December 22, 2009

Sermon 12/20/2009

Sermon for Advent 4 C
Michael Coffey

Who was she?
Who was she to be pregnant with God’s love for the world?
Who was she that she should bear Christ to the world?
She was lowly.
She was a young girl.
She was of little account in the world’s accounting.
She was poor.
She was unexpectedly expecting,
and possibly ashamed of her unmarried status.
Who was she that she should bear Christ to the world?
She was lowly, and she knew it.

Now I’m saying all of that
because I also have to tell you
we, too, are pregnant with God’s love for the world.
We, too, bear Christ to the world.
As God’s people in Christ,
we are very much like Mary.
And we may wonder,
who are we to be this?
We may feel inadequate to be God’s bearers of love.
We may feel unqualified to bring God’s mercy into the world.
We may think we are unprepared to do the things of God.
We may sense we are unworthy of such a high calling.

I’m going to claim among us today
that as pregnant as Mary was with Jesus,
so is the church pregnant with Jesus,
filled up with the presence and power of Christ
in our womb, our inner being, our true self.
It’s a big claim,
not an easy one to make or accept,
but without it, this last Sunday in Advent,
this Christmas,
and any talk of mission and purpose for the church
mean very little.

Luke has already told us
that Mary got pregnant as a virgin through God’s power and plan,
and that she was only engaged to Joseph, not yet married.
So while she was waiting to give birth,
this very young woman goes off to stay with her cousin Elizabeth
for three months.
Why? Was she ashamed, like many young women would be?
Was she ostracized like many girls would be?
Was she afraid of what was happening to her body?
Who knows, but she goes off to see Elizabeth,
and Elizabeth welcomes her.
Like so many women have done for so many girls “in trouble” as is said,
Elizabeth welcomes her, loves her, helps her.

And she doesn’t something even more.
Elizabeth brings a word of blessing.
Elizabeth reinterprets Mary’s pregnancy
as blessing and gift and within the plan of God.
Blessed are you! She tells Mary.
Blessed is the child you bear! She shouts out to her younger cousin.
Blessed is your faith! She exclaims to her fellow believer.

And then Mary gets it,
and she sings her song.
Then Mary gets once again how God works.
Mary sees and accepts that in her lowliness,
in her smallness,
in her poverty,
in her unimportance,
God was doing what God always does.
God works his ways through people such as Mary.
God needs and uses people who are truly humble,
genuinely in need,
truly able to trust God above all things,
and so let themselves be small within the realm of God’s greatness.
Who was Mary that she should be pregnant with God’s love for the world?
Who was Mary that she should bear Christ to the world?
She was no one,
and she knew it, and she embraced it,
and she magnified God for it.

Who are we that we should be pregnant with God’s love in our lives?
Who are we that God should use us to bear Christ to the world?
We are no ones,
and we either know it, and embrace it,
and magnify God for it,
or we resist it,
and deny it,
and fight against it,
and try to make something of ourselves first
So that God can use us for our strength and status,
Instead of our weakness and lowliness.

I remember a number of years ago
there was a rare and amazing alignment of the planets.
Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn were all in a row in the night sky
just before Christmas time.
And I remember looking up at the sky and the planets and the stars
and getting that overwhelming feeling you can get sometimes:
I am so small.
I am such anothing.
This world is so vastly bigger than I am.
What place do I possibly have in it?
It can leave with you with a sense of wonder and astonishment.
It can also leave you feeling inadequate and fearful of your own insignificance.
I think that feeling drives a lot of us
to try to be more important and more powerful
and more successful than we really are or need to be.

But Mary’s song should put an end to all of that foolishness.
Mary’s song is radical and astounding and full of promise.
Mary’s song says that God lifts up the lowly
and needs them for God’s purposes,
and God will help the proud and powerful understand this
by bringing them down to their true humanity,
their lowly status, their true need before God.
Who are we that we should be pregnant with God’s love
and bear Christ to the world?
Absolutely nothing and nobody.
And that is exactly as it must be.

