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Lepers, then and now

Two thoughts.
1. Pope Francis is around, being awesome again this week, ministering to a man afflicted with a skin ailment.  So while leprosy, and the knee-jerk reaction it once elicted, might seem like a historical memory, while it might seem like we’ve all moved past that–there’s ample evidence to the contrary, as we all are amazed again by the pope actually doing what we’re all called to do.

2. I don’t tell this story in the sermon much, because of Rule #3.  Also, it feels odd to condense the whole life and witness of a person to a few lines in one of my sermons.  So here’s hoping I did them justice, at least a little bit.

 

 

 

October 12-13, 2013

 

Proper 23, Ordinary Time, Year C

 

Luke 17:11-19

 

 

 

When I was a small child, my family had two friends: Mark and Arliss.  To my child-centered mind, I thought Mark and Arliss were terrific, mainly because they played Barbies with me when I asked nicely, and listened to interesting music, and visited our local pool on occasion to go swimming. They were great.

 

They were so great, that I found everyone else’s behavior very strange, bordering on inexplicable. I didn’t understand when my mother had to remind me to lie and, if I was asked, tell the neighbors that Mark and Arliss were relatives–or the neighbors wouldn’t let them come back to the local pool.  And when Arliss was in the hospital, nurses refused to treat him, and everyone else on staff wore multiple layers of gloves, layer on layer on layer, and got out of his room as fast as they could. Because Mark and Arliss had AIDS, and this was the late 1980s, and this was Southern Virginia.

 

Except for a handful of people, they were isolated, totally isolated.  Society viewed them with suspicion at best–and that is an awful way to live a life.

 

 

 

It’s draining, it’s dehumanizing, when every interaction with the world is shaded with the world’s distrust and fear.  And I watched the toll it took on my friends.  The modern day leprosy, the news pundits called it, at the time.

 

 

 

Leprosy! Practically the standard by which all shunned people are measured!  And here in the gospel today, we have ten lepers. Because Jesus is travelling from Galilee to Jerusalem, and passing through the wilderness, he runs into what amounts to a leper camp.

 

And now, two things become important here:

 

one: anyone diagnosed with leprosy would have been shunned:  kicked out and shunned immediately by everyone, either until they died, or until they were cured.  No one would have come near them, or touched them, or given them food or work.

 

 

 

And two: a cure wasn’t a crazy thought, because what we translate in the Bible as leprosy was any spot or rash appearing where it ought not to appear..  So this included anything from an allergic reaction to bed bugs, to the thing everyone was terrified of: actual leprosy–that would kill you and spread rapidly from person to person.

 

But it also included things like mold, or mildew.  There’s a really entertaining section of Leviticus that details how to cure your house and books of leprosy.

 

 

 

Anyway, Jesus encounters ten people with skin problems living cast out of society because of their affliction and he’s travelling, and they cry out for help.  “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

 

Even as they ask him for help, they don’t approach.  There were strict rules about how people classified as lepers were to behave, because there was so much fear of the disease and its spread.  You had to stay so far away from the uninfected.  You had to warn people who were approaching, in case they didn’t notice you, and they bumped into you accidentally.

 

All in all, it was an incredibly dehumanizing and lonely experience to be treated as a leper, because the society was so terrified of even the possibility of this disease.

 

 

 

And so it’s not hard to imagine that the lepers, or those so diagnosed by society, were used to that, to some extent. After months, years of being avoided by everyone they knew, they might have grown used to it, or thought that since that was the way society operated, that was the way it always was, and always would be.

 

 

 

Being oppressed, being cast out like that, does something to a person.  It wears on your spirit–when the voice of society questions your worth, your value at every turn.

 

 

 

All of which is to say–when the one ex-leper returns and approaches Jesus–that’s a surprising moment.  Not only is he a Samaritan, so he’s crossing some religious lines here, but he’s going against everything society had been telling him he was meant to do.  Don’t talk to people, don’t go near them, certainly don’t touch them.  He does that in one moment of gratitude.

 

And Jesus marvels.  And notice that in Jesus’ comment about gratitude, and where the other healed lepers are, he doesn’t take back the miracle.  God’s healing grace, it turns out, doesn’t depend on our being grateful enough for it, or praying hard enough, or some imaginary yardstick. God is gracious because God is gracious.

 

Jesus marvels, and Jesus comments on the man’s faith.  Your faith has made you well.

 

 

 

Because, Somehow, through the grace and power of God, this man has held on to his belief in his essential humanity.  He held on to a faith in the idea that no matter what the voices around him said, God loved him, and God created him in God’s image and nothing could destroy that– no isolation or fear or disease.  So when Jesus restored him to health and to community, he didn’t run away.  In faith, in a way, he had been there all along.

