RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Sermon dump

Again? Again.

I took a class in seminary called ‘Evil, Suffering, and the Liturgy’.  It consisted of heady discussions of different theological ideas about why evil occurred in the world, and religious concepts of suffering, and very practical case studies about how to construct different liturgies around tragic events: suicides, miscarriages, civil emergencies, etc.

It turned out to be the most practical class I ever took.

The massacre at Virginia Tech happened while I was in that class.  I had friends attending Tech at the time, and I had just found out that they were all ok.  When I walked into the classroom, Professor Farwell said, “I know today is hard, and I am sorry to do this to you.  But our assignment today is to figure out your response were you the rector of the parish in Blacksburg.  Because this will be your job.”

What I didn’t figure on is that this would be my job as often as it has been.  It doesn’t get easier; I think it gets harder.

I was beginning a week at camp when the news of Orlando broke.  I said something about it in my homily with the camp staff, and talked it through with shaken and scared youth during the week.  I spent a lot of time on the phone trying to pull together a city-wide vigil at the cathedral.  I did those good church things you’re supposed to do.  But in the end, I am left wondering how many weeks until I have to do this all over again.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 19, 2016

Ordinary Time, Proper 7

1 Kings 19: 1-4 (5-7)8-15a

 

Cast your minds back–way back several weeks ago. I know lots has happened, but see if you can recall.  Remember last time I talked to you and Elijah was calling down fire from the sky in a contest against the prophets of Baal?  Oh good times.  How young and innocent we all were.

 

If you missed that Sunday, here’s the fun recap:  Elijah is mad because the people of Israel have again gotten confused (they have the attention span of Dory). And they have started worshipping other gods.  They are encouraged in this by the new queen, Jezebel, who is not an Israelite, and doesn’t worship YHWH, but does worship Baal.  

So, Elijah thinks up a neat contest.  He challenges the prophets of Baal to a fight–whoever’s god sends down enough fire to consume a sacrifice wins.  The priests of Baal try hard, but to no avail.  (They are not helped by Elijah, who taunts them sarcastically the whole time, in some masterful biblical snark.)  Then, Elijah steps up.  He shows off by dousing his offering in water, and THEN calling down fire.  

Contest won.  

And then, he goes even further, and kills all the rival priests, to really make his point.  Elijah is a bit scary.

 

So that’s where our story picks up–Elijah has just gone all Rambo on some Canaanite priests.  And Jezebel is understandably upset.  So Elijah panics and flees from Mt Carmel (which is up in the north of Galilee) all the way to the southern tip of the Negev desert.  

Unless you have a solid grasp of Israelite geography, it’s hard to understand what he’s doing, but essentially, he’s running away as far as he can absolutely get.  He heads to the ends of the earth, because his actions are catching up with him.  

 

And once he reaches the desert, he holes up in a cave, and pitches a fit.  I HAVE BEEN SO GOOD AND DONE SO WELL, BUT NO ONE LOVES ME.  LET ME ALONE SO THAT I MAY DIE.  he says.  Elijah is not pleased that his stunt with the Canaanite priests did not work out the way he wanted.  I don’t know what he thought was going to happen–a parade, a festival in his honor, a rededicated people to the service of the Lord, but evidently it did not include exile and an angry queen.  Elijah is annoyed. (Btw, there is no whinier group of people in all creation than either the prophets, or the people of Israel.  It’s amazing.)  So he sits in a cave, in the desert, and pouts.  And waits for God to either kill him or speak to him.  

 

And God does speak–but not in the right way.  Or not in the way Elijah wants.

 

Because first there’s a mighty rushing wind, that splits rocks, and breaks the face of the mountain.  But that’s not God.  Then there’s an enormous fire, that wrecks havoc and destruction across the landscape.  But God’s not there either.  And there’s an earthquake, that shakes the ground, and shatters boulders.  But that’s not God either.

 

Finally, there’s the sound of sheer silence.  

 

That’s where God shows up.

 

It’s tempting to read this as “God likes the quiet! Meditation is good!” And that’s perfectly fine. Representing God as a still, small voice is fine.  That inner voice, we do need to listen to that.

 

But location, as any real estate agent will tell you–is everything. And Elijah is searching for divine reassurance after he’s committed a pretty horrific act of violence. And quite frankly, on this day, on this week, if this is just a story about how God likes quiet walks, and has no comment over acts of murderous rage–we have a big problem.

 

Because what Elijah did was horrible.  The slaughter of the Canaanite priests is one of the more gruesome stories in scripture.  Elijah might be a prophet of God, but I don’t care who you are, killing a whole bunch of people is not okay. It’s just not, regardless of Elijah’s bravado.