And then there’s this reality to accept:
Being pregnant is never an end in itself.
I’ve heard some women say how much they loved being pregnant,
especially around the middle months,
before they got to big and front heavy
that they can’t get up from a chair without help.
But being pregnant is never meant to be an end in itself.
Giving birth is the goal.
Bringing to life something new is the purpose.

For this fourth Sunday in Advent,
we are in a short holding pattern of pregnancy.
We are anticipating what might be.
We are listening to Mary ponder and contemplate
her own astonishment at being so small
and yet bearing something so great in her.
But we know the goal for this is to get to the birth.
If not, it would be like wrapping all those presents,
and leaving them under the tree all year round.
Who could stand it?

If we as God’s people in Christ
are pregnant with God’s love for the world
and bear Christ to the world,
then the only purpose this serves
is to actually give birth to it.
As a man,
giving birth seems foreign and fearful,
so I think we need many of you women to help us understand this.
There must be something both frightening and awesome about it.

For our lives of faith,
getting beyond merely being pregnant with God’s love for the world
means actually Living it out here and today.
And the only way to understand that
is to go back to Mary’s song.
Who needs lifting up?
Who is lowly among us that God is seeking to honor?
Who is poor and hungry and in need of mercy and compassionate food?
This is how we bear Christ to the world,
this is how we give birth to God’s love for the world:
We live out Mary’s song.
We become lowly ourselves
by serving and giving and loving.

Mary’s song might seem frightening and unhelpful
if we hear the parts about the proud and the rich and the belly-filled
finding out that they are going to be humbled and brought down
from their lofty heights.
But instead,
the song simply calls us to be among the lowly and poor,
to live join with the outcast and the humble,
to become insignificant ourselves,
because God knows we already are pretty small
in the scheme of things.

I recently showed the movie “The Mission.”
It tells the story of the Guarani natives in South America
and the Jesuit missionaries who came to serve them
during the 18th century.
It’s a story of the power that Spain and Portugal
wanted to exert over the Guarani,
controlling their land and enslaving them,
while many of the Jesuits wanted to help the natives,
set up missions and schools,
and be part of their lives.
The movie culminates in a battle
between the powerful Portuguese army
and the lowly and powerless Guarani and Jesuits.
Near the end,
the priest played by Jeremy Irons
leads the people in a service of Holy Communion.
Afterwards, they march out carring a monstrance,
the sunburst metal contained displaying the consecrated host,
the sign of the power and presence of Christ
with these lowly and powerless folks.

The priest is shot and killed,
and a courageous Guarani young man
picks it up and keeps going.
These lowly ones knew God.
They knew Christ in them.
The knew that since the presence and power of Christ was with them
they could march on humbly and faithfully
and face anything that came their way.
When you know that the power of God works in your lowliness and humility, you can face anything.
When you that the presence and power of Christ dwell in you,
you can do incredible things.

Today and every Sunday we receive bread and wine,
the body and blood of Jesus,
the power and presence of Christ in us,
the incarnation of God in sacrament and ritual and word.
We become powerfully pregnant with Christ as the church.
But we don’t stay pregnant for long.
There is life to give.
There is love to share.
There is mercy to grant.
There is a song of praise to sing,
magnifying God for all these good things God does,
even including the likes of us in God’s purposes.
Mary, to be sure, was the first bearer of Christ
but she was not the last.

December 14, 2009

Sermon December 13, 2009

Sermon for Advent 3 C
December 12, 2009
Michael Coffey

And so with many other exhortations
John proclaimed the good news.
It hardly sounds like good news at all.
With all that talk of repentance
and burning chaff
and trees that bear bad fruit being cut down,
what’s good about it?
Luke tells us this is the good news.
It makes you wonder if we missed something.
Or if there was a scene cut
as if it were a badly edited movie.
Our ears might not always know how to hear it as good news,
but Luke says it plainly:
This word John spoke about God is good news.

