December 22, 2010

New Christmas Song

I composed a Christmas song. Enjoy!

Here is an MP3 (computer generated) of the music. 
Here is a PDF of the music.

In the Night
In the cold of night
as Mary held her baby tight,
O, warm us, hold us
in your love, God with us, in Christ.

In the lonely night
as Mary calmed her baby’s fright,
O, still us, comfort us
in your love, God with us, in Christ.

In the peaceful night
as Mary trusted all was right
O, guide us, hearten us,
with your love, God with us, in Christ.

In the dark of night
as Mary saw her baby’s light,
O, shine on, shine on us
with your love, God with us, in Christ.

November 1, 2010

Sermon 10/31/2010

Sermon for Reformation Sunday
Stewardship of Bread - Growing
October 31, 2010
Michael Coffey

Texts: Luke 8:4-15

To you has been given the secret,
the mystery of how God works.
That’s what Jesus said in the parable of the sower.
And the mystery is as deep and uncontrollable
as the growth of seed in soil.
The whole parable is about the mystery
of bringing together seed and soil
and what happens when the combination is fruitful.

I’m using the word “mystery” instead of “secret”
which was in the translation of Luke we read.
Secret sounds like something you want to keep from others,
like when something is top secret,
or we know something we whisper to those we trust.
But the message of the way God works among us
is meant to be shared with all,
not with a whisper, but with a strong voice and a song.
It is, however, always a mystery,
always something beyond us as much as within us.
The way God works is a mystery
and Jesus bring us fully into that mystery.

The parable says this mystery of how God works
is like seed scattered on the earth.
Some of it doesn’t produce much of anything.
And some of it produces far beyond what you expect.
The typical yield in ancient world farming
might be 7 to 10 fold what you plant.
In the parable, the yield is 100 fold.
Jesus tells this parable to bring people into a new understanding
of God and themselves,
something they can’t control, but only relish and celebrate:
God is the one who provides the seed,
and we are the good soil.
And this, Jesus says, is the mystery of how God works:
By God’s own grace, and within folks like us.

That mystery became powerfully renewed
493 years ago, when an irascible Augustinian monk, Martin Luther,
realized that the heart of it all was obscured
by corruption and misguided religion.
Luther rediscovered the mystery,
or rather, it rediscovered him.
And once it was in him,
it could only sprout and grow and flourish.
He couldn’t contain it or quiet it.
The growth was 100 fold when he only expected maybe 10 fold.
It got much bigger than he even knew what to do with,
and brought life and vitality to the whole Western world.
Even the Roman Catholic church,
which at the time could only reject the threat of the Reformation,
eventually became reformed by the same word, the same seed,
that Luther celebrated.
Today we do not observe Reformation as a time of pride
or self-righteousness about Lutheranism,
but as a celebration of the power of God’s word
to renew, bring good news when we least expect it,
and grow in us so that love, mercy, and generosity
flourish and bring 100 fold where we only expect 10 fold,
if we expect much at all.

What did Martin Luther reconnect to
and help the whole church rediscover?
What is the mystery that Jesus says is ours to treasure and nurture?
It is the mystery of how God works.
It is the mystery that God brings love, mercy, and goodness
even when we only bring fear, self-centeredness, and cynicism.
The mystery of how God works
is that God always brings more to the table than we do.
God in Jesus brings us the word that says:
Love, mercy, and goodness are ours for the taking,
they are the seeds God plants within us,
and when they are ours,
they plant themselves in the soil of our souls
and they sprout, and they grow.

In Lutheran tradition,
we quote Paul and say it like this:
We are justified by grace through faith.
We are OK with God by God’s endless mercy,
and our trust in that mercy makes all the difference.

In the parable of Jesus,
we can see it another way:
The seed is God’s.
The planting is God’s.
The goodness of the soil is God’s.
And the growing of the seed is God’s.
None of that is ours to create, control, or contest.
And what we get to know and enjoy and experience
is that God works all of this in and through us
for the sake of a world of abundant mercy and grace.

Jeremiah understood this same mystery
when he brought the word of God to his people:
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, says the LORD:
I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts;
and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other,
"Know the LORD," for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD;
for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
The ways of God will be planted within people,
and will grow, and will be fruitful,
everyone will know this mystery planted in them.
God’s mercy and grace will make this happen in everyone,
and it will lead to mercy and grace for all.
The mystery of seed and soil is all right there.

I’m not much of a gardener
but I have learned that soil is not dirt.
Dirt is just, well, dirt, and it doesn’t supply nutrients
and life to anything.
But soil is a living, life-giving medium
for whatever is planted in it.
To be called good soil is not an insult,
it is not like calling us dirt, or dirty,
in spite of some of our tradition that wants to say
that we are more or less dirt.
But Jesus says here that we are soil, and good soil at that.
A living, life-giving medium
for whatever God plants in us to grow and produce.

The mystery of how God works in us
it is that it happens at all,
that you and I get caught up in a message of hope and love and mercy
while we live in such despair and doubt and fear.
The mystery is that we are able through faith and trust
to be part of the way God works in the world.
And our reaction and response to this grace of God
is twofold: To give thanks and praise,
and to be good stewards of what is growing in us.
We don’t have to spend much time
figuring out how this happens, or why it happens in us,
or whether we are really good soil or just dirt,
or whether we are doing enough,
or whether God may have made some mistake.
It is all part of the mystery of how God works,
and it is always a work of grace and mercy.

