November 30, 2008

Sermon 11/30/2008

Sermon for Advent 1 B
November 30, 2008
Michael Coffey

Text: Isaiah 64:1–9 (7There is no one who
calls on your name,or attempts to take hold
of you; for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand
of our iniquity.)
Mark 13:24–37 (32But about that day or hour
no one knows, neither the angels in heaven,
nor the Son, but only the Father.
33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know
when the time will come. )

Maybe you didn’t expect it to start this way.
We forget it always does.
Advent is a time to gather ourselves
around themes of hope, faithful waiting,
and trust in what God will do
to heal and renew our lives.
But Advent doesn’t start on a note of mirth or lightness.
It starts on a note of despair and gravity.
Listen to these words from Isaiah again:
7There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
We don’t expect that this is where things start,
not just in Advent,
but in any movement towards hope and renewal.
But it starts here,
and these texts are opening up a space for us right now
to enter our own despair and gravity,
so there might be room for hope and renewal
beyond what we can do for ourselves.

Israel abandoned hope in exile
because it appeared and felt like
God had grown distant from them.
It seemed that their failures and faults
had driven God away to hide up above the sky,
distant and uncaring and unmoved by people’s pain and cries.
But without giving up completely on God, they cry out:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
end this dispassionate distance,
this numbing, divine silence.
Come back to us and heal our lives.

Maybe that is part of our felt reality today, too.
Many people know the distance sensed between God and people,
and the distance between one another,
and the two are surely connected.
Isn’t this the cry so many people cry,
and the complaint so many have against any easy faith,
even though they want to believe?
Why are you distant God,
when we have messed things up so badly,
and so many are crying and dying
in Mumbai, India and on the US-Mexico border,
and inside gated communities
and behind lonely, locked doors?

Israel confessed its felt distance from God,
and God’s apparent non-responsiveness.
Israel confessed its failure,
and its fear,
and its powerlessness to fix itself or the world.
And that, strange as it seems,
is the beginning of hope and renewed life.
Coming before God,
even a God you aren’t sure is paying attention,
with utter brokenness and need is the beginning of all new life.

Sometimes you have to figure out how you are powerless to change,
when you have reached bottom,
and honestly say what exactly it is that is wrong with your life...
in order to find out what is right with God
and ultimately hopeful about your life.

It is like AA or a 12-step group,
where the entry point to healing
is a confession of failure
and powerlessness to fix yourself.
It is like a crisis that shocks you,
a death or a divorce maybe,
and stops you short of where you expected to be,
and makes you realize you can’t control it all.
It is like being stuck in a rut
and not knowing where to go next or what to do
and simply sitting there and saying:
I’m stuck! I can’t get out of it!

When I was growing up in Illinois
we had many wonderful, snowy winters.
Wonderful, that is, until you had to shovel the snow.
And if you didn’t shovel the snow on your driveway,
your car would get stuck,
and you’d try to rock it back and forth,
forward and reverse, spinning your wheels,
and the more you’d spin the wheels,
the more you’d turn the snow to ice,
and the more stuck you’d get.
And at some point you stop doing that,
you stop spinning your wheels,
and you just say it: I am stuck!

Somehow, utter honesty about our stuckness,
open confession about our failures,
grief and pain expressed and processed,
all are the starting point for turning to God
and finding hope in what is beyond us,
instead of in ourselves.

You can hear this in Mark’s Gospel
as Jesus talks about the coming days
when God finishes his work of making a peaceful world.
The message is fairly clear and simple
even if the apocalyptic language and imagery is not:
The future is not ours to make,
it is God’s to make.
The future is not ours to claim as our possession,
but it is ours to receive
as a gift of God’s creative power and loving mercy.

Our life of faith is about trusting the future to God,
even as we become useful to God’s future in what we do today.
Our life of faith is about hope in the midst of hopelessness,
expecting what seems too good to be true,
a world at peace and lives healed and whole again,
except that it comes from God,
and so it can be true and too good.

So here are some excellent reasons to be church today:
One of them is to be the place
where utter honesty about life is expressed,
is welcomed, is confessed, is expected,
honesty about you and me and the world we live in,
honesty about failure and powerlessness,
honesty about fear and anxiety,
honesty about the lack of a future we can make on our own.
I believe we need a place called church where truth is spoken.
And let’s face it,
most of what is spoken among us
in TV and news and movies and advertising
is a false hope,
and a covered over pain,
and a hidden despair,
and a fake smile.
And no one is saved or transformed or given deep hope for living
from untruth and fakery.

It might be summed up for us today
in the awful story of a WalMart in Long Island, New York,
on so-called “Black Friday,”
the vast shopping day after Thanksgiving
on which we have come to place
a great deal of our hope about the future.
Maybe you heard the news story:
A temporary worker at that WalMart
was trampled to death
when they opened the doors at 5 a.m.
when 2,000 shoppers barreled in.
And for what?
It’s not just a cheap microwave or a trendy toy
that drives these now familiar tragedies.
It is a hopelessness turned to despair.
It is our whole culture desperate enough
to let the promise of selling and consuming
be a narcotic.
We need to numb our fear and anxiety
and loneliness and pain,
because we aren’t allowed to name it and confess it.