The first thing that means for us
is knowing what the good news is not:
it is not easy.
It is not some easy word of forgiveness
that comes too quickly.
It is not God’s grace
that seeks no response and transformation in our lives.
The good news of God seems to cut much closer
to the heart of our lives
than any of that easy good news.
And I suspect we all know it
even when we don’t know it...
Any easy good news about us
and our complicated and confusing lives
is really no good news at all.

So, let’s let that half-crazed wild-man prophet of the coming kingdom,
John the baptizer,
tell us the hard good news.
It begins like this:
God is in desperate need of a people in this world
who live out God’s vision.
God is so urgently in need of such a people
that he is acting in unbelievable ways to restore them
and recreate them.
And God is doing that now through Jesus,
who is coming among us.

A bunch of people hear this and think:
thank goodness,
just when I was getting tired of watching
all those reality TV shows
something really interesting comes along!
There’s something to get really involved in,
because it might actually mean something more
than the emptiness we feel inside.
So John calls them to turn away from emptiness
and turn toward fullness by living in God’s realm.

So they ask him... John!
What must we do to be a part of this thing God is doing?
And John says...
Repent, and bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Repent, and bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Now, in order to solve the puzzle
of what John means by this,
we’re going to have to work backwards
from the clues to figure it out.
It’s a bit like a mystery novel,
where we know the facts,
but we don’t know what they mean yet.

John says what the fruit worthy of repentance means:
Share your extra coat with someone who needs it.
Share your extra food with someone who needs it.
Don’t use your privileged position to get more than your share.
Don’t use power or force to get more than your share.
John says the fruit worthy of repentance means
living with a generous economics
and a humble use of power and privilege.

This all comes as some surprise
when we expect that a religious question about repentance
would come with some religious observance
or a ritual of purity
or an assignment to pray so many times a day.
But what we hear from John,
as we do from all the biblical prophets
is a response to God rooted in loving your neighbor
with generosity and humility.

Every example he used
for bearing the fruit of God’s reigning mercy was economic:
Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.
Whoever has extra food must share with those who have none.
Whoever has power must not use it to their material advantage.
Every single thing John tells them to do
to get in the right mode for God’s realm to be good news
is about living a different kind of economics.

Well, as a guy who has more than two coats
and a refrigerator and pantry full of food
and a position of some small religious authority and power...
Well, it kinda makes me think.
Is this good news?
Is this what I wanted to hear so close to Christmas?
Well, maybe and maybe not.
I do still hear that the good news begins with grace.
The good news is repentance and forgiveness.
There is an offer and a promise
that repentance is met by mercy,
and that any recognition on my part of my own failed ways
is immediately met by grace that renews me.

The good news in Luke’s Gospel is that repentance and forgiveness
are what Jesus brings, heralded by John.
And this repentance and forgiveness
make a new way of life possible.
They create a new joyful living that overflows with generosity.
Jesus creates a people so aware of God’s immediate merciful activity
that there is no room for anxious self-interest,
no room for crippling fear of what is coming.
There is only a grateful response,
a generous living,
a humble love of neighbor and self.

So, what does the evidence point to?
If this generous economics and humble use of power
are the fruits worthy of repentance...
What is the repentance?
What is the change John is calling us to,
and presumably, God is calling us to through this text today?
It can’t simply be our normal recitation
of this or that thing we have done wrong,
or one or another moral failure.
It can’t even be our assumption about other people’s
this or that or one or another thing that we think they should change.
It must be something deeper,
something at the root stock of our lives,
in order to produce the fruit of the kingdom of God.

Here’s where the evidence leads me:
The repentance John call us to is about our vision,
or our lack of vision.
The repentance John calls us to is about our imagination,
or our lack of imagination.
The repentance John calls us to is how we envision and imagine
the world works when we acknowledge that the world is God’s,
that the only kingdom in this world that matters
Is the kingdom of God among us.
And the vision and imagination that the evidence points to is this:
We are all in this together.
We are all in this together!

