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Incremental Faith

I very much want to either force the entirety of my parish to watch all of The Good Place immediately, or else to speed up time so I can reasonably preach on the series finale without spoiling it.

However, the likelihood of either of these things happening is small. This is too bad, because The Good Place offers rich metaphors for our understanding of Scripture. (Peter is the Jason Mendoza of the disciples. I will brook no disagreement.)

I was pondering the finale (which is masterful) when I wrote this sermon but I haven’t spoiled anything. So if you haven’t seen this show yet, go directly to Netflix and fix your life.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

February 23, 2020

Last Sunday before Lent, Year A

Matthew 17

—where do stories end?

—we want the work to be accomplished all at once, with a stunning climax.  Boom! 

—Usually, work of faith is slower, harder. We get moments of transfiguration, and then have to go back to the valley, and walk awkwardly to Jerusalem and die.

—Work of faith is in the day to day living.  In the minute decisions.  It’s a practice, not an accomplishment.

Welcome to the Last Sunday in Epiphany—a strange beast in several ways.  It’s the last day we can say Alleluia for a while.  It’s the last time we will break out the green hangings until the summer!  

And it is when we always read the story of the Transfiguration, even though we have a feast of that, and it is in August, not today.  

This Sunday is ever so slightly odd, and yet here it is.  In many ways, this Sunday appears to want to be the climax of the Jesus story—rather than a mid point.  

If this all were being scripted by Disney, if this were one of those movies where a ragtag gang of munchkins learn a sport and triumph at the last moment thanks to pluck and a great speech from the coach, then this would be the final scene.  Jesus has assembled a motley group of disciples from all over—tax collectors, rebels, disaffected layabouts, fishermen—and taught them for 3 years.  They have now started going out on their own, preaching and teaching, and they are finally figuring out who Jesus is maybe.

And now, Jesus goes up the mountain in Galilee, and is transfigured into the image of his glory in front of his disciples.  Their faith and hard work has paid off—now they can see that he is who they believed.  Miracle!  Wonderful!  You can hear the heavenly chorus singing in the background as the LITERAL heavenly chorus appears to chat with Jesus.

But then it’s over.  Then it disappears again.   The transfigured reality that the disciples saw for a moment isn’t the culmination of their work—it’s just a moment on the way,  It’s an interlude on the path to the cross, and resurrection.

You can sort of see the disciples’ disappointment at that.  They would like Transfigured Jesus to be permanent—to be the sort of conquering superhero that their world needs right now.  Perhaps that’s why Peter exclaims—“Oh great! We’ll build some booths so you guys can stick around!” Peter thinks this heralds the kingdom of God—that all the teaching and preaching up unit now was prelude, and here is God’s kingdom and it will be bright and shiny with dead guys floating in the sky!  Peter is HERE FOR IT.  This is it!  This is what they’ve been waiting for!

But then—  Moses and Elijah disappear.  Jesus is back to normal.  And they have to go back down the mountain.  The momentary flash of divine inspiration didn’t solve everything after all.  Jesus is still talking about dying in Jerusalem, the world is still a messy place.  The disciples aren’t getting a Disney ending.

Many of the narratives we tell ourselves about the world revolve around these Disney endings, or silver bullets.  If we could just figure out the right answer, everything would fall into place in a snap. If we could just say the right thing to the person we’re struggling with, everything would be all right.  If we could just do the right thing in this instance, then our issues would be permanently solved!

But this is not how the world works, Jesus reminds us.  Jesus appearing to the disciples in glory does not fix anything.  It’s almost a misdirect, because his real moment of glory is the resurrection after the ultimate shame and humiliation of the cross.  The disciples, in this moment, get what they were expecting—the triumphant king coming in glory, consulting with ancient sages and prophets, but discover that it does not, actually, accomplish what they thought it would.

Faith, after all, is not in single moments.  Faith is not worked out in a single moment of decision or in accomplishment where all becomes clear; faith is a daily practice of growing with God, on a moment by moment basis.  We do not participate in the work of God in one decisive action that sets right creation—we participate in the work of God through our daily efforts….and failures, and repentence, and then renewed efforts.  We participate through the mundane details of our lives, as Christ accompanies us in our living—not just in the moments out of time that transform us.  

Despite all our desire for the one big fix, the one deus ex machina moment that solves everything, and makes us perfect, life with Christ is incremental.  The disciples don’t get airlifted out of Galilee from that mountaintop—they have to go back down the hillside, in awkward silence, and face the events to come, and still make their hard choices.  Our baptismal faith is practiced one step at a time.  We figure one thing out only to be faced by another issue.  We work hard and solve one problem only to discover that it was covering up several more.  Victories, when they come, are often more transient than we would like, and try as we might, we do not seem to be able to pull everything together, even for a little while. 

But there is deep hope in having a faith predicated in a journey, over a magical mountaintop triumph.  Peter, James and John sort of whiffed their mountaintop response.  And the other disciples were left out.  But as the journey continues, they get more chances to respond to God’s presence.  To participate in what God is doing before their eyes.  And they manage to.

