December 22, 2008

Sermon 12/21/2008

Sermon for Advent 4 B
December 21, 2008
Michael Coffey

2 Samuel 7:1–11, 16 (Are you the one to build me a house to live in? )

Luke 1:26–38 ("Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." )

Two contrasting stories just before Christmas:
David, and Mary.
David wanted to stay in control.
You and I want to stay in control.
Life is too messy, too unpredictable.
We want to get it all lined up,
set up a system to make it work,
put things in their proper place,
keep things on schedule.
Maybe, if we can just get it all worked out
we can make things work out right.

You know how it is with us men.
We sit in front of the TV.
We hold on to the remote.
Don’t try to pry out from our fingers.
We need it. We need to hold on to the remote.
We need to stay in control.
We know just where to flip the channel
during the commercial break
to catch a snippet of news
or two jokes from a standup comic.
We know just the right time to flip it back
for the next scene of the show.
We hold on to the remote.
If feels good. It starts to mold itself to the shape of our hands.
We feel like, in our own small universe of cable TV,
we are in control.

David wanted this kind of control.
He’s a man. Even more so, he’s a king.
He’s starting to think he can make the world just right.
If everything goes the way he thinks,
it will be wonderful.
But there is this problem, this big problem.
Can’t seem to control the Lord, David thinks.
Ah. But, if I build him a house,
I can keep him contained.
I can keep God domesticated.
I can go to him when I need him to help out a bit,
but otherwise, I can stay in control.
David starts to planning. Build a house for God.
Keep him still, contained, predictable, available for my bidding,
But not out on the loose.

David acts like he wants to look out for the Lord.
He’s concerned.
God has no home! No pillow for his huge head!
But David’s concern is really a cover-up
for his own need to stay in control.
So the Lord responds:
David, David, David.
You’re going to build a house for me?
You’re going to contain me?
Domesticate me?
David, I don’t need you to build me a house,
but thanks for the offer!
David, I will build you a house.
I will determine the length and purpose
of your kingship.
I will give you the gift.
I will stay in control.

The biblical God
and the God of real life
will not submit to our control,
will not allow us to house him,
will not fit our agendas.
We are constantly having to let go of the God we want
and learn to accept the God we have,
the God we cannot control.
But, as we learn the difficult lesson
that we are not in control
we start to be open to and accepting of
the One who is.

The other side of the story is Mary’s story.
Mary got a visit.
A messenger came to tell her
that things were going to change big time.
Mary, young, small, yet to know much about life
was about to lose control of her own life,
her own destiny.
Gabriel told her God had big plans for her.
It was going to happen just such a way, he said
and it would make all the difference in the world.
And Mary says:
How can this be?
I am still a virgin.
How can I have a child?
In an amazing moment of transformation
and acceptance of God’s will
Mary says:
Here am I, the servant of the Lord;
let it be with me according to your word.

Some people say that Mary’s acceptance of God’s will
was necessary for God to bring Jesus into the world.
Others say that God’s plan was set
but Mary was able to accept it
and so rejoice in it
instead of begrudging it.

Either way, Mary is having an encounter
with the truth that she is not the one in control.
She didn’t make the plan.
She didn’t choose to complicate her life
with an early, unexplainable pregnancy.
She is not in control,
but she knows the One who is
and she gives herself over to God’s strange ways,
and in that moment, she is transformed.

As much as we believe life will be better
if we can control more and more,
the spiritual journey of this life
is about controlling less and less
and learning to love the One
whose plan and purpose is for the good of all.
The pain and struggle of letting go of control
is not only necessary for our spiritual growth
it is also completely unavoidable.

It is more a matter of how soon we will stop fighting
the reality of life and the God we have
and give ourselves over to something
we can only trust in faith.

Mary's encounter
with this uncontrollable God
goes quite differently than David's.
Gabriel speaks his divine message:
Your child will be holy,
he will be called Son of God.
For nothing will be impossible with God.

That was a word Mary probably knew all too well: impossible.
So much was impossible for her,
as it is for us:
That we will ever make everything right.
That we will ever get control of our lives.
That we will ever turn God into one of us,
and get control of this story we call life.
So much is impossible with us.
But Gabriel said, as if to remind Mary,
as if to remind us,
that this is the uncontrollable God we are talking about:
Nothing is impossible with God.
Gabriel speaks of Mary’s elderly cousin Elizabeth
who is also going to have a child,
not too early, like Mary
but much too late.
Elizabeth is a reminder of all the times
God worked his impossible ways in people’s lives.
And then, as if suddenly all this nonsense made sense to her,
Mary said:
Here am I, the servant of the Lord;
let it be with me according to your word.