 

And so watch closely. The violence of nature mirrors the violence that Elijah has been enacting.  The wind, the earthquake, the fire. They destroy creation like Elijah has been doing. And yet, despite what Elijah has been saying, God isn’t present in this violence. God isn’t glorified in destruction.

 

God shows up in the peace.  God shows up in no act of power, but a total absence of it.  That is where God shows up.

 

It’s a lesson Elijah struggles with all his life–this is the last we see of him, really.  The next thing he does is go off to name his successor. But lest we be too hard on Elijah, it’s also a lesson we all struggle with.  

 

The thought that God supports violence, that God is praised when we hate others is pernicious untruth that has persisted through the millennia.  It’s endemic to all of humanity.  God is powerful, therefore God must be glorified when we use our power over others–the story runs.  And we are tempted into believing that the more power we accumulate, through violence, through weapons, through weaponized hate, then the more like an all-powerful god we will become.

 

We don’t have Baal to tempt us in 2016.  What we have is hatred and violence.  

 

And this week, in the massacre in Orlando, we see again where these false gods lead.  Not to a just and secure world, but to heartache and pain.  Again and again and again.  Because while hatred and violence might promise relief from the fear that plagues us–they don’t.  And we just end up here again.

 

The hope that we have is that God is not found through violence.  Indeed, God came among us and became so powerless that Christ suffered a violent death himself.  Because the heart of God is peace.  The will of God is love.  And to prove that point better than anything else, Christ embraced the suffering endemic to our world.  

 

So what we learn again this week is that God is with us when we suffer.  When we are in pain, when we grieve, God suffers too.   When we suffer loss, God weeps as well–urging us to choose a better way.  And one day, one day, maybe we will.  

Amen.

 

Fear Itself

I’m not a fan of gender essentialism.  (Shock!) Whether it’s the toy aisle at Target or pronouncing salad to be ‘lady food’ (which, by the way, is still evidently an oft-told folktale in the Diocese of Southern Virginia.)   People are complex and different, and quite frankly, I have never found gender to be a very good predictor of much.

However, this doesn’t imply that denying women a voice in discussions doesn’t lead to certain myopias.  It’s not that letting one woman speak will give you a perspective on all women, everywhere.  (No, Mel Gibson–that’s not a thing.)  But it enlarges the discussion in important ways, due to the systemic ways women are treated in society.

All this is to say–the theological argument that pride is the original sin seems skewed to me.  That’s the argument of someone who has always been encouraged, either explicitly or implicitly, by the world to think well of themselves–and for groups who are told by the world that they are worthless, to argue against pride in any form becomes dangerous.

Here is where I politely remind you that theology always has real-world consequences, and we need to be conscious of them–lest the Good News of freedom we preach turn to oppression.

To that end….

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday, Year C

Luke 23: 1-49

 

Theologians like to argue over weird stuff.  I have friends on Facebook who are full-time theologians, and they get into knock-down, drag out fights over atonement theories, about which old-time theologian was the best, about whether predestination is a thing.  
And they argue over what original sin is.  

Because they’re professional theologians, they are not content with just arguing whether original sin exists, or how it continues on–no, they must try to figure out which sin it is!  Now, most of Western Christianity has maintained that original sin is pride.  Augustine on forward thought that it was the pride of humans that caused the first Fall, back in the garden of Eden.  When Eve wanted to be like God, knowing Good and Evil, and she ate the apple–that was the problem.  Pride, and overzealous ambition.  And so pride trips us up ever since.

 

I am unconvinced.  While I think pride is a bad thing, and surely responsible for a lot of the problems in the world, I don’t think overzealous pride is a universal failing.  (And, honestly, this is one of those issues that crop up when only men are allowed to be theologians for so long.)

 

If you look around the world today, the cancer that seems to be infecting the world isn’t pride, as much as it is fear.  

 

It’s everywhere–Fear of immigrants, fear of refugees, fear of Muslims, fear of crime, fear of those people stealing our jobs, fear of not having enough, fear of those kids not pulling their weight, fear of…you name it–we’ve found a way to be afraid of it.  It’s fear.

 

This creeping insecurity surrounds us–and deludes us into turning our back on our relationship with God, and with each other.  This sort of paranoia convinces us that nothing can be trusted, that everything could be a danger, and that safety has to be our highest goal–instead of God.  

 

The story of the Passion is a series of fearful people, one after another.  