As Christians of the incremental journey, we need never fear that it’s too late for us, that we missed our mountaintop, or that we made the wrong decision and it’s all over for us now.  God is with us on this journey, offering us so many chances to participate, to try again, to recognize what’s before us.  Our walk with Christ doesn’t limit us to a single opportunity to do good, or join with God to find salvation—our walk with Christ offers us infinite opportunities to do that.  Over and over again.  

We can never fear that we have wandered too far astray or wasted too much time—God always walks beside us, and since that is true, we will always be on the path to redemption, we just have to realize it.  Christ always walks beside us, down the mountain, asking us to take this moment, and then, maybe this one.  But always, always, there’s another moment to come.  


Signs and Laws and whatnot

There’s a sort-of joke among clergy, that once you run out of preaching material that starts “When I was in seminary”, then you have to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and then that should carry you through til retirement.

I have been to Israel/Palestine four times now, and I rarely talk about it from the pulpit. I can count the number of times I’ve done so on both hands. It’s not because the experience hasn’t been transformative; it’s the reverse. For me, being there and spending time with Palestinian Christians has so shaped my understanding of Christianity and what Christ calls us to be that I have trouble distilling that into short images that go into sermons. It’s a worldview, and not so much an anecdote.

However, as I am just back again, I took this opportunity to talk about some of the things I saw and possibly how they reflect our reality on this side of the pond.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

February 16, 2020

Epiphany 6, Year A


Each time I return to the Holy Land, there are more laws.  Sometimes the laws make sense (“No drones in churches!”), some times they make cultural sense (“No shorts in churches!”), and some times, they just don’t make any sense at all. 
On this trip, as on my last trip, when you pass into Bethlehem, you see enormous red signs, by the roadside, written in Hebrew, Arabic, and English.  The signs proclaim ominously that if you take this turn-off, you are entered Area A—controlled by the Palestinian Authority.  “This is a danger to life, and illegal for citizens of Israel.”  the sign says. 

Despite the sign’s tone, Bethlehem is hardly a threat to life.  In fact, the best falafel ever is to be found there, as well as any number of delightful, friendly and hospitable people.  But—the sign is the sign, and I am aware that for many other people, that sign and the law behind it represent a very real fear and trauma.  Even if, to the majority of the world, Area A seems perfectly safe.  

So, it would seem there are laws and there are laws.  Laws trying to urge the good and forbid the bad, laws trying to protect public safety, laws designed for their own circuitous ends, and laws designed to harm others.  As humans are a complicated bunch, so too, it would seem, are laws.

This gospel is a continuation of the gospel from last week.  So much so that I’m irritated at the lectionary for chopping it in two.  If you remember, Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount at this point.  He’s talking about how those called to follow him are the salt of the earth, and the light of the world—and then he says—“Do not think I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill…For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and scribes, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”

THAT’s the prologue to this week’s lecture on….adultery, divorce, and debtor’s prison?  That sounds INCREDIBLY harsh and impossible to live up to.  And if we take it in isolation, it sounds like Jesus has taken an unfortunately legalistic turn.  

But a couple things to remember here:

For starters, here again is your regular reminder that We Like The Pharisees.  The Pharisees were Good Guys, and in fact, this is one place where Jesus explicitly says so!

The Pharisees, besides being inventors of modern Judaism, got their start by being a democratizing force within the Judaism of Jesus’ day.  They saw keeping the law as something that put God within reach of everyone—not just the wealthy, not just those who could go to the Temple in Jerusalem, and not just those smart enough to read Torah, but everyone.  The reason they were so obsessed with the law was because they saw it as a mechanism to achieving God’s reign of justice and peace on earth, and a way to make that available to everyone.  And that’s a good thing. 

So when Jesus starts listing off these things about debt, and adultery, and divorce—he’s not quite giving edicts, as much as he’s giving examples of how one’s righteousness should surpass the Pharisees.  There’s a bit of hyperbole in here, which was a common rabbinic rhetorical device.  But mostly, he’s trying to get this point across.

So, for example, this thing about murder.  The law in Leviticus and Deuteronomy prohibits murder, of course, but Jesus takes it one step further, pointing out that it is hypocritical to try to worship God while you are in a broken relationship with your fellow human.  So, you should take care to make sure that both relationships are in order.

Similarly, when we get into the sticky subjects of adultery and marriage, the same dynamics are in play.  Under Jewish law, divorce was allowed, but only the man was allowed to ask for a divorce.  The consequences for the woman were often dire, as she was left estranged from her family of origin and without economic support.  Women were not permitted to procure a divorce for themselves.

So here we see Jesus do the usual one-step-further thing, but what is interesting here is that Jesus reinterprets the law to give women more security.  The way he puts it, the onus is on MEN not to gaze lustfully at women.  MEN also have to avoid divorcing their wives for flimsy reasons, because it will end badly for them.  Women just get to hang out.  

(As a sidenote—this is not the way these verses are generally interpreted, in evangelical culture at least. But it’s worth noting that when Jesus is talking about lusting in your heart, he’s speaking to men about their ability to control themselves—he’s not placing a burden on women.)

