Wednesday, February 1, 2017

#Blessed—An Audience-Participation-Required Sermon on the Beatitudes

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

It’s been quite a week in our nation, hasn’t it? Last week, the President signed several Executive Orders that sent vulnerable Americans—and incoming immigrants and refugees—into a state of panic. Many responded in protest. Are your social media feeds full of photos of people swarming airports, or folks urging you to call your representatives in Congress? Americans in opposition to the policies of the new administration have been deeply motivated to engage in our ongoing civic responsibilities. This is encouraging those of us interested in change.

In the last week or so, my social media feeds had more Bible verses strewn across them than any time I can remember. Leviticus 19 made the rounds: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” As we grapple with a new national policy of barring entry for refugees, immigrants from majority-Muslim nations—and the policies keep changing each day as they are challenged—we, as Christians, must make a decision. To whom do we pledge our allegiance? First and foremost, we pledge our allegiance to the Triune God. Somewhere down the line we pledge our allegiance to the republic. So when we see people in immigration detention centers—children, the elderly, separated families—to what wisdom do we turn? Quote unquote National Security? Or the Law of Moses?

As always, Jesus has words for us. Jesus has guidance, and Jesus has expectations. He lays those out for us in today’s lesson from the Gospel according to Matthew. Some weeks, I pick a pretty small piece of our scripture lessons to drive home the point I think the whole thing is pointing us toward. This week, you’d have to try pretty hard to skirt the issue.

These verses are what we call the Beatitudes, part of a larger Sermon on the Mount. Are you familiar with them?

Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Jesus was talking to people who did not believe this. He was talking to people who needed to be told that the poor, and the meek, and the brokenhearted were blessed—because when they looked around them, the opposite seemed truer. When you look around, who do you see? Who do we look past?

Emily Scott, a pastor at St. Lydia’s dinner church in Brooklyn, NY, recently posted on Facebook some updated beatitudes for our present day. She and members of her community wrote them on the protest signs they carried to the Women’s March on Washington:

Blessed are those who cry “Black Lives Matter”
Blessed are the indigenous, and their sovereign sacred lands.
Blessed are those with pre-existing conditions.

Tonight, I want to offer you a similar opportunity. You have already noticed the posters stuck on the wall, and the little post-it notes, and the pens. Another Pastor Emily that I know gave me this idea. It is written in the fifth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew and on those posters:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Take a few moments to think about who, today, are these about. Who in your community, here? Who at UC Davis? Who in this city? Who in our state? Who in our country? Who in our world?

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Follow and Fish—Another Sermon on Christian Unity, it Turns Out

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer, Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

Last night, it was Christian Unity Week over at the Newman Center. It’s still Christian Unity Week over here! Don’t worry, I’m not going to preach the same sermon as last night. Well, inasmuch as I am always preaching the same good news of Jesus Christ, I suppose I am going to preach a similar sermon. And, like we talked about two weeks ago, there are some Christian Fundamentals we can tend to. But, as one of my seminary professors often said, “it is a sin to bore people with the gospel.” So! No repeat sermons. No boring—well, hopefully, no boring.

Tonight’s gospel is a classic. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus says.

I know very little about fishing. I have gone fishing like two times as a child, and was not super into it. I don’t eat fish, and getting to eat what you caught is, apparently, one of the joys of fishing. Lost on me. But I do know that there are many types of fishing. There’s the kind I have done, with a mechanical fishing pole that you attach a line and bait to. And there’s fly fishing, with beautifully intricate lures, and wading into a river in your rubber boot overalls. And there’s commercial fishing, with huge ships and nets that catch thousands of fish in one fell swoop. And there’s ice fishing, where crazy people cut a hole in a frozen lake and sit outside in the freezing cold. And there’s spearfishing, which is exactly what it sounds like. And there’s even folks who use no gear but their own two hands. There are a lot of ways to fish, it turns out.

