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Talking back

This week I preached at Epiphany, on one of the Top Ten Cringe-Worthy Pericopes of the Gospels. (This would make a fantastic list/review television show, don’t you think? I’d like Joel McHale to snarkily host, please, and discuss them! The Mary/Martha serving story and the Samaritan woman at the well, etc. Make it so, someone!)

While I have a grudging respect for this text, the problem with it is the same as many of the others in the Top Ten: they’re a litmus test for assumptions. If you read it, assuming that, of course, Jesus has to be right, always, and the stories are always about Jesus and His Rightness. And if you preach it from that angle, then you get to one answer. Which is fine, generally, nothing wrong with that. But this frequently leaves you with an object lesson not so much about what you, personally, should do in the world, as much as what those Other People should do in the world. (You are okay by virtue of already understanding the nature of Jesus and His Rightness, you awesome person, you!)

It is also possible, however, to more closely identify with the other characters in the story. So if you assume that the gospel stories are just as frequently about people just like us, and our reaction to Jesus and His Rightness, then you end up somewhere different. And generally, the gospel becomes a dynamic meeting place between God, and us, and our messiness.

Guess where I ended up!

Here’s what I said.

August 14, 2011
Proper 15, Year A

Fr. Roy Bourgeois was kicked out of his order last week. He’s a Roman Catholic priest, a Maryknoll priest, who, of late, has taken to travelling around the country speaking in favor of women’s ordination. Which was precisely his problem; according to the public statement from the Maryknoll order, they felt his public statements in favor of women’s ordination would give the mistaken impression that the entire Roman Church had turned a corner on this issue. So they kicked him out.
I met him when I was 18, interning at Sewanee, when he spoke to us about his work protesting the then-called School of the Americas.
And I sort of forgot about him, until a Phoenix taxi driver, a Hindu, discovering I was a priest, asked me if I knew of him.
“I’ve always admired his work,” he said. “He never had to take any of the risks he took.” He seemed like a man of integrity.

A man of integrity, and now his case is being referred to the Vatican, to see whether he will be permanently defrocked.

How do we know when to talk back? When do we decide when to challenge what we’re told? Especially when talking back is going to cost us something?

The gospel for today is a tricky one. Jesus and the disciples are evidently getting in trouble with the local religious leaders, mainly for suggesting that ritual purity is less important than purity of the heart.
Since the Pharisees were a group founded on the notion that the best and fastest way to achieve purity of the heart was through things like washing your hands, in accordance to the law of God, this suggestion of Jesus would not have been popular at all. It would have made them very annoyed.
So there’s a bit of a family feud happening– Jesus vs the Pharisees. And because it’s in the family, the rhetoric got really heated. Hence the blind leading the blind stuff. (it’s worth noting that most scholars now think Jesus had at least some ties to the Pharisees himself. That’s why there’s all this sniping.).

But what gets more troubling is when everyone heads away from Jewish territory, into Tyre and Sidon. Jesus has been saying that faith comes from within, and is shown through ritual and other works, which is fine and well and good, but here comes this poor Canaanite woman, and the wheels come right off the wagon.

Now, I’ve heard a couple different explanations given for what’s happening here. Some people think Jesus is acting deliberately dense to teach a lesson to his disciples on how not to behave. Sort of a weird object lesson of what he was trying to teach the Pharisees. Which I’d believe easier, if his disciples didn’t initiate the “send the foreign woman away!” campaign.
Some people think Jesus is testing her faith. Which just seems odd. Why has he started testing faith now, with pretend deafness and insults?
In any case, none of this quite disguises the fact that Jesus acts like a jerk to this woman. She comes to him, begging for help, and he first ignores her, then talks about her, then calls her a dog. You shouldn’t take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs. A much, much worse insult in the ancient near east than in our culture, and it’s not a compliment here.

But she comes right back at him. She answers right back.

And it’s her answer, it’s her mouthiness, if you will, that convinces Jesus of her faith. It’s that that convinces him to heal her daughter, and to pay attention to her. Her fight, her argument changes his mind, changes his behavior, and makes him listen. Her comeback makes him live up to what he was teaching in the first place.
It’s what’s inside that counts. Not race. Not ethnicity.