Repeatedly, in these examples, we see Jesus reaching to retrieve the vision of justice that the law was meant to enshrine, and holding it up.  If you want to follow me, he says, then you need to not only follow the law, but commit yourself to the spirit of it.

In each example, Jesus is concerned not just with following the law for the law’s sake, but with honoring the concerns of each person involved, with making sure every person is able to flourish within the community.  And so should our concern be.  It is not enough to be concerned only with doing the “right thing” for the sake of “the right thing”.  Our concern needs to be the wholeness of each member of our community.  The wholeness of each person we encounter—whether their needs and concerns are explicitly enshrined in laws that apply to us or not.  

As Christians, we can never say to each other that we are unaffected by what happens to each other.  The way we live together matters.  The way we treat one another matters.  God gave us the law in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, not to trap us into messing up, but in order to enable us to live together and flourish in a society.  God cares very much about how we live together—which is why Jesus is giving a long talk about things like debts, marriage, and divorce.

As we gaze with immense approbation towards what will surely be another tense election year, I want to remind you that God cares very much how we live together.  And so, it is the concern of the church how we treat one another, and how we structure our common life.  We cannot, as Christians, separate our lives into “Jesus affected stuff” and “Non-Jesus affected stuff”, because it all is. The sort of low-level politics of how we live together, how we care for one another, how we protect one another, and how we ensure all God’s children can be treated as the treasures they are—that is the concern of the church, and if we turn away from it, then we are abandoning part of our mission.

Now, I feel pretty confident in saying that God doesn’t care overmuch about whose candidate is shiniest, whose political party is better, who has more fundraisers, or even who is a better American.  That teeth-grinding partisan horse race stuff isn’t helpful, and it’s not our concern as Christians.

It all passes away, anyway.  Our ultimate concern is to do as Jesus did. To listen to our Messiah on the hillside, as he encourages us to love one another, even more than we are required to.  To care for one another, even more than we are required to.  To find justice for one another, even more than we are required to.  

When we focus on caring for one another, when we focus on making sure everyone can be who God has called them to be, and can flourish as God intended, then we are keeping our focus on God’s reign, and Christ’s mission for us.

Then we can weather any campaign season, or any storm, while doing the work of Christ.


In which the lectionary and I have beef

I know it’s very hip right now to complain about the RCL, but SERIOUSLY. Why must we read the same story of Jesus calling Peter and Andrew from John, and then Matthew in sequential weeks? Is the RCL just trolling preachers now?!

This, then, is part 2 of my apparent series on Jesus Calls Him Some Disciples. I later repurposed a lot of this for a talk I gave on the boat we rode on the Sea of Galilee. My pilgrim group was riding with a group from Texas, and another group from Brazil. Everyone was kind, and no one threw anything at me, but some of those folks were definitely confused as to why I was preaching at them.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

January 26, 2020

Epiphany 3, Year A

Matthew 3

Murder mysteries!  There’s a formula.  Highly quirky individual, with a specialized set of skills, but that enables them to SOLVE MURDER.  Monk has OCD, House is a misanthrope, Sherlock has a crazy memory thing, Jessica Fletcher writes mysteries, and the UK has all number of quirky detective folks.  Miss Marple’s thing Is that she’s an old lady!  But all that comes together to help them magically solve all the mysteries.  

In today’s gospel, we start out with bad news.  John the Baptist has been arrested, and so Jesus retreats out of Nazareth, fearing that Herod will also come after him.  He ends up in Capernaum.  

This is a little bit strange—Capernaum isn’t a big city.  And there were major cities around, like Tiberius and Sepphoris.  But Jesus didn’t go to one of them.  Capernaum wasn’t known for being a major trading destination—it was known for having nearby warm springs, where the fish would congregate during the winter.  So the fishermen who worked the Sea of Galilee would winter there, to make their job easier.  That’s Capernaum’s deal—winter fish.

So, this may explain why Jesus keeps tripping over Simon and Andrew, then James and John, as he’s out walking.  Capernaum is the hangout of fisherfolk.  And, it’s night time , or close to it, when he comes across them.  Fishermen only worked at night because the fish couldn’t see well enough to avoid the nets in the darkness.  

All of which is to say, the sort of casual “Jesus was taking a nice afternoon stroll, accidentally gained some disciples” tone of the story is somewhat misleading.  There are a series of really intentional choices happening here that Jesus is making.  He goes to Capernaum for his new home; he goes out walking at an odd time when fishermen are at work.  And lo, he comes upon some fishermen, whom he asks to follow him.

There are times when we sense a call from God, and our first response is “Well, this makes no sense at all.” We assume that we are ill-equipped, unprepared, and do not have the skills to do what God is calling us to. 

This is not helped by the stories of saints in the past, where oftentimes we talk of them as if they gave up all they had to follow God—making a clean break with one life in order to start entirely afresh. That they gave up their personalities to conform to some ideal of cookie-cutter goodness.  But the truth is, God’s calls to us are as varied as we are.  And in God’s economy, nothing is ever lost.  The talents and gifts God gives to us in one time of our lives generally are called upon as we continue to seek after the path Christ leads us down.  