 

 

 

For all of us, there are constant voices telling us that we aren’t what we are supposed to be.  Advertisers who would like to sell us something. Politicians who would like us to vote for something.  In our society, we are constantly being told that we aren’t quite what we should be: we should all be richer, thinner, paler, (or tanner, as the case may be), younger or older, depending, we should be healthier. We should have more stuff. We should care about different things than we do.  And we should all certainly be cooler than we are.  And then, we will be perfect–ever more perfect each year.

 

It’s a constant Greek chorus of doom, that warns that the consequence of not being so perfect means that we will end up alone.

 

 

 

So this preys on what we know, what we were told at our baptism, and what we reiterate  each week here: we are made in the image and likeness of God.  We are loved by God, and nothing changes that.  No sickness, no fear, nothing the world derides as imperfect separates us from the love of God, or his image in us.

 

 

 

It is that faith that carries us through and empowers us to recognize the image of God in other people.  It is a faith that opens us up to see the grace of God bringing healing to our lives and our community.  And it is this faith in the image of a God in us that lets us act as agents of that grace in the world.

 

 

 

Because the world has enough voices counting the ways we aren’t good enough. It really doesn’t need any more.  What the world needs are people who believe in the love of God for each person.  The unshakeable, un breakable love of God imprinted on each human heart that will not quit, no matter what.

 

And when we rely on our faith in that, when we carry our faith in a God of that kind of love, out into the world, that is the sort of faith that brings miracles.

 

 

 

Amen.

 

In which British actors have a good grasp on privilege

I continue to ‘settle in’ here in KCMO. I got all the empty boxes out of my apartment last weekend, so I feel a corner has been turned, in the War of The Unpacking. But now that the apartment looks like a human dwelling, this puts more pressure on my office(s)–both of which still look relatively unoccupied. But these are minor inconveniences.
Work is beginning to make sense–I have memorized my chapel schedule finally, so I feel I have a handle on when I am supposed to be where, and with what children. This means I get to wander around the school and hang out in classrooms more when I’m at school, which is a blast.

And yesterday, as I posted on Twitter, I somehow or other ended up preaching on Benedict Cumberbatch and privilege. Afterwards, one of our teenaged acolytes came up to me and said that she was a HUGE Sherlock fan, so she was so psyched I referenced that in the sermon.

And here’s what I said.

September 1, 2013
Ordinary Time, Proper 17, Year C
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Benedict Cumberbatch has perhaps the most British name ever. And he is a fairly famous TV and movie star in the UK right now. He’s on Sherlock, on the BBC, and he was the voice of Smaug, in the Hobbit movie And a number of other British-y things.
And so, accordingly, he was being followed around by photographers last week.
And then, Benedict Cumberbatch did something rather amazing. Rather than get into a shouting match with them, or run and hide, or steal someone’s camera, that would have been par for the tabloid course, he held a sign over his face on which he had written, “Hundreds of people were killed in Egypt today. Go take pictures of something that matters.”

One quiet sign, one quiet action, and he made everyone think for a moment not about a rich TV star, but about the nameless hundreds dying in the streets of Cairo. He took all the power that the world handed him, and he used it for something really good…though the photographer might not agree.

This scene that we’re watching in the gospel is another one of Jesus’ awkward dinner parties. Jesus never seemed to be a very well-behaved guest at dinner parties, and here is no different.

He’s been invited to dinner on the Sabbath by a leader of the Pharisees–and that’s a pretty big deal. It’d be like the local congressman inviting you for a Labor Day BBQ. You’re there to see and be seen. There are some politics involved, and it’s an important invitation, with movers and shakers there. It’s a pretty big honor, actually, for Jesus.

And Jesus responds by loudly criticizing the entire gathering. It was customary for everyone to sit around a low table, with the host at the head, and the most important guests nearest the host. Seating order and placement was very important, because it revealed, and preserved, social hierarchy. You got to sit next to those closest to you in the pecking order, so you never really had to deal with those outside your status.

Everything was ranked, everything was stratified, and you knew where you fit. And most importantly, gosh darn it, you knew who was beneath you and who you were better than, in this system.

And Jesus looks at it, and wants no part of it. Jesus argues first, that if you’re smart, you’ll always sit lower than you should, in a lower position than you should so that you’ll be invited to move up, rather than being sent down a few rungs. That way, you’ll never risk losing face in front of all those important people you’re trying to impress.
But moreover, if you’re really smart, any time you throw a dinner party, you’ll never invite any of those important people to begin with.
If you’re really smart, Jesus says, you’ll invite people who actually need dinner. Invite the poor, the blind, the sick, the outcast. People who need what you have in abundance, not people you’re trying to impress. Chances are–they have dinner.