It was a big risk. Women didn’t speak to men they weren’t related to back then, generally speaking, non-Jews didn’t speak to Jews, especially not to rabbis. She’s taking a lot of risks.
But it’s taking this risk, that gets Jesus to look at her, finally, and recognize her faith.

Faith in her daughter, certainly, love of her daughter, certainly. But it goes deeper than that.

This woman shows faith in Jesus too. She doesn’t let Jesus get away with that sort of behavior. Somehow, sort of against the evidence, she expects better of him.

Because having faith in someone, in an organization, demands that we act as this woman did. Having faith in someone means we believe the best of them. It means we expect them to live up to what they proclaim, or at least that they try to. Walking the walk and everything, to the best of your ability.

it means that when they fall short, we remind them of what they are called to be. We don’t give up on them. We urge them on. We talk back. Even when it gets uncomfortable and unpopular, we talk back. We hold up the mirror of who they are, who they are meant to be, up so they don’t lose sight of it against all odds, and against all resistance.
Having faith in this country means asking it to live up to equal rights, due process, voting, all that stuff. Having faith in the church means you ask it to act like the church, as much as it can, please, even when it appears cheerfully hell-bent in the opposing direction.
Now, it’s a dangerous thing to have faith in a country, or in the church, or in anything, really. These things are human! They are filled with fallible people and you will get your heart broken, time and again.
But part of living on this planet is living in community. And so we are called to care for the communities we live in, for better or for worse.
The Canaanite woman goes unnamed in the Scriptures, but she’s the patron saint of all those who took a risk to hold the wider community
accountable to what we’ve been called to be. Short of the Second Coming, we are never going to entirely fulfill God’s vision for the perfect Church or the perfect city or the perfect state.
But thanks be to God, that we have examples of those who hold the mirror up to us, all through out history, to help us get there. And may God give us the grace to listen to their words of faith in our time. Amen.

Elijah: Ancient Israel’s Answer to Johnny Cash

Sunday was spent again at the friendly Local ELCA Parish, and this time, I made sure to get the readings correct. (Take that, lectionary curse!).
This was my second week in a row with Friendly ELCA Parish, and they were again so nice to me. We were scheduled to have a Camping Eucharist (oh, those crazy Lutherans!) but not enough people signed up at the last minute, which was a disappointment, because when I’m talking at length about wilderness, it helps to literally be in the wilderness. But oh well. Being on the side of a giant volcano crater, in a building, gives a similar effect.
Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan
August 10, 2011
Proper 14
1 Kings 19:9-19

One of the biggest changes I had to get used to moving out here from the East coast was the highways. Driving down 95 in the east is a pretty social experience, even if you are by yourself. There are exits every mile, with food, gas and hotels aplenty. And when you get north of the Mason-Dixon line, there are rest stops with Starbucks in them every so often. Running low on gas or caffeine, if you have the money, isn’t really a problem.
This is not the case here, as y’all know. Driving from here to Phoenix is a long stretch of desert, broken up only by Camp Verde. Other than that, you’re out of luck. No people, no food, just wilderness as far as the eye can see (which, out of the high desert, is a pretty far ways). So I’ve gotten pretty good at checking my fuel and making sure I have water. Because we have us some honest to goodness wilderness out here.

In the Old Testament, wilderness is a constant. The Israelites wander in the wilderness for 40 years (or, in biblespeak, a really long time). Moses meets God in the burning bush in the wilderness. Hagar escapes with Ishmael and is saved in the wilderness. Abraham hears God and receives the covenant in the wilderness. Most really important things happen for the people of Israel while in the wilderness.

Which actually sort of bugs them. Because, if you read these stories, they aren’t fans of the wilderness. No one is. And here, I’m not necessarily talking about the relative merits of Starbucks vs camping, or the beach vs the desert or the mountains.