Had Jesus wanted learned scholars for disciples, he could have found them.  Had he wanted skilled politicians, great communicators, or excellent networkers, he could have found those.  He intentionally went and found basic fishermen because he wanted fishermen.  And in turn, over the course of the gospels, we see Peter, Andrew, James and John grow into exactly what Christ calls them to be.  

It is easy to wish to be other than what we are; to worry that we aren’t enough to carry out the mission Christ has given to us.  That we don’t have enough people, enough talent, enough resources, or enough know-how to be able to do the job.  But that is forgetting that Christ knows exactly who and what we are.  Jesus isn’t dumb.  Christ knows exactly what we have, and what we can do when he calls us.  And so we needn’t be afraid to follow that call when it comes. 

Christ comes to meet us exactly where and how we are, to call us into service—not so we will stay there, but so we can be called into the walk of faith.  But Christ calls each of us, knowing exactly who we are when he does.  Jesus knew Peter was a hothead.  Jesus even knew Paul had a tendency to make passive-aggressive asides in his speeches.  But through the grace of God, each of us has a role to fill in the reign of God, and so Jesus calls each of us to bring our full selves to that task, even as we are fully known and cherished. 

It is as we bring our full selves that we can follow God’s call–the parts we are proud of and the parts we aren’t so proud of. Because our full selves are what God needs to patch up our world.


Behold, the vegan Lamb of God

So, since we last spoke, o Blog, I have had minor surgery and went to the Holy Land for two weeks. January was wonderful, but did not involve tons of preaching.

Therefore, I am playing a bit of catch-up. First up is a sermon that I am personally fairly proud of because I managed to get one of the better-known mythical creatures in there.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan 

January 19, 2020

Epiphany 2, Year A

John 2

Lambs are intrinsically confusing.

This may not sound right to you. You may be thinking “Lambs are straight forward: it’s a baby sheep, right?” 

And yet, you might be surprised to know that during the Middle Ages, it was accepted as scientific fact that there was such a thing as a ‘vegetable lamb’—called a borometz—that grew in southeast Asia.  This was a plant, it was maintained, that came up out of the ground like any other, but produced a gourd, out of which emerged a living sheep.  On the end of a green stalk.  The lamb then after it emerged from the gourd (!) would eat the leaves and the surrounding foliage until it eventually ran out of food and starved.  OR—or, you could get the lamb off its stalk, harvest its wool and produce….cotton.  This is how Europeans thought cotton grew.

Right up until the 19th century, when trade really picked up between Europe and the far East, and people also figured out how sheep worked, and how a sheep can’t survive underground, what kind of nonsense is that.

Anyway.  Lambs are apparently quite confusing.  But they have been a feature of religious ritual for as long as they have been domesticated, which is to say, as long as there has been human civilization.  Or—rams have.  Ancient religious gods loved to show their power and might through taking the form of a ram—it showed up all over the place.  IT was powerful!  IT was the head of the flock!  You blew on a ram’s horn to begin religious observances!  

And in today’s gospel, John the Baptist makes a reappearance, and has this odd sort of encounter with Jesus.

A few things are happening here at once.  John sees Jesus coming towards him, and calls out “Look, here’s the Lamb of God!” (this happens twice, which might lead one to suspect that John has blanked on Jesus’s actual name.)  The first time, John then describes what it was like at Jesus’ baptism—the heavens parted, the Spirit descended, it was great.

So, the second time John encounters Jesus, and he names him Lamb of God, two of John’s disciples decide to switch allegiance and to follow Jesus.  And then one of those guys is so entranced by what they discover, that he invites his brother to come along.  And so, Jesus gains his first disciples.

Part of what’s happening here is an actual pastoral concern with the disciples of John the Baptist.  Because John the Baptist did, and does, have disciples of his own.  They’re called the Mandeans, and they still live in Iraq, Iran, Syria…and now, many live in New Jersey.  But in the early days of Christianity, there was a particular concern to both honor John the Baptist as Jesus clearly did, and to make it clear that Jesus was the one that we should be paying attention to.  So the gospels have stories like this one—which try to walk that delicate tightrope.

But that does not entirely answer the question of why John the Baptist starts calling Jesus the Lamb of God, seemingly out of nowhere.  And why that would inspire his disciples to switch teams at the drop of a hat.

Rams, after all, and not lambs, were the focus of most religious-based sheep involvement.  Lambs were weak.  Lambs needed constant attention from their mother sheep.  Lambs were only featured as the Passover sacrifice in Judaism, and that wasn’t an offering for sin. Lambs, it would seem, as a symbol speaks mostly of weakness, and vulnerability and powerlessness.  Hardly commanding.

Yet—in Isaiah (yes, Isaiah strikes again) there’s a similar sort of thing happening.  The prophet announces that everyone should listen!  That God is about to do A Thing!  It will be GREAT. Then….kinda peters out.