Share abundance with those who lack, Jesus says. It sounds so simple, and yet, it can be deceptively hard.

Especially because it can be hard to see our own abundance sometimes. Not so hard with things you can count–we learn that as children. You have two cookies, give one away. But it’s the things you can’t see, the intangibles that are trickier.

Especially since we live in a society that’s predicated on making us believe that none of us has abundant anything. Advertisers constantly run on reminding us of what we don’t have, and what we desperately need to be whole. New car, new clothes, new toys, new everything. If we don’t feel like we’re lacking something than we aren’t consuming things, and that’s no way to run an economy–so from every corner come voices telling us that we are in need.

When in fact, the reality is that every one of us has abundance of some kind. Every one of us has power. You got out of bed this morning? Good! That took power, that took abundance, because some folks can’t do that. You decided to come to the church of your choosing? Good. Some folks can’t do that. You ate breakfast this morning? Great, that took abundance. Since some folks can’t do that.

You came from your house to here without passing through a checkpoint? You can vote on Election Day? You can read a newspaper or a website and find out what’s happening in the city? You can go home without fear of what will happen to you when you get there–all these little things that we mostly don’t recognize are signs of abundance in one way or another.

And it’s so familiar to many of us that we don’t notice it. But this is abundance. This is the dinner party that we sit at, each and every day.

And the truth is that the abundance of the world is handed out so haphazardly in all directions and what Jesus calls us to do is to share our abundance with others, but in order to do that, we have to be conscious of what we have. We need to be conscious of our own abundance. The ways in which we have been given prominence at this world’s dinner party.

Not so that we can feel guilty–guilt doesn’t help. Guilt just paralyzes– but so that we can do our part to use our abundance in the service of others, and in the service of God’s kingdom. So we can use the power we have to help those around us.

And that requires us to be aware. To realize and be in touch with our own abundance. To recognize the times that we have it good, and someone else has it less good. Then to ask, what can I do to support them right now? How can I use what I have, the power I have, in service of those without?
We are called to use our voice for those who have no voice, as the proverb says.

The more we are in touch with the abundance we have, the more we come to realize the dinner party we sit at daily, in all sorts of ways, the more we can come to throw open the doors of that party to everyone, to spread our abundance ever wider. And the more the world will slowly come to resemble the reality of the kingdom of God, where all are equal, all beloved, all at one table.

Amen.

The Danger of Bible Covers

I have a whole backlog of sermons that I haven’t gotten around to posting here. (And a backlog of half finished posts on other things.) Being at camp for two weeks, plus two out-of -town conferences, plus supply work in Phoenix just adds up.

But I promised someone in the congregation on Sunday that I would post this one, so post it I shall.

I should also add that I got one of the biggest compliments EVER after church this week. A teenaged boy walked up to me, no adult in sight, and introduced himself. He then volunteered that he liked my sermon and found it interesting.

I can retire now.

Here’s what I said.

June 30, 2013
Ordinary Time, Proper 8
Luke 9: 51-62

As a child, my best friend was Southern Baptist, and we would attend each other’s church events regularly. I have a lot of memories of going to First Southern Baptist of Newport News, but one thing I remember was having a great, all consuming envy of everyone’s Bible cover. Everyone had a very elaborate Bible, number one. Suited to who and what sort of person they were. Young girl, tween, boy, old person, large print, small print, sports themed, princess themed, truck themed, you name it, there was a Bible for you. Then, to top it off, you got to choose a Bible cover of your choice! Patriotic, or floral print, or Veggie Tales, or with an inspiring verse (taken entirely out of context, but I was ten, I didn’t know that.) or your favorite cartoon characters.

The merchandising was fantastic!! Being an Episcopalian, in comparison, did not have near enough stuff to go along with it, to my mind. For my friend and her Southern Evangelical culture, you had all these readily available outward-and-visible-material signs to show the world just how much of a Jesus fan you were. The bumper stickers alone were overwhelming.

The trappings of faith are fun. All the stuff we can point to in and say, “See how much I love Jesus?”
And lest you think this is only a Baptist thing, let me tell you just how many hours Episcopal clergy devote to pouring over vestment catalogues. There are entire blogs.

That’s all the fun stuff. That’s the easy stuff. Someone gave my dog an Episcopal shield collar and leash when I was ordained, which he now sports happily, looking like a reject from JCrew. And each time I take him for a walk, it’s a great point of conversation for the people we run into.

