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Good Friday 2020

(Or: In Which I Unlock a Profound Life Achievement and Reference John Mulaney on Good Friday)

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 10, 2020

Good Friday, Year A

John Mulaney, the comedian, made a kids TV special and released it at Christmas.  It’s surreal—like a more self-aware version of those kids shows from the 1970s—and it’s also oddly poignant.  It features a series of interviews where he asks the kids what their greatest fear is—and the kids answer quite honestly.  Everything from “the various horror movies of Jordan Peele” to “losing my family” to “drowning” to “being killed by a clown.” 

Kids are, of course, scared of a lot.  It’s a scary world for everyone, but for kids, it’s particularly scary, in a way that adults frequently forget.  The primal fear of not understanding so much of what happens around you, yet also being very aware of your own powerlessness and dependency on others is a potent cocktail that makes for a lot of anxiety when you’re a kid.

Gradually, we age out of it. We paper over that innate sense of powerlessness with our knowledge and lives we build that we can control.  But inside each of us, I think, there remains a quiet suspicion that the world is big and scary, and we are small humans, and we actually can’t control very much.  

This pandemic for many of us has brought all that feeling back.  Because, after all, here we have an enemy that we cannot see, cannot measure, cannot cajole, cannot buy off.  We cannot control this virus; we can only avoid it, hope for the best, and wait it out.  And all of the carefully-constructed world doesn’t seem to be able to offer much protection against a novel virus, as civilized as we thought we were.  We are, again, small humans in a big scary world.

Good Friday, when we mark the death of Jesus on the cross, is a day when the church stares squarely into that big scary world.  It’s the day that we remember that when God chose to become human, God didn’t flinch from the worst parts of our human experience.  That God-incarnate experienced what it was to be abandoned, alone, and killed, unjustly.  The creator of the universe became, like us for a moment in time—small, scared, and seemingly-powerless against the forces of evil and death.  When Christ died on the cross, punished by a cruel empire, Christ felt the brunt of humanity.  He felt what it was to be a small, lone human in a big, scary world.  And he died.

And yet, we call this day Good, because we also know that death didn’t win.  Evil didn’t have the final word. Three days later, Jesus rose from the grave.  Though he most certainly died on the cross, even more certainly did God raise him from the dead.  The big, cruel, scary world that seemed so overpowering actually was proven powerless, toothless, against the almighty love of God.

So, on this day, yes, we stare into the depths of the big scary world.  We do that because on this day we know that God is bigger than any of them.  That Jesus has already blazed a trail right through their heart.  And that even when we feel most alone, most powerless, and most vulnerable, there is nothing that can truly harm us because God has already defeated anything that we had to fear.  All the worst is over.  God has won.  God’s love has won.  Our small fragile human selves are safe wrapped in God’s arms.  And we need never fear the power of death again.

Amen.

Maundy Thursday 2020

This one is a bit of a sequel to the earlier piece about Eucharist I wrote.

Maundy Thursday!

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 9, 2020

Maundy Thursday, Year A

The first church thing I fell in love with was the Maundy Thursday service when I was a kid.  I have very clear memories of it.  It wasn’t a traditional service—we had a communal meal, and celebrated the Eucharist at big tables.  The adults drank wine, and we ate bread and cheese and fruit.  We said prayers and washed feet.  Afterwards, we processed over to the sanctuary in the dark, and stripped the altar, as someone chanted the 22nd Psalm, and smoke rose from the incense.

It was spooky and dramatic and even over the top, and I LOVED it.  I loved it.  I would look forward to it all year.  I would dress appropriately for it—in my kid-brain, I thought wearing all black would be appropriate to the occasion.  Like a liturgical goth.

I loved it.  The drama, the camaraderie, the lament.  And the holiness woven through it all because it all was happening in church.  

Tonight, honestly, it feels like a strange, bizarro version of those days.  Maundy Thursday is the night on which we liturgically recall Christ giving us the Eucharist—something that we haven’t had for awhile now.  It’s a night where we partake in so much of our sacramental life:  not only the eucharist, but cleaning the altar, washing each other’s feet—all the concrete, material symbology that help make our worship life rich and meaningful.  And in these strange times, we witness it all through a computer screen dimly.