I looked up the word mystery in the New Testament,
the same word Jesus uses in the parable to describe
God’s working in the world.
It only occurs a few times.
One of the other uses of the word is in First Corinthians,
where St. Paul writes:
We are stewards of the mysteries of God.
We are stewards, caretakers, responsible partners with God
in the growth of love, mercy, and generosity in the world.
Stewards are those who care for something with responsibility,
thoughtfulness, and gratitude.
So we who have been given the gift of knowing how God works,
through grace, mercy, love, abundance,
are also stewards of that mystery.
As we experience the love of God in Christ growing in our lives,
we are moved by gratitude to good stewardship,
thoughtful and generous use of this abundance
for furthering the mysterious ways of God.

Without anything we have done to create it
we are the good soil in which the seed of God’s good news in Jesus
is planted
and the fruitfulness of that grows beyond us
100 fold, when we only expect maybe 10 fold,
if we really expect anything at all.

We are not the only good soil,
and there is much fruitfulness in the rest of the church
and beyond the church.
But we are stewards
of the things growing and bringing life among us:
grace, love, mercy, generosity.
If we are thankful and celebrating the Reformation
it is because it brought so much of the good news back to life,
so much of the mystery that God works good and renewal among us
simply because of God’s endless mercy for us and the world.
These are the things Jesus the word plants in our souls
that grow without our understanding or control.

So we are stewards, good soil stewards of these things:
stewards of the Reformation,
stewards of the mysteries of God,
stewards of the abundance God provides,
stewards of our hearts and minds and bodies,
stewards of mercy,
stewards of love.

The Word has been planted in us,
the word that is Jesus and the word about God’s mercy enacted in Jesus.
This Word has taken root and is growing in us even now.
The question then is this:
what are we going to do with all this abundance from God?
Keep it to ourselves?
Or let it flow outward in acts of mercy, love, and generosity?

Yes, God has caused an abundance of love and mercy to grow in us
by God’s word in Jesus, the word that is Jesus.
And with 100 fold of love and mercy growing in you,
you cannot keep it all for yourself.

October 24, 2010

Sermon 10/24/2010

Sermon for Proper 25 C
October 24, 2010
Michael Coffey

Texts: Luke 18:9-14
(artwork by Stephen Gambill)

Which one are you:
The Pharisee, or the tax collector?
Are you the righteous one who knows she is righteous,
or the sinful one who knows he is sinful?
But if you are the righteous Pharisee,
you don’t win in the end of this parable.
And if you are the sinful tax collector
who makes life miserable for your own people,
how can you stand to live with yourself?
So which one are you in Jesus’ riddle?
Now before you answer too quickly,
let’s see how tricky Jesus really is.

Suppose you hear this parable
and you take the expected approach to it:
The Pharisee stood there in his pride and prayed:
thank God I’m not like this loser,
the sinful tax collector.
So we hear Jesus telling us not to be like the self-righteous Pharisee
and to be humble and repentant.
Then we find ourselves at the end of the parable saying:
Thank God we aren’t like that Pharisee
and all those other self-righteous religious people.
We are so humble and repentant
that God must think we are really great.
Well, you see how we fall into the trap of the parable.

It is tempting when we hear these parables
to take sides, to find ourselves in the person or part
that seems to be the good moral of the story.
But parables and the kind of spiritual teachings and riddles
that great wise mentors give us
don’t really work that way.
We have to be in the whole parable, get inside the tension of it.
Which one are you?
The only answer is: you are both the righteous Pharisee,
who is good but comes off looking bad,
and the sinful tax collector,
who is a lousy human being
and comes off looking good.
You are both, we are all both sides,
and until we wrestle with both parts of the parable,
and both parts of ourselves,
we won’t know the power of this word of God.

I have learned in my own spiritual and psychological formation
that there is something in us all called the shadow.
Carl Jung introduced the concept in the world of psychology.
Jung is perhaps the most spiritual of all great psychological theorists.
He understood the deep inner workings of the soul,
and how healing comes to us.
He put it in psychological, mythological, and archetypal language,
but he was influenced by his Christian formation,
and the connections for us are clear and helpful.

Jung said that there is a shadow side to each of us.
It is the part of us we don’t want to accept, admit, or have exposed.
Often we deny or hide a part of ourselves
because it is not in keeping with our image of who we are
or who we think we should be.
I am reminded of the old radio program The Shadow.
It had the famous tag line in the introduction:
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?
The Shadow knows!
And then that deep, haunting, cackling laugh.
That’s about right. The Shadow knows.

You probably meet your shadow
every time someone else triggers anxiety, anger, fear, or pain In you.
They are embodying the same thing that is already in you
and making you see it, and you don’t like it.
These are the people we often have the most difficulty with,
those whom we blame for our own unhappiness
because we can’t stand to see what is actually in ourselves.
People who reveal our own shadow
are those we hold in contempt,
like the Pharisee did: Thank God I’m not like those other people:
thieves, rogues, adulterers,
or even like this tax collector.

Many spirituality folks and psychology folks will tell you
that shadow work is at the heart of your own healing and growth.
This parable of Jesus, I think,
is shadow work for us.
You can’t hear it and come out winning.
You can’t be the righteous Pharisee,
and love all that is light and righteous and good in you
and come out winning in this parable.
Why? Because the Pharisee can’t see his own shadow side
of judgment, rejection, pride, and lack of faith in God’s wide mercy.
And you can’t hear this parable and be the tax collector
even though you want to come out winning like he does,
because then you have to own his desperation and deep need
and the reality that he has been living in his shadow side too much.
This parable forces us to look at ourselves
and see both righteousness and sinfulness,
good and bad,
light and shadow.
And somehow, Jesus says,
this is the path to exaltation, to enlightenment, to justified existence.
Because, of course, it is the path of truth and honesty,
and complete dependence on the wideness of God’s mercy.