Apparently it’s not going well.  No one is listening, the prophet’s health is faltering, people are rebelling, being obstanite.  So the prophet complains to God about how this is a bad plan and will never work.

In response, God says something along the lines of “You know what?  You’re right.  It was a bad plan.  It was too small.  It is too light a thing that you should be sent only to my people Israel, but I shall give you as a light to the nations.  The whole earth shall learn of me through you.”

This is a typical God-move right here.  Isaiah complains that the job is too hard, he can’t do it, and God is like, exactly!  So let’s do a HARDER ONE.

God, it would seem, is not interested in human displays of perfection or might.  God doesn’t seem interested in rams—those mighty leaders of the pack.  Because, what need do rams have for God?  What need for God do we have in the places where we are perfect, in the moments when we have it all figured out, after all?  

Instead, God sends lambs to accomplish the work of the kingdom.  God sends the confused, the imperfect, the anxious to do God’s work.  God sends those of us who panic, and then point out to God that this is an impossibly bad idea and it is going badly.  God sends those of us who have no choice but to rely on God rather than our own knowledge, confidence, wisdom or grace.  

Andrew and John follow Jesus because they see in Jesus not a conquering hero, but someone who understands their own doubts, fears and insecurities.  So much so that they run to tell Peter, who discovers the same thing.  And we know that Peter was basically a bundle of bad-ideas-said-out-loud.  But Christ calls this motley collection of lambs to follow him not because they were the best or the brightest, or the most talented, but because they could rely the most on God’s love and wisdom.  

God doesn’t demand from us perfection.  God doesn’t demand from us unthinking, unquestioning compliance.  God asks from us only the willingness to be vulnerable and faithful.  God asks from us only the willingness to try, to step out in faith, leaning on God’s might, and see what happens.  God sends us out as lambs—confusing confused lambs, in a world that knows mostly how to deal with rams, with powerful animals, but God promises us that it is through the Lamb of God that sin is washed away.  It is through the Lamb of God that the barriers between God’s reign and the kingdoms of this world are broken down.  It is through our weakness and our very humanity that God’s power is made the most clear.

So don’t fret over what you cannot do.  Don’t worry over what seems impossible or too hard.  Where we fall short, that’s where God steps in.  Where we stumble, that’s where God shows up.  Where we lambs hesitate, that’s where God comes in, and saves the world. 


Herods all the way down

First, a funny story.

I misread the lectionary last week. You may know (or may not) that right after Christmas, the Episcopal Church goes a bit off-road, and insists on reading John 1, then does Matthew 2, or Luke 2 on Christmas 2. No other RCL church does this. I forgot (mea culpa) and so I wrote my sermon for last week on Herod on the slaughter of the innocents. I arrived at church, and realized that oops, this was not a thing I could preach just now.

So I figured out something else, about icons and imagery, and things, and you can hear that via the podcast. And I saved Herod for this week.

Then the president got a bit trigger-happy and we all got a bit closer to war and suddenly talking about Herod and the deaths of lots of people felt a bit more relevant than even last week. So I rewrote a bit, with a fair amount of trepidation.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 29, 2019

Christmas 1, Year A

Matthew 2

—This is the Christmas story we don’t often hear

—Comes around once every three years, on the Sunday everyone’s usually still working off Christmas dinner.

—it doesn’t get animated specials; it doesn’t get carols (except the Coventry carol)

—yet for non-western Christians, this story is Very Important.

—for Coptic Christians in Egypt, it’s their claim on the Christ Child (we gave him shelter!) 

—for my South Sudanese parishioners in Kansas City, this was their favorite story every year.  They sang about it, they made up a dance about it.  This was THEIR story.  Jesus became a refugee—this was a story they could get behind.

—After all, this is the part of the story that for many around the world feels familiar.

—Baby born in a stable, lauded by angels, maybe not.  But baby born to parents who immediately have to flee their home, because their political leader is a murderous jerk?  Oh yes.  

—that’s a really familiar tale to all too many people in today’s world.

—And while we don’t have independent evidence for Herod the Great ordering the deaths of thousands of babies, we do have independent evidence for Herod being a generally awful human being.

—Herod was made king of the Jews by the Roman Senate in 36 BCE, in a move that was popular with really only Herod. He had used political allegiances and various marriages to get to the top of the pyramid, and he had the added bonus of being Jewish.

—Though, he was Jewish by conversion, and wasn’t too serious about it, and for devout Jews who could remember the time a few decades back when the Jewish Maccabean kings had ruled Judea themselves, this was not a small matter.

—Herod tried to curry favor with the local population and with Rome by building things and then taking credit for them.  He built many fortresses, and trading ports.  He built the Second Temple in Jerusalem.  He build a massive tomb complex for himself called Herodium that basically made an enormous man-made mountain south east of Jerusalem so he could be the tallest thing around after death.

—However, his “win fans through building” program didn’t really work.  The Pharisees objected to his building cities and temples for Roman gods, since he was supposed to be a Jewish king.  The Sadducees objected when he wouldn’t take their advice on how to build a properly devout Temple.  And no one liked that he bankrupted the treasury with his enormous buildings.  

