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?

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Listen, I Will Tell You A Mystery--A Sermon on Death and Hamilton

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.

Spoiler alert: everyone dies. We are a culture obsessed with death--the one thing we all have in common, the one thing we cannot control. As Americans, we spend so much of our energy, our time, and our money trying to figure out how to live longer--eat better, exercise more, drive safely, use some age-defying face cream. Some of these tactics are more reasonable than others.

In the United States, in 2016, life expectancy hit a record high. For women, it’s 81 and for men it’s 76. There are a lot of reasons for that difference, mostly to do with occupational hazards. Now, those are averages--we know a handful of people over the age of 81, so obviously it’s not a hard line. But just 100 years ago--in 1916--the average life expectancy was 49. In 1816, it was 34. In just the last 200 years, Americans have more than doubled the length of our lives.

In 2011, a biomedical gerontologist (person who studies old people), claimed that the first person to live to be 150 has already been born. Take that with a grain of salt, though, because this guy, Dr. Aubrey De Grey, also claimed that the first person to live to be 1000 will be born in the next two decades.

What he means by this is that the rate of technological advancement in biomedicine is so great that we will soon be able to prevent every degenerative condition we know of. His ideas of preventive geriatrics do not mean that once we get old and ill we will stay in a haphazard state of old and ill for 1000 years, but rather that he believes we will reach a capacity of “preventing people from getting sick as a result of old age” in the first place. We will soon be able to reach in on the molecular level to solve problems before they spread.

All this because we are afraid of death.

The world we live in is full of images of death. We see constant images of death as headlines pour out of Syria, that another bombing has killed dozens of innocent civilians. We see death every 29 hours, when an unarmed black person is killed by police in the United States. We see death as climate change results in another hurricane sweeping through Haiti, killing everyone in its path. We see death when we log on to Facebook to find a bittersweet Rest in Peace post about a friend’s grandparent. We see death all around us.

And then God comes along and swallows up death forever. God promises that, though we die, we will live. That we will not truly die, for we will be raised. Jesus comes along and says, “I am Resurrection and I am Life!”

This resurrection business is a struggle for all of us. In our reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, we get a clue that they weren’t sold, either. That didn’t bother Paul. “Listen, I will tell you a mystery!” He writes. 

“We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will all be changed.” Remember, Paul was convinced that the second coming of Christ would be in his lifetime. That the kingdom of God was right there, just over the horizon, just out of their grasp. “Any minute now…” I can hear him saying.

Safiyah Fosua is a professor of spiritual formation at Indiana Wesleyan University, and she wrote about this resurrection skepticism: “The Corinthians were not unique in their struggle to believe in resurrection….[we] continue to have difficulty with both the historicity of Christ’s resurrection and the likelihood that believers in Christ will follow suit. God’s promise of resurrection from death confronts us with yet another promise that we cannot control, predict or understand.” [1] And if there’s anything we 21st-century Americans like, it’s control. We want to lay everything out for our best life, and never encounter anything that thwarts us. Every once in awhile, death thwarts us. Doesn’t it?

From up here, I have a wonderful view of our altar in the back, covered with beautiful photos of your loved ones, and some of mine. Thanks be to God for their lives. Thanks be to God for the ways they loved us, the ways they made our lives more fun and more full. You can tell that some of those pictures are of grandparents and other older folks, of whose lives we witnessed mostly just the end, and whose deaths kind of made sense. But there are a few photos there of young people. Middle-aged people. Those deaths, in particular, thwart us. Those deaths don’t feel right.

That’s why today is one of the best/worst feasts of the Church. Today, we look at those photos of those whom we have loved and we weep. We think about those around us who are in the process of dying, today. We think about the atrocities in the world that call death to the front of our minds without our consent. We think, for a moment, about our own eventual deaths.

I know that, like me, some of y’all are fans of the Tony-Award-Winning Musical Hamilton. It was written by a genius named Lin-Manuel Miranda, and I have been a devotee of his for nearly a decade. If you aren’t familiar, it’s about Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States—fairly unusual subject matter for musical theater—and it is completely constructed of hip-hop music—also fairly unusual for musical theater. In the first act, Aaron Burr—the man who eventually kills Hamilton in a duel—sings the most beautiful, poignant song of the show. It’s called “Wait For It.”

Life doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints
it takes and it takes and it takes
and we keep living anyway
we rise and we fall and we break and make our mistakes
and if there’s a reason I’m still alive when so many have died
then I’m willing to wait for it 

Aaron Burr’s life was full of tragic deaths—his parents, his wife, his daughter—but he had faith. He didn’t understand the way the world worked, why he could never quite win. But he had faith. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to identify with an American Revolutionary before, but I bet you have faith. I bet that you don’t always understand why things happen the way they do. I bet you wonder a lot about why bad things happen to good people, and why not-so-good people seem to be getting ahead. I bet you wonder why people you love die, and I bet you’ve asked God to bring them back from the dead.