In these days when we haven’t had the blessing of experiencing our sacraments directly , I want to talk a bit about them.  Because perhaps, you have noticed, like I have that you really miss them.  And I don’t just miss the spiritual sensations of the Body and Blood of Christ.  I miss seeing your faces when I say the prayer, listening to people shuffling around and dropping prayer books, and turning pages—I miss pressing the water into your hands, and telling you that God has come near to you.  That is what I miss.

In our Anglican tradition, we believe that these things are a part of what makes the eucharist the Body and Blood of Christ.  That all of us, gathered together, physically, with our material beings, make the Body of Christ.  Our selves, our noises, our hands, our minds, and our prayers.  It’s never just me by myself with my magic priest hands.  It’s all of us, together, becoming the Body as we partake the Body.  St. Augustine tells us that we eat the Body of Christ so that we may more fully become the Body of Christ—Behold what you are, he says, become what you see.

So this means, that while we cannot be together during these days, we fast from the physical sacrament, but it also means that we become the Body of Christ in new ways.  Because Christ gives us on this night not just a ritual to eat and drink magic food and drink in order to make ourselves feel better; Christ gives us a way of being Christ’s body in the world—precisely and exactly when that Body is absent.

Jesus meets with his friends on the night he is betrayed and arrested, and tells them that if they want to be known as his disciples, they need to love one another.  They need to serve one another.  As his physical body is leaving them, he gives them away to be Christ to one another and to the world.  

We receive the Eucharist each week, not in order to be holier, and not in order to feel special, but in order that we may be guided to more fully emulate Christ in the world.  We partake in the Body in order to be the Body as we go out in the world.  It is a learning of how to be Christ in spaces where Christ feels distant.  We celebrate the eucharist each sunday, preparing to go out into the stripped altar of the world.  

We are the eucharist now.  We are the Body of Christ now.  The presence of Christ we long for, the material reassurance that God loves the world, and is with us—that is you and I, my friends.  We are the footwashers, we are the comforters, the challengers, the song-singers, the light-bearers.  We are the Body of Christ in a world that feels shadowed and alone.  And now, as it was then, the light dwells with us, and will never be overcome.  

Amen.

Palm Sunday 2020

Hey, I’m not disappeared by aliens!

Please forgive the blog-silence; my attention has been on the immediate stuff these past few months. But I am now trying to get the blog back up to date with previous sermons as best I can.

I want to warn you–preaching in pandemic is a different beast, at least for me. I haven’t been doing as much full-manuscript writing. There’s been more “write the high points on a page, and go for it.” Preaching to a camera rather than a group of people is a whole different energy, and I find that it’s easier for me to keep the energy up if I can just Talk About This Interesting Thing, rather than Preach To These People I Am Having To Imagine.

With that caveat, let’s get with the catchup! First up: Palm Sunday from 2020.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

April 5, 2020

Palm Sunday, Year A

Palm Sunday is about a story.  Today is the day we begin to remember the most central story of our faith—the story of the last week of Jesus’ life.

When I was a kid, I was in a touring production of Godspell for two years.  (This description makes it sound very important—it was a kids’ production that went around to local nursing homes and churches.)  But for two years, a few times a week, we would put on this story through songs and strange, 1970s era skits.  And before each performance, our director, a secular Jewish guy, would remind us—remember that the audience loves this story.  You’re telling them the story that they love.

And we do love this story.  Not because it’s a nice story.  It’s really, really not.  This is a story that—if we were to remove the place markers—wouldn’t sound so out of place on the newsfeed of today’s litany of awfulness.  A leader, who has gained some popular support for suggesting that religious and political reforms are necessary, comes into the capital city.  He’s quickly arrested on charges, tried without evidence, and condemned to death.  It’s both no one’s fault and everyone’s fault, as well-meaning bureaucrats wash their hands and say “Well, I did the best I could.”  It is a story of institutions failing their people, and people turning on each other. Of friends abandoning and betraying one another.  Of power corrupting, and of human life held cheaply.  It is a story of abject human brokenness and cruelty.

And we tell it again and again, because in this story we see parts of our own story.  In this story, we see the moments when our friends failed us.  We see when we were treated unjustly.  We see when the powers of earth ally themselves against the weak.  We see when violence is dealt out indiscriminately.  We see those times when the children of God have been silenced, brutalized, and harmed.  When we have turned against one another, when we have failed one another.  In this story, we see reflections of our own story.