—There was the additional problem that he was a paranoid narcissist.  He ended up killing off all his immediate family members, convinced they were turning against him.  He was so worried that no one would mourn his death, that he demanded the entire aristocracy attend his deathbed, and then be killed once he had died, so that the whole nation would suitably mourn.  (The queen declined to carry this through.) 

—My point here is twofold—

—one, that this kind of person as Herod evidently was would conceivably react by ordering a full scale children massacre

—and that the kind of person as Herod was is not unfamiliar in the halls of power, sadly.

—it can be easy to see Herod as a one-off villain, a sort of supernaturally evil person who is there to thwart and threaten Jesus.

—But the gospel text remarks that “Herod was filled with fear, and all Jerusalem with him.”

—Leaders like Herod occur all throughout history.  It’s not a one-off aberration.  For every evil Herod-tyrant king, there are hundreds of soldiers who carried out his orders.  Dozens of courtiers who flattered and bowed to him.  Hundreds of merchants who didn’t stand up because it would be bad for business.  There was a whole vast system in place to support this.   One person doesn’t make injustice; it takes a village.

—Part of the shock of the incarnation is that Jesus’s life, the life of God incarnate, rests so clearly on humanity making the right choice.  We have to choose to stand up to tyrants.  We have to choose to welcome the refugee.  We have to choose.  And our actions have consequences to God.

—Now, God’s will for the world will never be thwarted for long by our wrong choices.  God is God, and God can and will always work through our mess to find another way.  But our choices affect God.  Humanity and God are now bound together and affect one another, and we see that so clearly in the life of this baby.

—In the earlier story that Matthew is hearkening back to, two midwives, Shiprah and Puah defy Pharoah’s orders and save babies from the slaughter.  They make a flimsy excuse to Pharoah, “You know those Israelites!  They just have babies so fast!  We don’t have time to get there and kill them!!”  but manage to stand up against the injustice they see around them.

—here, that heroic choice is made by the Magi.  Zoroastrian priests coming from Persia. Strangers by language, strangers by nationality, by faith, who see in this baby something worthy of saving, and so they defy the order of a tyrant for him.  

The Magi defy Herod in this story, and so give the Holy Family time to escape.  

—What prompts people to thwart injustice, and create conditions for God’s reign to come is not always massive  heroic actions.  Sometimes it’s small defiance.  Sometimes it’s listening to that still small voice.  But always, it’s recognizing that their actions make a difference—both to other people and to God.  

—we are never just going along—we are making choices that affect others, and affect God.  

—whether consciously or Unconsciously, because our human lives are intimately bound up in the life of God now.

—So when we keep that in mind, we create space for God to break in and establish the kingdom, even among the reign of Herod.

The reign of God doesn’t depend solely on our actions and decisions,  but it is especially important to remember today, as the drums of war have begun to beat again, that our tradition tells us that life of God Incarnate was saved by Persian wise men.  Not because they necessarily understood the message he brought, not because they forswore their previous allegiances and identity, but because they saw in him something worthy.  Something reflective of the God they sought, that we all seek.

God’s reign comes into this world when we love each other.  When we cross boundaries that usually divide us.  When we challenge the death-dealing tyrannical powers of our world. When we care for each other, because we see in each other the reflection of Christ.  That is how the reign of God enters this world. not through war, not through killing, and not through death.  Only when we brave the wrath of Herod and we care for each other, as we would for that baby.  

It is a scary time right now; there are Herods everywhere.  But I believe there are also magi everywhere.  And as we learn to embrace the reality that our existence depends upon the grace of others, and of God, then surely, with God’s Grace, we can learn to extend that same grace to others.


Add a French Accent

My brother used to write copy for a vast video game empire run out of Montreal. One of his gigs was to write lines for people to read while they introduced the new games every year at the giant video game company convention, hosted by Famous Comedian Human. Despite not having any knowledge of gaming whatsoever, I would watch the livestream each year, to loyally support my baby brother’s endeavors.

My favorite all time bit, by far, was the year a French game engineer came onstage and introduced a game for the Nintendo Wii by reciting extremely mundane information about physical exercise, but in a very, very thick French accent. “Ex-yer-ceyes ees bor-hing! No one wants to do eet. But now! Wiz zis ah-mayz-ing gahm! Yu too! Can ex-yer-ceyes your way to a nu layfe!” It was like listening to the most bored existentialist philosopher muse about the banality of push-ups on the banks of the Seine. It was genius.

Christmas sermons are difficult for many the same reasons exercise game pitches are. We know this stuff! Most of your audience knows this content, and little else! You have them for this moment, and possibly none others. How are you going to make it interesting enough for them to listen to you, while not overplaying the hand you’ve been dealt?

