the nature of God in Christ—to love all of creation back together, and when we have the eyes of faith, then we can see that happening in our own lives too.

Amen.

***Just go to the link and watch it. They do it way better than I explain it.

In which I fantasy-cast a teen drama with biblical prophets

I was very excited when I wrote this sermon. I had a week off preaching last week (aside from the funeral) and was so pumped to get back in the pulpit. I had the privilege of hearing the Very Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas speak, and so my brain was all aflutter with new ideas and thoughts (how we know things is constrained by white supremacy! British Anglicanism’s weird mythos is kinda racist! Deconstruct and decolonize the formative narratives!) And so I was excited to put that into a sermon.

Then I stood up to preach at 8am, and discovered that I HATED this sermon. Had I been asleep when I wrote it? Where were the transitions? Did the computer rebel again? What on EARTH possessed me to write this?

I spent a good 15 minutes between the services amending and amplifying the text, and decided, in the words of my preaching prof, to walk the dog proudly, even if I doubted its beauty.

It never fails, but that whenever I think “Wow, this sermon is HORRID”, that’s the one that parishioners volunteer that they adore. Either this means that my judgment is lacking (very possible) or it means that the Holy Spirit is going to do her thing regardless of my ability or lack thereof (also pretty evident.). And sure enough, several people told me they LOVED this sermon.

Me, I love the following: listening to wildly-smart theologians, imagining which teen archetypes the prophets would inhabit, and that the Holy Spirit always takes over when I’m doubtful.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

September 29, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 20, Year C

Jeremiah

Were a person to cast a high school drama with the biblical prophets, then Jeremiah would be the emo theater kid.  (Isaiah would be the student body president, Ezekiel would be the weird kid in the corner no one ever talked to but everyone sort of worried about, and Amos would be head of the AV club.)  But Jeremiah would definitely be the theater kid.  He’s not bad, and he’s really a great guy.  He just HAS AN AWFUL LOT OF FEELINGS SOMETIMES< YOU GUYS.  

In some circles, he’s known as the Weeping Prophet.  Jeremiah gives us both Lamentations—an extended poem about the destruction of Jerusalem in an acrostic (one section for each successive letter of the Hebrew Alphabet.  (See?  This guy would EAT UP the sadder parts of Rent.)  And he gives us the very emotive book of Jeremiah—where he is either very Angry ( see chapter 7, where Jeremiah is standing outside the Temple in Jerusalem, telling everyone they’re Doing Things Wrong) or Very Sad (see last week! Where the Babylonians are about to invade) or Very Both (where he accuses God of making him a prophet when he doesn’t want to be and “being to me as a deceitful brook whose waters dry up.” Jeremiah just really has A LOT OF FEELINGS.  And considering the fact that he’s tasked with shepherding the Israelites through the fall of the kingdom, the Babylonian Exile, and the destruction of everything they thought they understood—he’s entitled.  

But today, Jeremiah takes a bit of a detour, and I confess that as much as I adore Jeremiah (and I really do) that this is my favorite part of this book.  Jeremiah BUYS SOME LAND.  That’s it!  That’s what he does!  It’s so great! 

Now, that probably doesn’t seem so exciting, or important, or even enough to write a sermon on, but a few things to bear in mind.  This is the end of Jeremiah’s story.  This is the last we know of him.

Everyone by now has been carried off into exile, along with the whole rest of Israel.  He is sitting in jail, along with his deposed king.  The government is gone, the Temple is destroyed, Jerusalem has fallen, the Babylonian armies have surrounded the city and are laying siege.  Everything is ruined.  And Jeremiah, sitting in jail, takes this moment, to buy a plot of land in Jerusalem.  He seals the deed in a jar and buries it.  He tells his friend back home about it.  Does everything properly and by the book. And that’s basically the last thing we hear from Jeremiah, before he’s either carried off into exile, or killed.

Here’s the thing about the land purchase–it’s not an act of denial. Jeremiah knows exactly what’s happening because he’s spent the last 35 chapters warning anyone who would listen that the Babylonians are coming and they’re going to destroy the city.  Jeremiah knows he’s never going home.  His kids probably aren’t going home either.  They’re stuck in a foreign land, in exile.  But Jeremiah also knows that someday, this disaster will be over, the Exile will end, and the people will be able to go back to Jerusalem to resume worship and so he buys the land as a promise for that day.  He won’t live to see it, but he knows it will come, because he knows God has promised that it will. Jeremiah has faith.

I heard the Very Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas speak about where we are in terms of American history a few days ago, and she mentioned that one of the chief calls to institutions like the church is that of moral imagination.  We have to remind people that what currently is, is not how the world is meant to be.  And she used the image of the slaves who never gained their freedom, lived and died in bondage—and yet built a cultural world of dignity and resistance anyway.  Because they could envision what freedom would mean even in the midst of what their reality was. They had a Jeremiah-type faith.

Faith means holding on to the vision of the world to come, even as we grapple with the fact that our own world is manifestly not that.  It means living as if we are already in God’s kingdom, even as we are surrounded by things that are so broken.  So every day, we try to live with justice, mercy, and love, because we know that in God’s reign those things will be supreme, even if right now they don’t.  Each day, we treat one another, and especially the marginalized and the oppressed as beloved images of God with infinite worth, because that’s how we know the reign of God works—even if we know we live in a world that does not see everyone as worthwhile and precious.  But the more we enact the reign of God in our lives, the more it becomes real—both to us, as we grow used to living this way, and in the world.  

When we live with this sort of faith, efficacy doesn’t really matter.  Or, it matters less.  Faith in the reign of God doesn’t require us to obsess over what action we can take that will have the greatest impact, or whether what we do will yield measurable results.  When we focus on living with this moral imagination, with this daily sort of way of life, then we can safely leave it to God to bring about results.  We don’t have to worry about that part—we just worry about treating one another with dignity, working for justice, and buying our plot of land, as it were.  We live out our faith.  We buy the land for the day we know God is bringing.  We live out that reality now.  God takes care of the results.