So, yes, there is good reason to be the church.
It matters that we have a place and a text
and a liturgy that call us to honesty about life
as we stand before one another and God
so we don’t have to hide it or numb it with something else.

The other reason we bother being church
is that in the midst of such honesty and confession
there is a holy presence and a hopeful word spoken
of a God who is bigger than us
and beyond our despair
and better than our failure.
There is a message of goodness and healing from God
that brings such hope we can hardly explain:
an inner joy that wells up from where we cannot say,
a strength to live life openly and honestly and fully,
a heart full of love
love for all the other broken people
who also don’t have it figured out,
and can’t fix themselves,
but are part of the good world and promised future
God is bringing.

This is why Jesus talks about being awake,
and keeping watch.
Watchfulness in the text is hopeful waiting for God.
The importance of watchfulness
is that without hope in God
we might be misled,
either to hopeless waiting
and so live in endless crushing despair.
Or we might be misled to no waiting at all
and so we seek to fix the world and bring about
a kingdom of our own making
through our own power
which always leads to victims,
violence, impatience,
and a return to grinding hopelessness.

Instead of all of all of that,
we can be a community of faith
that invites ourselves and the whole world
to utter honesty about life,
and to do so in the presence of God.
In doing this,
we can create a space where hope in God alone
leads to new life for us and for all people,
a life not of our own making,
but a merciful gift from God
we can only receive in thanks.

November 27, 2008


I went on a hike into the Grand Canyon for four days in 2005. I wrote this while hiking in and out. Had it done in my mind by the time I reached the top. You'll hear my ever-present theology of the cross in this.


Flagstaff north to the canyon mouth:
we let ourselves be swallowed
trickling down like Pinot Noir
past the palate of the earth.

Slippage of the shale in sheets
careening off cliff walls,
rocks kicked and tumbling off the hoof trail,
red walls crumble in stop-motion destruction,
a frame a year becoming a film,
water springs through hard-carved gullies
taking trees, rattlers, artifacts of ancients,
whatever it wills and pushes and spills
into the river that makes sand of mountains.

The dilapidation of indomitable rock
whispered within this inner world
speaks in glossolalia and echolalia
we cannot but hear and decipher and know:

Everything around us is, with us, in descent.
The entire canyon is slowly falling apart in majesty,
and we, less slowly, and none less majestic.

November 25, 2008



You light candles
and you wait,
not like waiting at the bus stop
with the rain soaking your day
and the time passing
like tree growth.
You light candles
and you wait,
not like standing in line at the grocery store
with your parsley dripping on your shoe
and the woman in front of you
writing a check like a novel.
You light candles
as you sing songs of joy in minor keys
and you wait
like a man sitting at the restaurant table
with the calla lilies in his hand
and the diamond ring hidden inside
the death-by-chocolate dessert
looking every direction every moment
to see his beloved appear
and feel his heart pound at what is about to happen.
You wait like this
lighting candles one by one
waiting for something to happen
even as nothing does
year after year
war after war
death after death.
You wait like this
this Advent
this life
because somehow
even without anyone coming
to take your flowers
you still believe.

November 21, 2008

Sermon 11/16/2008

Sermon for Proper 28 A
November 16, 2008
Michael Coffey

Text: Matthew 25:14-30
(Parable of the Talents)

Most of us have thought a lot about our investments lately.

I know, I hate to even bring it up.
But what I’m really wondering about is not
how you are doing in investing your stocks, bonds, 401K’s or IRA’s.
After reading Jesus’ parable,
I’m wondering how you are doing in investing yourself.

The parable Jesus tells is asking us to think deeply
about our investment of ourselves.
The business man gives each of the three characters in the story talents.
The word means a very large sum of money,
something like 20 years of wages.
But it is no accident that we use the word
to mean a particular ability or skill or gift.
Having a particular talent is worth a great deal,
whether it is organizing, or listening,
or designing, or building, or healing.
And the way we use these priceless talents we have
is how we invest ourselves in God’s world.

In the parable, two of the slaves given various talents
use their gifts wisely and daringly.
The third, however, is scared, safe, and afraid.
He was afraid of judgment, or rejection, or failure.
So he buries his talent.
He buries himself and hides
and has nothing to give or offer or live for.
And the story reveals the result of this burying and hiding:
bitter sadness and isolation.

These parables in Matthew near the end
can be hard to take, I know.
The image of being sent into the outer darkness
where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth
is not very pretty.
I have spent a great deal of weeping and gnashing my teeth
trying to figure out what to do in this sermon
with that part of the parable,
since I know it sticks in your mind.
The more I’ve thought about and read about this kind of ending to the parable, I’ve come to see that it is not something to be taken flatly or literally.
It is more like a way of saying: listen up!
This is really important!
This makes all the difference in your life!
Don’t miss it or you’ll miss out on life itself!