I don’t have a cool metaphor to turn each of those fishing techniques into an evangelism technique, but Jesus certainly had that in mind. He approached those men on the lakeshore, and invited them into his ministry. He didn’t give them a comprehensive job description, or a handbook, or a list of FAQs. He also didn’t interview them, ask for references, or administer a test. He said, “follow me.” He meant literally, as he asked them to put down their nets and walk. He was also inviting them to follow him in word and deed. Since we do not live in first century Palestine, we do not have the opportunity to walk around with Jesus. But we do have the opportunity follow in his footsteps, and the footsteps of all those who have walked before us.

This is where that pesky Christian Unity comes in. We all gather together under the umbrella of this man’s life, death, and resurrection, and yet we’re not always cozy. But this is not a new phenomenon. In his letter to the Corinthians that we just heard read, the Apostle Paul is admonishing the church there for being so caught up in their differences. “‘I belong to Paul,’ ‘I belong to Apollos,’ ‘I belong to Cephas,’ ‘I belong to Christ.’” He parrots them. “Has Christ been divided?” he asks. “I am an ELCA Lutheran,” “I am an Episcopalian,” “I am a Presbyterian (PCUSA),” we say. Has Christ been divided?

We know that God comes to us each in our own time and place, and we are best served and best serve others in the contexts and realities that we face. Reading and worshipping in the language of our hearts. Participating in the eucharist with accommodations for our dietary needs or in acknowledgment of our addictions. Speaking to God and about God with pronouns that reflect God’s fullness, and the fullness of our humanity. There is no one-size-fits-all Christianity in 2017.

Has our ever-splintering denominationalism undercut the wideness of the gospel, or helped it spread to every corner of the globe? How do we, each in our own lives, reflect the oneness of our common humanity?

There are ways in which all of us who bear the name of Christ have things in common: we believe that our participation in the world is for its betterment, we believe that we act in love and truth and grace, we believe that we have answered the call to follow Jesus. But from each of our varying perspectives, priorities do not align and methods diverge. There are central tenets of other churches that I do not believe come from God; similarly, there are good Christian folks who do not acknowledge my right to be a Reverend.

How did we get here?

Millenia ago, Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah when he told us where his ministry would begin: in Galilee of the Gentiles, where the people who walked in darkness had seen a great light. This announcement tells us that Jesus’ ministry is not restricted in any way. It is not just for one ethnic group, just for speakers of one language, just for residents of one place. “Jesus does his work among a mixed group of Jews, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, immigrants, and others” and he doesn’t reinvent the wheel. “Jesus advocates the same message of social transformation that was earlier proclaimed by John the Baptist (4:17; see 3:2)”. Once John the Baptist was arrested, someone else had to pick up where he left off, not let go of that momentum. Spreading the good news was not a simple task. Because “God’s message is not just one of individual conversion but one of transforming the entire social structure. It was a message that attracted others who caught a glimpse of what society could be (4:18-25).” [1]

And this is still true for us! We, too, in our many times and places and denominations, are still being invited into a community that affirms our inherent dignity, and challenges us to ensure that same thing for all people. The gospel lesson tonight casually closes by saying that Jesus got right to work, “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” There are thousands of words in our scripture that tell us what action to take in our Christian life. From the Ten Commandments to the Beatitudes and everything in between, we are not at a loss for instruction. There are things we can do to bring forth the kingdom, here in our own corner of the world. All we have to do is follow along.

[1] Michael Joseph Brown, “Matthew,” in True to Our Native Land: An African-American New Testament Commentary, 91.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Love of Christ Urges Us On—A Sermon on Christian Unity, in Celebration of the Reformation

Annually, Christian campus ministries at UC Davis gather in celebration of the World Council of Churches' Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This year, the liturgy was penned by the churches in Germany, and themed in honor of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation. As such, I—the Lutheran—was invited to preach to our students.


Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

It is such a blessing and privilege to speak good news into this room tonight. Gathered together as the body of Christ, one body with many members, many denominations, many expressions of our faith. It is so important to me, personally, and I hope to you, that we do this, at least once a year in this official capacity. It’s important that we stand together to sit together, pray together, sing together, eat cookies together, laugh together—because there are forces in the world around us that seek to keep us apart.

Our nation and world is complex, full of life, full of difference. In this room we are united as Christians, yes, but no two of us are the same. We are Lutherans, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Congregationalists, and an amazing group of Orthodox Christians who are, among themselves, already gathered in kinship across lines of difference. Our languages of origin are not simply English, but Spanish, and Arabic, and others. Our nationalities and heritages are scattered across the continents! We come from such a wide variety of families; you are here for different degree programs and majors and opportunities to serve. We are here, tonight, because we are Christians. As Christians who are citizens and residents of the United States, we are free to gather here, in peace.

As Christians, we are people of freedom and liberation. We are people of love and community. We are people of hospitality and generosity. We are people of grace and truth. We are going to sing a song tonight, one many of you have sung around a campfire at sometime in your life, that claims the world will “know we are Christians by our love.”

But “Christianity does not have a good name everywhere. Christianity did not liberate, democratize, or humanize the classes and cultures of many nations, including our own. It practiced the same divisions and disruptions that were destroying human culture. Christianity became an ally to extremist, reactionary, suppressive, undemocratic, absolutist powers. Christianity is ugly and deadly when it is selfishly and narrowly practiced. It is too powerful to be wastefully applied to a narrow nationalistic purpose.” [1]

We are at a place in the history of our nation and world where Christianity is in peril. No, I don’t mean “The War on Christmas” or the ban on prayer in public schools or any of those distractions. I mean that we are at this very moment having to choose whether our churches will align with the oppressor or with the oppressed, with the empire or with the marginalized.

500 years ago, in 1517, a Catholic monk named Martin Luther had a lot to say. He wrote down 95 grievances he had against the Roman Catholic church, and, as the story goes, posted them on the door of the church where he lived. Last week, we celebrated another heroic preacher by the same name, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who also had a lot to say about the institutions in our society. All these years after these brave men—and the brave people who joined their movements—spoke truth to power, there is still a lot to say.

As citizens and residents of these United States, whose peaceful transfer of power we witnessed last week, we are well-versed in the inalienable rights of our Constitution. We witnessed, also, our right to peaceful assembly—exercised by millions of Americans in cities across the nation, marching on their state capitols and city halls in protest of the incoming presidential administration. This freedom, and in conjunction our freedom to speak, is, to me, the most precious.

According to the First Amendment, we are free to speak our minds and hearts in the public sphere. We are not free from consequence, but we are free from prosecution. We confuse these two, a lot. And folks from every political persuasion and religious affiliation, legally speaking, share in this freedom. Two weeks ago, there was a massive protest on campus in opposition to a speaker whose words, while provocative, are free.

There are voices, as free as yours and mine, that drive me nuts. Sometimes they are quote-unquote Christian voices, in particular. But how quick I am to distance myself, how quick am I to say, “Oh, no, I’m not that kind of Lutheran. I’m not that kind of Christian. I’m not that kind of American.”

They know we are Christians by our lack of love.
They know we are Christians by our hate and contempt.
They know we are Christians by our false accusation; by our discrimination; by our persecution; by our broken communion; by our intolerance; by our religious wars; by our division; by our abuse of power; by our isolation; by our pride. [2]

Dear siblings in Christ, it doesn’t have to be this way.

The human hierarchy we have made (based on race, gender, class, ability, nationality) is not from God. Do not misunderstand me—these things are real, but they are not from God and they are not ultimate. In the reading from his second letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul declares enthusiastically, as should we, that “In Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

They can know we are Christians by another way. They can know we are Christians not by our silence, or by our divisions, or by our hate, or by our fear.

