March 15, 2010

Sermon 3/14/2010

March 14, 2010
Michael Coffey

Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Why do you think it is so hard for God to love?
Why do you think it is so hard for God to love you?
Why do you think it is so hard for God to love those you don’t love?

Much of our Christian interpretation of God and sin and human life
has assumed that it is very difficult for God to love.
We have assumed that it is very difficult for God to love us.
We have assumed it is very difficult for God to love those we don’t love.
We have taken very seriously the problem of human sin
and the struggle against evil, and rightly so.
But we have often ended up with a God
and a system of divine jurisprudence
that makes loving human beings exceedingly problematic.
We have ended up with a confounding view of Jesus on the cross
that somehow makes the impossible loving of us possible.

Jesus is listening to some folks who don’t seem to like his love of the unloved
and his dining with the crude
and his acceptance of the unaccepted.
So, like always,
instead of coming up with a theological construct
or a metaphysical reflection on divine righteousness,
he tells a little story.
And story has the power to seep into our unconscious
and change us against our better judgment.

There was a father who had two sons.
One son was a loser.
The other was an insecure do-gooder.
Neither one assumed their father loved them easily.
One went off and rebelled. He was the wild, fun one.
The other stayed home and tried too hard to be the good one.
After things fell apart for the wild son,
the loser, rebellious, fun son,
he decided that his father certainly couldn’t still love him,
but he might just let his son come back as a servant.
The hard-working, self-righteous boring guy
assumed he could never do enough to earn his father’s love,
no matter how hard he tried to get it right.

Rather than see these two as different kinds of people
and try to figure out which one we are,
and which one the person sitting near you who drives you crazy is,
the story invites us to see all sides in ourselves.
We can assume both things to be true about us:
We have squandered our divine sonship or daughterhood,
and we have done everything we can to please God
because we assume it is never enough.
Either way, we picture a God and a self and a human condition
for which love does not come easily,
and the problem is so great it cannot be resolved.

Why do you think it is so hard for God to love?
Why do you think it is so hard for God to love you?
Why do you think it is so hard for God to love those you don’t love?
If Jesus teaches and shows us anything about God and us
in this perhaps greatest of his surprising stories
it is this surprise:
Like an embarrassing father running out to hug and kiss us
when we finally come back home,
it is not so hard for God to love us.
In spite of all of our complicated and convoluted
theological dogmas and notions about sin and righteousness,
it is not so hard for God to love us.
It is, however, and Jesus surely saturated his story with this,
it is extremely hard for us to be loved,
to call ourselves beloved,
and to allow those we don’t love to be loved, too.

In his 1981 novel Godric,
Frederick Buechner writes about a would-be saint
who is all too aware of his own humanity, his own flaws,
his own wayward journey and lost soul
to ever accept easily a designation like saint.
Yet, by the time he gets to the end of his own story
and comes to terms with his own life as a man,
he summarizes everything there is to say about us and God
as Jesus would have us hear it:
All is lost. All is found.
To hear the parable of the father with two sons,
to hear Godric’s realization about life as a son or daughter of God,
is to hear something that quashes all our resistance:
It is not too hard for God to love us,
in our lostness, or in our presumed foundness.
It is just hard for us to be loved,
to call ourselves beloved, saint, son, daughter,
and to let those we don’t love
know the same generous love of God.
All is lost. All is found.
And in all the losing and all the finding,
God’s love is generous.

Today we sang a hymn that I didn’t select.
I don’t mean to pick on Donald here, who did choose it.
Forgive me, Donald!
But I have never liked the hymn
“Chief of Sinners Though I Be.”
Well, mostly I just don’t like the title and first line.
Chief of sinners though I be?
My first reaction to it is:
Really? You? I can think of three or four others
who are far more qualified as chief of sinners,
or even as strong second place candidates.
Now I have no problem in admitting the reality of sin,
the problem of sin,
and the need to address sin in our lives.
But there’s some kind of a sick narcissism
that thinks that my sin and my failure
is so great and so chief
that I am the one God is most concerned about
and has the biggest problem with
so that nothing can overcome my unbelovedness
than Jesus dying on the cross
and finally making God love me.
Strangely enough,
this approach to myself and God
that feels so faithful and self-deprecating
actually makes me the center of attention of the whole universe.
When in fact, it just isn’t that hard for God to love me,
sinner though I be, chief or second place, or last.

This is the same kind of narcissism
that thinks we are so special and so good
that God must love us because we try so hard.
Anyone cursed with perfectionism knows this way of living.
If we just do it all right,
if we please everyone all the time
and produce something worthy of being loved,
we might just be loved.
Chief of sinners or perfect child,
either way, we miss the whole thing with God.

It is extremely hard for us be loved and call ourselves beloved.
Not our narcissistic, self important way of wanting to be loved.
That’s all based on insecurity about being loved.
But being loved for just who we are, for our selves,
the way we came into the world,
the way we struggle through our days,
and the way we are going out at the end:
just as a son, a daughter,
a humble human man or woman,
with great strengths and obvious weaknesses,
with high hopes and shattered dreams,
with many abilities and fragile vulnerability.

A friend recently told me
that when he drops off his kids at school
he says: I love you.
And they hate it
because they don’t want to be embarrassed by their father’s love.
But if they don’t say I love you back
he says it even louder: I love you!
and embarrasses them even more
until the extravagant love of their father
creates in them a response:
I love you, dad.
What feels like extravagant, unnecessary, embarrassing love
becomes a much needed and sustaining bond.
The reason it is so embarrassing to have such excessive loved yelled at you
in front of everyone else
is because it is so scarcely believable.
So God yells it to us as often and as much as God can
until we can believe it, accept it, live it, and even yell it back.
Even when we don’t know it or can’t admit it,
we long to be loved so freely that it is simply a given in our lives.
The longing to be called son, daughter, brother, sister
is all about a deep need for abiding relationship
a spiritual connection that roots life in love, grace, community, and God.
And either it is so hard for God to love us this way
that it is an impossibility that is somehow overcome
by some complicated transaction in the cross of Jesus.
Or, it is so easy for God to love us
and so hard for us to accept it
that God reaches out to us in Jesus
like some father running down the road
thrilled to see us
and hugging and kissing us until we finally get it:
We are home, and we always have a home with God.

The challenge for us in the church
especially as we head into Holy Week is this:
it is terribly easy for God to love us
and it is terribly hard for us to be loved.
And the cross is not about some difficulty God has in loving us
but the difficulty we have in being loved.
The problem is not with God
but with us.
Everything about our life with God and each other
requires our transformation from rejecting belovedness
to accepting it so deeply in ourselves
that we can accept it in our brothers and sisters, too.
Then, true family, true community,
true relationships flourish.
And God is known rightly as a joyful father,
a smiling mother,
a warm embrace,
a comforting kiss,
and we are restored to life again.
Can the journey through the wilderness
to the cross and the resurrection be that for us?

It is not easy for us.
If we have unresolved issues and wounds to heal
then it comes very hard for us.
It may be because home was not this welcoming as God is,
and we never knew ourselves celebrated and beloved,
and father was limited in expressing his strong love for us,
and mother was imperfect in her care and nurture.
It may be that we were taught
that our sin is so great that we can’t possibly be loved.
But somehow, after we caused Jesus horrible suffering death,
and we don’t have to be punished and abused like we deserve,
we could feel better about ourselves.
It may be that we are still stuck in our own self-importance
and need either to be the worst kid who blew it,
or the perfect one who earned it.

These are all the more reason
to let go of the God who finds it hard to love us
and let go of the self that can’t let go and be loved
and maybe for once, or maybe again after a desert of dryness,
simply be in the embrace,
and simply know the kiss.

All is lost. All is found
So get over yourself!
You’re not that horrible.
And you’re not that perfect.
If Jesus embodies God’s love for the world
even without counting the cost
then what is the real message of the cross:
That it is terribly hard for God to love you? NO.
It is terribly hard for God
to contain God’s love for you and the world.

God loves us enough to let us wander away.
God loves us enough to welcome us back
Both are love, both are needed.
Let yourself be loved in your real, honest self,
not some false self you keep searching for
either in your rebellion or your perfection.
And let everyone you don’t love be loved in the same divine excessiveness.
God in Jesus must think this is what changes us
and changes the world.

March 7, 2010

Sermon 3/7/2010

March 7, 2010

Texts: Isaiah 55:1-9, Luke13:1-9

We are still hungry and thirsty.
The texts won’t let us forget it.
This season of Lent won’t let us forget it.
We are still hungry and thirsty.
When you hike into the Grand Canyon,
you see signs along the way that say:
Drink more water. You are already thirsty.
Those signs remind hikers of something that is obvious
but if ignored will lead to all kinds of problems.
Isaiah and Jesus and our Lenten tradition
remind us for good reason: We are still hungry and thirsty.
Don’t forget to eat and drink.
If you ignore it, it leads to all kinds of problems.

Isaiah does one more trick on us:
Isaiah not only reminds us that we are hungry and thirsty
but also that we keep going after the wrong food and drink.
Why do you eat and drink that which does not satisfy?
Why do you work so hard t get so little life out of life?
If you were hiking in the Grand Canyon
would you drink sea water?
If you were starving in the desert
would you eat thorns?

The key word for the season of Lent is repent.
They rhyme, you know, just so we can’t forget it.
It isn’t that we have Lent so we can repent
during a couple of downer months
before the bluebonnets finally bloom.
We have a season like Lent to remind us
that all of life includes a constant need for repentance.
Repent, Isaiah says.
Change your mind about God.
Repent, Jesus says.
Change your mind about God.
That’s what repent means.
Change your mind.
What were you thinking about God
and our lives lived in God and with each other?
Whatever it was, change your mind.
It’s not what you thought it was.

The key message in these texts today
is that if we think we know the mind of God
then it is time to change our minds.
Not change God’s mind!
Change our minds.

It was a terminal diagnosis.
Tim was a 45 year old married man and father of three.
He sat in the doctor’s office.
She was an old college friend.
She came in with the clipboard and pen in hand.
She had that excessively pleasant look doctors only give you
when they are about to give you bad news.
“Tim,” the doctor said.
“It’s terminal.
I’m afraid you’ve only got 43 years to live.”
Tim smiled at his good friend the doctor.
Well, Tim said, I guess it’s time to take that trip to Disney World.
And I should patch up my estranged relationships,
And maybe I’ll start figuring out what my legacy is going to be
on this earth.

Jesus looked at them all and said, more or less,
and I think perhaps with a bit of a wink in his eye like that doctor:
It’s terminal you know.
You might have a year to work on things,
you might have an hour left
because the earthquake
might make that tower fall down on you, too.
You might have 43 years.
But what does it matter?
Now is the time to take your life seriously
and live whatever it is God gave you to live.

Jesus was confronting some bad theological conversation
about whether this or that event
was caused because people had sinned.
With the recent major earthquakes and horrific suffering and death,
not a few people have been tempted to think and even speak:
There must be some human cause.
They must have done something,
and God must be doing something about it.

Jesus more or less replies:
Change your mind about God!
They weren’t any worse sinners than you.
Maybe you outta stop worrying about them
and figure you out, and get to it today.
God has plans for your life.
What are you waiting for?

An elderly woman had to bury her husband.
Just before the funeral services,
the undertaker came up to the widow and asked,
'How old was your husband?'
'98,' she replied, 'Two years older than me'
'Wow, so you're 96,' the undertaker commented.
Yes, she replied. She smiled at the young mortician and said,
'Hardly worth going home, is it?

So here’s the thing:
In our short time,
we try to do things,
we try to help others,
we try to accomplish and create and love,
we try to make up for what we mess up,
we try to pass on something of our selves
through sex and mentoring and building.
But all along the way,
we never quite figure it all out, do we?
We never quite see the big picture for what it is.
And we really, really want to.
We want the answers.
We want to know it all.
We want to know the mind of God.

Christianity has wrestled with this desire
to know and understand and master this life, and God.
We have come up with grand, complex theologies
that claim to explain so much,
so much of God and creation and humanity.
We keep assuming that since we know God in Jesus
that we must have somehow really got it,
somehow in this short life, and in our smallness,
we grabbed hold of the mystery.
And God just smiles like the Cheshire cat, and slips away.

God says to our human attempts to rise above our limited life:
My thoughts are not your thoughts.
My ways are not your ways.
As the stars and planets and galaxies are so far beyond your grasp,
so are my thoughts beyond your thoughts,
and my ways beyond your ways,
oh my beautiful, beloved people.
Change your mind, and stop trying to change mine.

This life is short and small
and filled with grace and confusion,
love and dejection,
pain and healing,
sorrow and abundant joy.
Because it is so baffling to us,
we look for ways to get it under wraps,
so we can feel like we have mastered it.
Sometimes our religion and theology do that for us.
Sometimes our economics and institutions do that for us.
We can be so sure that our way of doing things must be God’s way,
that in the end, we are eating and drinking all the wrong things,
and our hunger and thirst are never satisfied.

So the prophet Isaiah confronts us with this when he says:
Listen! Everyone who hungers and thirsts
Come, buy and eat!
It’s the biggest darn buffet you’ve ever seen!
There’s steak and falafel and soup.
There’s salad and cake and wine.
And get this:
Your money is no good here.
You can’t buy this stuff.
You don’t need credit, and there is no interest charged.
The greatest thing about it is:
it has no price.
Your life in God and with each other
is pure abundant gift.
So eat up , drink up, take into yourself
the good things of God,
which are always free, and always satisfy:
mercy, love, beauty.

Perhaps the greatest symbol of our consumption habits today
is that ubiquitous non-food food substance
called high fructose corn syrup.
It is cheap, empty calories
that do not satisfy in any real way,
whether we eat it or drink it.
And so much of our lives beyond our food diet
is a diet of high fructose corn syrup:
hungry for God, we eat up easy religion;
thirsty for relationship, we drink up shallow love.

Lent is our time to remind ourselves
that we are hungry, and we are thirsty,
and we can’t keep hiking through this canyon
without nourishment and hydration.
But don’t miss out:
it is also time to hear, even before Easter
that God’s will and work is to quench our thirst
and nourish our lives,
give us every good thing we need
to live this life we have been given.
And what is that food and drink?
it is the good news that God is God
and we aren’t,
and we aren’t even very good at faking it.
In our short span of life
we strive to get control of it,
set up systems and rules and economies that let us run the show,
create religion and ritual and theology that fool us with certitude.
But none of that matters,
neither our inability to know it all,
nor our false and misguided ways.
God makes everything we need so abundantly
that all there is to do
is eat up and drink up love and mercy and beauty.

Lent is our time to hear what we need to hear every day of our lives:
Now is the time.
Why waste any more time trying to figure it out?
Your life is a gift to live.
Why wait for some Easter to finally do it?
Today is the day of God’s goodness
coming to feed and sustain you.
Change your mind about you and God and this world:
God’s thoughts and ways are so much better
than we can ever imagine.

We also prepare during this Lenten time
to hear and see and taste and feel
how it is that Jesus lived this life
wasting no time,
spending nothing on empty calories,
living his short time on earth, shorter than most of ours,
with such a condensed love and care and commitment to God
that we are all renewed because of his life and his death.

What about you, Jesus is saying to us in the Gospel reading.
How will you live the life you have left to live?
It may be short,
it may be long,
but why assume that there is any time to be wasted
on all that does not satisfy and give life and bless others?
Why not feast today on the sumptuousness that is God,
and the delicacy that is life lived knowing mercy, love, and beauty.

We’re only going to figure out about 1/10 of 1% of anything anyway,
especially God’s thoughts and ways.
But we still get to live the ineffable mystery,
live in it, live with it, live by it,
and run up and down its streets
and join in its parade,
and sing its song.
Right now, this life, this God:
it’s all a great, mysterious gift to savor.
It’s not yours to control or understand or master:
It’s simply yours to enjoy: mercy, love, beauty.
Life is short! Eat well!