At the heart of shadow work,
or what we might call tax-collector work,
is embracing your shadow,
learning to admit, accept, and even love your shadow,
because it is part of your whole self.
If this sounds too self-indulgent and new agey,
just consider the alternatives:
What else can you do with your shadow side?
You do have it, you know, there’s no getting around it.
But you could deny it.
Or you could wrestle with it day and night,
awake and dreaming, as we often do.
You could numb it with drinking and drug abuse,
as we often do.
You could get angry about it
and turn your anger at the world.
You could see it in others and hate them
for reminding you about it.
You could get really religious
and shield yourself from it with easy answers
and safe rituals.

Or, you can see it for what it is: part of you,
not all of you, but still a part of you.
Embracing the shadow is the only way to truth,
and it brings the openness we need
for grace to infuse our whole selves
and not just the part we want God to love and forgive,
but yes, even the part we don’t want God to forgive,
because forgiving it means admitting it is there.

We want God to love our righteous Pharisee
and hate our tax collector,
because we hate our tax collector
and don’t want to embrace her.
Jesus says: The tax collector is where it’s at in this story.
And even the Pharisee has a shadow side,
so you just can’t win if all you want is to stay in the light.

Carl Jung said:
One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light,
but by making the darkness conscious. . . .”
A friend of Carl Jung said:
[Jung] told me that he once met a distinguished man, a Quaker,
who could not imagine
that he had ever done anything wrong in his life.
"And do you know what happened to his children?" Jung asked.
"The son became a thief,
and the daughter a prostitute.
Because the father would not take on his shadow,
his share in the imperfection of human nature,
his children were compelled to live out the dark side
which he had ignored."

Taking on your shadow is the deep honesty with yourself
that Jesus dares us to in this parable.
This is deep honesty with God about yourself,
that Jesus draws us to as he brings us close to divine mercy.
And most of all,
this is deep honesty and trust with yourself about God:
God’s mercy is wide,
as wide as Jesus’ arms on the cross,
and God embraces you, shadow and all.

Doing this kind of inner work is tough
and slow and often painful.
We need spiritual guides, friends, confessors,
therapists, and compassionate strangers to do it.
When we do it, we come to realize
what we really don’t want to admit:
you are your biggest problem,
not everything else that you think is your problem.
And this startling reality
which shocks and slaps us when it comes to us
quickly frees us to find the grace and mercy
that runs deep like an underground stream.

This shadow work as some call it
is first necessary for spiritual growth and healing.
I think it is the reason we have rites and rituals
like confession, and ash Wednesday,
and fasting, and contemplation,
but sometimes those become too smooth and Pharisaic for us,
without enough rough tax collector .

But equally important to finding spiritual growth and healing,
this shadow work, embracing your own shadow,
is necessary for embracing other people in their truth,
their light and their shadow,
their Pharisee and tax collector,
their pride and their shame,
their pain and their joy.
And you know the power of being embraced for who you are,
your whole person, shadow and all.
It is life-giving.
It is transforming.
It is a welling up of gratitude that flows over into love and generosity.

We know this embrace in the church,
this embrace of our whole and true selves,
light and shadow.
It is the embrace of God in Jesus, our brother and friend.
It is the power to live fully and honestly,
not thankful you are not like other people,
but grateful you are the self God made you to be,
a humble gratitude,
a grateful humility.

October 5, 2010

Sermon 10/3/2010

Sermon for Proper 22 C
October 3, 2010
Michael Coffey

Texts: Habakkuk 1:1–4; 2:1–4, 2 Timothy 1:1–14, Luke 17:5–10

How’s your faith doing these days?
Do you have enough of it?
Has it grown dim?
Is it strong and solid like a tiger?
Maybe you haven’t thought of it that way.
“How’s your faith doing?”
As if it were something akin to your blood pressure,
or cholesterol level.
If it were like those,
there would certainly be a pharmaceutical
called Faithitor being advertised on television
enticing us with the promise of increasing our faith,
making it glow bright,
and leaving us strong and courageous.
And there would be that full disclosure at the end of the commercial:
Faithitor may cause drowsiness, excessive sweating,
constipation, and oddly enough,
a temporary increase in doubt and fear.

The disciples may have thought that way.
Increase our faith, Jesus!
Give us the magic pill that makes us true, full believers!
Give us higher concentrations of faith in our blood
so we will have no doubt and be certain in everything we do.
And Jesus says, more or less:
There is no pill I can give you.
There is no level or amount or quantity or size of faith.
Faith feels small and seemingly insignificant in the face of reality.
But it enables great things to happen,
things you thought impossible,
things that only make sense with God.

Something was kindled in you.
You know it was.
You felt its warmth and saw its glow.
Something you once called faith.
It likely got handed down to you
through your mother and grandmother, much like Timothy.
But some days and some years
it seems that its embers have grown dim.
Some moments and some months
you wonder if there were a pill you could take
to make it all clear and certain and concentrated,
all this talk of God and a supposedly merciful universe.

