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.