When you encounter violence in action or in speech—even when it’s subtle—you can say something. If your personal safety is not at risk, but a racist, or sexist, or classist, or ableist, or xenophobic word is uttered in your presence, you can counter it. You can. When the “Christian” voices on your campus and in our nation and world are not saying what you’d say, or what you believe Jesus has said, you can speak up. Dear siblings in Christ, we can, and we must.

“For the love of Christ urges us on,” the Apostle Paul has written. It will not be easy to speak truth to power—it never has been. It will not be easy to speak truth to our friends and families and classmates and coworkers. But it will be right, and it will be Christian. Amen.

[1] Charles G. Adams, “Easter Day (Resurrection of Jesus)” in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, 192.
[2] These sins are found in the Confession portion of tonight's liturgy.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

New Year, New You — A Sermon on the Baptism of Our Lord

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

Sometimes I get stuck while writing a sermon. It’s been almost two months since I have preached, since we had that long break and the few weeks before I was away in Colorado and we had the Moveable Feast and then Advent Lessons and Carols. A lot has happened in our nation and world since I last stood here and proclaimed the good news to you, and so maybe that’s why it felt so hard.

It’s January 11, 2017. We finally got out of 2016, a year full of wild rides. It’s the first week of the new quarter! Did you set a new year resolution to start studying for finals earlier? I have set resolutions often in my life, and have never really stuck with them. Setting big goals is important, but setting attainable goals is much more likely to be successful. This year, I decided to do things a little differently. I’m resolving not to reach for far-off achievements, but heading back to basics.

I’m going to be my best self, as I am. I’m going to practice gratitude for what I have. I’m going to remember that greatest commandment, to love my God and love my neighbor as I love myself. I’m going to gather with you all to read scripture and receive communion and pray and eat dinner. 2017 will, in that way, be simultaneously just like and not like every other year.

I think we’re going to talk a lot about how to be Christians in 2017. It’s the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther set out to resist an empire that most people thought was untouchable. Jesus, throughout his ministry, turned over the tables and forced his society to take stock of their allegiances and values.

And we’ll talk about that. I'll talk to you about it from here, and it'll probably come up over dinner, and you'll probably run into questions around campus, and on Facebook, and at Tapping Into Theology, and with the Interfaith Campus Council.

So tonight, we’re going to head back to basics. We can't go out and do things in the name of Christ without a firm foundation. We can't face big challenges without preparation.

Jesus knows this, and so before he begins his public ministry, he visits John the Baptizer. John, who knew about Jesus and spent much of his life pointing to Jesus as the coming Messiah, is, understandably, surprised by this. He thinks it makes more sense for Jesus to do the baptizing.

We may have varying understandings of the purpose or effect of baptism, and may wonder why Jesus needed to be baptized. If baptism is simply a cleansing of sin, why would the Son of God need that? If it’s an “initiation rite” into the family of God, why would the Son of God need that? If we see baptism as an outward sign of the grace of God—as a fresh start, a new beginning, a clean slate, a change of perspective, a starting place—Jesus’s baptism sets the stage for our own.  As we’ll sing, later, Jesus’ baptism “opens the door” to “healing, wholeness, and more.”

This time of year, you often hear people say “New Year, New Me,” right? Well, in our baptism, there’s a new us, too. Sure, we’re only baptized one time. But it didn’t only make us new that one time. In Christ, we are a new creation, and that’s not a one-and-done process. We grow and we change every minute of every day—the scientists among us would be the first to tell us that, on the molecular level, we are constantly being made new.

We have so many opportunities to remember our baptism. When I was a kid, and we’d go to confirmation camp, my pastor would wake us up in the morning by splashing water on us and yelling REMEMBER YOUR BAPTISM!

You’re welcome for not doing that to you tonight. What he was trying to get us to understand—other than that it was literally time to wake up—was to wake up each morning with the knowledge that we live and breathe the love of God. Our baptismal event—that other time he splashed us with water—was awhile ago, but its effects are new each morning.