But most of all, we cherish this story because in this story, we don’t just see ourselves—we see God.  We see God come within this story of despair and anger and violence and injustice.  We see God-Incarnate experience the WORST humanity can experience, and the worst that humans can do to one another—all the worst effects of our pride and arrogance, hatred, and ignorance.  We see Jesus go through that, and we know that none of it defeats God’s love.  That somehow, God endures all this—all of it—and loves us anyway.  Gives us a way out of the wreck all of this has built for us anyway.  God endures all of the worst humans can dish out and in the end, God wins.  God’s love wins.  Wins out over evil, over hatred, over violence, over death.  

This is the story Christians have been telling ever since the beginning.  That we knew a God that loved us so much that God entered the essence of what it was to be human, and that God was not defeated by the forces that seem so scary in our world.  And we have told this story in the good times, and the bad times.  When we were at the head of conquering armies, or hiding from those armies in the catacombs.  This was the story that gave us hope when there was no more hope to find.  That God came to be with us when death seemed all around, but that not even death could separate us from God.  

This has been our story for the ages, and this is still our story, even now.  This week, may we all hear in it the same truth and hope as the first disciples did.

Amen.

On Floating Heads and Bodies: Sacraments in a Time of Pandemic

In seminary, our church history professor sent the class on a scavenger hunt to New York’s art museums, in order to ponder the theological shifts occurring during the Middle Ages.  “Find me Our Lady of the S-Curve!” he warbled, contorting himself into a serpentine pose.  “Look for an increase in emotional piety!” his hands held aloft like a pious Nosveratu.

We joked about it, but to this day, I cannot prevent a small, Fr. Wright-sounding voice in my head from chanting “SEATED WISDOM!” or “LADY OF THE S-CURVE!” whenever I behold any depiction of Madonna and Child.  As the theological understanding of the masses shifted, those changes could be seen in Western art.

Of course, there has always been a gap between what the religious institution teaches and what the religious faithful believe within the spectrum of Christianity—this is what the art tracked.  No religion exists in a vacuum-sealed pouch1; it is carried out in the real world, affected by real people and real circumstances, and that shifting dynamic is what makes the study of religious traditions so fascinating, enraging, and beautiful.  

In the Middle Ages, the Pope didn’t wake up one morning and decide that right-angle Jesus on a right-angle cross looking sober and stoic no longer made sense; a confluence of events pushed that image out of popularity. 

Namely, there was a big plague.

Prior to the Black Plague across Europe, images of the stoic Jesus and stoic Mary were everywhere.  Not unrelated: popular belief in a corporeal, general, physical resurrection was also widespread.  It was understood that Jesus’s resurrection brought to all of humanity the chance to physically follow where he led, and be raised on the last day.  Burial practices concentrated on preserving all of the remains, in anticipation of that glorious event.  

Then, the plague.  (Carol Walker Bynum talks about this in much greater detail.) Because the plague brought intense physical pain, as well as some deformity, popular theology began to shift, and it was here that we see the Western European church begin to talk about eternal life as not physical resurrection, but a spiritual unification with God in heaven—absent a physical body.  Gazing upon the physical destruction of the plague, European Christians couldn’t imagine bodies—which had caused such harm—being redeemed.  Bodies brought suffering, bodies brought agony.  Christ, bearer of eternal life and light, didn’t fit with that reality.  So they start to spiritualize the whole deal.

Cut to: our own plague.

What has been lingering in my mind since this has started is what theological shifts we will make during this time.  The discussion/argument/epic Internet Throwdown over “virtual communion”2 worries me for precisely this reason.  I am not concerned with Anglican eucharistic theology per se—others are handling those arguments quite well (see: the Presiding Bishop for one.)  For once, it turns out that Episcopalians actually do have somewhat of a consensus on what we believe and where the boundaries are.3  (No, priests can’t say mass by ourselves; we’re not Roman Catholic. No, saying mass doesn’t create the church; God creates the church.  Yes, everyone probably needs to spend more time playing Animal Crossing and less time fighting on Twitter.)