For the ancient people of Israel, the wilderness was the murky undefined place you went when you were on your way somewhere. It was an in-between place. A place of getting lost and being confused and not having a settled home, or roots. Which, for a group like the Israelites, who defined themselves in relation to the Promised Land, was a really unsettling feeling.

But. The wilderness is also always where God shows up. Always.

So today. We meet Elijah as he’s fleeing to the wilderness. Now, understand this about Elijah– it takes a lot to make him flee. He’s the greatest, most confident prophet Israel has ever had. He’s Notorious. He’s intimidating. He calls the shots. To picture him in an ancient near eastern equivalent of a black leather motorcycle jacket would not be far off.
No one messes with Elijah.

Until someone does.

Elijah’s problem begins when King Ahab marries a non-Israelite woman named Jezebel. And I know you’ve all heard of her. Or at least can guess that she was not a model of kindness and decorum.

Right away, she gets on Elijah’s bad side, because she brings her gods and her cultic practices with her. She re starts the worship of Baal in Israel– rebuilds the temples on the mountains to Baal, whole nine yards.

So Elijah, being no shrinking violet, offers her priests a challenge– whose god could call down fire from the sky to burn the offered sacrifices? It doesn’t go great–
This little bet ends with Elijah slaughtering the 450 Baal priests singlehandedly, and Jezebel offering to kill Elijah by the next sundown.

Realizing that perhaps he’s gone a wee bit far, Elijah flees to the wilderness. All the way to the wilderness. He flees from Mt. Carmel in the north (right by Lebanon) to the desert of Beer-Sheba in the south. In today’s terms, that’s about a 4 hour car ride on nice highways with no traffic. Or checkpoints.

Elijah is out of options. He’s convinced that his nice career as a court prophet and an Alive Person has come to an end. But more than that, God seems to have abandoned him. The god who so readily came to his aid and killed this hundreds of Idol worshipping heathens in a blaze of fire from the sky is nowhere to be found.

After all, prophets who are on the good side of God don’t have to flee the kingdom in the dead of night. That’s not how this is supposed to work.

So we meet Elijah today, in a funk. In a cave. In the wilderness. Alone and confused and depressed.

Because what has worked up til now has stopped working. He’s in a cave, towel thrown in.
When something odd happens.

God calls to him, and asks him what he’s doing there. And the whole sad story pours out– and note please, how pitiful and picked on mighty Elijah makes himself sound. It’s great. He’s having a real pity party in that cave.

And then God shows up himself.
But something’s different. Because this God isn’t in the earthquake or the mighty wind that splits the boulders, or the fire that destroys. This is a still, small silent God.

This God who appears to Elijah now is a far cry from the god who threw down fire from the sky and killed all those idol worshippers. This God appears in silence. In peace.

It’s a major attitude adjustment for Elijah. But he hears God again. He refinds his calling. And God sends him back to do what God has been calling him to do. To use his gifts in a different way,

But that’s what happens in the wilderness, in those unsettled places, unrooted places. Places of travel, of transition. You go in one way, you come out another.
Sometimes by conscious choice, and most of the time, not. But the wildernesses of our lives always offer the opportunity to stop and refocus on where we are being called. Who we being called to be. And who is doing the calling. And the voice we hear may not be the same each time we pass through. But it’s there if we listen– often in the most mundane places.

I used to work the overnight shift in a 24 hour gas station and convenience store off the PA turnpike. So around 2-3 am I would get the long haul truckers in to get coffee and snacks. They’d come in looking tired, but always would perk up when I’d hand them coffee. One guy commented to me early one morning that it was just nice to see another person, alive and awake, like he was, and talk to someone not through a radio. It made him feel less alone in the world, he said.

The times we spend in the wilderness, the times we spend uprooted, feeling confused and drifting. These can be scary times. But these are times that God uses to refresh and reorient us as we journey. God calls us to the wilderness– Christ calls us out of the boat– and with God waiting for us, what can we do but follow?

So if you’ve been panicking that I won’t post any more sermons on here now that the summer is ending, fear not! I seem to have been hired by another semi-local ELCA church to preach at them until they can hire a regular pastor. So the sermons, they shall continue.
Also, seriously, the Rob Bell thing is coming. For Real this time.