The meaning of our baptism is constant, and it is always new. Paradoxes like that are some of the great joys of our faith, right? Baptism makes us new again and again and again.

I don’t think 2017 is any more or any less of a “new year, new you” than any other year. But I think we are going to spend a lot of our time this year taking stock of what we mean when we say that we are Christians. In the baptismal covenant that we have made—and continue to make—with God and with one another, to what have we committed ourselves?

Don’t worry, not a rhetorical question: we have promised and will again promise “To live among God’s faithful people; to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper; to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; to serve all people, following the example of Jesus; to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”

In our baptism, we are connected to all those who have been baptized, even those first few with John in the Jordan River. The Holy Spirit has been moving and is still moving. She, too, is always being made new.

In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles tonight, Peter is talking about how he and the other apostles were “witnesses to all that [Jesus] did.” All the preaching, healing, teaching, and learning that the disciples participated in is over, and they’re telling the stories to the people who weren’t witnesses. What stories are we hearing and telling about what God has done through Jesus? Through us? What have we witnessed?

When we look out at the local, national, and global landscape, what do we see that is in line with the promises of our baptism? What do we see that is in violation?

What are we doing to do about it?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Want to #ReadFewerWhiteDudes with me?

It's nearly 2017, dear ones!

I have spent 2016 doing a fair amount of reading, and 2017 shall be no different. As I have made my custom the last few years, I shall endeavor to read 29 books, as I will turn 29 in 2017. 

In 2016, I committed to only reading books written by women. This was so excellent and I am having a really wonderful literary year. Inasmuch as I might like to keep this up as a life goal, there were some very exciting things written by men in 2016 (and earlier, I suppose) that I'd actually like to enjoy. Fortunately, the good people at Where Are You Press have blessed me with an accurate life reading goal: Read Fewer White Dudes.

So that's what's up. I shall read fewer dudes, and the dudes I shall read shall probably not be white dudes, or a white dude who writes a book with a not-white/not-dude-identified person. You get the picture.

I have noticed in the last few years of setting reading intentions, that I have woefully lacked authors of Asian descent. In high school and college, I read a ton of fiction by Middle Eastern authors, a few Indian authors, and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. Somewhere along the line, that dwindled. In the last two years I have greatly increased my familiarity with African, African-American, and African-British authors. This shall not change. But it is time to diversify further! (Shout out to my personal librarian Dory for recommending a zillion Asian and Asian-American [Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Afghani, Pacific Islander, Japanese] faves in anticipation of 2017.)

Last year, I participated in the Bustle Reads challenge, with the added bonus of only reading books that satisfied those prompts AND were written by women. I also read a handful of books that had nothing to do with the list. Somewhere in the middle of last year, I learned about Book Riot (where have I been?) and that they also do a challenge called Read Harder. I'm switching allegiances!

This year, I have concocted my own reading challenge based on the 2017 Read Harder challenge, my life goal of reading fewer white dudes, and my understanding that part of my participation in our political resistance will be via reading. 

There are, therefore, three hashtags: #ReadHarder, #ReadFewerWhiteDudes, and #ReadTheResistance. Books that I read will fall under at least one of these categories. When I share my completed books, I also include the hashtag #bookcasey, so that I can look at all of them at once when I'm trying to remember what it was that I read whatever months ago. 

If you are interested in what I intend to read, my 2017 reading concoction is in this Google doc. If you would like to read along with me, go for it! The order in which I will read the books is not super set, so I'm not a very orderly reading partner. But some (like the ones that are related to history months) are clear.

I am not really on the lookout for additional reading for this year, since this list is pretty full as it stands. But of course book recommendations are my love language so you are always welcome to tell me about something wonderful you read that you think will make me a better me. Maybe I'll squeeze it in. :)

So! What are you reading this year?