I am not here to tell you that that is possible. But I am here to tell you that resurrection, transformation, rejuvenation, and new life are possible. “...this promised transformation of the physical body offers hope that other transformations are also possible. The belief that flawed circumstances need not be our permanent estate is an extension of resurrection thinking. Belief in the resurrection conditions us to believe that dead [relationships] have hope, that people once imprisoned by dead works have a future, that imperfect governments and broken economies can be repaired, and that even hurricane-flooded cities or cities buried under the rubble of earthquakes are able to rise again.” [1]

None of those things will happen without work. None of those transformations are possible without faith, without hope, without prayer, without struggle, without justice. It is a mystery, as Paul wrote, how any of this resurrection business actually happens. But the good news of the Gospel, my friends, is that it does. When? We don’t know. How? We don’t know.

I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.

I’m willing to wait for it.

[1] Safiyah Fosua, “Proper 3” in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, 261-262.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

God, I Thank You That I am Just Like Other People—A Sermon on Righteousness and Contempt

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, the Gospel for the week is looking right at us. This week is one of those weeks. The first sentence: “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Right there, it’s us he means. It’s a straight up trap, because if you think it’s you, well, you’re right, and if you don’t, well, congratulations, it is. Because either you are the self-righteous who hold others with contempt, or, you’re the self-righteous who hold “the self-righteous who hold others with contempt” with contempt! Long story short, the author of this Gospel is saying, “listen up, y’all. This one’s for you.”

So now that we know this parable is straight up targeting us, what is it? Well, it’s a classic Jesus construction: there’s a Pharisee and a tax collector. Pharisees are regarded as being the most religious, most righteous, best ever dudes. Tax collectors are regarded as basically the opposite. To be a tax collector means that you are shaking down your neighbors for their cash all the time, and running off with it to Caesar, and none of it is every really trickling-down back into your community. So nobody likes you.

You’re probably thinking “well, I don’t want to be the tax collector in this scenario, so, am I the pharisee?" The Pharisee seems okay. He’s at the temple, and he’s praying: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” I am literally the best at being a religious person, thanks for making me so amazing, you’re the best, God. We can hear the problem with this prayer, right? It’s like, so un-self-aware.

So, if we’re this Pharisee, “what are our own versions of this Pharisee’s prayer? Who are we grateful not to be?”[1]

This is so easy.

We are all human, and so we are all very excellent at comparing ourselves to everyone we encounter—for better and for worse—deciding whether we envy that person or would rather die than be that person.

We do this on seemingly unimportant scales all the time, right? Like with our majors; we can’t believe someone could possibly be getting a degree in that. Or with our professional sports affiliations; even if our team loses, at least we didn’t lose as badly as those guys. This year, the very obvious not-even-elephant in the room is the election. “God, I thank you that I am not like those terrible voters for that other party.” Woo—had that thought like 47 times today.

And recently, I had terribly self-righteous thoughts about InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. They are the nation’s largest Christian campus ministry organization—there’s a chapter here are UC Davis—and so they are home to many of your peers. A few weeks ago, they made a choice I disagree with. Any of their employees who support marriage equality and other protections for LGBTQ Americans are no longer welcome. They are supposed to notify their supervisors of their disagreement with the organization’s policies on sexuality, and transition out of their jobs next month.

It is part of our work as Christians to speak up about oppressive situations and systems in our midst, and to do our best to end them. It is understandable that these employees probably do not want to work for an organization whose ideals they don’t support, but this also removes entirely the possibility of discussion and compassion and maybe eventual change on the subject. This decision proclaims to all the students on 667 campuses around the country where InterVarsity is present that their pro-LGBTQ stances—and their LGBTQ identities—are not welcome.

I confess to you today, friends, that when I think about this I say, “God, I thank you that I am not like other Christians.” While this, momentarily, makes me feel righteous and excellent, it is not the point. There are plenty of things going on in the ELCA and the Episcopal church that we lament and that we confess and that we must work to change. We are not exempt from bad policies because we are not exempt from sin.

We know, because Martin Luther wrote about it a heck of a lot, that we are simultaneously saint and sinner. This is great, because it means that one wrong move doesn’t ruin everything. The thing about being simultaneously saint and sinner is that we’re always uncomfortable. We’re always giving ourselves a pat on the back, and then feeling like that wasn’t the right move.

Some people don’t like Christians because they think we’re hypocrites. They think that, if we call ourselves Christians, we are all set and do everything perfectly and are never mean and always drive the speed limit and never say a swear word and always volunteer to do the dishes and never buy anything expensive because we’re donating all our money to charity. I think these folks have it upside down. Christians are not perfect—far from it. We know so! At the start of every service, what’s the first thing we do? You can cheat and look at the bulletin. Confession!

We begin our evening together by confessing our sin. We say, to God and to one another, that we have failed. We have messed up. We have done things wrong and we have known they were wrong even as we did them. And we have not done something right and known it was the right thing even as we didn’t do it. We have stood idly by as a situation we had the power to change went on, badly, without our intervention. We know it! And so we say it.

“We confess that we have turned from you and given ourselves into the power of sin. We are truly sorry and humbly repent. In your compassion forgive us our sins, known and unknown, things we have done and things we have failed to do.”