This year, I elected to go the French accent route. Tell the story, tell it simply, and double down on what makes context unique.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 24, 2019

Christmas Eve


Bethlehem is a small town.  It was in the first century; it is today.  There aren’t actually palm trees, and from time to time it does snow.  It’s up in the hills, you see, so it can get pretty chilly.  You can grow some wheat there, and the hills make it good for sheep grazing.  Because it’s only about five miles from Jerusalem, sheep are a big deal—both to feed the larger city, and for Temple sacrifices. But that’s basically all you have.  Some people, some sheep, some houses.  That’s it.

But my point here, is that it’s a small town.  It’s a boring place.  It’s not special, it’s not pretty.  It’s not magic. And it has never known for anything in particular.  It’s not Jericho which grows oranges.  It’s not Sepphoris up north that’s the trading hub. It’s not Rome with the seat of power.  It’s just…it’s just there.  There once was a famous king that came from Bethlehem, but now all that glamour and magic are done.  And it’s back to being a boring little town by the time that the gospel of Luke starts talking about it. 

And not only are we told that this is happening nowhere important, but we know that Other People—no where near our story— are definitely in charge now.  Caesar Augustus in Rome.  Quirinius, over the whole region of Syria.  The gospel writer takes pains to remind us that other people are calling the shots.  Far away people.  Important people.  People who are not in this story.  OUR people aren’t in charge.  And we know that because everyone is getting moved around randomly so Caesar can count us up and get more taxes.  As the story starts, everyone is in chaos—a whole big mess.  What kind of leader would throw the known world upside down like this?  Honestly!  

And so, Joseph and Mary come down to Bethlehem, because of some long-distant ancestor no one can quite recall, and on the command of a ruler no one has seen.  And in the middle of this mess, she has a baby.

And it’s as if all the chaos and confusion that has led up to this point suddenly snaps into sharp focus.  Here are these rather ordinary people, Luke tells us, who are following irritating bureaucratic orders from far away like anyone else, ending up in a perfectly unremarkable town, on a perfectly unremarkable night.  

And then, somehow God shows up.

Right then, right there.  In the middle of all that everydayness.  God shows right up.  In the flesh of a tiny human baby, squalling, fussing, shocked into life.  In the arms of an exhausted mother, and a worried father.  In the straw of a dark space meant to shelter animals, because it was the best they could find.  In the midst of where no one expected and in the most unprepared, unready place—God showed up.

And the first people who get the news that God has shown up are not the far-off rulers with their decrees.  Neither are they the rich and powerful who could at least get the baby a proper bed.  Shepherds show up.  The night-shift workers of the first century.  The people who worked hard just to scrape by, and don’t get noticed.  The angels come to them and announce that for them, FOR THEM, a savior has been born. 

The story of the Incarnation is a story of the absolutely ordinary transformed by God so that nothing would ever be ordinary again.  It’s a story of God breaking into the mundane rhythms of human existence to transform what it means to be human, and what it means to live on this earth.  What we can hope for, and what we can expect.  

At Christmas, with the birth of Jesus, God transfigures humanity, and begins to dwell with us as one of us, to show us what a life lived out of pure love looks like.  Jesus comes to us and shows us what a life lived in the power of God’s love looks like.  What our world can be when we live into God’s reign, and not the empires of this world.  He challenges oppression.  He mocks hypocrisy.  He embraces the sinners and the lost.  He heals the sick and the hurting. He comforts the poor and the outcast.  And not even the fury of the Roman Empire and death itself could stop him for long.

In Jesus, God comes to us and takes on what it means to be human, so that humanity would never be apart from God again.  In Jesus, God wraps up our human lives in the arms of Divine Love.  In Jesus, God finds us in the midst of wherever we find ourselves in this life, no matter where that is.  Because in Jesus, God has forever bound us to Godself.  

Just think—in the birth of Christ, God broke into that quotidian stable, in that humdrum town, in the middle of that everyday governmental chaos.  So now, God is just as present in our most basic of circumstances, in the minuteae of our lives.  God shows up, like God did that night all those years ago.

God shows up when we are exhausted and frustrated.  When we are scared by the empires of this world and their raging.  When we are excited and triumphant.  When we are grieving and in pain.  When we are rejected and abandoned.  God shows up, like God showed up on that night.  

Because through that little baby, God showed up, and will keep showing up, for you and for me, forever.


On the virgin birth

Year A is not my favorite, because Matthew doesn’t talk about Mary enough. Instead, he detours into talking about Joseph, and his several dreams (and as Amy-Jill Levine points out, this should remind you of Genesis’ Joseph and HIS dreams. Because Matthew is all about re-enacting the Tanakh in a pretty on-the-nose way, once you know to look for it.)

However, I decided that even if Matthew wasn’t going to talk about Mary, gosh darn it, I was. I like Mary, I have a fondness for mariology, and we don’t talk about her enough.

So, behold, I decided to unpack the doctrine of the virgin birth. It took me years and years to come around on it, but I did, and so here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 22, 2019

Advent 4, Year A

Matthew, Isaiah

I had a professor in college who said that really, you only need to recall a handful of dates, and with those, you can put almost everything else into context.  One of those dates is 1848.  In that year, several major things were happening:  Charles Darwin’s first book on evolution had come out, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and the first new translation of the Bible since the Reformation had also emerged.  So, lots was changing, very quickly.  