In 1987 I was living in Los Angeles
working for the Hughes Aircraft Company
as an intern in computer programming
On the morning of October 1 I got up very early for work
because an earthquake shook my bed so hard
that I popped up,
remembered that you’re supposed to stand in a doorway for safety,
and jumped into the bedroom closet.
It was shocking and a jolt to the senses.

What I remember most about it besides the physical sensation,
was the interaction with people the rest of the day,
and again three days later with the huge aftershock hit.
People talked about their fear.
People showed genuine concern and compassion.
People took time to listen.
People made sure others were OK.
People shared food with others who couldn’t cook
because their power and water were out.

We had all shared the same experience,
rich or poor, black or white or asian or hispanic,
white collar, blue collar, or homeless.
We all felt something we didn’t know most of the time
but it was always true before and after the earth shook:
We are all in this together.

Sometimes the Gospel comes to us as an earthquake
shaking us up and reminding us
that life is fragile, people are cherished,
our days are a divine blessing, and there is plenty for everyone.
We are all in this together!!!
So we might as well act like it.

God is calling us away from our unimaginative way of living
that says we are each in this for ourselves,
that we are all on our own in making our way through this world.
Now, you might think:
I don’t believe that we are all on our own!
And I don’t think many of us who are shaped by biblical faith
believe we are all meant to be on our own.
But our daily ways of living
are always pulling us toward individual survival
and an isolated lifestyle
and an anxious economics bent on mere survival.

So God call us back,
reminds us, encourages us,
fills us with a hopeful vision and a loving imagination
that we are all in this together.
In spite of all the forces that pull us away from one another
In anxious spending and fearful mistrust.

These are just the two things
that are paralyzing the church today.
We live with a constant anxiety about our place in the world,
about our incomes and securities and holdings and houses.
All of that makes it pretty tough to be generous and caring.
And we live with a sense that the world is heading in a direction
that scares us or makes us long for days gone by.
Living in fear of our neighbor
is not a very good way to become loving toward them.
So John’s call to a different kind of vision and imagination
is exactly the challenge we need to hear,

The good news that John speaks
and Jesus brings is something like this:
Repentance and forgiveness are what God is up to.
And because of God’s grace for all,
repentance is not so much about feeling sorry for my sins.
And it sure isn’t about making you feel sorry for your sins.
It is, instead,
about feeling compassion for my neighbor.
The mercy of God opens up the new reality
that we can live free from our own self-focused ways.
Repentance is about a change in our hearts and our vision and our imagination
that leads to compassion and generosity.
Repentance is the willingness to have our vision changed
like putting on new glasses
and seeing that we are all in this together
no matter how fuzzy the world seems to us.

I’ve been to several 3D movies lately.
You get to wear those funny glasses,
and you look at the screen and you see amazing images
pop out at you and create space in an otherwise flat world.
But if you ever look at a 3D movie without the glasses,
things look very fuzzy and blurred.
You can kind of make it out,
but it isn’t much to look at.
And you completely miss the depth and the richness of the 3D experience.

God is calling us out of our flat, shallow, fuzzy way of seeing life,
and into the 3D reality of the kingdom,
life with depth, with richness,
with love and mercy that pop out at you
and go way back into the scene.

This is hard to say, because we are fairly fixed in our vision
of what economic life should be.
We know and trust the market,
but we don’t know and trust much the vision of Scripture.
That vision is that we are called and empowered
to live with a neighborly economics
instead of a self-interested economics.

The vision is that there is a people who know God’s mercy and love so well,
that they can live with neighborly generosity and care.
The vision is that there is a people so transformed
by Jesus’ generous self-giving love,
that they themselves transform this world of anxious strangers
into a world of loving neighbors.
That takes an awfully big imagination to believe
and a newly clarified vision to see,
but that’s exactly the repentance and the faith
we are called to as we fill ourselves with hope
about the coming of Jesus.

