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…

August 2, 2010

Sermon 8/1/2010

SERMON FOR Proper 13 C

Texts: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12–14; 2:18–23, Luke 12:13–21

Ecclesiastes provokes us to consider it.
Jesus asks it in his story and pointed questions:
What gives your life meaning?
And what is just a waste of your time and energy?
A lot of us are frustrated on a daily basis
because it feels like we are spending a lot of time and energy
doing things that don’t seem to matter much,
and we can’t figure out how we fit into some larger
and more meaningful picture.
But, we find out we are so caught up in this endless game
of earning and spending and being busy
that we just feel stuck in it.
And the sad thing about us and our way of life today
is that so many of us don’t know how to get unstuck
from this sense of meaninglessness
that bubbles beneath the surface of our lives.

Ecclesiastes knows well that this struggle is part of life:
you work hard, you save up,
you build up a life for yourself,
and then you die, and everyone else gets it.
What’s the point?
It’s all foolishness!
Chasing after wind!
I have always loved the fact that the Bible includes
this radical, cynical philosophy
in the midst of its more pious and faithful texts.
The Bible is bold enough to admit it:
It’s hard to make sense of life,
since it is so short,
and all our hard work seems to be for nothing.

And in the same way,
Jesus tells a parable about human ways of approaching life
and how pointless it can be.
A farmer has an unusually good year
with a bountiful crop.
Nothing wrong with that, of course.
Nothing wrong with things going well.

But what were you supposed to do with such a harvest?
Everyone knew it back then.
It’s spelled out clearly in the Scriptures:
Don’t harvest everything in the field.
Leave the edges of the field for travelers,
the poor, and aliens in the land.
And what you do harvest, give a tithe:
give 10 percent as a means of balancing out an imbalanced world, where blessing falls on some and not on others,
but there is always enough for everyone.
If you were in touch with God and your faith
and understanding where meaning was found in your life,
that’s what you did.

Clearly, this guy in the story wasn’t in touch with God
which meant he wasn’t in touch with his neighbor, either.
He was stuck in an endless conversation with himself.
And in the surprise ending,
the foolishness of his ways is revealed in the face
of the one thing that we cannot escape
or plan our way out of
or manage
or pay someone else to do for us:
The guy drops dead.
And Jesus says: Deal with it.
Well, in so many words.
I read an article in the newspaper a couple of years ago
about the growing size of houses in America.
The article pointed out what has become well known:
That as our families have become smaller,
our houses have become bigger.
And even though the author tries to make a few other points,
about why that might be,
he gets to the main point quickly:
We have a lot more stuff.
We have had a lot of good years of bumper crops.
We have built bigger and bigger barns
for ourselves and our stuff.

But, as I read on, hoping to find some spiritual insight
into this uniquely American spiritual problem,
the author gave a solution that disappointed me:
The point of the article
was to get your stuff better organized.
Build bigger closets.
Head over to Home Depot or The Container Store
and buy more stuff
so you can store all your stuff better.
But had the author read the parable he might have added this:
And after you get all that stuff organized,
you’re gonna drop dead.

The parable is a challenge to us to face up to our own foolishness,
our own assumptions about life that don’t take into consideration
the brevity of our own existence.
Jesus tells a tough story that says,
hey, guess what, you’re going to die
and all your stuff is going to be someone else’s.
So get over it, and start living as if this inescapable truth
is your truth
and not just everyone else’s truth.

Free yourself from your stuff,
free yourself from the need to accumulate more.
Free yourself from the distance you place between you and others
because of your insecurity about wealth and material things.
Free yourself from your self,
because you are not what your life is about.
Your life is about the bigger picture,
the things of God,
the neighbor who waits for your generous hand
and who offers you surprising grace.
The only riches in life that give us meaning
and that endure beyond the grave
are the riches of loving God and neighbor,
the wealth of giving of ourselves
even as Jesus gave himself completely,
the abundance of using all we have and all we are
to move the world closer to a place
where everyone shares in the abundance of God.

Jesus’ abrupt parable
is a shock to our ongoing attempts to secure for ourselves
a place in the world in spite of everyone else
and mostly, in spite of God.
So, if it shocks us into reconsidering
a whole lot of what we value and assume and live,
well, I guess it might be the shock that brings us back to life
like defibrillator paddles.

This kind of spiritual harshness from Jesus
moves me to make a mental, if not always a physical, journey.
It’s about freeing yourself from your stuff spiritually,
if not physically,
figuring out who you are without all that surrounds you
your house, car, clothes, collectibles,
technology, entertainment, the internet.
It’s about looking at yourself honestly
and nakedly and from the perspective of the God
who made and claims you as a beloved son or daughter.
Who are you, then,
when freed from the shackles of your own making
and the bondage of our busy and consuming world?
Even if you don’t like all of you for what you are,
the good news of God in Christ is clear,
all of you is loved completely and utterly.

Jesus doesn’t answer the questions raised
by our consumer and materialistic economy.
He doesn’t tell us how much we can have or can’t have.
He doesn’t tell us how big a house we can live in,
or how much stuff is too much.
And if he did, I think we would just ignore him.
But, he raises the questions that drive us to take seriously
that simply going along with it all
doesn’t bring us life as God wants to give it,
and more often than not, it drains life from us.

I don’t much like preaching a lot of practical advice,
and even if I did,
you would probably ignore me.
I’d even ignore me.
But I am brought back to the single-most challenging and radical thing
the Bible says to do about all of this:
Observe Sabbath.
Remember that one?
One of the top ten rules from God?

Sabbath is not a day of worship
so much as a day of non-work,
non-selling, and non-buying.
It is a day of rest from all work and economic activity.
And therefore, a day of freedom
for family, neighborliness, enjoyment of life,
praise to God for providing so much
that we don’t have to toil constantly in order to survive.

Imagine a day for yourself every week,
where you didn’t have to spend any money,
or consume excessively and feel stuffed all the time,
or work for anything or anyone,
or worry about getting everything done,
or driving your kids around for their over-scheduled lives,
or not complaining about the cost of gas
or fretting about the impact of the environment
from driving so much
because you weren’t going to drive much anyway,

Imagine the joy of sleeping in a little longer,
and lounging with your loved ones,
and sipping coffee,
and going for a walk in the dappled shade of morning,
and finding an unhurried time for silence and contemplation,
and soaking up all the beauty and the gifts
that surround you all the time
that you mostly don’t appreciate,
and finding deep within you a gratitude for it all
that wells up within you to tears.
Imagine that even if you knew you would die tomorrow,
and all your stuff would go to others,
you would be content because today was life lived fully.

Imagine it, and more than that,
as the Lord commands,
and as Ecclesiastes prods,
and as Jesus inspires and frees us to do as best we can:
Live it. Live the dream of life known fully in love of God and neighbor.
As odd as it may sound,
speaking the truth that life is short
and is a blessed gift at the same time,
is grace to our ears
to live today fully with each other, with our neighbor,
and with our God who loves us richly.