 

The Temple priests and leaders are scared–Jesus has been teaching and riling up the people for a while now.  The Temple hierarchy gets a certain (small) amount of power under Rome, so long as they keep their people in line.  Now, it looks like another charismatic preacher from Galilee is on the horizon, and about to trigger another revolution–one which will have a high body count among their people, and lead to their loss of power. So they move to stop Jesus, before any of that happens.  (FWIW–it doesn’t work.  A revolt, started by yet another charismatic Galilean figure starts 30 years later, and Jerusalem still burns.)

 

The Temple leaders hand him over to Pilate, arguing that Jesus is a threat to Rome, Jerusalem, and all of them!  They’re so afraid, they want Pilate to join them in their fear.    

 

And Pilate, he was afraid.  The Roman regime was threatened.  Every Passover pilgrims rushed the city to recall the LAST time God saved them from foreign oppressors.  The city was already on edge.  

 

And Pilate’s claim to fame was being ruthless with opposition.  His job was to keep the peace in Dodge however brutal he had to be.  And he so badly doesn’t want to make a decision, he passes the baton off to Herod.

 

And Herod–keeps power through pacifying Rome.  So he, too, doesn’t want to do anything–either to annoy Rome or his Jewish subjects.

 

Back to Pilate.  Who tries to get out of a decision, but to no avail.   Finally lets fear of crowd, of failure, of larger empire trump what he knows, and gives in.  (He’s not a hero here.)

 

And that’s not all–the disciples run away too.  

 

So a series of fearful people lead us to Golgatha under the blazing noonday sun on a hill outside the city, with crosses lining the horizon.

 

Fear is what separates us from the love of God.  Fear tells us we don’t have enough, we cannot share.  Fear tells us the Other is a threat.  That they are to be hated.  Fear tells us that to keep what we have we have to hoard and fight and scrimp and hide. That we aren’t enough, that all we have is ourselves.

Fear lies.  

 

Scripture tells us perfect love casts out fear.  And in this week, we see Love itself enter into the worst of our fears, and assure us that we aren’t alone.  We aren’t abandoned.  That there is nothing we fear that Christ cannot bear with us.  That in the love of Christ, none of our fears can truly separate us from the love of God.  

 

That in the end, God–Love itself, is stronger than Fear, stronger than Death, and on Easter morning, destroys the last of what there is to fear.  All we have to do is hold on til then.

 

Amen.

 

AJ Levine is my Shoe (and everything else) Heroine

I attended a preaching conference once with Amy-Jill Levine.  If you don’t know who she is, then I have the delightful task of introducing her to you.

She is a renowned New Testament scholar and author and also Jewish.  And teaches at Vanderbilt.  (Also–she has fabulous shoes.  Basically, she’s who I want to be when I grow up.)  That may sound weird to you, but if you’ve read anything she’s written, then you’ll see that she brings enormous value to the discussion of the Gospel texts.

She spoke to us about the pitfalls of preaching during Holy Week, and the many ways Christian preachers walk right into anti-semitism, mostly without realizing it.  Her lecture was so good, and so practical, that I refer to those notes every single year.

The Holy Week texts are loaded, and not just with religious angst.  They are also loaded because it was from these Passion narratives that generations of hatred sprang–and if we ignore that, then we give it tacit license to continue.  Unless we call out the history of the texts, unless we name the problems in them, then we allow this mess to continue.

It’s a tightrope.  Here’s my attempt from Maundy Thursday.

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

March 24, 2016

Maundy Thursday, Year C

 

There’s a common trope in Bible study–the God of the Old testament vs the God of Jesus.  The God in the Old Testament is violent, angry, and legalistic–always wanting sacrifice!  The God of Jesus is loving, inclusive and all about grace.  No violence, no sacrificing to be found.

There are numerous problems with this–aside from the fact that it’s way too simplistic.  (Protip: anytime anyone attempts to summarize something as complex as the Bible in the space of a tweet, ignore them.  They’re probably missing something.)  

This view, as well meaning as it is–because who doesn’t want to emphasize love and grace?, sets up the idea that Jewish people, since they follow that Old Testament God, are also violent, angry and legalistic…when all you have to do is think about this for a second to realize that this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.   It also skips huge parts of the canon (if Jesus’ God is really all that loving and non-confrontational, what on earth is happening in Revelations, and where did the Left Behind series come from?)  And Marcion would be a big fan (yeah–Google it later.)  

So it’s a problem. And we need to be careful–especially at this time of year, because well-worn ideas like the OT God vs the NT God are often so familiar they creep in without our realizing it.  But Jesus’ God–the God he knew, loved, and preached, WAS the God of the Old Testament.  

God is God all the time.  God doesn’t change.  And God demands a lot, as it turns out.