But when you rely too heavily on just the outward stuff, you can run into trouble.

The disciples, bless their hearts, take a long time to figure this out. They go to a town of Samaria that doesn’t turn out to be really friendly to them, and so James and John, who, incidentally, are called “Sons of Thunder” when they appear elsewhere in the gospels. Suggest to Jesus that he call down fire from the sky to consume it! Because that would be great! That would show them.

Fascinatingly, Jesus’s response is not recorded, but I have a few guesses of either what Jesus’ face looked like when he conveyed the wrongheadedness of this plan, or what choice words he used with his disciples to convey the same message.

And then the travelling band runs into two folks who want to join up– thinks this Jesus thing sounds great on the surface, but then….well, not so much. What do you mean, you’re homeless? What do you mean, my relationship with my family, my friends has to change?

In each case, James and John, the two prospective disciples, everyone thinks the surface stuff sounds great! It’s fantastic to talk about Jesus all the time, to say you’re a Christian, to worship Jesus, to buy all the Jesus stuff, and even to hold your relationship with Jesus over other people, to correct them, and feel better than them. That part feels great.

But that stuff is surface. That stuff isn’t a relationship, it’s a spectator sport.

What James and John, and those two that they run into wanted, was for their lives to continue on as they had before, before they ever actually interacted with Jesus. They wanted to keep their homes, they wanted to keep their family and friends stable and James and John wanted to stay just as combative as they had before.

But relationships, real relationships don’t work that way. Whenever we have a real relationship with someone, we change. We are affected. And we can’t just pick and choose how that happens.

When we open ourselves up to a relationship with the living Christ, we will be changed. We will be affected. And we can’t expect our lives to be the same as they were before.

Jesus doesn’t want us to be spectators of faith, he doesn’t want us to stand to the side and watch. He wants us to participate in faith. He wants us to follow him, not just worship him. He wants us to be transformed into disciples who can live out his message in the world.

Our very lives have to breathe the message of Christ, not just our bumper stickers, or our bibles. Our actions, our words and deeds have to speak of God’s love for the world, God’s peace, and God’s justice. Our commitment, our faith has to run deeper than the material trappings of faith. We can’t just talk about how much we like Jesus; we have to actually live lives that reflect our commitment to his example. We have to actually feed the hungry, care for the poor and the sick, give voice to the voiceless, love our enemies.

Otherwise, all we’re doing is buying more stuff. And stuff won’t change the world. Stuff won’t transform lives. Stuff won’t bring healing to what is broken, or bring light into the darkness, or cause justice to flow like water, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.

Only God can do that. Stuff can’t. All that surface stuff can’t.

Only the real, transformative power of God can do all that. Can recreate the world into the original good God made. Can transform us, to transform the world.

And that transformation, that relationship, is what we are called to.
Amen.

We do not presume

As it is summertime again, that means more supply work for me, and more travels throughout Arizona. (It also means freshmen orientation time. But more about that later.)

This morning, I went out to Williams, on the edge of the Grand Canyon, to preach at a teeny Episcopal/Lutheran combo church. Williams is the next town over, about an hour west of Flagstaff, on Rt 66. (Think of the Pixar movie Cars–That’s Williams.)
To recommend it, Williams has: a train to the Canyon, and a wildlife park called Bearizona, which should win some award for Most On-The-Nose-Name for a Wildlife Park.
The congregation in Williams is friendly and decidedly western. The crucifer has dubbed me ‘the Virginian’, and addresses me as such. I told her that whenever I’m with them, I feel like I’ve wandered into a John Wayne picture. She told me, straight-faced, “Well, yup, that’s pretty much the point.”

Ah, the life of a traveling preacher.

20130602-193212.jpg

Me, by old timey gas pump in Williams. All the Rt 66 nostalgia you can shake a stick at.

This is my sermon:

Rev.Megan L Castellan
June 2, 2013
Ordinary Time, Proper 4 Year C
Luke 7:1-10

In the old form of the Eucharist, there was this prayer we all said, right before we received the bread and wine.
the prayer begins, very properly “We do not presume to come to this, thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.”

Great, right? For a moment, all across the Anglican Communion, no matter where you were, what sort or condition of person you might be, from Africa to India to Palestine, to the Deep South, to the edge of the Grand Canyon–when you got to this prayer, everyone suddenly sounded like they had been lifted bodily into Downton Abbey. We do not presume. We have all invited the Almighty over for a lovely spot of tea.