This parable is about how we live as people of faith,
and how we find joy and purpose in our lives.
And the warning of the parable is this:
Don’t live out of fear.
Don’t hold back who you are
and what you have to give the world
because you think you might fail
or not be good enough.
Don’t bury yourself and hide away
because you are unsure of what might happen
if you use what you’ve got.
Don’t disinvest yourself from life
just because it is risky.
Invest your self in this world.
That’s what God made you for.

It seems far too common
that we keep what we have to give buried or hidden:
our gifts, our abilities,
our love, our compassion,
our very selves.
How often we have thought of doing this or that,
using this or that part of us,
giving from our time or finances or expertise or love...
but we hold back.
We fear rejection, or judgment, or failure.
Whether it is fear of other people
or fear of God,
I suppose it doesn’t much matter;
either way, we end up living a fearful life
of burying ourselves.

Jesus presents to people a deeply transforming understanding of God.
He shows forth the deep character of God
as compassion and mercy.
He embodies the intense suffering love of God
in his death on the cross.
He shows us in all he says and does:
God is not a tyrant or a merciless business man.
The Lord God is the fatherly embrace
that calls us into the world
to use what we’ve got without fear.
The Lord God is the maternal love
that nurtures and sustains us
through all our struggles and trials.
With the God we know in Christ Jesus,
holding back out of fear is absurd,
understandable from a human point of view,
but absurd in light of the good news.

I think Jesus knows that life itself,
and the way each of us embodies it,
is so precious and wonderful and short,
that we each find ourselves
in how we use what we’ve got,
in how we live into the world
and into God’s kingdom.
Wasting that, Jesus says,
hiding that and fearfully burying ourselves,
is a source of profound regret and sadness for us.
When we confess that we have sinned in what we have done
and in what we have left undone,
it is probably the things left undone
that haunt us the most.
And so much of what is left undone by us
is because we are too afraid to do it,
or to finish it,
or to let anyone else in on it.

So I think Jesus is doing some painful and difficult prodding
of our faith and our lives in his tough parables.
He takes us to the very fear we don’t want to face,
and has us face it head on.
If you are afraid of living your life
and using what God gave you for the sake of the world,
then go to that fear and see it for what it is
and see how it robs you of life.
Stop denying it.
Stop hiding from it.
Go deeper into it.
Let it confront you.
Accept it.
In order to fully be yourself,
fully invest yourself in the world for the sake of the world,
you have to go deep into what you fear about it,
what you fear about yourself,
what you fear about others,
what you fear about God.
It is a difficult and painful journey at times,
but it is the road to healing and growth
and renewed faith and trust in God.

The Gospel message of God in Jesus
is a message that goes with us into the deep fears of our lives.
The cross is the sign of God’s willingness
to suffer with us in our fear and loss,
and go through it until we find healing and new life in it.
Jesus is always calling his followers to lose themselves,
to give up saving themselves,
to take up the cross as the way of life,
and yet, it is so difficult to go there,
to lose yourself,
to risk.

So as Jesus brings us the message of God’s profound mercy
and fatherly embrace,
he just says it again:
Go ahead and lose yourself!
Go ahead and invest all you’ve got into life and give it away.
That’s exactly where you find yourself!
Go ahead and fall into the mysterious way
of giving away all you have to give...
you will be embraced.
And in giving yourself away,
you will find life and love.
You will find the depth of God’s love for you.

In order to fully be yourself,
to fully invest yourself in the world for the sake of the world,
you have to go deep into what you fear about it,
what you fear about yourself,
what you fear about others,
what you fear about God.
What if I do it wrong?
What if I’m no good?
What if no one, or worse,
what if God doesn’t approve of what I do?

Are we holding back?
Are you scared of losing yourself?
Afraid of rejection or not measuring up?
The sad thing is, worse, than rejection or judgment,
is the discovery that we buried ourselves in our fear,
and we loved less,
created less,
gave less,
lived less.
We should risk confessing we messed up what we did,
rather than confessing we didn’t do anything at all.

If all of this is true for us as individuals,
it is also true for us as a community, as the church.
We find it difficult to risk using all that we have
and what we are as a community
because we are unsure of where it will take us.
If you were to add up the tremendous amount of gifts and talents
and resources and love we have in this congregation,
the sum total would be overwhelmingly huge.
And as much as we do great things to love and serve others,
I can’t help but think we are too often holding back,
playing it safe,
instead of investing ourselves fully in our community
and our world,
and in each other.
Imagine the church,
our church,
fully using all the gifts, talents, energy,
abilities we have,
set free from anxiety about failure,
trusting God enough to live fully,
giving more, loving more,
forgiving more, creating more, living more.
What kind of worship and neighborliness and community
and servanthood and compassion could we be living out of sheer faith?

So the word to each of us is also the word to our whole church,
here and across the synod and nation and world:
Go ahead and fall into the mysterious way
of giving away all you have to give...
you will be caught and embraced by the arms of the Father.
You cannot fall from this love.
We can live free from the cautious and careful way of preserving ourselves,
or the church, or stop fearing the future that God is bringing.
If we are bound and buried by fear,
we are freed in Christ by faith.
As people of faith in the good news,
we are always an Advent people,
living out of hope in what God will do
with our lives and our world.