I am concerned, though, with a larger issue here.  Many of us are becoming increasingly aware of our physical bodies as the site of marked vulnerability and frailty.  We watch the news, we see the cooler trucks lining the streets in New York City, we see medical experts warning us that the common physical things we do every day now put us in mortal danger.  For many, it is a frightening revelation that these mortal bodies God gives us are not impervious; they fail, they suffer and they die.4

The immediate response to the crisis was to close the churches, and move everything online, which was (and remains) the correct, responsible, and loving response.  God does not will the death of anyone, and indeed, God wills even less the death of anyone to be caused by our worship.  Christ came that we might have life, and life abundant—a truth we undermine when we put people at risk by our actions. So, separating is the right thing to do.

At the same time, when the day comes when we can gather again, what will our attitude be towards the sacraments from which we have fasted?

The liturgy takes its power not only from the words we say, but also from the space and context in which we say them. That is, ritual means a different thing, communicates a different thing when I am standing in a room with you saying the words of institution than when I am in a Zoom meeting with you.  And that ritual will mean something differently entirely when we can come together again, and you and I are both conscious in a new way of the germs on my hands, on yours, and floating in the air around us.  

The danger we are talking around, I think, in many of these debates about “virtual communion”2, is our fear of precisely that scene.  I can’t be the only one who finds herself watching TV shows, and flinching each time the characters leave their house.  We know more now, and there’s no going back.  We can’t return to the blissful ignorance of a world before the corona virus pandemic.  When we show up again in a room together, it won’t just be wonderful—it will be scary.

The best of our tradition holds an opportunity for us here. The temptation is to take the medieval approach, and further spiritualize our faith: further sever the spiritual from the physical, and declare that the fullness of a person can be communicated via their floating head on a screen. This way seems the safest, the most practical—and yet it also leaves recent events unaddressed.  If we treat people only as spirits, we cannot heal their physical wounds.  If we pretend everyone is disembodied, we cannot address the ways in which our physical nature causes us pain—a fact which is causing the whole world a lot of trauma right now.

 Yet, we hold a tradition that also promises that God came to us in this mortal flesh—as vulnerable, as frail, and as mortal as it is.  

Our sacraments involve physical objects, involve touch, because God enters our world precisely in the site of our vulnerability.  God enters our experience exactly where we find the most pain, the most suffering.  It is in our physical embodiment where we most need to experience the presence and love of God—especially in a moment when we are so aware of our physical limitations. 

We have the chance, post-pandemic, to embrace fully the physical, material nature of our sacraments.  We can brave the nervousness and fear in order to experience God made real for us in the place of our greatest weakness.  How meaningful will it be, after all this turmoil, to be able to place a wafer of bread in another human hand?  To know that in this action, God comes near to us, even as we are newly conscious of just how risky such an action can be, and how fragile our lives really are?  How powerful to rub oil into the shape of the cross on a forehead, remembering all the times we weren’t able to?  

The danger of “virtual Communion”2 isn’t just a weird understanding of eucharistic theology; it’s that it creates a gnostic split between spiritual and material that ultimately leaves the pressing concerns of our time unaddressed. To lean into the physical aspects of our sacraments (when and how it is safe to do so) communicates the reality of God’s presence into all parts of our struggling existence—and most especially the parts where we are the most broken.  

Ultimately, I think the times in which we live are far too dangerous for anything other than the fullness of the incarnate God.  Right now, we desperately need a God who comes to us in the frailty of a human body.  We need a God who saw loved ones die, feared sickness, worried over coughs.  We need a God whose power is made perfect in weakness.  We cannot offer our people anything less.

  1. A Glad bag descending from heaven, if you will. (Shout out to my GTS alums!)
  2. Not a thing; don’t @me.
  3. Pandemic miracle! Others include: a Parks and Recreation reunion episode, Ithaca getting our own Trader Joe’s.
  4.  I say “most of us”, because the disabled and chronically ill community has always been acutely aware of this.  Indeed, much of my thinking here owes a great debt to the work of disabled theologians on the critical importance of embodiment in Christian thought.

Lazarus and Grief

I did not expect to preach so much about the stay at home orders, or the pandemic. I found, to my surprise, that the experience of the pandemic was largely reflected in the Scriptures. They faced sudden calamity too! They had to struggle with isolation and fear too! Their leaders were confusing and capricious too! What do you know!

