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:

November 22, 2009

Sermon 11/22/09

Sermon for Christ the King
November 22, 2009
Michael Coffey

Nothing could be more dangerous
and more enticing
than an eternal reign
of power and control.
The theme of our readings
and of this liturgical day
called Christ the King
sounds like an eternal reign of power and control.

The feast of Christ the King
is a 20th century liturgical novelty.
I love exploring and experimenting
with ways of making liturgy and eucharist
all the more powerful and transforming for us and others,
but this particular invention is not one of my favorites.
It came with good intentions, I suppose.
The pope in 1925 instituted the feast
in the face of a world growing in nationalism and secularism.
Proclaiming the reign of Christ
as opposed to the ruling power of any earthly human,
has a good purpose
making all ruling power relative and subject to God.
However, the cynical side of me
doesn’t trust the power and control needs of the church
to think that we ourselves can handle such a claim well.

There’s a problem the church has always faced
as the bearer of the mystery and message of Christ.
If the ruling power of the world belongs to Christ
and Christ belongs to us,
then we somehow have a lot of power.
So the church becomes the holder of true power and control.

We might argue and say
it isn’t about political, worldly power and control,
it’s only about spiritual power, matters of the soul.
But then,
what could be more important and dangerous
than having control over people’s spiritual lives, people’s souls?
So a day to talk about power and control,
especially eternal power and control,
is something we need to observe
with some humility, trepidation, and repentance.
With that said, let’s do it anyway.

The whole point of the biblical witness
is that the kingdom and the power and the glory
belong to God alone and no earthly ruler.
Daniel gives us a vision
of the long awaited reigning power of God
arriving on earth where there is so much death and destruction.
Revelation paints a vivid picture
of the future reign of God where death and tears are no more.
John’s Gospel gives is an ironic picture
of the power of Rome confronting the power of God in Jesus
and Pilate, standing face to face with the truth of God’s rule,
can’t see it at all.

The church has claimed that in the face of all the many ruling powers
God rules in this world through Jesus his chosen one.
The Christian witness to that power in Jesus
is that God rules the world through crucified power,
through humility, servanthood, and mercy,
through giving up claiming your own right or position or control.
That’s why all the impression that the theme of this day
is about an eternal reign of power and control
is false and misleading.
It is a about a reign of powerlessness and giving up control.

In these Scripture readings we get the impression
that this kingdom of God
comes about in some great future day,
or very soon and almost here,
or it is already here in Jesus.
It gets a little confusing, I know.
So when does this reign of God in Christ come about?
In some single, future, cataclysmic moment?
Well, maybe.
I’m completely open to and hopeful about
the way God will complete and fulfill
all the hopes and dreams God has for this world.
It’s beyond me to say it or understand it
Or decide that matter for God.

But the real question about the reign of God in Christ
might not be when, but how.
How does the reign of Christ the king come to be real among us?
I think that this reign of Christ comes about
whenever those who are Christ in the world
live the power of powerlessness each day.
There are glimpses of the kingdom
and moments and transformations that happen
whenever those who see the reign of God in the cross of Christ
actually choose to live it,
choose to relinquish power over others,
choose to use their power for good,
choose to love others for who they are,
and not for who we want them to be
choose to walk with others on the journey
without making them becoming more like us first.

Perhaps no other story in modern times
captures the depth and danger of power
than Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings.
It’s no coincidence that only a few years
after Pope Pius X recognized the growing problem of human power,
Tolkein began working on his story of power and courage.
The world in the 1930's and 1940's
had already fallen under the spell
of human power seeking absolute control.
So Tolkein’s story talks about the ring
that brings the power to reign over all.
And it is clear that no one can handle that power,
not Smeagal who finds the ring after it was lost for millenia,
not Bilbo the adventure loving hobbit
Who doesn’t even understand the power he has found,
not even the little, good-hearted hobit Frodo,
who is well intentioned.
If Frodo keeps the ring for long,
even he will only misuse it
and his power will lead to harm and destruction.

So what has to happen for the story to end well?
The ring must be destroyed.
Absolute, eternal power and control must be destroyed.
The real power Frodo has in the story
is to bring an end to absolute eternal power and control,
to give it all up and toss the ring into the melting fire.

The church gathers around the cross
that witnesses to the end of eternal power and control,
even, believe it or not,
God’s power and control over us.
Instead, a the reigning power of God in Christ
Is the power to become powerless,
The power to serve,
The power to love others
and accept them without changing them first,
The power to be vulnerable with others.

What if the reign of the Christ is happening through the church?
It is a dangerous and risky thing to say.
We have said it for 2,000 years and for much of that time
we have used it as an excuse to exercise power and control
Over other peoples.
But what if it is still true?
What if that power of God in Christ
is seeping into the needy world
but only through crucified words
and crucified actions
that make no claim for controlling anything
but only giving and offering and relinquishing?