When the Lectionary attacks…

I’m back! Now that my second week of camp, plus a week of intensive community organizer training, (possibly more on that later) plus a week of East Coast friend seeing, has ended, I’m back in the coolness of the AZ mountains.

And fittingly, today, I preached at the Friendly Local ELCA parish. Where the RCL decided to attack me. This will make more sense if you read the sermon, but I start out by saying slightly unflattering things about the lectionary’s habit of taking scripture out of context. Evidently, there was some sort of karma attached to this, because when. I got to church this morning, I discovered that this parish wasn’t reading the Genesis reading– they were reading the alternately scheduled Isaiah one.
I had written a sermon half on an unread reading.
Curses, lectionary! Foiled again!
It turned out okay. I worked in my error and told the congregation that they were getting a special, bonus reading, “like Ginsu knives!”

And here’s what I said.

July 31, 2011
Proper 13, Year A, Ordinary Time
Genesis 32:22-31, Matthew 14:13-21

The lectionary– the schedule of what from the bible we are supposed to read every Sunday, along with most other mainline Christians– has some really good points.

It forces us to read almost all of the Bible over a three year cycle, it forces preachers to preach on stuff that most of us would rather avoid, rather than our two or three (or one) favorite topic, over and over. And it keeps us on the same track as Catholics, the orthodox, Methodists, us Episcopalians, you Lutherans, some baptists even, almost everyone! Which is nice, nowadays.

But unfortunately, occasionally the lectionary pulls something like it does this week.
(and I’m telling you right now, one of the things the lectionary pulled this week was that I prepared part of this sermon on the alternate OT reading, rather than the one we actually read. So when you hear me talking about Jacob wrestling with the angel, that’s what’s happening. Think of it as a bonus story, like Ginsu knives!)
Observe the gospel: “when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the town.”. Then follows the argument with the disciples about who will feed all these hungry people, and everything else, but it starts with Something Happening.
Something that the lectionary skips over.
Which is really unfortunate, because this Something is very important, because, if you have read back in ch 14, then you know that what’s just happened is the execution of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod.
Jesus hears the news, and has to go grieve in private. The crowd to whom he’s been preaching, immediately find him so that he can comfort them. And he has pity on them.

And knowing that, how different the whole story sounds now. The moments of conflict, of questioning struggle, of tension, inform everything else. They are important, and can’t be glossed over.

It’s true in the Jacob story as well.

Now, if you’ve been reading along on the Genesis track these past few weeks, then you know that despite having a rather big role to play in the relationship between God and the Israelites, Jacob was not a fine, upstanding character. He steals his older brother’s birthright, he tricks his father-in-law, he robs him as well, and occasionally, has the grace to feel slight regret about it. He’s not the person you’d necessarily want your kid to look up to, morality wise, but he survives.

When we meet him this time, he is alone, beside a river.
Again, what comes before is important. He is beside this river alone because he is preparing to reunite with his estranged brother Esau. He’s sent all his wives, children, and flocks on ahead, because he’s pretty sure his brother is going to kill him, on account of that whole stealing-the-birthright-and-leaving-him-penniless thing. So Jacob has gone ahead alone to meet him, and contain the damage.
He’s not in a happy confident place, and it’s in this context that he wrestles with the stranger.
He struggles. Despite a conviction that he will lose all he has, and despite a sort of sneaking suspicion that he might deserve that, Jacob still wrestles with God.

It’s the struggle, the tension that’s important.

The struggle is what leads him to God, it’s what leads us to God. Not skipping over it. Not wishing it away or cutting it out. That struggle, that wrestling, that is what we call faith.

Because faith isn’t figuring out the answers one day in a blinding flash of light, then never questioning them again. Faith is wrestling with God. Faith is withdrawing by yourself in a sulk so that God has to come find you. Faith is being a holy pest. Faith is a messy, messy process of asking and answering and asking over and over and over again.