Right there, Mary does it.
We find it so hard to do,
so listen to Mary do it:
She gives up control.
She gives up controlling God
by expecting only what is possible.
She gives up controlling herself
with her well thought out plan for her life.
She gives her self over to the mystery of what is
and the unexpected word of what will be.

Yes, sometimes the channels are flipping faster
than you can handle.
Yes, it drives you crazy
that you can't grab the big remote control for Life,
and push the pause button,
or find the show
where everything goes the way you want it.
Yes, we fall into loss and grief,
and chaos seems to run amok
making a mess out of all that we plan.

But there is One who has some kind of mysterious control.
There is one calling to us
like he did to David
so we can stop trying to control God
and accept the gift God has to give to us.
There is one calling to us
like he did to Mary:
Let go of your tight grip on your life.
Something unexpected is happening.
You are becoming the means of God’s good news
entering the world.
God is working his wonders through you.

December 7, 2008

Sermon 12/07/2008

Sermon for Advent 2 B
December 7, 2008
Michael Coffey

Text: Isaiah 40:1-11
(Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God)
Mark 1:1-8
(Prepare the way of the Lord)

You might sense at times
that something is keeping you from God,
something has become a roadblock in your life.
It might be something you have done,
or you are avoiding doing,
or you have experienced,
or was done to you.
But it can often feel like something is keeping us from God,
something is getting in the way of moving forward in life.
We might be trying to get beyond it
or pretend like it isn’t such a big deal for us.
But we keep finding out
that until it is dealt with
we still feel distant from God,
and likely distant from other people,
and distant from our own selves.

So listen up to what is happening with John the Baptist:
It’s time! Come out! Whatever is keeping you distant from God,
it’s time to deal with it, confess it, and clear it away!
I suppose we have to admit first
that John was weird.
He ate bugs and wore rough clothes.
He seems like an odd character
to motivate us to tend to our roadblocks.

But he had some kind of charismatic way about him,
so much so that he is the most important figure in the Gospels
other than Jesus.
He called people out to the wilderness, and they came.
They were confessing their sins.
I would like to convince you that this is not a normal thing to do.
The normal thing to do is hide your sins,
pretend you aren’t at fault for anything,
blame everyone else for your problems
and for the craziness of the world.
The normal thing to do is fear exposure,
resist honesty,
and deny truth.

But there they were:
They came out to John confessing their sins,
being baptized,
starting over.
Why were they doing this?
Because when God is encountered as comfort and grace,
there are no excuses left.
With the promise of forgiveness, mercy, and renewal
given ahead of time,
there is no reason not to lay it all out,
get rid of it all,
and finally be done with it,
these things that keep us from God:
Sin, fear, guilt, failure, doubt, shame, pain.
The response from God to these things is good:
comfort, mercy, grace.

It seems that people suffer long enough
under the weight of their own failure and misguided choices in life.
When people have suffered enough,
and sometimes more than enough,
the message from God is pure comfort, mercy, and good news.
It brings people out of their resistance to God,
through their roadblocks,
and opens them up to a new and surprising reality:
God is good news.

God’s people Israel were in exile in Babylon.
They had suffered a long time.
They knew all too well
that it all went bad
because they had turned away from God
and away from mercy, justice, and care for each other.
But now, decades later,
they had suffered a long time, too long.
Certainly, if they had been sentenced to prison
they had served their time.
Their sadness and grief and loss
were so great, they were near the end.
They thought they had built an impassable roadblock
back to God, back home, back to life.
Hope had slipped away.

So God sent the prophet, the poet of good news,
to tell the people:
You have served twice your sentence!
There is no doubt!
The only thing left to hear from God
is comfort, grace, mercy, new life.

Israel was a long way from home.
Mountains and desert were blocking the way.
But the message from the prophet is loud and clear:
The mountains will be made flat,
and the rough places smooth.
There are no more roadblocks between us and God,
between us and home.
The only thing keeping us from getting beyond the present reality,
is a hurdle of our own making, not God’s.

How often have you reached some kind of end,
found a roadblock you can’t get past,
maybe one of your own making,
maybe one made for you by someone else.
And then how often have you only heard more requirements,
more judgment, more guilt?
We’ve been good at that in the church,
setting up not only rules for people that they can’t live up to,
but also impossible requirements and doctrines and dogmas
to buy into if you want to even try
to get beyond where you are now,
and get back to God.

So John the Baptist
and Isaiah the prophet
bring the heart of the good news
exactly when people needed it the most:
When they were stuck, hopeless, unable to get anywhere
and see God in their lives
and find strength for new ways of living and loving others.
John and Isaiah bring this good news
with boldness and energy
because the good news of God
does not rely on our perfect faithfulness,
but only on God’s dependable promises.
It is not weak and withering like the grass or our own lives,
it is strong and dependable.

Isaiah says to people who think God is far from them:
Your God is right here!
John says: The new thing of God is coming and is here!
The good news is that God is here
as trustworthy grace and comfort for you,
you, because you have been away too long,
you, because you have suffered long enough,
you, because you aren’t sure what to hope in anymore.
God is our always present reality and hope,
both the comfort we need in the present,
and the good news we need for the future.

John calls people to repentance,
a change of mind, and turning in a new direction.
This call to repentance, I hope you can hear it now,
is good new, not bad news.
The good news of God is here and now,
and all the roadblocks are removed,
and there is no excuse for not moving forward.
The only thing keeping us from moving forward
when we feel we are lost and blocked from God
is ourselves, not God.
God’s word of comfort pulls us away from whatever keeps us from God,
and pushes us toward a new life with God.

John called people out to the wilderness.
It is always the place of getting away,
opening yourself up to something new,
and rediscovering who God is for you now.

I think we need the same spiritual wilderness time.
Maybe it’s just a day,
but wouldn’t a week be great?
But if you can’t find a week
to retreat and let go and listen,
then do this:
Give yourself a day,
a day away from noise and distraction and TV and internet,
a day away from busyness and shopping and consuming.
Yes, I mean right now in the middle of this crazy busy time,
this Advent month when you think
you can least afford to tend to your roadblocks with God.
Go out and away somewhere in a park or a wood,
or find a still point at home or in your yard.
Be still and listen:
Listen to what you need to turn away from.
Listen to what you need to turn towards and embrace.
Listen to God gently but persistently pulling and pushing you,
Pulling you away from whatever keeps you from God,
and pushing you towards a new life with God.
You probably know what all of that is already,
but you haven’t cleared your mind and your schedule
to hear it and accept it and trust it.

This is a season for hopeful living
that is wrought from the hard work of repentance,
facing your roadblocks, letting them fall,
turning away from old ways,
turning towards the new ways God is leading you to.
And those new ways
are about sharing the same comfort, mercy, and grace
you have found in God through Christ
with everyone else who is still hurting,
hiding, and stuck behind their own roadblocks.

As people gathered around Christ Jesus,
the message is clear: God is comfort, mercy, and grace.
Put away all your excuses:
they don’t mean anything.
God has removed anything and everything
that gets in the way of knowing, loving, and enjoying
life with God.

December 2, 2008

Peace, Love, and Understanding

I watched "The Colbert Christmas Special." It was just OK, but a good parody of all those old Christmas specials that were fake wintertime get-togethers and filmed during some hot summer in L.A. with plenty of shmaltz and B-list celebrities. Think Perry Como meets the Osmonds mixed with Kenny Rogers. There was even a hint of the Bing Crosby / David Bowie Christmas duet. Those were the days.

At the end of the show, they sang the song "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?" It's a great song from the 70's by Nick Lowe, made famous by Elvis Costello (he was a guest on the Colbert show). Wikipedia says about the song:
In 2004 The Rolling Stone magazine ranked Elvis Costello's 1979 version of the song as the 284th best song of all time.

It's a better rock song than a stand-alone lyric. It seems like a great song for Advent:


As I walk through

This wicked world

Searchin for light in the darkness of insanity.

I ask myself
Is all hope lost?

Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?

And each time I feel like this inside,

There's one thing I wanna know:

Whats so funny bout peace love & understanding?

And as I walked on

Through troubled times
My spirit gets so downhearted sometimes

So where are the strong

And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?

Sweet harmony.

cause each time I feel it slippin away,
just makes me wanna cry.

Whats so funny bout peace love & understanding?

So where are the strong?

And who are the trusted?

And where is the harmony?

Sweet harmony.

cause each time I feel it slippin away,
just makes me wanna cry.

Whats so funny bout peace love & understanding?