The irony of this is that kingdom of God cannot be forced upon anyone,
that would undo and negate what the kingdom is.
it can only be offered and received as a gift
and lived as a joyfully obedient response
by those who get it,
those who see it,
those who know the depth of mercy
and can give themselves freely for it,
It comes in no other way,
or the cross of Jesus would be utterly meaningless and unnecessary.

The story of Jesus before Pilate in John’s Gospel
shows us that the truth is ironic and hidden in plain sight.
The power of the kingdom of God in Jesus
is the power of powerlessness
the power to transform the world
through humility, service, and loving the other.
The power of the reign of God in Christ in us
is the power to live in each day
trusting that the kingdom, and the power, and the glory
are rightly God’s and God’s alone,
because only God can use them for good.

God in the reign of Christ
is giving up control and absolute power over human souls
and instead comes to us and reigns over us
in powerlessness,
and self-emptying,
and loving without being loved first.
If, and only if, we as the church get that
do we have any safe way of talking about the reign of Christ,
Christ the king whose glorious and gentle rule
is over all people,
or maybe better put:
It is beneath all people and undergirds all of life.

Whether or not all people end up knowing
that glorious and gentle rule of God in Christ
is not a subject of great interest to me,
and I think it easily seeps over into the danger zone
of getting everyone else to be like us first,
and controlling the world by converting it to our cause.
But what is of great interest to me
is how we who believe and confess this reign of God in Christ
through crucified power,
actually embody that power,
Actually live that that risky love,
Actually practice that mysterious way of being in the world.
The truth of it,
which Pilate missed,
is right in front of us, too.
Bread is broken,
wine is poured.
Jesus gives himself away freely,
to us, yes,
and to the world for the world’s sake
not for his own sake,
not for the church’s sake.
Jesus gives himself away freely
for the healing and transformation of the world
into a place of selfless love and mercy lived daily.
Is that truth going to be as ironic for the church
as it was for Pilate?
Or will the church continue to find ways
to get beyond the irony,
and be a visible, humble sign of the kingdom of God?

I don’t know.
Talk of church as anyone beyond those of us gathered right here
gets muddy and risky.
But I do know some folks who are gathered right now
right here,
right in the face of the Jesus who is the truth of God’s reign.
You folks,
who will walk out the door and into the week,
and will find ways of living this reign of God in Jesus
I can’t even imagine or direct.
God’s reign that is operative in your body, mind, and soul
through this word and this meal
becomes real through your real, dailiy life.
It will surprise you
and reveal itself to you
as you love others for their own sake.

Sermon 11/08/09

Sermon for Proper 27 B
November 8, 2009
Michael Coffey

Foolish, foolish, foolish woman.
That’s what we might be tempted to think.
She dropped her bottom dollar
into the collection bucket
of the very institutions and groups
that allowed those with power and wealth
to consume widows’ houses.
Foolish woman,
unless she knows something they and we don’t know.

Look out for them, Jesus said.
Look out for those who like to walk around in long robes
and are used to being treated with respect
and who like to pray long prayers in public
Wait a minute.
As one who is currently walking around in a long robe
and whose title is the respectful “reverend”
and who prays a lot in public,
and who gets the best seat in the sanctuary,
and who always has to eat first at potlucks...
the Gospel reading is not settling well with me.

Maybe it isn’t settling well with you.
Maybe not because you feel like a scribe
who uses wealth arrogantly
and profits from other’s misfortune.
Maybe it isn’t settling well
because Jesus chose to praise the one person
in the whole messy temple scene
who should have gone unnoticed.
But Jesus noticed her
and he noticed that she put in all she had.
And it’s unsettling
because it feels a lot like
an excuse for the preacher to tell us
to put all we have in our bank accounts into the offering plate,
and wouldn’t that be a very nice trick.

I admit,
this reading does not leave me feeling great.
Jesus points out how this woman’s clanging of change in the kettle
was more than everyone else, because it was all she had.
I don’t know about you,
but I go through the day failing Jesus’ admiration miserably.
I go to the gas station to buy a Coke,
and they ask if I want to give my change for children’s charities.
I don’t always want to.
I go to HEB and they ask if you want to add a dollar on to your bill
for the Salvation Army,
and when I see that I just spent $123 for what amounts to
one dinner, a snack, a six back of beer, and some ice cream,
I don’t really want to.
I get home from a long day of work
and my son brings a catalog of ridiculously expensive wrapping paper
and holiday goodies to raise money for the school,
and I don’t really want to buy that stuff.
And then I have to sit down and write a sermon
about Jesus’ amazement at a widow woman,
a woman who was either very foolish,
or knows something that I and we don’t,
or at least not a lot of the time.