In response to all this, a group of conservative minded Protestant leaders met in Seneca Falls, New York to figure out a way forward. They felt under attack, from all these new ideas swirling around.  And they came up with what they called the 5 Fundamentals of the Christian faith:  5 statements that they felt were bedrock to Protestantism.  Those who could sign onto them were called fundamentalists—and so began the modern fundamentalist movement.

The statements were things like : a belief in the absolute inerrancy of scripture, something called penal substitutionary atonement, the divinity of Jesus, the literal bodily resurrection, and….the virgin birth of Jesus, which gets a lot of play in our readings today.

Now, it’s worth noting that the Episcopal Church has never been a fundamentalist church—we have never endorsed the five fundamentals for various reasons, which would take a much longer sermon than you want to listen to.  

But my point here is that the idea of the virgin birth gets people VERY INVESTED.  Even people who generally don’t have a lot invested in Mary, Mother of Jesus, like fundamentalists.  It tends to carry the weight of many projections having to do with sexual morality, and purity, and the role of women, and all that baggage can be really off-putting for many of us.

So what is going on in Isaiah and Matthew today?  And since Matthew is quoting Isaiah we probably should start there.

Well, first of all, this is first Isaiah talking.  (Isaiah actually has three different prophets combined into one book.  The Title of “Isaiah” was like Dread Pirate Roberts—first one guy did it, then another guy inherited it.  Basically whenever Israel was in a pinch, an Isaiah turned up and started writing.)   The kingdom of Israel (so all the northern bits) is about to be invaded by the Assyrian Empire, and the king is very scared.  Isaiah, in his role as Court Prophet, tells him to calm down, but the king is not hearing it.  “Look,” says Isaiah—“God won’t let anything bad happen to you.  See that young woman over there?  She’s going to get pregnant and have a son, and he will grow up and live long enough to eat solid food.  That’s how you know that God is with you.”

Assyria is threatening a siege, and Isaiah is promising that they will survive it.  So the sign of a woman giving birth is less about a miraculous birth, and more about the passage of time.  They will all live long enough for these things to happen.  And sure enough, Assyria withdrew its armies, and the kingdom of Israel survives for a few more years.

Fast forward to Matthew’s gospel.  The writer of Matthew knows the Isaiah prophecy and figures it fits pretty well with Jesus’s birth.  Again, God comes to be with his people.  Here, the writer is intending to stretch the prophecy a bit—now the miracle is no longer the passage of time; now the miracle is how the baby arrives.  

Matthew’s audience, after all, knows all about miraculous births.  There were stories and legends of special stars appearing when Caesar Augustus was born, and they knew all the stories of gods springing magically from the foreheads of other gods in Roman lore.  This wouldn’t have fazed them.  

What would have stood out is two things: that Mary does so much on her own, and that the child that results is so vulnerable.

In the ancient world, not much was understood about the birds and the bees.  Besides being lesser members of society, women were not credited with any contribution in childbearing: they were literally empty vessels that were filled by what the ancient Greeks and Romans envisioned as teeny tiny people, contributed by men.  

So when we look at it in this way, the story of the virgin birth is pretty remarkable.  Mary somehow bears God into the world, we are told.  This young girl from Nowheresville, Galilee.  Who has nothing, and has done nothing and is in no way remarkable.  She gives flesh to God Incarnate, because that’s how willing God is to be with us.  

That’s an incredibly powerful and affirming assertion to make.  Mary does something incredible, through the power of God, but also by herself.  Leave science aside—the insistence in the gospels about the virgin birth is about the worth of a normal girl who can hold God.  

And this is the second thing that would have struck them.  Unlike the miraculous birth stories they were used to hearing, where gods are carving themselves out of other god’s legs, or springing forth from suns, the end result here isn’t a tiny invincible superhero, but a normal-seeming baby.  Right from the start, Joseph has to act to protect his family, because they’re vulnerable—something unthinkable if we were telling this story about the legendary Caesar, or Zeus.  

But the story of the Incarnation is all about God becoming vulnerable to be one of us.  Not—mind—that God ceases to be omnipotent, but that God willingly forgoes power in order to accompany us in this way.  The baby Jesus is small and fragile, because that’s how we are.  Our lives at the start are full of risk, and anxious nights, and frantic new parents, and so that’s how Jesus entered the world.

The miracle of the virgin birth is so much bigger and transformative than a trick of science or a morality lesson.  It’s God radically affirming the value and worth of a human girl.  It’s God becoming as breakable as we are, so that we might never be alone again.

The miracle of the Incarnation shines through all of human existence, blessing all that is human with the divine touch.  Isaiah promised that God would come and be with us to save us, and in Jesus, God has.  God has become one of us to transform humanity into the image of God.  Our vulnerabilities, our pain, our fragility, Jesus takes into himself, in order that we might be able to find ourselves in God.  

That’s the real miracle of the virgin birth.  That we, in all our weird humanity, are caught up forever in the divine life of God though Jesus. 

That, I can get behind.