Every week, we say those words (or some like them). “Confessing our sins as a group helps us know that we are not alone in falling short.” [2]

Part of the power vested in me—mine because I wear this stole, this vestment—by my ordination is the power to declare to you the forgiveness of all your sin. I am not the one who forgives you, that’s not the power I have. God forgives you, and I am entrusted with the responsibility of reminding you.

When I was serving my internship during seminary in Colorado, I had the privilege of getting to know the chaplain at the nearby women’s prison. She told me about the way she mediated conflict between the women, by insisting that as they told their side of the argument with someone, her name had to be followed by “precious child of God” as a reminder of everyone’s belovedness. For example: “I am so tired of listening to Donald Trump, precious child of God, as he insults so many beautiful groups of Americans.” This to say, dear ones, that “we are all created in God’s image,” but “those other people, those people we are secretly glad we are not—they are created in God’s image, too.” [3]

Wherever you find yourself in this parable, wherever you find yourself in the story of God, you are beloved. You, precious child of God, are forgiven. You are justified. You are a sinner and you are a saint. And so is everyone else. God, I thank you that I am just like other people: messy, joyous, awkward, clever, ambitious, righteous, forgetful, silly, beloved. Amen!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Saints and Squirrels—A Sermon for Francis

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.

I was reading about St. Francis of Assisi earlier this week, to remind myself about his story—though he’s certainly one of the saints I’m most familiar with, I have to admit that a lot of them run together in my Lutheran brain. Nice men and women who did unusual things in the name of God and then maybe got murdered for it. Those are more the martyrs, but the lives of the saints are often grisly and rugged, since most of them lived several centuries ago.

Saint Francis, for example, lived at the turn of the 13th century, roundabout the Crusades. Francis had a vision of a world in which the afflicted were cared for—leprosy was rampant at the time, and people lived in irrational fear of its contagion and banished lepers from their midst. Francis, the story goes, embraced and kissed a leper before devoting his life to the service of others. He established an order of brothers—Franciscans—to carry out this work.

You may have heard this before—in a St. Francis Day sermon, perhaps—or maybe you’re more familiar with his other charism, blessing of animals and the natural world. He wrote a wonderful little poem that I want to read for you, now:

“I once spoke to my friend, an old squirrel, about the Sacraments—he got so excited and ran into a hollow in his tree and came back holding some acorns, an owl feather, and a ribbon he had found. And I just smiled and said, ‘yes, dear, you understand; everything imparts God’s grace.”[1]

Part of what I love about this poem, of course, is that he just casually chatted with squirrels, and did so often enough to write of them as his friends. Suffice it to say Francis was an unusual man. But what’s deeper than just the sweetness of this love of God’s creatures is the deep theological truth of that last line—everything imparts God’s grace. 

Francis was not complicated or fancy, and for him, neither was God. Everything that surrounds us in our real lives is sacred; we needn’t dress anything up in order for it to be holy—including ourselves. Francis was born into wealth, but he gave everything he had to the poor and lived on just necessities. He advocated for the fair treatment of all living things—humans, animals, plants, you name it—in a time of social upheaval and civil unrest.

Gosh, I wonder if there’s anything we can learn from St. Francis that applies to our own lives and our own society.

We are living in a time of unprecedented climate change. Animals and plants—and humans—around the world are in danger of habitat destruction and extinction because of human industrial activity. We are clear-cutting forests; we are polluting oceans; we are emitting carbon at irreversible rates; the ice caps are melting; hurricanes are wreaking havoc. Human civilizations are ravaged by war and poverty on every continent; healthcare is only available to those who can afford it; children die of preventable diseases every day.

In our modern religious climate, Pope Francis has moved in the direction of his namesake on a number of these issues. While we wouldn’t call a pope progressive under most circumstances, this one has understood the ways in which humans are connected to other forms of life, and encouraged Catholics around the world to consider their participation in global ills.

Saint Francis of Assisi “was an outspoken and controversial social activist. He was one of the greatest preachers of all time. His concern with poverty and ecology give him a strikingly modern [relevance]. He vigorously opposed the abuse of political power, particularly when it was wielded by the [Pope].”[2]

The reason that Francis is a saint, in my sort-of informed opinion, is in how much he modeled his life in the way that Jesus taught. He listened when he heard the words of Jesus we heard in tonight’s Gospel lesson:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Both St. Francis and Jesus lived lives of inclusion, bringing those on the margins into the middle. No matter who you are, there are days when you’d self-identify as weary, and label your burdens as heavy. On those days—and every day—your Christian community welcomes you inside. These words of Jesus remind us that, though we may feel overwhelmed and beyond recovery, there is always someone to whom to hand over our heaviness. You can always turn your garbage over to Jesus. You can always come here and tell a friend or me about what’s up. You can always dump out your giant pile of study material and sort through it with a bad attitude, but a handful of candy from the basket. You can always sit here in this room and sing to your God about the truth of the love you know.

So, come. Come to the table, where all are welcome. For both St. Francis and Jesus—lovers of the earth, radical social activists, carriers of burdens—thanks be to God.

[1] St. Francis of Assisi, translated by Daniel Ladinsky in Love Poems from God