I have had conversations with many people in the last few years,
conversations about faith
and the difficulty many folks are having with it.
Sometimes people have an honest struggle
with theologies and doctrines and creeds,
so claiming faith feels false.
Sometimes people have known extreme tragedy and grief
that have left them wondering
if the thread of faith they are holding onto might break.
Sometimes people wonder what it means to be rational and intelligent
and be able to say you have faith.
Sometimes people feel that the faith they learned in Sunday School
or the faith they got from mom and grandma
and dad and grandpa
isn’t adequate for adulthood
and a world undergoing massive change.
So many friends, family, church folks, and strangers
have told me they aren’t sure about their faith anymore.
They’re not sure where to place it,
or they feel only a dim glow of an ember
and wonder if faith could really be rekindled in them.
That might be what it was like for Habakkuk and his people,
living in such times of violence and loss,
wondering if God would ever rescue them.
That might be the case with Timothy in the letter we read.
His faith is real but maybe growing dim
or meaning less now that he is in a new stage of life and maturity.
Maybe the disciples are worried
that what Jesus has taught them to do is too hard
and losers like them couldn’t possibly do it,
so they need more, clear-cut quantifiable faith.

All three readings are about faith
and the reality that one once had it
and now it seems small and fragile,
or changed and unclear.
And this is what I sense in many of us today,
and even in myself at times,
even though pastor types aren’t supposed to say that.

But let’s be clear about what all of this is about.
Faith is not about believing in theologies or doctrines or creeds.
Faith is not about repeating what you learned in Sunday School
when it feels childish and inadequate.
Faith is not about rising to some high level of spirituality
where everything is clear and easy
like a mild October morning in Austin.
Faith is not about certainty or scientific knowledge.
Faith is not about propping up worn out parts of the tradition
because of fear of losing them and not knowing what is left.

So what the heck is faith then,
and how do we really get it, or get it back?
Certainly not with a drug,
or by acquiring large quantities of it.
We might begin with Habakkuk’s important saying,
the one that set Luther off on a passionate search for God:
The righteous live by faith.
If we understand how Habakkuk was using the word righteous,
we get see it is about relationship:
Righteousness means being in a right relationship.
So, Habakkuk says,
faith is the way we are in right relationship with God.
People are in relationship with God through faith.
Habakkuk contrasts this with those who are proud.
So we can guess that he meant by “faith”
trusting God enough to be your honest humble self
and still know a deeply trustworthy, loving relationship.
Or as Jesus said:
trusting God enough not to need a reward for doing right,
but just knowing we did what we were supposed to do.

So we might go back and rephrase the earlier questions:
How’s your relationship with God?
Do you have enough of it?
Has it grown dim?
Did you confuse it with believing doctrines and creeds?
Did you think you could rationalize and control it?
Did you assume it had something to do with your intelligence?
Did you assume it was gone because you weren’t feeling it?
Are you having trouble trusting God enough
to love others joyfully
and live courageously the life that Jesus lived?

Well, for all of you who are glowing brightly with faith today,
this sermon and this day might not be necessary.
But for the rest of us
who wait and wonder and believe and disbelieve,
then these words from the letter to Timothy are needed:
Rekindle the faith that is in you.
Get some oxygen onto those embers
so the fire can burn again.
Rekindle the faith in you,
it came from your mother and grandmother,
your father and grandfather,
your family and friends and church,
your Sunday school teachers and your pastors.
But now it isn’t burning as bright, and that’s OK.
Rekindle your faith, but not faith for yesterday,
faith for today and tomorrow.
Now the old answers feel weak
in this time of new questions.
Rekindle your faith
now that you aren’t even sure what faith is for
and why you can’t just go on living quietly
with a couple of embers.

So the words come both as a command and a gift:
Rekindle your faith,
even if you don’t know what that fire should be now.
Rekindle your faith,
even if you thought you already had it all figured out.
Rekindle your faith,
because your faith is your relationship with God,
your capacity to trust God’s goodness deeply,
your ability to accept your own wounds and flaws,
your freedom to love others joyfully,
your courage to live the life that Jesus lived.
Rekindle your faith,
because it isn’t even you doing it,
but the Spirit of God at work in you.

Rekindle faith that we, you are called
called to act courageously,
called to live the life God gave you alone to live,
called to accept your deeply wounded and flawed self
without having to change anything first
as a powerful witness to God’s grace,
called to live courageously the life that Jesus lived:
trusting God’s goodness,
and loving others joyfully and freely.

Faith feels small and seemingly insignificant in the face of reality.
But it enables great things to happen,
things you thought impossible,
things that only make sense with God.
So instead of ending this sermon,
we are going to gather together in prayer and mediation for
rekindling our faith.

People are invited to participate in silent prayer, candle lighting,
and laying on of hands for rekindling faith,
while the hymn music is playing for “We are Called.”
At the end of the prayer time, the hymn is sung.

Prayer for rekindling faith:

May our merciful God
rekindle in you the gift of faith by the Spirit’s power
so you may trust God with your whole being
love others freely and joyfully
and have courage to follow our Lord Jesus.

September 7, 2010

Sermon 9/5/2010

Sermon for Proper 18 C
September 5, 2010
Michael Coffey

Texts: Luke 14:25-33

So who’s going to carry your cross for you?
Did you listen to Jesus in Luke’s Gospel?
He has a lot of hard things for us to hear today.
Perhaps hardest of all is when he says:
27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me
cannot be my disciple.
Two better translations of this verse say:
Anyone who won't shoulder his own cross
and follow behind me can't be my disciple.
Or: 27You cannot be my disciple unless you carry your own cross
and come with me.
So who’s going to carry your cross for you?
It’s tough stuff from Jesus.