We are all in this together.
It is a vision and an imaginative view of life
that changes how we relate and move through the day.
When we break out of our normal vision
and put on the glasses of God’s reign among us
we see how we are part of a large human community and family,
we begin to see everyone around us
as brother and sister and friend:
brother who needs a coat,
sister who needs dinner,
friend who needs tender care.
With repentance like that,
I’d say it is good news.

November 29, 2009

Sermon 11/29/2009

Sermon for Advent 1 C
November 19, 2009
Michael Coffey

Waiting for God.
This is the theme of Advent,
and in many ways the theme of our lives.
Waiting for God... to do what?
Fix this mess?
Finish what God started?
Finally just show up?

For Jeremiah and his fellow Jews in exile
the wait was for God to finally fulfill his promises.
It had been a long time coming,
centuries since David has once been the great king.
Things went downhill after that,
and then the whole sorry dream was lost completely.
But God had promised.
God had promised a kingdom as good or better
than David had ruled over.
14 The days are surely coming, says the LORD,
when I will fulfill the promise I made
to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
15 In those days and at that time
I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David;
and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
16 In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
And this is the name by which it will be called:
"The LORD is our righteousness."
So for the faithful people of Jeremiah’s time
the God for whom they waited
is the God who made promises,
but the promises were still unfulfilled.

Who is the God for whom we wait?
And how do we handle the waiting?
For people of faith and no faith today,
this waiting often feels pointless,
hopeless, and meaningless.
Those feelings might summarize much of the 20th and early 21st century
as we endure and struggle and grow cynical at life.
They are the feelings that make faith such a struggle for so many today.

Perhaps the greatest play of modern theater
as many critics have said
is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
In the play,
two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon,
wait for someone named Godot to show up,
and save them from their wandering and searching.
You get the sense that by the time you make it through this confusing
and absurd and disturbing drama
that waiting for Godot is in fact
pointless, hopeless, and meaningless.
If the many critics who cite this play
as the greatest work of modern theater are right,
this tells me that what characterizes much of the feeling and spirituality
of the last 100 years is in fact
meaninglessness and hopelessness.
If the God for whom we wait
is the God who never shows up
then we might only find despair in this life.

I’m going to claim
that biblical faith has more to say and more to grasp
than meaninglessness and hopelessness.
The God for whom we wait
is not the God who is absent.
We do not sit by ourselves lonely in a chair by the window
hoping for some one to walk in the door
throw off his coat and toss his hat on the rack
and say, “Honey I’m home!”
The God for whom we wait
is the God who is fully present with us.
The God for whom we wait
is the God who waits with us:
waiting for the story to be told in full;
waiting for the good things to come;
waiting for the fullness of divine love to fill every corner
of this world that God loves so deeply.

The waiting we speak of in faith and in Advent
is a waiting like one about to open a present
and the one who gave it is waiting to see it opened.
Both wait with eager anticipation,
both love the moment and the expectation
both receive a gift,
the receiver in getting the gift,
the giver in giving it.
This is the God for whom we wait.
The God who is fully present with us in the waiting.
The God is waiting with us in eager expectation,
of all that will be,
and how much love we will finally know and share.

The primary theme for this Advent season,
and I think for all of life,
is hopeful waiting.
Our waiting for God is hopeful
because it is rooted in God’s promises
and because we do not wait alone without God,
but fully living in the gracious Presence that is our hope.

I was talking to Donald the other day
about picking hymns for Sundays in Advent.
He named some and I said “yes”
and he named some more and I said “yes”
and he named some more and I said,
I love them all, they are all beautiful.
To me they are beautiful hymns
because they capture this hope that waits for God
this joy that wells up from faith in God.

The one hymn that captures it all so powerfully
is O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
We will use selected verses from it each Sunday in Advent
for our offering song.
There is something about it that captures the heart of faith.
And it’s both in the music and the words,
like any great hymn the two are married together.
Listen for a moment to just the music
and see if you catch something about it.
I’ll just improvise on it a bit....

