June 13, 2010

Sermon 6/13/2010

June 13, 2010
Michael Coffey

Texts: Luke 7:36 – 8:3

Who are you going to be today?
Are you going to be the labels other people give you?
Are you going to be something from your past
you can’t quite let go of?

The woman in the Gospel story today
has been labeled “sinful woman”,
and the label has stuck.
It seems she can’t go anywhere
and everyone knows her by her label.
It isn’t explicit in the text,
but tradition has said that “sinful woman” means prostitute.
That seems likely.
It could also mean an adulteress,
or a woman whose sexual conduct falls outside the limits
of what was acceptable.
Whatever it was that gave her this identity,
she was known in the city as “sinner.”

What’s in a label? Plenty!
There is power in how we label people.
There is power in how we label ourselves.
If we start with the nature of the Gospel story,
we are reminded that there is power
in how we label others and ourselves
based on sexual history.
Some of our most powerful and controversial labels
come from sexuality and sexual history.
Gay, straight, prostitute, easy, virgin, damaged goods,
adulterer, abuser, victim.
Many people live with an enduring sense of shame, regret, or guilt
because of their experience and consequential label
based on their own sexual history.
It’s like an indelible mark has been left on them, on their bodies,
on their psyches, on their souls,
and nothing can get that label off.

We live with a whole host of other kinds of labels.
Class labels.
Race labels.
National labels.
Educational labels.
Professional labels.
Religious labels.
Whether we put them on others or on ourselves,
we often let them become our primary identity.
Whether we see them as positive or negative,
prideful or shameful,
we live and often die by our labels.

We had a columbarium at my previous church.
It is a beautiful, small chapel with a wall of slate
where church members could have their cremated remains
placed in an urn set behind the slate panels.
On the wall in front of each person’s place,
their name is engraved
with the dates of birth and death,
and with a cross.
Our policy and our space on the slate
did not allow for titles or honorifics.
No colonels or doctors or reverends.
One reason was for space,
but the other reason was for reminding us all
that we may have lived by certain labels,
but they do not determine who we are in this life,
and certainly not in the next.

I had one parishioner come in to talk about
purchasing a place in the columbarium for his future needs.
As we talked about how it all worked
and what the policies were,
he became very upset when he found out
we could not engrave his name as Dr. So and So.
It was the label he lived by most of his life,
and surely with great pride and significance for him.
And apparently it was the label he wanted to die with.
He left unable to make the decision,
and it took him over a year to work through the notion
that in death,
he was not going to be an esteemed doctor anymore.

Jesus had apparently encountered this woman before.
She obviously knew who he was, she came looking for him.
She obviously had already heard from him some word of forgiveness,
some act of acceptance,
some divine embrace of mercy and love that doesn’t fade.
She was moved to tears of gratitude
and so she came looking for him to show that gratitude,
maybe excessively,
maybe uncomfortably,
but she could not hold back.
To everyone else at the dinner table,
and especially the esteemed and well-labeled host Simon,
she was a sinful woman.
She should not be at this dinner,
maybe some other dinner table where her kind gathers, OK.
But not at this table fellowship: wrong label.
Simon the Pharisee even things to himself:
Don’t you know what kind of woman this is?
Don’t you know what her label is?

Jesus apparently doesn’t know, or doesn’t care.
He even puts himself in the uncomfortable position
of being touched, weeped upon,
and pleasured with this woman’s hair.
Every tear was contaminating Jesus with her sinfulness.
Every stroke of her hair was putting Jesus
in the company of this woman’s ilk,
and that couldn’t be good for Jesus’ reputation.
His own label was in question.

Jesus, don’t you know what kind of woman this is?
And the only answer can be: No.
No, Jesus doesn’t know what kind of woman this is,
he knows who she is.
And she isn’t a kind, or a label, or a type.
She is a woman.
She is a woman of grief and pain.
She is a woman of need and vulnerability.
And being full of the mercy and compassion of God,
Jesus does what God’s grace always does for people:
Jesus de-labels her,
and makes her a woman again,
just a woman, a whole person,
loved, accepted, claimed by God’s mercy.
Not a type, or a kind, or a label, or a category
to be rejected or praised,
just a woman.

Through forgiveness, grace, mercy,
divine encounter, unexpected acceptance,
we are all transformed from our labels
to our true selves:
Not the labels others have put on us
for our history, or mistakes,
or neighborhoods we come from,
or sexual identity that doesn’t fit in,
or our accomplishments, or salaries, or intellect.
Who are you going to be today
if not all the labels others put on you,
and you put on yourself?
Not the bad ones that limit and pain you,
not the good ones that lead you to pride and false trust.
Gathered as we are in the word of God’s great mercy in Christ,
can each of us dare to be just the woman you are,
only the man you are,
unencumbered by labels of the past,
unburdened by living up to titles and honorifics?
Who are you if you aren’t any of your labels
stuck on you out of other’s cruelty
or self-imposed by your own ego needs?

Jesus accepted a woman’s excessive display
of gratitude and love and joyful emotion
because this woman had perhaps come to know herself
for the first time,
as her true self,
small, naked, unadorned, without pretense or fear,
and loved completely by God.
And Jesus knew that this transforming encounter with God
and with our true selves as beloved of God
leads to such weeping, and gratitude, and letting go.

It is not easy work to get those labels off of you, you know.
How many products do you buy
that come with labels on them,
and when you go to take them off,
they are stuck on their like concrete?
So you scrape and scrape them off
but they leave behind this sticky residue,
And then that tacky spot attracts bits of dust and dirt,
and you still see where the label was.

After cursing all manufacturers and makers of labels,
you can then turn to the miracle product called Goo Gone.
I love this stuff.
I’m sure it’s made of some terrible petroleum distillates
that shouldn’t be touched or inhaled.
But when it comes to getting the label off,
and all the residue it leaves behind,
Goo Gone is wonderful.
Buy it now at your local supermarket for only $5.99

OK, I’m not really doing a commercial for Goo Gone.
But I am reminded that even when we think we have removed
past labels that hurt or limit us
we still live with the residue they leave behind.
It is hard work to grow in trust and acceptance
of the good news of God,
to let go of the past that labels and limits us,
to trust we are more than even
our nicely labeled accomplishments,
and certainly more than our failures and regrets.
To see and become and live fully out loud your true self in God
is the journey we are all on.
As Jesus points out,
it is often easier for those who have more need of forgiveness
and who live with negative labels tattooed on them for years,
than for those who live more
by their strong, positive identities
that still get in the way of knowing God and self
and living out of uncontrollable gratitude.
The residue of all these sticks,
and what will get the goo off of us?

Maybe it’s a moment of great need of forgiveness.
Maybe it’s at time when our strengths fail us.
Maybe it’s when God’s word hits you just a certain way
and you come to church not expecting to have to confront
your labels you have lived with for too long.
Maybe it’s when you gather around the table of fellowship in Jesus
and realize that you have labeled everyone there,
and yourself,
and you see each person now
as one extending hands in need.
And each hand gets bread and wine of mercy and compassion,
love and acceptance,
fellowship and friendship.

God’s work among us is a constant de-labelling,
through mercy, through forgiveness, through humility,
through learning to accept others we have struggled with.
It is a work of grace and surprising transformation.
It is God’s work to lead us to tears of gratitude,
songs of praise and thanksgiving,
and the slow, helpful, compassionate
peeling away of labels and limits
on others who are still waiting to hear and trust
who they are in God.

June 7, 2010

Sermon 6/6/2010

June 6, 2010
Michael Coffey

Texts: 1 Kings 17:17–24, Luke 7:11–17

Two stories about people who suddenly had no future:
With my apologies to the two sons
in our two biblical stories today:
These stories are all about the widows,
not the sons who had died and were revived.
It was great news for those two sons
to encounter the healing and life-giving power of God.
But the texts pay them little attention.
It’s all about the widows.
These widows, you see,
are women without a future.
And where there is no future,
there is no hope,
and where there is no hope,
there is no life.
You can imagine her plans:
Her husband had died, leaving her with little,
but she had enough.
She knew her son would grow up to be a fine man,
who would work hard and make a living
and take care of his own family
and his widowed mother
In her world, it was her only hope.
And now her son is dead.
And her future has been taken from her.

Have you ever been at a point in life
where you felt like you had no future,
where the realities are life got so stacked up against you
that you couldn’t see any way of moving forward?
That might be because of great injustice or misfortune
that truly robbed you of your future,
or it may just be your fear and anxiety about life
that makes you feel that way.
It doesn’t much matter either way,
when it seems that there is no future for you,
you have no hope, and no life.

The widow in the story of Elijah
and the widow in the story of Jesus are very similar.
First, obviously, they were widows.
And widows in ancient culture had lost not just their true love,
or their companion,
but their very means of security and identity in the world.
A woman who lost her husband
was vulnerable to the whims and malice and neglect of others,
and dependent on the care, compassion and decency of others.
But these two widows had something to live for:
They each had a son!
And in their time and place,
a son meant they had a future.
Today we would surely include daughters!
Their sons could support them,
protect them from injustice and misfortune,
give them a home and a status in society.
Their sons gave them hope, and if they had hope, they had life.
But, the stories tell us, their sons died,
and with them the future died, hope died,
and the widows were as good as dead.
I have been watching the news about the Gulf coast oil disaster
and the images coming in of oil soaked birds
and tarred beaches
and the ongoing gushing of petroleum under the sea.
It has started to become clear, or should I say murky,
that the future of the Gulf coast ecosystem
and the livelihood of those who depend on it
has become impaired.
It is a stark reminder
that we have the industry and technology
to do great things, and with those great things,
the potential to rob the planet of its own future.
The growing sense of despair and grief
over the environment and the life of the planet
is a source of great concern and anxiety for us.
In addition to all of the questions we are asking
about what to do, and how to live,
and what needs to change,
we also have to ask and wonder:
How will God work in the face of our ecological dead end
where the future is murky and hope is fading?

I have been watching my Facebook page this past week
as the end of the school year arrives
and many teacher friends express great joy and relief.
I have read a number of postings from teachers
who work with at-risk students in challenging settings
talk about students who came into the school year
with no sense of a future.
These are young people who live in a meandering hopelessness
who don’t have the support and social status
and structures in place
to give them a clear path to a future.
These young people often live with no future,
and so they live with no hope.
I want to come back to those teachers I have been listening to in a minute,
but first I have to ask again:
How will God work in the face of social, familial,
and economic dead ends,
where these young people’s future is uncertain?

In our two stories of widows with sons who died
Elijah and Jesus both respond first
with a profound sense of compassion,
compassion for these widows who have lost their future.
Elijah gets angry with God
for allowing such a disaster to visit this widow
who had fed Elijah and allowed him to do God’s work.
Jesus, in his great compassion
moves in close to the man’s body,
touches the bier, the funeral cart that carries the casket,
and shocks everyone by getting that close to death.
(Had I written a different sermon about the son,
I could have called it “Who touched my bier?”)
In both of these stories,
the compassion of Elijah and the compassion of Jesus
becomes the compassion of God.
And in great compassion and power
God restores the sons to life.
But like I said,
and with apologies to the sons,
these stories are about the widows:
What God did was restore these widows’ future,
their hope, their very lives.

And so our question:
How is God working to restore the future
to all the persons, people, and places
where the future has been robbed
and hopelessness destroys the ability to live?
We can see all the places where the future is gone
and hopelessness rules through despair
and violence, and hatred, and greed.
But that can’t be all there is for us,
for those of us who live weekly by gathering around
the word and bread and wine of resurrection.
Our very nature as church
is to gather in the face of the hopelessness of the human world
and proclaim the future kingdom of God,
the resurrection power of God to restore life
where death has robbed so many of hope.

One Lutheran theologian, Ted Peters,
calls our faith in Christ a proleptic faith.
Proleptic is a twenty dollar word
meaning seeing the future before it arrives.
Peters says that in the resurrection of Christ,
we see and know the future that God is bringing:
Life out of death, justice out of suffering,
restoration out of destruction,
ecology out of decay.
And the church is the people
who dare live with and spread throughout the world
a sense of trust in the good future in God
we already know now in Christ Jesus.

If you have known times where the future seemed taken from you,
times of grief, confusion, failure, sin,
I’m guessing you have also known times
when the future was restored to you,
when your hopelessness gave way to hope,
when your fear and anxiety gave way to trust and acceptance,
when your sin was overcome with abundant grace,
when your doubt gave way to faith.
God creates a future for us.
when God works through the Word,
and the bread and wine,
and the power and presence of the Spirit,
and the hands and hearts of others
to restore us to hope and faith,

I have been reading those Facebook status updates from teachers.
I have heard about students who started the year
cursing and hurling negative feelings all around,
challenging authority,
and barely competent enough to get through the academic year.
And I have heard these teachers
talk about ending the year with a note of thanks,
and an unexpected hug,
and test scores that surprise and delight.
These teachers, some of you,
teach in some of the most hopeless places in our society.
And what have they done?
They have given a future to the hopeless.
In the face of many hurdles,
and social injustice,
and family messes that can’t be fixed,
these teachers have been a part of creating a future
for those who had none.

What is God doing to restore life among us?
What is God doing to bring a future to those who have none?
What is God doing to bring hope to the hopeless
and end the pattern of despair and anger
and violence and suffering
that those with no future are caught in?
In the story of two widows
we can see that it is God’s work and will and compassion
to bring about life and hope and healing.
As we gather in the presence and face of that compassion in Jesus,
let us first have our hope restored,
hope in a future we can trust,
hope in lives that are filled with goodness and love.
And let us find someone else in our daily walk
who has lost this hope,
and be a part of God’s future-granting compassion.
The future is God’s gift to us in Christ
a future wrought out of death and resurrection.
The future kingdom of mercy and justice
is ours to live now
by trusting in the good news of God in Jesus,
and showing exceptional compassion to the hopeless among us.