It’s a key difference between liturgical prayers and more, shoot from the hip, evangelical style prayers, but when you read a prayer from the prayer book, or from the Lutheran Book of Worship, the majority of the prayer is taken up, not with our requests for stuff, or our thanking God for what we’ve received, but the majority of the prayer is set up like this one is: we tell God what we know about God. “Dear God, here is what we know about you so far. And therefore, would you please do…..thus-and-such”

So basically, each time we pray, we sketch out the basics of our relationship to God. Who God is to us. Is God generous? Is God stingy? Are we comfortable with God? Do we trust him? Are we afraid of God? Do we love God? Prayer says a lot.

And we would recite it every week: we do not presume to come to this thy table! But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy, the prayer continues.

We didn’t invent this. We borrowed this method of prayer from our Jewish brothers and sisters, who raised this style of prayer into an art form. In Jewish liturgy, everything that is done requires a prayer, a blessing, and blessings always go the same way: Blessed are you, Lord God of the Universe, who has sanctified us with your commandments, and commanded us to light candles…or–who has given us the grain from the earth. Or–who has given us the fruit of the vine.

You recount past experiences of God because this is what your relationship is built on– to establish and build trust. Just the same as you would do with any human relationship.

Which is part of what’s happening in the gospel story. Jesus has moved into Capernaum, which will become his base of operations for his ministry in Galilee. And he is approached about the troubles of a local centurion and his slave.

Now a couple things are happening here– the centurion has heard enough about Jesus that he believes he can heal his slave, so he has come to trust him.
But also, the local Jewish population has learned enough about the Roman centurion that they trust his good intentions, and they are willing to take his case to the young rabbi Jesus, who’s just wandered into town. And they tell Jesus so: “He’s a good guy! Really! He’s not like the rest of those roman soldiers, he built our synagogue for us! This one we like. Totally fine for you to heal his slave.”

So Jesus heads off to his house, but before he can get there, the centurion sends word to him and stops him. He basically says, “Look, I know you would come, but I also know you don’t really have to. Just say the word, and my slave will be healed.”

In other words, we do not presume to come to this thy table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.

It may have been that the centurion realized that Jesus would have been made ritually unclean by entering the house of a Gentile, or a house where there was such sickness. It may have been he realized it would have been a bad move politically for Jesus and for his followers to receive hospitality from a Roman soldier.

Whatever it was, the centurion tells Jesus to stop, to not bother with coming inside his house. Because in that time, and that culture, there is a chasm between Roman soldiers and Palestinian rabbis. It was a big deal. And the centurion doesn’t presume to make Jesus cross that gap.

But he does have faith, immense faith, that even across these boundaries of culture and religious practice, and occupation and politics, that he knows are there, Jesus will still heal his slave. This is what amazes Jesus.

It’s an interesting mix of absolute humility and absolute trust. The centurion isn’t Jewish, so unlike the crowds that come to Jesus, he didn’t grow up reciting God’s marvelous saving deeds every time he prayed. He may have built that synagogue, but in a very real way, he stood outside of that community of prayer.

And yet, something reassured him that despite all. that, Jesus would help him. He didn’t presume anything, he didn’t guess anything, or assume anything, but he knew exactly who Jesus was, and what he was about. Jesus was shocked because here was faith in the most unexpected place.

It’s a leap of faith. It’s that thing that philosophers talk about. For as much as we, in church, recount the reasons to have faith in God, all those very reasonable reasons to believe in God and have faith, and to trust, the lists we make of God’s saving events …what it ultimately comes down to is that leap. That moment or series of moments when God becomes God to you.

And this doesn’t happen just all at once–Bam! Something happens, now everything’s clear and you believe everything forever. For most of us, it’s a process. We gradually meet God more and more, again and again in a series of moments over the course of our lives. It’s a series of little leaps, each one bridging these gaps.

And it’s a miracle each time it occurs, mainly because we really can’t control it. God appears to the centurion, God appears to Gentiles before the church was ready. God shows up where we least expect, making those jumps. At a soup kitchen, in the face of that annoying person next to us, in the worst moment of our life. Yet God always shows up. God, throughout history, does a splendid job of running his own PR campaign, and we do a pretty awful job.

All of our reasons and all of our best guesses cannot force God to show up. And yet God always does. Still working out miracles for the healing of the world.

So hopefully, if we learn one thing in this journey of faith, we learn not to presume. Because, we know that the property of The Lord is still always to have mercy. And always to show up, in the end.

And so long as We still have faith in that, then that is the miracle.

Amen.