There are some other hard verses from Jesus
that I’m not going to pay much attention to today.
There’s so much thorny language to hear from Jesus today,
I can’t even address it all in one sermon.
But, I’m afraid to ignore it
and leave you sinking in your pew,
wondering why we love Jesus so much anyway.
Jesus said: 26"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters,
yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.
Hard stuff to hear!
But keep in mind that Jesus is speaking in hyperbole,
purposeful, over-the-top exaggeration.
He’s making a strong point by overstating it
so we have to wrestle with it.
In Matthew, this verse sounds a little better:
Whoever loves father or mother more than me…
Apparently, Luke wanted to make it sound even more harsh,
but either way, the point is not that we should harbor negative feelings
toward family members, or even ourselves,
but that we should have God as our center in life,
so that all other relationships and priorities
have their proper place.

So, I hope I have alleviated one problem in the text for you,
so I can make even more of another problem:
27You cannot be my disciple unless you carry your own cross
and come with me.
Who’s going to carry your cross for you?
It’s clear from Jesus that you are,
but what does that mean?

First off, this might bother and perplex us.
Isn’t Jesus supposed to bear the cross for us?
Don’t we say that he took our place,
or he did all that cross stuff so we don’t have to?
And now we hear him saying this:
27You cannot be my disciple unless you carry your own cross
and come with me.
I don’t think Jesus read the right theology books.

One of the downfalls of some traditional expressions
of Christian belief about the cross
is that they just don’t ring very true.
If they claim that Jesus carried it all on the cross for us,
then we end up unable to explain or find meaning in
our own suffering and our own living.
And if he did,
why didn’t it fix everything?
So don’t trust any theology or church or spirituality or movement
that claims to take away your own cross.
Jesus even told you your own cross is yours to carry.

It should be clear from what Jesus says
that the cross is not a divine punishment Jesus bears for us.
It is not a payment made for a debt we cannot afford.
It is, rather, full, faithful participation in life
as God would have us live it:
loving God and neighbor with abandon,
letting go of our small, fearful self-interest,
and diving head first into the sea of mystery
that is life with God.
This is not some salvation game we play
that if we suffer enough God might accept us.
It is our deepest trust that we are caught up in such divine mercy and love,
that we are already accepted,
and we are already loved,
and we can give ourselves away in love
because each of us is a self so loved.

Even Jesus, it seems, cannot carry your own cross for you.
He can carry it with you,
he can blaze the trail,
he can inspire and empower
and guide and encourage you to do it.
But what he can’t do and won’t do
is take it away from you,
because it would diminish and dehumanize us.

I imagine a faithful response to this text sounds like this:
Please do not carry my cross for me.
It is mine.
It gives my life meaning.
It is my own path God has for me.
It is my own wound to learn from.
It is my own journey to make me truly human.

In Luke’s Gospel,
your cross to bear is your daily task of faithfulness,
your on-going life of loving others
and seeking good for the world,
and dedicating yourself
to the needs of the poor and oppressed,
even if there is a cost that is personal,
financial, social, or physical.
It is faithfulness to God first
that may cause us struggle and pain.
It is our ongoing willingness to accept that
walking this human journey
invariably involves suffering, loss, limitations, and death,
and not letting that stop us from doing good.
This cross carrying isn’t heroics,
or a competition,
or a test,
or something reserved for the extraordinary.
This is the normal, average human life of showing love
and offering the gift of yourself where the world needs you,
where God needs you.

Jesus had his moment in the garden
when carrying his own cross
appeared both frightful and purposeful:
Take this cup away from me,
take away the cross I must bear,
but no…. this is mine to bear, Lord God,
so that through me,
others can bear their own cross,
and know the depth and love
of being part of God’s saving power
lived only in suffering love.

You see, if anyone, even Jesus or God,
took away your path, your full journey,
your cross to bear in this life,
you would miss out on what God is saying to you:
You have a part in this story,
you have a contribution to make,
you have something of yourself worth giving,
and give it you must
if your life is going to be the fullness of human life
God desires and hopes and grants,
that fullness of human life that Jesus lived so completely
so that we can live it with him.
The sheer grace of God in the cross of Christ and your own cross
is to experience and know God at work in you
by the power of the Spirit
bringing about the shifting of the world
toward God’s merciful activity present everywhere,
which Jesus calls the kingdom.
Our lives have this depth of purpose:
bearing the burden of loving others
and the world with God’s love,
a suffering love,
a transforming love that costs,
because nothing is transformed without cost.

It is the cross of the woman in labor giving birth.
It is the artist fighting with the paint and the canvas
until the work finally emerges.
It is the political activist who works for the cause of justice and social change
in the face of opposition.
It is the firefighter running into the burning building
and searching for the missing child.
It is the poet wrestling with words
until the poem that reaches the soul is ready to be spoken.
It is the congregation helping provide sanctuary
to immigrants facing deportation and separation from their children.
It is the general going to fight a in war he doesn’t believe in
but is willing to work to bring it to a just end.
It is the wealthy woman who wrestles daily with how much to give away
for charity and church
and how much to pass on to her children.
It is the farm laborer who works under terrible conditions
even as she tries to change things for the better.
This past week pastors and leaders in our synod
gathered for a day of worship and discussion about the church.
Yeah, I know, it wasn’t all that great.
But in the middle of it,
we heard some folks talk about a major area of ministry
that our church is focusing on for the coming few years:
The Lutheran Malaria Initiative.
The goal is that by 2015 malaria deaths can be eliminated.
So the ELCA and the Missouri Synod and Lutheran World Relief,
are working with a group called Nothing But Nets.
All it takes is $10 to buy a mosquito net for a child or adult,
and in a few years, one of the greatest killers,
far more than HIV/AIDS,
will be eliminated.
This is our church choosing to bear a cross,
a cross that is ours because of the love of God in Christ in us.
Maybe $10 isn’t much of a burden,
and hardly worth calling a cross.
But it is a part of following Jesus,
and it is a cost we can bear with joy and gratitude.
Why would we let others bear this
when we are called to it ourselves?