Can you hear it?
Can your ear pick up the depth of the melody and harmony?
It has depth and power, I think,
because it is written in a minor key.
Major keys sound big and open and easy on the ear.
Minor keys sound deep, and rich, and longing.
Now the genius of this hymn comes at the refain.
Listen as I play into the refrain,
and think for a moment what word is there.
You know it well....

Did you get it?
Rejoice! Rejoice!
But the marriage of the word “rejoice” first with a minor chord
captures all the depth and power
of this faith we share.
Rejoicing in a minor key
is what so much of life is like
when our faith is honest and open.

Rejoicing is part of a life of faith,
and without it, we would just get together
in despair and grumbling
with no Godot ever showing up to save us.
But we do not rejoice
in simple, easy, empty happiness,
like so much pop music and easy entertainment always in major chords.
We rejoice with the depth of a minor key,
rejoicing like this because we know grief,
rejoicing like this because we know failure and pain,
rejoicing like this because we don’t live in denial
or false happiness
or painted on smiles.
We know and fully admit to ourselves and to God
that God’s promises are not yet fulfilled
and we are not yet what we need to be
and we suffer along with the world.
But, even in the depth of the minor key of life,
we are still rejoicing,
we are singing the joy that is our birthright,
joy that rises up from within all the tears and pain,
joy that does not depend on today’s news
or tomorrow’s stock market,
or next week’s charismatic leader.
And the only name I can come up for this
rejoicing in a minor key
is hope.

Joy for us who still live with the mystery of faith in us
even in this modern and post-modern era of depair and cynicism,
is a great gift.
We know joy because we know hope
and hope is simply our trust in God
and the future that God brings.
We will not settle for false happiness
or shallow satisfaction
or momentary pleasures
although a little of those every day don’t hurt.
Knowing what it is that God promises,
we will cling only to hope,
hope embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus,
hope tasted in bread in wine today as a gift,
hope shared together in the embrace of peace,
hope seen in each other’s eyes
that we can barely put into words.

Maybe in today’s world this kind of joy,
this hope that rises above the day to day reality of life,
maybe this seems naive or quaint or self-deceiving.
But I think we know different.
I think we know in a way that the word “know” doesn’t capture,
because it is deep in our souls and hearts.
We know that we do not wait alone,
but that God is with is as we wait.
And we have a calling in a world lost in hopelessness
to live openly this minor key rejoicing,
this hopefulness that wells up from somewhere in us
we do not understand and cannot bottle,
but can only humbly name and sing.

When I listened to the reading from Luke
and Jesus paints the picture of the world falling apart,
it doesn’t look very good.
It doesn’t sound like what we’re waiting for.
But Jesus tells it with hopefulness and full expectation
of the good things to come from God.
So when he talks about the sun and the moon and the stars
and the roaring seas and all the people who will be afraid,
you’d expect him to say:
Run for your lives!
Or at least he might say duck!
Remember all those duck and cover films for school kids?
At least they got a warning and a chance to hide!
But Jesus tells those who believe in him and in the good news of God
not to duck and cover.
He says:
28 Now when these things begin to take place,
stand up and raise your heads,
because your redemption is drawing near."

And then he says:
34 Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down
with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.
Well, with the picture he paints,
you kind of think you might want to get weighed down
with a little drunkenness,
and he isn’t exactly helping us not worry with all the warnings.
But that’s what he says.
And that’s what he wants.
And that’s what he expects of his people.

During the trials and troubles of life,
there are some folks who are waiting,
and they know they don’t wait alone.
They are waiting for God,
and not the God who is absent and never comes.
They are waiting for God who is fully present now.

As we wait with our gracious God,
we rejoice in a minor key.
We stand up, lift up our heads,
and don’t get weighed down with fear and distress.
We might look foolish,
and we might be the only people who are still singing.
And if we can bring the music of God’s love in Jesus to the world
even in times of distress and fear,
we might be just what God wants us to be,
just what this unfinished, lonely, waiting world needs: