September 8, 2015

Dear Kim Davis

Dear Kim Davis,

I'm glad to hear that you were released from jail today. I'm sure that was a trying time for you. After you were released, you were greeted by an enthusiastic crowd. I'm glad you are finding support and don't feel alone.

When you greeted the crowd, you said, "To God be the glory." I agree. And then you said that God's people were there. I have no doubt that is true. But I'm afraid that by that comment, you meant that those who disagree with you are not God's people. And I'm concerned that you think that the same-sex couples you refuse to issue marriage licenses to are not God's people. This is a problem.

I think you may be confusing your particular form of Christianity, which is some form of conservative Christianity, with the whole of the church and of God's people. This is a common mistake. Some of my liberal and progressive Christian friends do the same thing in their own way.

Perhaps you are not exposed to liberal or progressive forms of Christianity, not to mention all of the global forms of Christianity that don't fit easily within our American labels. I'm probably identified with the liberal/progressive part of the church. Many of us think that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Many of us think that same-sex sexual orientation should be accepted as another form of human sexuality within God's creative plan. Many of us see these people as part of the church and part of God's people and are glad for that.

Many of us think that Christians serving in governmental roles should not use their office to promote their version of faith and try to limit other people's civil rights, but should serve within the requirements of their secular office. You are finding a great deal of tension with that requirement now. I understand that. I admire your desire to live according to your understanding of your faith, even if I disgree with your undestanding of Christianity. But if you want to live out your faith with integrity and within the requirements of public office, you should resign your position, or let others do this part of the job for you and get out of the way.

God's people are conservative and liberal, gay and straight, American and foreign. That's what makes the church such a beautiful and important body in the world. And that's why in writing this, I, like you, say: To God be the glory.


Your brother in Christ.

September 6, 2015

Sermon for Proper 18 B: The Gospel and #BlackLivesMatter

Sermon for Proper 18 B / Lectionary 23 B
September 5, 2015
Michael Coffey

Here’s a question for you:
            How do we know that the good news of God is for us?
            How do you know that the words of grace and mercy,
                        that the gift of healing and new life in Christ
                                    are for you in particular?
I’ve talked with plenty of folks in my life and my ministry
            and I’ve had plenty of my own low moments
            where it seems that the promises of the Gospel message
                        are for everyone else.
But then you wonder: Is this for me, too?
            Am I included?
            Does my life matter?

I imagine that’s what the Syrophoenician woman
            whose daughter was ill wondered.
She obviously had heard about what Jesus was doing,
            how he was going around the whole region
            healing and helping, uplifting and empowering others.
But, true to his mission and his purpose,
            he was doing this with his own people.
Would he do this for my daughter, she thought?
            Would he show the compassion and mercy and healing
                        of this God he keeps talking about as good news
                        for me and my daughter, foreigners and outsiders?
Does my life matter, too?

I imagine this is the same pressing, desperate question
            that the Syrian refugees are asking
            as they flee their war torn homeland
                        where hundreds of thousands have been killed.
They have flung themselves into the mercy of the world
            and into the arms of God however God operates in the world
            and they are pleading for safety and shelter.
They are asking: Do our lives matter?
            And then a boy’s body washed up on the beach,
            and the world cried and grieved.
                        And after some delay and uncertainty
about how to respond to the crisis,
            the world opened the doors of its heart and its borders a little more.
            Yes, we are saying together. Yes, your lives matter, too.
                        And we can’t bear the thought of another child dying
                                    because of your great suffering and need.

Jesus was pretty clear about his mission and purpose
            for the moment he was in in his ministry.
He was working under God’s call and authority
            to bring healing, repentance and renewal to his own people Israel.
They had suffered enough,
            their cries had been heard,
            and the time had come for them to have faith renewed,
                        see God at work bringing hope and good things,
                        and then through them,
                        all the world might come to see the good news of God.
That was the plan. Start small,
            start locally, start with his own folks,
                        and then let that move out to all people.
Except, his plan got interrupted by the foreign woman’s great need
            as her daughter suffered.
At first, he stuck to his plan.
            It wasn’t time yet.
            Soon, though, it will be your time, too.
But she would not accept this.
            She challenged Jesus.
            She called to his deeper compassion.
            She showed great faith in him and in God,
                        and great boldness for the sake of her daughter.
            She insisted that her life mattered, too.

And this is why I love this story.
            If Jesus had acted like most men of power in his day
                        or, honestly, in our own day,
            he would have shut her down.
            He would have put her in her place.
            He would not have let her make him look bad.
            He would not have let her challenge him and change him.
But instead, Jesus shows us how those with power and position
            must act in this world of pain and suffering:
                        With humility, with openness to changing our plans,
                        with a positive response to the cries of those who suffer
                                    and their insistence that their lives matter, too.

Henry Nouwen was one of the best known and loved
            spiritual writers of the past decades.
His best known book is probably, “The Wounded Healer.”
            In it, he writes:
            A Christian community is therefore a healing community
not because wounds are cured and pains are alleviated,
but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions
for a new vision.

The church is the community that gathers always
            in the presence, and name, and often image of
                        the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.
It is a community and a movement
            always defined by its willingness
            to let the wounds and the pains of others
                        open it up to a new vision
of who and why and how to be in the world.
It is a community that is always ready to say
            to those who have been told over and over again
                        that their lives don’t matter
                        that in God, in Christ Jesus, their lives do matter.
The church must and can be that community
            that is always willing, like Jesus,
            to lay aside its best made plans
                        and respond to the needs of those who are suffering,
                        because we learn over and over again,
                                    that was the plan all along.

Since the murder of 9 African American Christians
in Emanuel AME church in Charleston,
you have probably heard me talk some
about race and racism and reconciliation
and seeking unity within the church.
I’ve talked about this more in the past few months
than I ever have in my ministry.
It has become clear to me,
            that I had grown comfortable with the way things are.
I had assumed that we were all slowly progressing toward
            that dream of Martin Luther King
            and it was just taking a little longer than we thought.
I had accepted that people just had to be patient with the process
            of changing society and it was all working out.
But then I realized in my acceptance of the status quo,
            I was saying, in effect: It’s not your time yet.
                        Your life doesn’t matter quite yet.
That’s why I’m grateful for the movement
            that has called itself Black Lives Matter.
It has reminded me that
            the message heard over and over again
            by many African Americans is just the opposite:
                        Your lives don’t matter.
And if you or I haven’t experienced what the pain and destruction
            of racism does to you,
            then we have to listen to the voices crying out now:
                        Our lives matter. Black lives matter.
            There’s no more time to wait for change and healing.
                        Our sons and daughters need it now.
Of course, in every movement and cause,
            there are people who say and do things
                        that are regrettable and don’t help the cause.
But if you listen to the wise and courageous leaders
            within the African American community,
            you hear the voice of the Syrophoenician woman:
                        Our lives matter.

I asked at the beginning of this sermon:
            How do we know that the good news of God is for us?
            We know it when it is proclaimed not as some general truth,
                        but as a particular message to you and me,
                        a particular message that is true now and not some tomorrow,
                        a particular message that overcomes all our resistance
                                    to believing that we matter, too.
Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the ELCA,
            has called this moment a Kairos moment.
That’s a Greek biblical word meaning a point in history
            where things have reached a turning point,
            a moment you can’t ignore, but must respond to.
In this particular moment,
            one way the good news of God is proclaimed
                        is by saying “Black Lives Matter.”
Not because any other lives don’t matter,
            but because black lives have been devalued and still are devalued.
For the Syrophoenician woman,
            her life and her daughter’s life only mattered
                        if the response of mercy was now and for them, too.
Syrian refugees cannot wait another moment
            for mercy and compassion, if their lives truly matter.

The church, we, are God’s people
            who have been told time and time again
            that our particular lives matter
            through baptism
            and forgiveness and grace
            and communion with Jesus our brother and friend,
                        who gives us himself and says: given and shed for you.
The church is bold and faithful
            not when it proclaims a generic Gospel for all people,
                        and never gets into the grit of the real world.
The church is bold and faithful
            when it says that the very lives that have been devalued
            are valuable to God now, even if others reject them.
The church is bold and faithful
            when it acts with compassion and mercy
            for those who are suffering now,
not next year when we are ready for them.
The church is bold and faithful
            when it is as humble and gentle as Jesus
            to let the voices of those crying out right in front of us
                        pleading, “Our lives matter,”
                        to let them change our plans
and open us up with them to God’s mercy now.

September 3, 2015

Cries that Interrupt Perfect Plans

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice,but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. (Mark 7:24-30)

Jesus' encounter with the Syrophoenician woman is one of those stories that causes people to rush to an explanation. Jesus says something that sounds harsh and unsympathetic and very un-Jesus like. Then, after the woman boldly challenges him, he changes his mind. This story would never make it in John's Gospel, where Jesus always knows everything ahead of time and could never change. That's the perfect Jesus many of us live with in our imaginations. But this is Mark's Gospel, and this Jesus is for Mark perfect in a different way.

It should be pretty obvious: Jesus is not Donald Trump. If Donald Trump had been challenged with this woman, he would have insulted her, told her to sit down and go back to where she came from. His easily bruised ego would have lashed out at being questioned on what his plans were. He would have used his power to crush her and get rid of her.

I say this not just to pick on Donald Trump (though I confess to finding that extremely pleasurable) but to make the point: That's not how Jesus responds. Many men of his day and age, not to mention many men today, would respond by silencing and dismissing the woman. Not Jesus. Something else happens.

Yes, Jesus uses language that is rough. He is focused and dedicated to his plans, which it should be said are God's plans for him. He is working to bring his own people into the light of God's mercy so they can be a light to the nations, just as Isaiah of old dreamed. And his perfect, God-given plan is interrupted by the cries of a woman whose daughter is suffering. And Jesus, the powerful man of God, responds to her further challenge of his plans with admiration and gratitude and mercy.

For Mark, Jesus is Son of God not because he is some untouched spirit who knows all and has no human path of growth and learning and humility to follow, but because he is able to use his power for others for the sake of the kingdom. Nothing embodies that better in Mark than Jesus' willingness to be taught by this foreign woman, by his ability to listen with his heart and not just his head, by his letting go of his ego and changing his mind publically even though it might make him look weak, by his willingness to let the cries of the world interrupt his perfect plans.

The body of a Syrian boy washed up on the beach yesterday. Immigrants and refugees cry for safety and compassion. Black lives simply ask that they matter. Someone near you is hurting and needs twenty minutes of your time and compassion. Someone else across town needs your ten dollar donation to the food pantry. The world cries out in suffering and constantly interrupts our perfect plans for how to spend our time and money and energy.

If we're willing to let Jesus teach us, then we stop blaming everyone who is suffering for interfering with our lives. We drop our perfect plans. We let go of controlling everything so that we always come out on top. We respond with hearts of compassion and hands of love. The kingdom of God is not found in the perfection of our plans, but in the perfection of our love and mercy.

August 14, 2015

The Welcome Insult of Wisdom

Bread and Wine by He Qi
Wisdom has built her house, 
     she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
      she has also set her table.

She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls 
     from the highest places in the town,
“You that are simple, turn in here!” 
     To those without sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread
      and drink of the wine I have mixed.

Lay aside immaturity, and live,
      and walk in the way of insight.” (Proverbs 9:1-6)

Hey, stupid, come here!

How's that for a greeting? Nothing like getting someone's attention like insulting them. But, in Proverbs, when Wisdom speaks, she tells you like it is: Come, simple people, come get wisdom. Come immature children, come and grow up into maturity.

Wisdom and maturity are great themes. But once you realize that the calling is first to your lack of wisdom, and your lack of maturity, then it comes first as an insult, a bruise to the ego, a recognition that you are not as far along as you thought.

A lot of religious and spiritual talk seems to promote our own need to prove what we already know, or show off what we already have, or hold on to what we have already experienced. Wisdom, that great feminine expression of God in Scripture, says compared to what there is yet to know and have and experience, you are in infant, a simpleton, an immature child.

And that is the grace of it. Yeah, I know, it sounds like an insult. But it is an invitation to eat and drink up more. Only, if you don't know you're hungry for the food being offered, you'll eat at the same old greasy spoon, settle for the familiar, and claim your own accomplishments and status and knowledge attained already. And you'll never learn, grow, or mature beyond where you are right now.

Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.

There's some other food and drink, some nourishment and sustenance we need in this life. If we're going to get it, the first step is humility, admitting we don't have it, and naming and feeling the hunger we have for it.

I'm watching a lot of political news lately, most of which has been about Donald Trump. He recently spoke about his faith, and how he has never asked for forgiveness. He seems to be the kind of guy who always has to promote what he already has, how much he has accomplished, how great he already is compared to everyone else. He has no humility to say he needs something else in his journey of spiritual growth and maturity, which is probably why he seems not to attain it.

I'm thinking continually about our racial problems in America. It seems the first step for white Americans is to say we don't get it, we have some growth to do, we need to listen to experiences other than our own, we are hungry for what we do not yet have in relationship with African Americans and other persons of color. Without naming the deficiencies and feeling the hunger, not much healing, growth, or maturity can come.

Jesus comes on the scene in John's Gospel as the incarnate Word of God, the Logos in Greek. Many biblical scholars think that John was implying that Jesus was Wisdom from the Old Testament, but John couldn't find the right words to say it in Greek for various reasons, not the least of which was using feminine words to describe Jesus. Seems to have a been a non starter back then.

Jesus comes to his people in John's Gospel and brings both the recognition that people do not fully see God, do not yet eat the bread and wine of his self-giving love. So people respond by either feeling insulted and rejecting him, or saying: Give us this bread always. Then, he gives the bread and the wine of his very life for the whole world, so we might all be fed by the endless love of the divine.

Hey stupid, Wisdom is calling. Hey, immature child, God is calling you to grow up. Hey hungry one, Jesus is offering to fill us up with the very life of God. Instead of being insulted and getting defensive, hear the gracous invitation from God: There is bread and wine we have not yet tasted, and it is being offered freely. And the first step is to admit we need it. And the second is to enjoy it.