Pundit Jesus

Two posts in two days! This is shocking!
What this actually is a sermon from two weeks ago that I neglected to post. So here, Internet! Late sermon!

March 3, 2013
Lent 3, Year C
Luke 13: 1-9

I saw a cartoon this week: in the night sky shines the bat signal at one corner, and a cross at the other. On the roof below stands the police chief with Batman, and a bemused looking priest. Below the panel, it reads:
“Alright, guys, the Joker has escaped from jail again. Batman, you know what you’re supposed to do. Fr. Conroy, you’re here because I want you to explain to me how a loving God lets this happen to me!”

It’s good for a laugh, but frequently, religious leaders of all persuasions are called upon, whether by flashing the “Pastor Symbol” in the sky, or just a simple phone call, to answer this question.

Some tragedy hits, big or small. A earthquake strikes, or you stub your toe. A massacre claims the lives of almost thirty people or a terminal diagnosis claims the life of one. And the question rises again: Why?

So it’s comforting, in a way, to see even Jesus hit with this eternal question. The crowd comes to him and wants him to weigh in on the events of the day– the hot-button issues that everyone’s talking about.

Pilate– yup, that Pilate, who will become even more important in a few weeks– has just made the gossip rounds again by ordering that some Jewish rebels be crucified, and that their blood be mixed with the sacrifices in the Temple.

Nowadays, we tend to get stuck on the part where he’s executing the rebels, but for a community as devout as Jesus’, this would have been a huge insult to the whole country. To mix human blood with the blood of animals renders the whole operation unclean, REALLY unclean, unworthy of God, and to add in the fact that an occupying, pagan power is making you do it just rubs salt in the wound. Pilate might as well have spit in the face of the whole Temple establishment, and every Faithful Jewish person in the country.

Which is why the crowd wants the nice young rabbi’s opinion of how God could let such a terrible thing happen. Because the thought that such a terrible act of violation and violence could happen to them, to their country, and to their fellow countrymen just hit way too close to home.

So, to get around this scary closeness, this massive sense of violation, the crowd follows some reasoning that is still popular today: those people must have done something to deserve it.
They must have been asking for it, somehow! And so God was punishing them! That must have been it. God hasn’t abandoned us to the power of Rome, and there’s absolutely no way that something so horrible could happen to anyone that I know or like– because those people must have deserved it.

Jesus cuts this line of thought off right at the knees. “Do you think that those Galileans were worse sinners than anyone else? No, but if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did.”
At first, This doesn’t sound particularly comforting. Ok, those who died at the hands of Pilate, and in the tower collapse weren’t any worse than the rest of the world…but on the other hand, the rest of the world is doomed too?

But Jesus follows it up with this story of the fig tree and the gardener. The fig tree is similarly in trouble. It isn’t producing figs like it should, it’s just sitting there, and the owner of the garden is losing patience, wants to cut it down. But the gardener intercedes– Give it one more year. I’ll tend to the tree more closely, fertilize it, help the roots a bit. Chances are, that’s what it needs to start producing. Don’t cut it down just yet. Give it another chance.

There’s no ending to this parable, and I’m inclined to think that is on purpose. We don’t know the owner’s response, or what happens with the fig tree in the end.

Because the point Jesus is going for is that very ambiguity, and he turns it back to us. Sin and brokeness are constants in our world, Jesus argues. They have always been here. They plague us. Our human propensity to abuse each other, to hurt one another, to inflict pain and suffering on the people around us and on God’s creation, isn’t isolated to one unfortunate group or another. It’s not something we can separate ourselves from. And that is what causes so much hurt for us all.

So the question is: what are we going to do about it?

See, We are the gardeners. We are in charge of this unproductive and suffering fig tree, in this scenario. We are stewards of a world that is haunted by sin at every turn, that can be hurt or healed by the actions we take. So much suffering in this world, and rather than just blame it on a wrathful or a punishing God, or letting us separate ourselves from it by saying “they deserved it”, Jesus turns to us, makes us face it head on, and asks how we plan to help.

Because the truth is, everyone suffers at some point, even while everyone’s suffering is unique. And what Jesus calls us to do is to remember that part of our job is to help alleviate this common human suffering while we are here.
Not turn our backs on it or become numb to it.
And even though we can’t fix everything, we can change something. And so we are called to try. To do our little bit– put down the fertilizer, dig around the roots a bit, and give this tree one more shot.

Towers fall. Hurricanes destroy. Madmen kill. We witness these things every day. But Christ calls us to not become numb or cynical, or closed off, but to acknowledge, and wade right into the darkness of the world, bringing the light of Christ, bearing witness to the pain and confusion of the world and try to help.