What Jesus says about all of this is:
count the cost before you start down this road with me.
If you don’t it will come as a shock and a disappointment
and it will derail you.
But go into it knowing, accepting, even embracing the cost
of living with the suffering love of God in you
and the deep joy of life will come to you,
the paradoxical blessing of the cross will be real for you,

This is the surprising love of God in Jesus
that says: you have something to give, too.
It is costly. It is not easy.
But don’t you dare let anyone else
take your own cross away from you.
It is your gift of yourself to give to the world
in the name of and by the power of Jesus,
who bore his own cross full of love
so we can follow him full of the same love.

Who’s going to carry your cross?
You are, because it is God’s entrusting to you
part of the love of God embodied in the world.
But who’s going to carry you?
All your brothers and sisters in Christ,
who share your burden as their cross, too.
And certainly, your brother Jesus,
who comes not to carry your cross,
but to carry you as you live out God’s suffering love
as faithfully and fully as you are able.

August 30, 2010

Sermon 8/29/2010

Sermon for Proper 17 C
August 29, 2010
Michael Coffey

Texts: Luke 14:1,7-14,
Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16

Where do we belong?
What is our proper place?
Way down low, at the bottom?
Should we wallow in our worthlessness?
Simmer in our sinfulness?
Where do we belong?
What is our proper place?
Way up high, at the top?
Should we parade around in pride?
Exalt ourselves in our ego-centered ways?
Where do we belong?

Jesus confronts us with this question
and makes us rethink where we place ourselves
and where we place others in relative position to us.
Jesus went to a dinner party
where who you are, where you sit,
and who you invite all came under divine scrutiny,

I have to say this first:
I blame Jesus for ruining church potlucks
for the past 2,000 years.
Jesus taught us that the first will be last,
and the last will be first;
the exalted will be humbled,
and the humble exalted.
So, ever since, after the potluck table is filled with deviled eggs,
and tossed salads, and baked beans,
and a few things you don’t quite know what that is,
who’s gonna get the meal started?
Who’s gonna go first?
No one!
No one wants to go first,
and seem pushy or arrogant or exalted.
Or maybe no one wants to go first,
because secretly they are calculating that if they go last,
then they really will be first in God’s eyes.
And some folks are calculating how to be in the exact middle
so as to avoid being too far off either way.
Usually what happens is
the pastor ends up going first
I guess, because we can either honor the pastor,
or cunningly let the pastor be last in God’s eyes for going first.
I don’t mind it so much
because I’m usually pretty hungry
and I like to get a deviled egg before they are all gone.
I heard, by the way, there was a potluck here
where almost everyone brought deviled eggs.
That’s the nature of the potuck, I guess,
and sometimes your luck is off.
But at least then, it didn’t matter who went first or last,
everyone got the same thing.

Well, I blame Jesus for doing this to us.
He just couldn’t let that dinner party go on
without butting in and commenting on the social hierarchies
and the necessity of humility in human relationships.
And, I must say, thank God he did.

Some of us do suffer from that incessant original sin
known as pride.
We really do sense that we are at some higher place.
Maybe we don’t like to admit it to ourselves,
but it slips out in our conversations and our judgments
and our choices of who to hang around with
and who to invite to dinner.

But for some of us,
the problem is not that we place ourselves first and above,
but that we place ourselves constantly last, and below.
Many of us feel unworthy, humiliated because of our past,
less than because of our income or lack of status.
Some of us have always been told we belong at the bottom,
and we keep on believing it.

Almost all of our social relationships and structures work like this.
There is high and low, first and last.
And we buy into it in so many ways
we don’t even realize it.
And even though we’re going to talk about how the church
is not that kind of social arrangement,
sadly, it most often does function that way.
There is high and low.
There is first and last.
There are respectable and disrespected.
There are the invited and the uninvited,
the welcomed and the unwelcomed.
There are whole congregations and denominations
ranked by class and race and education and nationality.
A great deal of Christian history and talk and squabble
has been about who to keep away from the table,
who not to invite to the party.

A new Lutheran church was formed this past week,
the North American Lutheran Church.
It was formed by folks upset with the ELCA
for deciding a year ago to allow congregations that wanted to
to bless same-sex unions,
and to call pastors to serve them who are in such blessed unions.
I have described this break away movement
as being a church formed by what people are against
more than what they are for,
and many of them don’t much agree on a lot of other things.
And I don’t think that makes for a strong or faithful group.
But what is striking about this new denomination
as we listen to Jesus today,
is that this new church is really being formed
by an agreement on who is not welcomed to the table,
who is not invited to the party.
And in light of Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel,
but more in light of his whole life and death,
this cannot be the basis for being church
in any strong, faithful sense.
Oh, I know it has been for the church, for a lot of the church,
for Lutherans and others,
for a long time,
maybe even for ourselves in our own diminished ways of being church.
There has been too much deciding who is worthy to attend this feast,
and who is unworthy.
But it is not the church of our Lord Jesus
when we spend energy and resources
on working hard to disinvite those whom God has already made part of the fellowship of the table of Christ.
We keep getting the impression from Scripture
that Jesus keeps inviting more people to the table
than we would choose,
and the party should be bigger than we allow.