So here’s what I said the Sunday before Palm Sunday about Lazarus.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

March 29, 2020

Lent 5, Year A

Every so often these days, I find myself thinking “Oh, I need peppers for dinner tonight—I’ll just run out to the store.”  Then it takes a minute before I realize that no—I can’t just run out to the store.  Or I’ll think of something I need to tell one of you the next time I see you—only to recall a second later that “Seeing” you means something altogether different now.

This momentary forgetting is how grief works.  If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, you find that you go through times when you forget for a period that the person is dead—only to remember again a moment later.  Only right now, instead of grieving a particular person, all of us are grieving a way of life that is on hold.  

And I don’t say this to be self-indulgent.  Staying inside, self-isolating, not going to work, or to the store, or to church, or to the big celebrations we had been looking forward to is important and for extremely good reasons, and by doing these things we save people’s lives.  AND AT THE SAME TIME—it is all right to feel things about being stuck in the house all day.  It is fine to wonder how a parent who simultaneously has to work from home can also educate several squirmy kids.  It is altogether fine to wish things were different, and we could all be together in person.  It’s grief—grief is fine, and grief is human when we lose something.

Today’s gospel is all about grief.  Jesus gets word that one of his good friends, Lazarus, has died.  Now, we know Lazarus from earlier—Martha, his sister, had hosted Jesus and the disciples at her house.  This family was one of the ones that were financially supporting Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus, though, chooses to delay traveling back to Bethany, and by the time he gets there, Lazarus is dead.

Both sisters, in their turn, lay into him about this.  “Teacher, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  There’s something incredibly poignant about this scene—that’s the voice of grief right there.  Where were you, Jesus?  You could have stopped this.  You could have prevented this, and where were you?

And notice what Jesus does in the face of such sadness, grief, and even anger.  He doesn’t scold them, or tell them to have greater faith.  He doesn’t threaten them to be nicer.  He weeps.  He cries.  He joins them in their grief.

Now—of course, arguably  Jesus knows that he’s just going to raise Lazarus to life again.  He knows that he has the power to undo death itself, and so the suffering here is but temporary.  And yet, that doesn’t stop him from being so moved by the pain around him that he, too, enters into it.

If there is a better encapsulation of Jesus’ relationship to us, I don’t know what it is.  Jesus, standing with the grieving Mary and Martha beside the tomb, weeping—even as he is preparing to resurrect their brother, because he is so moved by their grief, and by the reality of what it is to be human.

Christ’s presence finds us even when we are surrounded by death.  Christ’s presence finds us even when we are buried in grief, even when we are furious with it, even when the fragility of this mortal life surrounds us on every side.  Christ’s presence finds us, just as he does when we are afraid, just as he does when we are alone, just as he always does.

Even the finality of death is no barrier to the love and presence of Christ.  Jesus resurrects Lazarus and restores him to his family.   In God, our mortal life is held secure, even amid everything that threatens it.  In the words of Paul—not even death is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

But this is not to say that the grief experienced by Jesus and the sisters wasn’t real, or wasn’t a faithful response—it was.  And more—Jesus—God incarnate—shared that grief with them.  So while we are experiencing such a time as this, such a time where our life seems intensely fragile, and grief seems all around,  I want us to hold on to two things:

The first is that death, in the sight of God, is no obstacle to Christ’s love.  For us, death means only a change, not an end, in our life in God.  God holds us so firmly in his arms of mercy that not even death can remove us.  Our state of being changes, but God loves us so deeply that through the power of Christ, no child of God is ever lost.  Ever.

The second is that God enters into our sufferings.  Even as we are assured that God has overcome death through Christ’s resurrection, God is still with us when we deal with pain and grief, because those are experiences that Christ knew too.  God enters into our sufferings, and bears it with us.  And so for us, our faithful response is not just to share our burdens with Christ, but to share one another’s burdens.  

Our grief, our sorrow, our frustration is not permanent, nor does it separate us from the God who made us and loves us.  It is a product of the love God has poured into our hearts for each other, for all that’s good in our lives.  And so God honors our grief, and asks that we treat it tenderly.

Because the love God gives us that once ached in grief will just as surely flourish in new places and in new ways.  God’s love that flows in us will bind us together, through our grief, into a new day of joy and gladness on the other side of this,  The love of God, that we have, will see us through even this.  Even this.  

Amen.