Because. In the end, it is that witness, that presence of the divine in the midst of brokenness that means more than any explanation.

Amen.

The gospel according to Nike

In the these two weeks, I will have gone all over the state of Arizona, on the never-ending Begging Tour of 2013 (theme: “Don’t let college students be homeless!”)
Sunday, I was in Prescott, where I’ve been before, many times. St Luke’s is a lovely parish, gorgeous campus, right by the airport. This prompted my board president to offer to buzz the church in his plane, and drop brochures from 5,000 feet. (“It would be different!”)

Here’s what I said.

Note: some of this was partially inspired by what Nouwen wrote on the use of power, but I went in a different direction, and spun it very differently– at least differently from the way I’ve heard Nouwen’s on Christian Leadership interpreted.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan
February 17, 2013
Lent 1, Year C
Luke 4:1-13

Nike is very good at marketing. These ads that Nike makes, they are iconic. Usually a close up on the athete’s face with their voice playing in the background, talking about their triumph over adversity, and their achievement of some great sports goal. And it works because Nike is good at picking the best athletes of their day: people like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Mark McGuire. We get to watch these ads and think about how perfect and magical these people are, and thus, how probably Nike products helped make them that way, so we should probably buy Nike things. These are really effective ads.

Or they are, right up until the athlete in question gets caught doing something that they shouldn’t, and the ad becomes really uncomfortable to watch. Like Lance Armstrong–whose Nike ad had him talking about how the only ‘thing’ he was on was his bike! And lots of hard work! And that’s why he was the best! Til of course, it turned out that he was on a heck of a lot more than that.

Or, this week, when Oscar Pistorius, the South African runner, who was arrested for murder after shooting his girlfriend. His Nike VoiceOver included him saying “I’m a bullet in a loaded gun.” Whoops.

The thing that make these ads so powerful is the same thing that makes them so problematic–each of them constructs a single arc out of the superstar athlete’s life. They struggle, they overcome, they win, and all through lots of determination and will (and really super-expensive running shoes), but it’s all them. It’s all Lance Armstrong, and it’s all Michael Jordan, or it’s all Tiger Woods. There’s no mention of anyone else coaching, or any teammates, or a random caddy. It’s all about them.

What an extraordinary amount of power for one person to have.

No wonder they keep falling short of what we expect them to be.

Power is a difficult thing for us humans to deal with– those of us who have a little and those of us who have a lot. And all of us have some power. You get up in the morning, you decide to get out of bed– that’s power. You decide what to eat for breakfast, or not to eat breakfast at all– power again. Anytime you make a decision, you’re exercising some amount of power. Now, sometimes, the spectrum of the decision is wider than at other times; when I leave here this afternoon, and I decide where to eat lunch, I will decide between local restaurants, and not decide to fly to California. My power does not extend that far. But for some, it does.

And power is complicated, because these decisions we make come with consequences. They ripple out, Iike throwing a rock into a pond, in ways big and small. So the power we wield is never just affecting us; it always affects the people around us too.

And that’s what makes power difficult and oh so tempting. You can use the power you have to just make your life easier, better, less complicated. If you’re a world-famous cyclist, yes, you can take performance enhancing drugs and win all the races, and avoid the shame of losing. But that decision, each decision will affect more people than just yourself, all the coaches, the other competitors, the people who looked up to you, the charities. When Lance Armstrong fell, it nearly killed his cancer charity too. And see, we forget all that, when we get tempted by the dark side of power. All we see are the benefits to ourselves.

That’s what the devil is on about when he’s tempting Jesus in the wilderness. The devil shows up as Jesus is fasting out in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, which is biblespeak for “he was out there a good long while”. So poor Jesus is in quite a state by the time the devil shows up.

In succession, the devil gives Jesus three very tempting opportunities to use his considerable power. First, he asks him to magic up some food for himself. Failing that, he wants Jesus to worship the devil and thus get all the glory and authority over all the nations for himself. When that doesn’t work, he suggests that Jesus throw himself off of the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, and make God send his angels to catch him.

Jesus doesn’t give in to any of these. But what’s notable about these temptations of the devil is that they’re all about the use of power. They’re all about choice.

Jesus will do miracles multiplying bread– this is something he has no objection to doing, but he won’t do it here, even though he’s hungry, because it’s for himself alone. It’s using his power to fulfill his own needs alone.

He’s clearly fine with crowds listening to him preach and coming to him for healing and waving palms for him, that’s something we see from him later on– but again, he won’t accept glory and honor here, because it would be for himself alone.

And we will even see him walk on water later, rather than climb into the boat with the disciples. But here, he doesn’t elect to jump off the temple, because it would be choosing to use who he was, all his power, for its own sake.

In each case, when the devil asks Jesus to make a choice to use the power he has for himself, Jesus says no. Jesus chooses to use his power differently, radically differently. He could have, but he didn’t.

At every point in his life, Jesus chose to use his power not for himself, but he chose to use his power for others. And in fact, right after he leaves the wilderness, Jesus heads to Nazareth and announces just how he intends to lead his life. “The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, release to the captives, to declare the day of the Lord’s favor.”

For the rest of his life, Jesus would use all the power he had only, ONLY, in the service of others, and not for his own needs alone.

And so God calls us. Because we all have power too. And we are all called to use it– did you notice that at no point during that Scriptural shouting match in the desert did Jesus just say to Satan “well, I just can’t do that.” We all have power, to some degree. The question is, how will we use it?

What choices will we make? Will we make choices guided primarily by our own needs, by what serves us best, unconcerned about what the consequences are for others? But from the Garden of Eden on, making choices based on selfishness has never ended well.

Or will we follow Jesus’s example, and use our power to serve others, and build them up? Will we be mindful of how the choice we make today ripples out and affects those who surround us and those who come after us?

God has enabled each one of us with gifts and talents and then God has empowered us with the power to choose. We can choose what we do with what we have been so freely given.
Will we be tempted to live for ourselves alone, even when we know the destruction that ultimately causes?

Or will we follow in the path of Jesus, and try to use what we have, every choice we make, to the glory of God and for the good of God’s creation?

This power is ours. The choice is ours. God gives it to us. The only question is, what will we do with it?

Amen.

Day of the Dirt!

Fine, visual learners/people who read! Behold your cries and comments have come unto me.
Also I have an hour to kill before the next Ash Wednesday service, and there is not much to do in Show Low. (Motto: “Yes, that is our real name, why do you ask?”)

Here is my homily for today.
More to come on Adventure in Show Low.

Rev. Megan L Castellan
February 13, 2013
Ash Wednesday
Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

In my first call, part of my job was to be the chaplain to the preschool that was affiliated with our church. This was, by and large, a fun job. I told bible stories in weekly chapel, I led prayers at the Christmas concert and at ‘graduation’ and, generally speaking, the 3-4 year olds were theologically satisfied so long as I waved my hands around a lot, had good props, and was available for hugs when needed.
Until Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday was tricky.
It’s one thing to talk to full grown adults about the need for humility,and repentance, and to mark ashes on their foreheads. I’m even okay now with being told that I myself am dust, and to dust I will one day return.
But a four year old? How do you connect a the shining face of a child to repentance and mortality? I couldn’t quite get my arms around it.

So when I gave the children the ashes, I explained that this was a complicated day, but mainly this was a day about dirt. The stuff that we’re all made of, large or small, rich or poor, boy or girl, white or black, no matter who you are. This is the day that we remember the basic truth–we’re all made of the same stuff. And it is dirt.

They liked that. Toddlers love nothing more than an excuse to get dirty.

But the more I thought about it, the more it grew on me.

Today is about dirt. Ash Wednesday is about recalling dust– the down and dirty basics.
This is about coming back to the essential, rock bottom, core truths about ourselves, about God, and taking a good long look at them. Those things that remain, when everything ephemeral passes away.

Our lives, our relationship with our creator. Our relationships with those around us, and with the rest of the creation that God has made.

Ash Wednesday is when we kneel and consider the stark ground of our being. The dust, if you will. upon which every other part of our lives as Christians is based.

And so, doing this, there are two things that stand out to me.

First of all: we are but dust. We humans are but dust. And the reality of our fallen ness, our dirtiness is evident around us. Lest we get too excited or too proud of ourselves,all we have to do is look around, listen to the news, and we are confronted again with our propensity to fail. Our willingness to fall short. Our fallible, frail nature, and the inescable fact that we are mortal. We are dust. And at some point, each of us messes up, and ultimately, each of us returns to dust.

And second:: we are but dust. Miraculously, God has made us out of Dust! And God looked at us, little dirt creatures that we are, and declared us good. Not just tolerable, but so good that God decided that the Creator of the stars of night wanted to become a little dirt creature himself.

We are but dust. we are beloved down to our dust. We are forgiven down to our dust. And we are created, and redeemed, and sustained by that divine love and grace, though we are but dust.

May that basic knowledge, as basic and as fundamental as the ground beneath our feet, may that certainty sustain us through these next 40 days of Lent, and empower us to serve the world God came to save.

Amen.