We aren’t told what the rich man’s deal was, in the parable. But I wonder if what kept the rich man from helping his impoverished neighbor was this anxiety about results?  We aren’t told what his issue is—but we do know from context that he knows the Lazarus (he must!) and that the rich man has many regrets by the end of his life’s journey.  “Look,” says Abraham, “You had Moses and the prophets.  Let them listen to them.”  In other words, you knew the whole time what you had to do.  You knew what love and justice looked like–you knew what the reign of God was. You just had to do it.  And what’s interesting is even after death, the rich man never does it–he never speaks directly to Lazarus.  He orders him around—he tries to get Lazarus to wait on him (!!!) but even as he’s reaping the consequences of his actions, the rich man can’t figure it out.  I picture Abraham as being rather put out by the end of this.  Look, Lazarus is RIGHT HERE. You can start treating him with dignity right now! You can SEE HIM.   Don’t worry about whether learning his name will create a culture of dependency, or whether giving him some food will teach him to beg instead of work. Don’t worry about anything else—just do the thing because it’s the right thing to do.

Just buy the land.  God will bring forth the kingdom’s reign of justice and equity in its fullness, when all creation will be healed, and the whole earth will be redeemed and renewed—and whether we live to see it or not, we can participate in that by doing our part.  Living like that is right now.  

And though we may not see that day in its fullness, who knows but that our small actions of mercy, justice and love will plant the seeds for that time to come?

Amen

On Funerals, Patriarchs, and Ecumenism

On Saturday, we had a funeral for one of Ithaca’s major town figures. He shuffled off this mortal coil at the elegant age of 95, and spent his entire life serving his community. The church was packed.

Because his entire family was Roman Catholic, few of the people who came were Episcopalian, but because Jerry was, the family thought it was very important that he be given an Episcopal service.

I adore funerals because of things like this. Funerals (when they’re not traumatic) are one of the few chances we have to be public theologians; to speak into people’s lives when they would never usually darken the door of your church. And also–really, the BCP funeral liturgies are second to none. They are stellar.

I don’t usually post my sermon notes here, for a few reasons. First, I don’t usually write out my homilies. Much depends on how the congregation seems to be hearing me, and I tend to adjust on the fly.

Also, while I don’t preach the same sermon at every funeral–I do try to get to the same ideas at every funeral. That the way we loved this person spoke to us of how God loves us, that this love we know testifies to how life can endure beyond the grave, and how surely if we love someone so much, how much more does God love them, and will keep them in safety even now?

Funerals, after all, are a remembrance of the resurrection. Even at the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia–which is probably one of the most radical statements we make. That refusal to permit death–in any of its myriad forms–to have the last word, even on days when it seems most triumphant.

Here’s what I said–and I’m grateful that we got to proclaim resurrection in ways large and small on Saturday.

Surprised we’re here?  Let me explain. We at St. John’s had the honor to be Jerry’s spiritual home for years. 

Jerry married a RC woman, and agreed to raise the kids RC.  Because those were the rules (and still are).  But he just kept on coming to the Episcopal church.  First Grace, in Syracuse, then this one.  He’d drop the kids off at Immaculate Conception, down the street, then hop over here.  

Now, when his kids told me this story, I was FASCINATED, and I still am, frankly. Because I didn’t get the sense that Jerry’s decision to come on down the street to us implied judgment of the rest of his family’s Catholicism–indeed, he took them to church! And when he became unable to bring himself here, they brought him! No, I think something else was going on.

Every week.  For years.  No matter what.  New prayerbooks, old prayer books, new priests, people came and went.  Jerry would show up on Sunday, at 8am and come to mass.  Because he was an Episcopalian, and That was What You Did when you were Episcopalian.

In politics, he oversaw the Tompkins County Republican Party, and worked with Connie Cook (another parishioner of blessed memory).  Til his dying day, he was a Republican, win, lose, or draw, because again—that was what you did, because that was Who You Were.

Even as the decades wore on, and the social landscape changed around him: party politics shifted, priests came and went, trends rose and fell, Jerry never strayed from a clear-sighted notion of who he was, and what he was loyal to.  It didn’t matter what anyone else did, or what the entire rest of his party shifted to (I don’t have to remind you that a Republican Party that runs Connie Cook is a far cry from the Republican Party of today.)

What stands out to me in these stories is a person who had a particular sort of faith. Not faith in a fad or another person, or a ideology, but the certain sort of stalwart faith in what was right, and therefore, what he himself was called to do. Everyone else could do what they would, and that was fine, but he was going to do as he was called.

And I think that was the source of his eternal optimism–I wonder if that was the wellspring of the hope he found in his life, the force that made him the coach who would say when their sports team would lose or win!—well, we’ll get them next time.  And when the Republican Party faced defeat after defeat–we’ll figure it out next year. Hope was always on the horizon, because you just had to be the person you were created to be.

Today, we celebrate Jerry’s life, and all the ways in which he gifted this world while he was here.  I think most of his gift of steadfast faith—-in his quiet, resolute way of being that always found hope around the corner.  That sort of quiet steadfastness speaks deeply of God, I think.  The God who consistently meets us where we are, and bears with us, in ways large and small, and promises us that a new, brighter day is just over the horizon. Once we listen to that still small voice that urges us on, that sees in us the people that God created us to be.  

I think Jerry, in his loyalty and his faith, showed us a glimpse of the love of God in how he lived his life.  And I know that the Christ he followed so faithfully now welcomes him home as a beloved and long-awaited child.