The reading from Exodus sounds like that imaginary OT God talking.  Take a lamb, one without blemish, and eat it roasted.  Leave none of it for tomorrow–eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  Eat with your staff in your hand, your loins girded, your sandals on your feet…on and on.  For tonight I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt–both human beings and animals.  This is the passover of the Lord.

It’s pretty brutal.  We aren’t used to much talk about sacrificing sheep, or smearing blood over things.  It’s ominous sounding–the vision of a last meal, eaten in darkness, as the Israelites secretly prepare to flee their slavery.   And the talk of the death of the first born is worse.  It just is.

So it’s tempting to hear Jesus’ talk about foot washing, about loving one another as a reprieve.  Oh hey!  No one’s killing cute baby animals!  All we have to do is be nice. Totally manageable.

Then we try it.

And people are sort of awful.  I mean, not all the time.  But a shockingly high amount of the time–people are hard to love.  

People can be different, they can be scary.  They can do things that challenge us. Sometimes we see them making bad decisions.   Sometimes they’re annoying or infuriating, or just hard to understand.  And sometimes they downright hurt us.–and so it feels  easier to dislike a lot of them, or hate them.  Or just ignore them altogether.  Because the truth is–people are just hard to love sometimes.  

The challenging thing about Jesus is, however, that Jesus doesn’t let us off that easily.  On the night before he died, Jesus told his followers to love one another as he loved them.  We have to love one another.  

The simplest, most impossible thing to do.

And being Jesus, he went farther than that–he demonstrated what that meant  He gave us bread and wine, and declared it to be his very self.  Here is my very body, he told his friends–given for you.  Want to know what love looks like?  This is it.  Do this in remembrance of me.

In the Eucharist, Jesus gives us his very self.  His body, his blood.  In bits of the most ordinary stuff imaginable.  So that we could have a tangible expression of Divine Love in this material ordinary things.  And so that we could learn to go and do likewise.  

When seen like that, really, that thing with the Exodus doesn’t seem that extreme.  All they had to do was sacrifice a sheep once a year.  Make a meal, and move on.  We are called upon to sacrifice our selves.  To give all we are and have to the healing of world.  Our resources, our skills, everything we have.  So that the world can have a glimpse of divine love in us.  

We are called to be the Eucharist for the world, gathered, blessed and given to the world around us.  We are called to pour ourselves out like wine for the life and wellbeing of the world.  The way the sheep made the people of Israel free–we are called to help make others free.  

And we are assured in Christ’s resurrection that as we do all this, we will be renewed in Christ’s life and love.  

Amen.

 

A Long, Long time ago

Happy Fourth Day of Christmas!  I hope everyone is enjoying a well-deserved rest over these holidays.

Advent ended for me in a whirl.  I had grand plans this year of doing so much holiday baking, of discovering new cookie recipes, of wandering aimlessly through the Plaza lights, reveling in the scenery….absolutely none of that happened.

Instead, as my parish admin put it, “People just people-ed all over everything” as is wont to happen around major Church feasts, and I did absolutely no baking whatsoever.  I managed to ship off my family’s presents on the absolutely last day possible, and I did no aimless wandering anywhere.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent is always one of my favorites.  We get to read the Magnificat and talk about Mary, Mother of Jesus, who is easily one of the most kickass women in all of scripture, and a good model of the priesthood**

So despite the fact that my brain had reduced down to mush, and I was amusing myself making lists of biblical mascots for the deanery***, I wrote this.  See what you think.

December 19-20, 2015

Advent 4

Luke 1:39-47

 

So, I, like the rest of America, has been obsessed with the musical Hamilton for a few months now.  It’s the story of Alexander Hamilton–American founding father–as told through hip hop.  Believe me when I tell you that it works.  

One of the central themes of the show–all of which: book, music, lyrics, everything, is written by a young Puerto Rican man–is that who tells the story is important.  Easily the most important thing.  The show is narrated by Aaron Burr–who shot Hamilton, but it’s sort of meta-narrated by Hamilton’s wife…who, in history, survived to tell Hamilton’s story….never mind.  Just go see it.

Here is why I’m telling you this.  There are two stories about what happens to his parents before Jesus is born–one in Matthew, one in Luke.  Two versions of the annunciation.  
Matthew tells it from Joseph’s perspective.  Joseph is hanging out, minding his own business, when he hears that Mary, his fiancee is pregnant.  Joseph decides to be nice about it, and break up with her quietly, rather than make her go through the (literal!) public stoning which would otherwise ensue.  Sweet guy.  

Then, he gets an angel appearing in a dream, which tells him, not so fast.  “Do not, in fact, be afraid to marry Mary, because she’s having a special kid.”  So, Joseph changes course, and all is fine. (Until the magi and Herod, and that’s later.)

But Luke is another story.  Luke’s gospel tells us about the angel that appears to Mary, informing her of the coming birth.  It’s Mary’s story here, rather than Joseph.

And that makes a difference.

 

We see, from Mary’s perspective now, as she hears the news of the angel, processes it, consents to her role in this weird little adventure, and immediately, as our story kicks off today–races off to see her cousin.

And it’s detours like this one which are instructive.  Mary could be heading off to see her cousin for any number of reasons–we aren’t told why she’s going exactly–she misses her, she just likes visiting Elizabeth, she wanted to empathize with another relative who was also pregnant, she wants to fact-check the angel, who told her about Elizabeth’s pregnancy…but it’s worth noting too that there’s also a less cheerful possibility for her trip.  Like we saw in the Joseph story, there was a harsh penalty associated with young women turning up pregnant out of wedlock.  So Mary just might be following the age-old tradition of heading out of town until the scandal had died down, and her life was no longer in danger.

Regardless of whether this was the case–the stakes were higher for her anyway.  She was involved in this story in a different way than Joseph–she had more to lose.  No one’s going to be hurling rocks at Joseph because of what they assume about his life choices any time soon.

 

Perhaps this is why Mary plays twenty questions with the angel once she hears the news.  The angel tells Mary she’s blessed and highly favored, and Mary wants to know what on earth this means.  The angel tells her she’s about to have a baby, and Mary wants to know exactly how.  Mary, in other words, is not going into this blind or uninformed.  She’s doing her homework.  She’s asking questions, taking notes, voicing opinions.

So when she says that she’ll do it, it’s not passive–it’s the furthest thing from it.  Mary’s obedience here is active.  She actively engages with what she’s been tasked with.  All right, I’ll do it!  And we’re off to the races.

 

Because as soon as she sees Elizabeth, Mary takes the opportunity to sing out the news of what has happened.  My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior.  He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.  

 

Mary’s song recaps what has just happened to her, but it also goes a bit farther.  Mary’s song–and you can think of this as Mary’s own Broadway style show stopper, where the character becomes so filled with emotion that they have to start SINGING–basically sums up the whole gospel that she, Jesus, and the disciples will spend the rest of the gospel trying to live out.  This is the gospel message Jesus preaches.  This is the good news the apostles later tell.  But it starts here–with Mary’s agreement.  It’s Mary’s “I will” that starts the ball rolling–her consent to be an active partner in this unfolding plan.

 

God, after all, isn’t all that interested in passive obedience, in passive followers.  God wants us to think, to question, and to figure it out as we follow in the way.  Our relationship with God is a two-way street, founded on our free will, and our ability to engage with God’s mission in the world.  

When God lifts up the lowly, when God casts down the proud, and feeds the hungry, that requires our engagement.  That requires our participation.  

When Mary says that her soul magnifies the Lord–that means that she’s doing something. So when we echo her language, we’re committing to the same thing.  Both that we would be willing to be lifted up, fed and used in such a way, but also that we would give ourselves to take on this mission as well.  That we would promise to be co-agents of this mission along with God.  

 

There are, after all, enough puppets in the world.  There are enough idols begging for blind faith and obedience.  God doesn’t need any more.  What God wants isn’t puppets, but Marys.  People willing to be bearers of good news on the mountain.  People willing to risk for the sake of the gospel, and participate in God’s plan of a new world.  God needs us to birth a recreated world as a teenaged girl did so long ago.

Amen.

FURTHER IMPORTANT AUTHOR’S NOTE:  This is where my original sermon ended, as given.  However, my rector commented, in the 10:30 announcements, that while he had never, in over 30 years of ministry, corrected nor challenged a fellow cleric’s preaching, wouldn’t it have been better if I had ended with “as a teenaged girl did, a long long time ago, in a Galilee far, far away”?

So I promised that I would make the addendum on the blog.  Because Star Wars fandom is JUST AS VITAL as the Hamilton fandom.

   

**And it’s not just me saying this–it’s the pre-1920s Vatican saying it as well.  Long story–I will unpack in a later blog post.

***A real thing!  When I get punchy, I get creative and punchy.  Occasionally, the entire clergy of the metro KC area bears the brunt of it.

 

People get ready

My parents were here for Thanksgiving.
They traveled all the way out here for a full 3 days, and got to experience most of what Kansas City has to offer.  We went to many restaurants (including Joe’s KC for BBQ).  We went to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and the WWI museum.  I gave them a driving tour of the Plaza, all lit up.  And they tried in vain to figure out where Kansas was.
(“It’s across that street.”  “It can’t be!  That’s a neighborhood!” “Yes. That’s Kansas.” “In a neighborhood?!  With different license plates and everything?!” “Yes.  Because it’s Kansas.”  “But where’s the river?” etc.)

They also got to hear me preach, which doesn’t happen all that often.
Preaching (or doing anything, really) in front of one’s own family is rough.  Jesus wasn’t lying with that crack about prophets not having honor in their own hometown.  The trouble with your own hometown is that this is the town that conflates grownup, professional you with the you who once was madly in love with Beanie Babies.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

November 28,-29, 2015

Advent 1, Year B

Luke 22

 

The good news which I have for you this day, is that whatever odd little subgroup of humanity you may belong to, TLC has a reality show spotlighting you!  Yea and verily, TLC has shows about people in over-large families, people who compete in child beauty pageants, people who have multiple wives at the same time, little people, little people who then get married, people who obsess over strange things, people who have psychic experiences while living in Long Island, and people who experience regrettable tattoos, and people who are mall cops.

It’s a veritable cornucopia of the strangeness of humanity.  

And, then, there is a whole OTHER subgenre of people who are concerned that the end of the world is upon us–the preppers.  

These are a group of people who are collecting supplies to prepare for the end of society as we know it–usually canned goods, potable water, generators, ammunition, things like that.  And not surprisingly, they are not generally a cheerful bunch–mostly, they grimly await the chaos they expect.  In fact, as I was researching this, the star of the biggest prepper show was arrested and put in jail on weapons charges.  

To these folks, the end is something you have to prepare for grimly, by cutting yourself off from everyone else, and hunkering down.  Since the worst is coming, best to minimize the damage to yourself, so that you can survive.  Everyone else can just fend for themselves.

That’s one way to go, certainly.

Probably not the Christian way, however.

In the gospel. we’re again in an apocalyptic section, where Jesus is again talking to the disciples about what’s going to happen to them.  Or, to be more precise–he’s talking to the community that Luke’s gospel is written to about what is currently happening to them–lots of scary things involving Roman persecutions and the fall of the Jerusalem Temple.    And again, it sounds scary to us.

But, I would like to point out that at no point in any of his apocalyptic diatribes does Jesus recommend building a bunker.  Or stockpiling food.  Or retreating to the desert.  (That was John the Baptist, and he didn’t last long.)

Jesus, on the other hand, says that when you see all this horrible stuff happening, look up!  Lift up your head!  Get ready!  Because your salvation is coming.

Be on guard, and don’t be weighted down with worries of this life.  Because that day is coming unexpectedly.

Don’t move out to a cave, and give up on the world.  The kingdom of God is still near you.  Right now.

They must have thought he was nuts.

Where’s the kingdom of God when our temple is being destroyed?  Where’s the kingdom of God when Caesar is hauling us off to the lions?  Where is my nice cave when I need it?

The kingdom of God, though, doesn’t emerge in a cave.  Or in a bunker.  Or in a top-secret, super-safe facility in an undisclosed location.  The kingdom of God emerges in community.  Where two or three are gathered together in the name of Christ, and when we share together the love of God.  That’s what the kingdom looks like, and that, we cannot do if we choose to hide in a corner, away from the world.

The kingdom of God does not come apart from the world, with all its chaos, and its turmoil–the kingdom comes in the very middle of of all of that mess.  Unlikely as it feels.

So, our response as Christians to when the world seems about to turn upside down cannot be to beat a hasty retreat to the nearest cave.  Or to batten down the hatches in fear and ride out the storm.  We cannot let fear run our lives, and cut ourselves off from each other and from the world God made and loves.  

 

Our response when everyone around us cries that The End is Near! must be to dig in our heels, and take the gospel even more seriously.  We must give even more generously, do even more good, seek even more after mercy and justice.  We must remember even more deeply to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.  We have to care for each other even more.  And maybe it is foolish, and maybe it is risky, and maybe it is even a bit dangerous–but it is in the times when the world seems the most dangerous when it most needs the kindness that Christ teaches.

 

It’s the beginning of Advent today, though we’re disguising the color a bit, due to another mass shooting.  But honestly, I think our red/blue mix is appropriate.  Because, contrary to what Hallmark tells us each year, Christ didn’t come into a peaceful world.  It wasn’t a settled world, with everything perfect, Mary, Joseph just hanging out lazily with some picturesque hipster shepherds.

That world was a mess, too.  It was violent–there were wars, rebellions, prejudice, and disease.  Jesus would become a refugee before his second birthday.  It’s not so different from our world.  And, in fact, believe it or not, there were quite a few sects of Jews who were all about hiding in caves and waiting for the end of the world back then.  That’s how bad it was.