So Jesus noticing this foolish woman
unsettles us, and makes us wonder what’s up.
Look at what Jesus said about her:
“She, out of her poverty, has put in everything she had,
all she had to live on."
Another way to say that is:
she put in her whole life,
she gave her whole self.

Now Jesus just happens to be a guru
on the issue of giving your whole self.
His whole project on earth
was to live in such a way
that his whole life was given away for God’s sake
and for the good of humanity.
So he knows what he’s talking about.

In fact, he has already instructed his disciples
to follow him this way,
to live by giving their whole selves away
for the sake of the good news of God.
But they aren’t quite there yet.
They are still struggling to figure it out.
And then Jesus sees this woman
and she is everything his disciples are meant to be.
Those men must have been a bit ashamed
by this widow woman.

She is either a foolish woman to do this,
or she knows something that the disciples
and the religious leaders
and maybe we ourselves don’t quite know:
She gave her whole self away,
because she knew she had a beloved self to give away.
While the disciples were still trying to hang on to their insecure selves
she was letting go of her beloved self.
While we are still trying to preserve and protect our fearful anxious lives,
she is there, with Jesus, letting go.

Jesus points her out because
she was giving her whole life in trust to God....
the money part is just a side effect,
a symptom,
a fringe benefit of having entrusted her whole life to God,
which means trusting your death to God,
and so living life fully and freely.
And that only happens
when you know you are a beloved self in God,
a son, a daughter of God,
you know that if God had a refrigerator
your picture would be on it.

You know widows are central biblical characters.
They are central partly because
they are vulnerable to society’s injustices,
with no property rights,
no form of income,
dependent on family and community.
But they are also central
because they possess the fierce boldness that women possess,
like the widow with Elijah,
seeking out what they need for themselves and family,
giving their love for others and God away powerfully.
Maybe they do that because they have already lost
most of what we think gives security in life.
Maybe they have learned to find their security in God
so deeply and powerfully that they know who they are
and what they have to give,
so they do that.

The tough lesson in this story
for church life,
and especially for those of us wearing long robes
and all the rest,
is that Jesus points this woman out
in the central place of religious practice,
right where everyone else seems to be acting so faithful.
So Jesus makes it painfully clear:
religious practice does not necessarily create surrender to God,
openness to the holy presence this fills up life,
security in God and our own belovedness in God.
Religious life may often create a means of feeling in control,
and grabbing onto power, in big or little ways,
and following just enough rules to make us feel a false security
in our insecure selves.

We’re in stewardship season in the church,
and I think it’s an important time each year
to grow in our own spiritual discipline of stewardship.
But this is not a good church stewardship sermon.
Oh, I think it’s a fine stewardship sermon.
But I don’t think it’s a good church stewardship sermon.
Because it’s not about what you give to the church.
It’s about how you give your whole self away,
your whole beloved self,
the self you are tempted to cling to and protect,
but somehow God moves you to stop hanging on, and let go.

Some of you may know that one of my hobbies
is to sit at the piano and compose music.
I’m not a musician or a performer,
but I really enjoy coming up with idea on the keyboard.
I decided a few years ago,
foolish man that I am,
to compose a setting of the eucharistic liturgy.
I sat at the piano, started messing around with ideas,
and within about two weeks,
I had all the ideas for the whole lituryg.
But I sat on it, didn’t know what to do with it,
and kept it to myself.
A few years later, I look a sabbatical.
I had three goals:
sleep a lot and rest,
and finish arranging my liturgy composition.

I did finish it,
and then I decided to share it at Christ Lutheran Church.
We decided to use it for Lent.
That first Sunday of using it,
and hearing people sing what I wrote,
it just about killed me.
I almost couldn’t stand it.
But then I realized that I had to share this,
and give whatever I had to give,
and let go.

It is no coincidence for me
that I was able to do that
at the very same point in my life
that I was on a deliberate, necessary journey
of spiritual growth and renewal,
of finding my own beloved self in God
and then letting go.
in order to give yourself away, you need to have a self,
you need to know your own god-given identity,
your own belovedness as a son or daughter of God.
So you see, stewardship is really about deep spirituality
that roots us so strongly in God
that we have a beloved self to give away.

There’s this foolish woman,
who seems to have very little,
and puts even that into the collection.
But she is no fool,
she is the closest thing to Jesus in the whole story of Mark.
She knows deep in her soul
that you never have nothing,
because what you have to offer is your God-given self,
blessed to be exactly what you are,
and trusting God enough to live it and love it and give it away.