So, how do we meet right here,
together, in true humility,
on the ground, on the earth,
in our honest humanness,
which is what humility means?
How do we honestly and openly come together
on a level place with each other, (move out of pulpit down to floor)
and see Christ with us right here and now?
How do we stop putting ourselves into some degraded place
where we don’t count as much because we are the wrong gender,
or the wrong race,
or the wrong sexual orientation,
or the wrong age,
or the wrong educational level,
or we go to the wrong school?
How do we stop lifting ourselves up so high above others
that we find out how lonely it is at the top,
and keep fearing the inevitable fall back to earth?

We do it by the grace of God,
who meets us in Christ Jesus
right here, on a level with us,
in the humility of Jesus hanging out with all the lowly,
and in the glory of Jesus lifted up on the cross,
joining us in our full humanity, even in suffering and death.
In true humility,
we don’t get too high or too low.
We all meet in the middle,
on the ground,
just being what we are, human,
trusting that is good enough for God,
and good enough for each other.

In this sense
we see that the church is a social experiment,
it is God’s experiment in the laboratory of humanity,
an experiment in humility shared
in loving community,
in showing hospitality to strangers,
and giving and inviting and feeding
without repayment required.
It has often been a troubled and misguided experiment
because we forgot the parameters and the purpose.
We thought too often in the church
that church itself should be another place
to play the ranking game of high and low, first and last,
exalted and humbled.
We thought too often that church could be the one place
that maybe we could find a place to sit a little higher,
because we got so tired of having to sit so low everywhere else.

It is hard for us all
to stop playing the game of placing ourselves too high or too low.
It might be worth a radical experiment now and then
to pull us back to the earthiness,
the humanness of our lives with God.

We might do some things now and then in worship
that shake up the order of things,
not because the order of things is wrong,
but because we so quickly and easily turn the order of things
into one more hierarchy of importance and power.
As I just wrote about in my newsletter column
we might rethink how we enter worship in true humility.
We might try different rituals and patterns
so it becomes shockingly real
that we are all here on the ground together before God.

We might look at older traditions, and learn from Muslims,
and try taking off our shoes when we worship,
and share in a strange, socially awkward,
but deeply connected to the ground humility.
(remove shoes and invite others to if they wish)
Or we might practice the foot washing ritual we do on Maundy Thursday
more often, and ritualize true humility as Jesus lived it.
We might occasionally forgo the expensive vestments
that we worship leaders wear. (remove vestments)
Even though their intention is to diminish the role of the individual person
who is leading the assembly in worship,
we can’t deny that they also have a way of elevating that person,
putting him or her at the head of the table,
a bit too pristine and untouchable and,
if you believe in a pristine and untouchable God,
than maybe closer to God than the rest.

Beyond worship,
we might rethink some of the ways we live together
and structure ourselves
and how we welcome and invite others.
If we listen to Jesus talk about how our social relationships
need to reflect better the love of God,
then we will think a lot about all of these things,
and keep the experiment called church alive and lively
and rich and engaging,
never stuck in a fixed pecking order.
And we might even have someone go first in line today
at the rally day picnic, and stop making the pastor first and last.

We live this social experiment called church because we know
that God has met us in Jesus
in our lowly humanity, where we discovered we are not too low,
and certainly not too high,
but just where we are and need to be.
Jesus comes to us in this table fellowship
inviting us as the lowly and loved,
joining in our humility as God with us.
This is the love that saves humanity.
The same humble love we live as best we can in our lives.
This is the love of God in Christ, and Christ in you.
This is how God meets us and joins us and saves us:
on our level, in our pain,
through our death,
becoming as earthy and grounded as Jesus,
as alive as the words we speak,
as present as the bread and wine of this feast
where each one of you is invited
to come, humbly open your hands,
and receive God’s merciful love
right here on the ground.

August 24, 2010

Sermon 8/22/2010

Sermon for Proper 16 C
August 22, 2010
Michael Coffey

Texts: Isaiah 58:9b-14; Luke 13:10-17

The woman was bent over,
stooping, lowly in appearance.
Her back had failed her.
She had not been able to look anyone in the eye for 18 years.
She was frozen in a position of humility
and stuck in pain.
Then Jesus came along
and used the power of God to heal her.
She didn’t even ask, you know.
She wasn=t even looking for him.
She just thought she had come
for another day of worship in the synagogue,
and then maybe go have a light lunch
and head home for a nap.

But Jesus saw her and her need was so obvious, so painful to look at.
So he came over and said:
Woman, you are healed.
And he touched her with a touch
that was strangely gentle and powerful at the same time,
the touch of deep mercy
and the touch of creative, healing energy,
the touch of God.
And she was healed.
She stood up straight.
She looked everyone in the eye
with joyful gratitude and a renewed sense of self-worth.
She hadn=t done that in nearly two decades,
stood up like that and looked at people!
And she praised God,
because where else does such life-giving healing come from but God?
I imagine she sang Psalm 103:
Bless the Lord, my soul!

This story is unique to Luke,
and it is a key metaphor in Luke for the good news of God in Jesus.
You might remember back at the beginning of Luke:
Mary was pregnant and expecting the good news of God
to break into the world through her baby.
And she said that God was lifting up the lowly,
raising up the humble,
bringing up the poor to a new place of mercy and blessing.
Everything about the good news of God in Luke
can be pictured in this raising up,
this lifting up what had fallen down,
this bringing up what was made lowly.
And this woman, bent over,
aching in her bones and in her psyche,
she was lifted up.
This, in the most visual and dramatic way,
is the good news of God in Jesus.
God lifts up what was brought down low.
God heals and brings new life.

So often in the Bible,
the good news is enacted as healing.
So often, what God is doing to bring about his good news kingdom
is to heal the hurt and pain and suffering
and fractured lives we live,
so we can be lifted up.

So much of what we struggle with in life
can only be addressed by God=s power to heal.
Think of those things that are beyond your control,
outside your power to change.
Think of all the problems we are unable to do anything about,
so we must submit ourselves to the power of the other,
and trust that power will be merciful and benevolent.
This is the spiritual journey of the addict,
the chronically ill,
the depressed,
the abused,
the dying, and so many others:
We are in a deep need to be healed and restored to wholeness.
We know that only God can do this,
and the good news of Jesus
is that God is all about doing this.

I don=t for a minute pretend to understand much
about the way God works and heals
and brings life and health and wholeness
to us and to all the world.
I don=t have any system,
any prescribed prayers,
any liturgy that can make it happen.
I don=t know what to say about all those prayers for healing
that we sense have gone unanswered.
I don=t have any simple or easy way
to make healing stories or healing power
make sense to our modern ears.
I just know that the good news is about God bringing healing
to a diseased and fractured and falling world,
so that life and health and wholeness
can be celebrated
and God can be praised.

I do know that there are many who bring healing to others,
and they are surely doing the work of God.
When I visit people in the hospital,
people facing surgery or chemotherapy
or unanswered questions,
I always pray with thanks for the healing gifts
given to doctors and nurses .
And we could do the same for therapists,
and friends,
and pastors,
and church members,
and strangers,
and pharmacists,
and artists,
and you,
and for all the ways that healing happens
and life is restored and hope regained.
No, I can=t understand or manipulate or formulate all that,
but I can, we can,
like the woman who was healed,
give thanks and praise God for it.

The year after September 11, 2001
Bruce Springsteen released an album and song called “The Rising.”
In it, he presents a holy vision
that transcends the events of those days.
He sees firefighters and rescue workers
ascending the stairs of the Twin Towers.
He seels the towers falling down, made low,
and the immense pain and tears that this brings.
But he also sees what he calls The Rising:
Those firefighters and rescue works
and all the injured and falling souls
rising up, transcending the fallenness of that day,
and bringing new hope to the world
through a vision of healing and divine mercy.
What makes the song so powerful
is this contrast of the tragic falling of the towers and the people in it,
and the rising of hope, life, and trust in God’s power to save.
He sings this contrast in a rapturous rock/gospel climax:
Sky of blackness and sorrow ( a dream of life)
Sky of love, sky of tears (a dream of life)
Sky of glory and sadness ( a dream of life)
Sky of mercy, sky of fear ( a dream of life)
Sky of memory and shadow ( a dream of life)
Your burnin' wind fills my arms tonight
Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life)
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life

Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight

Jesus calls us to such rapturous faith and trust in God
where we can be among all the falling of ourselves and our world,
and still sing praise to God, and be part of the rising.

We do have to hear something else going on in the story.
We do need to listen to the road block in the story.
You would think that an event of healing,
of real good news stuff happening right in your midst,
would bring a reaction of thanksgiving and wonderment.
But, for some, there is only trouble accepting what God is up to.
For some, the work of God=s healing
doesn=t fit within their religious requirements
or understanding of the world.

Instead, these religious leaders
seem intent not on lifting people up,
but on bringing them down.
So much of what goes on between people
is a roadblock to the healing,
the lifting up of people from old ways that bring them low
to new life and wholeness.
It might be hard to see how we could be bringing people down
instead of being a part of the lifting up of God=s work,
but we should assume we might be doing that sometimes.
Isaiah talks about his own people
who are in a state of bringing people down,
to the point that it is crushing all the healing and wholeness
and peace that God is trying to work in them.
They are speaking ill of others,
taking advantage of others,
using the economic and social systems
for their own aggrandizement
and dragging others down low.
Isaiah says it is time to start lifting people up,
time to start working towards the Sabbath vision
of shalom, peace, neighborliness, and wholeness,
that God intends for all people,
for that is the good news.
Healing isn=t just about me or you,
but about the economic, social, and political lives we share.
God knows there is much to be healed in those realms,
and no Gospel says it better than Luke:
All brought down low and hurting in this world of injustice
will be lifted up and healed.

We gather as a people who know all about the falling down,
all about humility and lowliness,
all about disease and pain.
It is part of the human journey.
But we also gather as a people
who have been lifted up in some way:
through grace and forgiveness,
through healing and reconciliation,
through the Word and the Bread and Wine.
So as people who know something of the rising,
we also lift people up,
we help healing to happen,
we bring people up from their low places,
from their downward spiral,
from their despair and pain,
before they can have a response of praise and service.
So much of what we need to do together
is simply lifting each other up,
bringing the healing that is God=s healing,
and strive to stop bringing each other and ourselves down.
One of the most profound things about this story of the woman
is that Jesus names her: Daughter of Abraham.
He reminds her, and everyone else,
that she has been lifted up high
because she is part of the story of God=s people.
Through baptism, this is our heritage as well.
We are sons of Abraham,
daughters of Abraham,
descendants of saints who walked by faith,
children of the Father,
beloved as of a mother=s own womb.
This naming is itself a lifting up,
a raising up high so we can rise above all that would bring us down.
We are someone=s beloved son,
someone=s beloved daughter,
and that someone is the God of healing and life.

We could end every worship service something like this,
and in a a way, we do:
Did you get healed? Did you get lifted up?
If not, then we will wait with you, hand in hand,
and trust God in Jesus to do that for you.
If so, then sing praise to God,
and rise up, rise up, rise up,
and go lift up all who are bowed down,
and bring a song of praise to their lips, too.
Bless the Lord, my soul…