But it was right in the middle of that mess that Christ came.  In the mud, in the straw, in the dirt and heartbreak.

And that is where he sends us too.  

So, be strong.  Lift up your heads.  The kingdom of God is near!  

 

Amen.

Christ the King

And behold!  We’re at the end of the year, and Christ the King Sunday.

Here’s what I said.

Christ the King Sunday is an odd duck in the Christian calendar.  It’s sort of like Trinity Sunday—It proclaims an idea, and a good one at that—the idea that Christ is king, that Christ is in charge and is more important than ANYTHING ELSE and ANYONE ELSE on earth.

It’s a good idea.  It’s a good doctrine. 

It’s such a good idea that by now, it trips off the tongue, as it has for over two thousand years, and we say it so fast—“Christ is the King.” 

We name churches after it, schools after it.  It sounds like the name of any midsize hotel chain in the world. 

“Jesus is Lord.”  “Jesus is the Lord.”  We say it without a second thought, and it doesn’t strike anyone really, as ground breaking or earth shattering at this point, because why would it?

We say it so much, it’s lost its punch.  Its jolt, its offensive quality that it had at one time.  Christ, the king.  Jesus the Caesar.

Because it was, at one time, deeply offensive.  It got you in arguments, it got you thrown out of respectable places, it even got you killed. 

This is what Jesus was killed for, after all.  Jesus was killed for this, right here.  Jesus didn’t die, in a strictly earthly, practical sense, because he told folks to love each other (Recall, please, Hallmark gets away with that and makes much money.)

Jesus was killed in a very practical sense, because he was given a title reserved for Caesar.  Jesus was killed because he dared, and his followers continued to be killed because they dared, to publicly question the power of Rome.   

When the first Christians said out loud “Jesus is king” they were killed, because they were also saying that Caesar was not.  And that was betrayal.  That was treason.   You could do a lot of things in Rome—you can’t swear loyalty to another king. 

But then something changed. 

Constantine, even yet himself a Roman emperor, converted, and Christianity came out of the shadows, and into the halls of power. 

And suddenly, the script changed.  Suddenly, Christ wasn’t replacing the king—now, the king himself was invoking the power of Christ too.  All of a sudden, this idea of the divine right of kings floats onto the scene, and now everything’s different. 

Now you’ve got kings and governments and statuses quo everywhere claiming that they have their power because of God, and it’s a very different argument from what you had before.

After the rise of Constantine, you’ve got a whole line of people lining up, who when someone says “Christ is king” they raise their hand and chime in “So I am too.”  Because if Christ is the king, if Christ is in charge, well, Hey, I’m on Jesus’s good side, so hey, I’m IN CHARGE TOO!  Back off haters!

This is not a statement you get martyred for—but this is a statement that starts crusades. 

It is a totally different script— It’s actually from that script that we get this feast day as a feast day. 

Because it was only when the Roman Empire, which ruled the known world, shrank down into the Holy Roman Empire, which ruled half of Europe,, and then shrank into the tinier Papal states, which ruled some of Italy, that the Pope realized he was losing the power he once had, so in the mid 19th century he established this feast.  Because he felt the need to remind the world that his boss was still the real king, and therefore, so was he.  Even no current political map illustrated this with quite the flair the pope would have wished.

That’s what’s crept in when we speak of Jesus as Lord—visions of armies, thrones, governments, law and order, and power, and might, and all of the same systems that we repeat over and over today with our own systems of government.  We sculpt them over again, and we hand them to Jesus, and we imagine that he is like us, as the Psalm says. 

Yet look at the gospel.  (When in doubt, look at the gospel)

When the Son of Man comes in all his glory,he does not come with armies, and military might on display. Instead, he aligns himself with the poorest, the weakest, the least, and the oppressed.  He comes as the most un-kingly person in creation.   Jesus-as-king does not appear as our earthly systems embody kings.  Jesus does kingship entirely differently.

And that means that when we declare Jesus’s kingship IS radical.  It IS groundbreaking, it IS startling.  When Jesus is king, the status quo gets upended.  When Jesus is king, a whole lot of things that we like an awful lot get shifted into second place. 

When Jesus is king, your wealth is not.  If Jesus is king, your privilege is not either.  Neither is your intelligence. or how nice you were, or even how much you miraculously managed to get done this week, or last month.  But, if Jesus is king, then what matters is not these things, but how much you cared for the poor, the sick, the marginalized, and those who have been cast off and set aside. What matters is the justice, love, and mercy you show in your life.  And not any of the things we are used to thinking of as so important. 

Because we can elevate other things.  And we do, every day.  But these empty kings we have, of fear, anxiety, pride, control, —they are not going to save us.  We can buy all the weapons we want, we can arm ourselves to the teeth, we can stand all the armies up and stare at each other til Jesus comes home, and we will not have a moment’s more peace.

(All you need to do to figure this out is look across at Ferguson and watch the governor and the mayor turn a city into a militarized ghost town for days over something that hasn’t even happened and may not even happen, all because they’re terrified.) 

What DOES give us a path out, is this different sort of king, with an inverted kingdom. Who draws us near as a shepherd draws in the sheep, and asks us to choose a different and unfamiliar way. We just have to follow.

Gospel according to Tree

This story about Tree** did happen in this exact way, and I’ve always wanted to get it into a sermon.  However, the exact language he used is…colorful.  In a PG-13 sense.  And I never managed it before now.

So, hooray for Tree.  May you be safe, happy, and continue to bless others as you blessed me that day.

Sermon for October 25-26

Poem by Hafiz—sufi poet in middle ages

Man goes to Hafiz because he’s been having this marvelous visions and he wants to find out if they’re divine or not

Hafiz listens to the man go on and on about these visions, listens very closely.

then he asks—how many kids do you have? 

Man is confused. 

Hafiz asks—how do you treat your wife?  Are you kind to animals?  Do you have many friends?  Do you give to the poor?  Are you fair to all you meet? 

Hafiz keeps pestering him with questions, until the man blows up at him—Look, I came here to ask you about these visions I was having, not so you could interrogate me about my life.

Hafiz replied:  You asked me if these visions were true, if they came from God.  And I’d say that they were, if they made you more human.  If they made you kinder to every living thing you met.

That’s not unlike what is occurring in the gospel today—

in a rare break in the arguing, the gathered together lawyers and Pharisees come to ask Jesus some questions, because they’re impressed he’s gotten their rival political faction to be quiet. 

So they ask him to sum up the law to its most essential point—boil it down to its cliff notes version.  Just the facts.

Jesus says:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.

Everything else is based on these two.”

Now here’s the thing—-

THEY KNEW THIS.

They knew this, of course they knew this.  Rabbinical writer Hillel says “There is no greater law than this: Love the Lord your God with all your heard, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself—the rest of the Torah is commentary.” 

What’s more—it’s in Deuteronomy.  And it’s in Leviticus.  Jesus does a lot of smart things, and he pulls a lot of stuff out of his own Messianic brain, but this is not one of them. 

Everyone he was speaking to that day knew perfectly well what the greatest commandment was—this was hardly a revelation. This wasn’t news—that’s part of why it was a test. 

But what they wanted was a different answer.

They wanted Jesus to make it easier for them.  They wanted Jesus to tell them how to shrink down this requirement so it wasn’t so hard, so they could find some loophole somewhere, because this is HARD.

I used to lead a bible study in NYC for the guests at the feeding program at the church where I worked during seminary.  One day I had a guy join us who was new.  He gave his name as “Tree”—which he confirmed wasn’t his real name, but he also confided that he couldn’t give me his real name or I might be in danger too.  So I decided that he was off whatever meds he needed to be on.

This was the passage we were supposed to discuss, and as we read this part about loving your neighbor as yourself, Tree suddenly threw his Bible to the ground, put his head in his hands and exclaimed —and this is edited for use in church—“GEEZ, That’s hard!  I mean, I thought serving out my bid at Riker’s was rough, but man, that’s some tough stuff right there.  I couldn’t do it.  I just couldn’t do it.  Man.  Tough stuff.”

I nodded mutely, and said ‘Indeed, Tree!  It is indeed difficult!” 

It is hard.  What stuns the Pharisees here is less that Jesus gives them a new answer (he doesn’t) but that he doesn’t shy away from the one they know is the right one. 

Yet even as we know what the answer is, what we have to do, we struggle, bc it’s hard, Because the world is big, and people aren’t so loveable, and so we look for an easier way.  We look for loopholes.  for watered down answers.  For limits. 

How about if I exclude them?  How about if vengeance is ok?  How about if violence is acceptable if I don’t really mean it or hate really was called for or if I say it was only a joke so you should lighten up? 

We look for people it’s ok to not care so much about, since caring gets exhausting after a while.  For people who mightnotreallybepeopleafterall, so let’s only really panic about ebola when it gets into our country.

There aren’t any loopholes.  There aren’t any watered down answers.  This is hard.    

Love God.  Love your neighbor.  When you can’t manage it, God forgives you, and you try again.

Everything else flows from that. 

Amen.

**probably not his real name, but I’ve seen stranger things, so who knows.