And yet….often times, we try to forget that part. We try to forget about the messiness. We try to get away without having to struggle. Today, the lectionary presented these stories as context-free, sort of glossing over everything messy that was lurking underneath, behind and around them.
Jesus didn’t just wander up to a cheerful crowd and decide to feed them. This crowd was grieving the execution of their leader at the hands of a tyrant, and Jesus was moved to pity for them. So he argued with his disciples in favor of feeding them. “Don’t send them away–YOU give them something to eat.”.

Jacob didn’t just lay down for a good night’s sleep of the contented and satisfied and see God, he was guilt ridden and troubled about where he had ended up in his life. And with good reason. But his panic and his guilt cause him to grab hold of the stranger and refuse to let go until he has a blessing.

We’ve seen in these past weeks some of the very real dangers of clinging to easy answers. Clinging to hard and fast answers that never change through time or circumstance, that don’t see the image of God imprinted on each human face. that divide people into fixed categories of good and evil, worthy, and unworthy, worthy of life, and worthy of death.
The events on Norway have shown us once again how dangerous this is, because the man who killed all those people, claims to have done it for the sake of the faith we profess.

Now we who sit here know full well that only a total perversion of Christianity could even come close to allowing such violence and hatred. Mass murder has no relation, no justification in the gospel of love Jesus came to proclaim.

But it becomes ever easier to shape the gospel in our own image when we decide that true faith can involve none of the messiness of revision or diversity. When we decide that our certainty has the final word, and not the Spirit who leads us slowly into a greater truth.

Because, truly, it is the Spirit of God who wrestles with us, in our questioning, and our struggles. And though at times it seems exhausting and fruitless, it is through wrestling that Jacob receives his blessing, and it is through arguing that Jesus feeds the crowd.

Not easy certainty. Certainty doesn’t need a living God; A wrestling faith does.

Faith is messy, and exhausting, and a lot of work. But a living God, a living Spirit demands a live response from us and it never gives up.


Oh and one more thing. I promise, PROMISE! To finish the Rob Bell series. I have finished the book, and I just need to write up the final post(s). They should be up later this week, or early next week.

Jesus! Now with extra-bonus wisdom action

I’m not dead, in case you were curious. Last week was the week between my two weeks at camp, and contained all the things that needed to get done between being away from regularly-scheduled work for nearly all of July. Meetings, meetings and more meetings. And an ordination (yay!) and More meetings.

So Sunday was nearly a relief. I was back again at the Friendly Local ELCA parish, where I forgot no major portion of the liturgy, and actually recognized the setting! (they have 10 in the new book. This seems excessive to me, especially since they aren’t really mix-and-match, like ours).
Here’s what I said.

July 3, 2011
Proper 9, Ordinary Time. Year A
Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30

What is the wisest thing you’ve ever heard? Do you think of catchy needlepoint sampler sayings, or sentiments from greeting cards? Or quips from bumper stickers? Quotes from sermons, dare I hope?
Or do you remember the voice of your mother, your grandfather, your neighbor down the street, making some sage comment about life?
What is it that catches our ear, makes us stop and say, “that right there, that’s worth listening to. That’s wisdom.”?

For the people of Jesus’s day, wisdom meant something pretty specific. It wasn’t just something someone says that sounded halfway smart. Wisdom was an entire theological tradition within Israelite religion, wherein it was believed that by studying the world, nature, people, the sun, the moon, etc, you could learn to understand God, since God set all these things in motion in the first place. Wisdom wasn’t just being smart– it was coming close to God through understanding.
It’s this wisdom tradition within Judaism that gives us several books in the OT: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, and several in the Apocrypha. In these books, the idea of wisdom, this powerful understanding, is personified. Wisdom is depicted as a woman who beckons and encourages seekers to look for her, and find her, so that she might lead them to God. Check out Proverbs 8: wisdom personified says, “to you, oh people, I call, and my call is to all who live…the Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.
30 then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.
35 For whoever finds me finds life
and obtains favor from the Lord;
Some gorgeous stuff in the murky corners of the Old Testament, huh?

So this is wisdom. The joyous wisdom that delights in the creation of God, and the human race, and gleefully brings humanity closer to God.

I mention all this, because in the gospel for today, Jesus begins by disparaging the crowd for refusing to listen to either John the Baptist or himself, no matter what they do. And he uses the image of children playing games in the marketplace– first playing wedding, and then funeral. (this is common in lots of different parts of the world for kids to act out wedding ceremonies as a game, as well as act out funerals. People died a lot back then).
No matter what we did, he says, you wouldn’t play along. John was too strict, so he has a demon. Jesus is too lax, so he must be a glutton and drunkard, and all of you should be sure to remember this passage, because it sure comes in handy the next time you have to have a proof-txt battle with someone.
No matter what we did, he says, you couldn’t join the game.
But it’s ok, because wisdom is justified by her fruits.
There’s wisdom!

And throughout the prayer that follows, Jesus, the Son, becomes the one who can show best what the Father is up to. Jesus becomes that embodiment of joyful, freeing, knowledge. For the hearers, Jesus becomes that sought-after wisdom.

Which causes me to wonder: in our lives as Christians, is this the picture of Jesus that we present to the world? Is the Jesus that we tell the world about a Jesus of figure of joy, of comfort, someone who can talk freely about the games of children,
who, we can picture, rejoices in the inhabited world, and delights in the human race? Is our Jesus a figure of wisdom?

I came home the other day to find a tract on my front door from one of the local storefront churches. On it was a question: “if you died right now, can you be sure you’re going to heaven?”. Below that was the classic, dante’s inferno type picture of hell burning away, as if to suggest that the writers of this pamphlet did not share my confidence.
Inside was the usual– we’ve all sinned, which made God mad, so you should say the sinner’s prayer, and then you too can go to heaven. Oh, and please come to church on Sunday!

And it made me wonder, what sort of Jesus, what sort of God does this sort of thing show people?
We are in the business of the gospel, we are in the business of good news. And good news should sound….good. It should sound joyful. Good news should sound like Jesus does– come to me all who are heavy laden and I will refresh you.

But good news is hard to hear, if not impossible, when it comes with a threat. When it comes presented with anger and condemnation. When it comes stripped of comfort and joy and wisdom at all. We in the church so frequently forget that our news is good. That Jesus is joyful. And delights in humanity, And comes to give us comfort. Anything that detracts from that central truth of who Christ is needs to take a back seat.

From somewhere, maybe, we got the impression that more people would listen if we just scared them out of their wits. But this isn’t working, and what’s worse, it clouds the good news. It’s hard to believe that Jesus wants to comfort and console if he’s depicted as a scary bouncer at the gates of heaven.

We’ve spent years selling ourselves short. We’ve spent a long time telling ourselves and the rest of the world that Christianity is an extremely scary, and serious business, with little room for joy, and mirth and delight.

Whether the world admits it or not, it has a hunger for good news. Too long, it has only heard of a God of anger, wrath and fear. Our world longs for exactly what we already know, the good news we have to share.
The world needs to hear of the Jesus who calls us to sing and dance, and who calls to bring us comfort from our burdens, not to add to them.

So remember the good news you have to share. Remember that it is good news, not frightening, not angry, not hateful. This is the news the world so longs for.
So in everything you do, and say, and are, remember to do it in the name of the Jesus of comfort and love and wisdom, who came to share our burdens. Maybe you’ll get called names, get called a glutton, a drunkard, a weirdo. But someone needs to hear words of comfort and love and grace, and you’re just the one to speak them.

This week: back at Chapel Rock, for an actual camp session with actual campers, opposed to training the counselors.
I do promise, though, another Rob Bell post before the week is over, however. I promise, I promise.

And one final note: one thing among many I learned this week: it is significantly harder to preach on Wisdom when you are speaking to a congregation that does not consider the Apocrypha to be canon. (imagine the NBC PSA music playing).

Why Jerry Falwell has ruined it for the rest of us

So a few different things this week!
For the first time since June of 2006, I did not have to preach on Trinity Sunday. While I consider this a milestone reached in my career, it also means that I don’t have a sermon to post here.
And also, since I am at camp this week, there will a short break in my review of “Love Wins”, since I left my book at home.

In the meantime, I am here at camp, helping to train counselors. Which has started me thinking (again) about something that I get asked pretty regularly, along with “Aren’t you too young to be a priest?” and “Is the Nielsen television rating system ridiculously antiquated for today’s increase in Internet video streaming technology?” (Answers: no and yes).
About once every two weeks, I get asked some question, beginning with the phrase “so you’re a young person…[insert question here]?”.
It’s hard to explain. Evidently, the population under 35 years of age, is like a foreign land, not unlike the past. But it is important to the church to try to understand these Young People, to speak their language, to know their customs and their ways, and I feel myself to be an Ambassador from this unknown land.

To that end, I present the first in an occasional series entitled Megan’s Helpful Hints for Preaching and Teaching with Millennials.
To be clear, these should not be taken as absolute gospel. (Part of what amuses me about being asked to give voice to an ENTIRE GENERATION is that I am a priest. I am not a ‘normal’ young person.)
Neither should these be restricted to only useful for young people. In my experience, as the church, and our American society as a whole, undergoes this massive change, the way we speak to and about each other has changed. For this reason, the language and rhetoric we use in church needs to change. Or no one will understand what we mean anymore.

Hint #1. Assume extreme mistrust.
This is not personal. This is not to say that you are not a perfectly lovely, friendly person who is delightful to know and associate with.
But you need to assume that anyone you meet, under the age of 40, and very many other people besides, be they churched or unchurched, be they cradle Episcopalian or a walk-in from the Baptist church down the street Does. Not. Trust. You.

This is for a few reasons (and lest I give you a complex, none of these are your fault, strictly speaking). First off, this young person has grown up in an world where Watergate and Vietnam have always been. The government has never, ever been seen as truthful or trustworthy. These things have not existed in her/his world. Institutions lie, and her/his whole existence has been shaped in part by a barrage of advertisements, trying to sell them things on a continual basis. Ads and shifty advertising language have been coming at them since the moment of birth, another fact of life. Most unfortunately, in their mind, the church is an institution, in there with the government and corporations.

Also, the only voice of Christianity in this person’s lifetime has been the televangelists through the media. Millennials are media-saturated. While you cannot assume that they can tell you the story of the good Samaritan, you can assume that they have heard the phrase ‘being saved’ or ‘personal relationship with Jesus’. Or ‘going to hell’. The infamous purple Teletubby incident? Pat Robertson saying 9/11 was the fault of the feminists and the ACLU? They heard about that. In their lifetime, Christianity has earned for itself a reputation as hypocritical and hateful, with little countering public voice.

It may sound abstract– it’s not. It takes a serious psychological toll to hear that an all powerful, all knowing God wants you (and probably most people you know) to burn in hell because you don’t believe the right thing/do the right thing/live the right way/say the right words. Great news! The smartest, best power in the universe sees you for what you are, and wants to destroy you, because you are so bad.

This is the ‘gospel’ that televangelists have managed to communicate for the last 35 years. Consistently. On the radio, on television, on the street corner, on billboards, in the media, and in politics.

Think of it as a generation that has been spiritually abused, subtly and continually.
Millennials see you, the religious authority, and all they expect to hear is more of the same.
Either outright condemnation and a guilt trip, or hypocrisy.

So, the ball is in your court, which is unfair, but there you go. While, yes, you personally didn’t create the phenomenon of 1970s-1980s televangelism, and the rise of the Religious Right in America, you are still going to have to work three times as hard to convince a terrified population that you really won’t hurt them. You don’t hate gays, you don’t believe Obama is secretly the Antichrist, and you don’t believe that rock and roll is the devil’s music. Evolution is quite nice, and no one is going to hell.

There is no magic cure, or easy fix, but a big help is realizing how damaged a huge portion of the population is. So maybe we’re being called to be not so much a social club for the pampered, but a refugee shelter. There’s a lot more care required.